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Review of  Written Communication Across Cultures

Reviewer: Dániel Zoltan Kádár
Book Title: Written Communication Across Cultures
Book Author: Yunxia Zhu
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 17.1510

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AUTHOR: Zhu, Yunxia
TITLE: Written Communication across Cultures
SUBTITLE: A sociocognitive perspective on business genres
SERIES: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 141
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2005

Daniel Z. Kadar, Department of Linguistics, Gate of Dharma University
of Buddhist Studies, Hungary; Department of East Asian Studies,
Eotvos Lorand University, Hungary


The book compares Chinese and English business genres -- sales
letters, sales invitations, and business faxes -- from a sociocognitive
perspective. It is consisted of nine chapters.

Chapter 1 is an introduction. First the author summarizes the
framework which she applies to compare Chinese and English (E/C)
business genres. This summary helps the reader relating the work to
research trends that study genres from cross-cultural perspectives
(even though the author claims that she applies a synthesised
theoretical framework rather than relying on a specific area). In the
next section the author introduces the rationale, aim, and research
questions of the book. An outline of the contents closes the chapter.

In order to provide theoretical background for the comparison of E/C
business genres, Chapter 2 discusses several cross-cultural research
areas like:
(a) Contrastive rhetoric -- Kaplan's (1966) study on the in-/directness
of (argumentative) thought patterns in cultures, and its critiques, can
help understanding cultural differences in writing styles.
(b) Contrastive study of persuasive traditions in Greek and Chinese
rhetorical traditions -- such a research can provide insights into the
cross-cultural examination of written business discourses, because
it ''examines rhetoric beyond the level of argumentation'' (p. 12).
(c) Intercultural communication -- Hall's (1976) ''high vs. low-context
cultures'' theory and Hofstede's (1991) intercultural theory (cf. the four
cultural variables of ''individualism-collectivism'', ''power
relations'', ''uncertainty avoidance'', and ''masculinity/femininity'') are
mentioned as possible research concepts.
(d) Cross-cultural pragmatics -- cross-cultural politeness research, in
particular face issues, is of potential relevance for the comparison of
business genres.
(e) Cultures -- the normative notion of ''culture'' in communities of
practice can be effectively utilized for a cross-cultural genre study.

In the concluding section the author notes that she will ''establish a
sociocognitive contrasting system that employs these cross-cultural ...
dimensions'' (pp. 24-25).

Chapter 3 elaborates the conceptual framework of the study. In order
to offer a dual perspective, the author reviews sociocognitive genre
research that has been developed in the ''West'' on the one hand, and
Chinese genre studies, on the other. The sociocognitive research of
genres is surveyed according to the concepts of:
(a) Genre as social stock of knowledge -- this fundamental theory in
sociocognitive genre research claims that language users (re)
construct given genres according to schemata based on their stocks
of knowledge.
(b) Genre and the sociocultural contexts -- communicative genres are
historically and culturally specific; hence it is necessary to rely on
the ''ethnography of communication'' when studying the characteristics
of ''stocks of knowledge''.
(c) Genre practice and the discourse community -- discourse
communities have to be also studied in order to successfully map
genre knowledge, because ''a discourse community requires its
members to exhibit a general level of knowledge structures as a
prerequisite for membership'' (p. 35).
(d) Genre as communicative events -- the realization of
genre ''knowledge stocks'' can be viewed as ''communicative events'',
and so examining ''communicative purposes'', ''rhetorical structures'',
and ''intertextuality'' can aid genre analysis.

After surveying sociocognitive genre research, the author attempts to
give an overview of Chinese genre studies. First she outlines Chinese
genre systemization: business genres (a) typically belong to the so-
called 'yingyongwen' ('practical writing') domain of written language;
(b) in this domain emotions have less role than logic (but they have
considerably more importance than in ''Western'' business writings);
(c) the Chinese further categorize business genres according to the
superior/equal/subordinate relationship between the writer and the
reader as 'shangxing' (lit. 'up direction')/'pingxing' (lit. 'equal
direction')/'xiaxing' (lit. 'down direction') types. Later on the author
briefly introduces the history of Chinese genre research and its
present state in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Finally, the
Chinese research of 'practical writing' genres is introduced, which is a
new scholarly area in the PRC. In the closing section of the chapter
the author introduces her model for cross-cultural genre study, which
is based on intercultural theories, sociocognitive approaches to
genres, and Chinese genre theories. The model compares E/C
business genres according to (a) sociocultural factors, (b) persuasive
orientations/communicative purposes, (c) rhetorical
structures/intertextuality, and (d) professionals' views of cultures
involved (p. 58).

Chapter 4 ''gives an overall view of the research design and details of
the research method, data ... of the analysis'' (p. 61). The research
method is ''interpretive'' (i.e., the author interprets the empirical results
of the analyses) and ''contrastive'' (i.e., the results are based on cross-
cultural comparison). The data is drawn from authentic business
writings, as well as from questionnaire and interviews. The
participants of the latter data collecting method are managers from
China and New Zealand (NZ).

Chapter 5 ''applies the framework proposed in Chapter 3 and
compares E/C sales letters'' (p. 71). First the author examines the E/C
sociocultural contexts for the writing of business genres. Due to the
fact that ''the free market economy has been a dominant feature in the
West for many century'' (p. 72) English business genres are written for
an individualistic, low-context culture: their writers primarily pay
attention to achieving immediate goals. In the PRC, on the other
hand, ''free-market economy is accepted together with traditional
cultural protocols'' (p. 75), and ''relationship ('guanxi') building is
considered a key to business success'' (p. 75). After mapping
sociocultural differences, the chapter compares the communicative
purposes and persuasive orientations of the E/C sales letters. The
analysis points out the fact that the E/C letters apply by-and-large
identical ''logical approach'' to sell the goods, but -- in contrast to the
English sales letters -- in the Chinese letters ''the influence
from ... 'emotional' approach is quite evident ... by having one extra
purpose of establishing a long-term relation with the reader'' (p. 78).

In the next section the author compares the texts of the E/C sales
letters: first she examines intertextuality in the studied texts, then she
outlines the rhetorical structures of the E/C sales letters and compares
the different moves employed by the authors of these texts. The
findings of the textual analysis reflect the different backgrounds of E/C
business cultures -- while both cultures stress the logical approach as
an important persuasive orientation, the differences between E/C
intertextuality/rhetorical moves refer to an individualistic vs. communal
opposition in the perception of business interactions. I.e., while the
English sales letters tend to use a more direct style and apply
embedded intertextuality/rhetorical moves to ''press'' the consumer to
acquire the given goods, the Chinese letters have a deferential style
and utilize intertextuality/rhetorical moves to express respect. (E.g.,
the English writers attach postscripts to their letters in order to stress
the benefits that the reader can have from the business, while the
Chinese writers insert typically non-equal, deferential ('shangxing')
genre elements into their letters.) Furthermore, the writers of the
English letters aim to achieve immediate goals, thus they give very
detailed accounts on the given goods; the Chinese writers, on the
other hand, avoid giving detailed descriptions, exactly because their
primary aim is to build long-term relationships with the customers.
Finally, the author examines those E/C sales letters which were found
to be the most effective by the interviewed managers in NZ and the
PRC, and she also surveys the managers' evaluations of the most
effective E/C letters. The evaluations of the ''professional
communities'' are in accordance with the aforementioned findings of
cross-cultural genre differences. Generally, he NZ managers
appreciate directness/effectiveness in the English letter and criticize
the Chinese letter because of its indirect structure, while the Chinese
managers find the English letters too direct and of ''cold'' tone.

Chapter 6 compares E/C sales invitations in similar manner indicated
in Chapter 5. The data is composed of forty authentic sales invitations
to trade fairs in Australia, NZ and the PRC. First the author discusses
the sociocultural contexts of E/C sales invitations. While the
sociocultural background of English invitations is similar to that of
sales letters, in Chinese cultural context the act of invitation goes far
beyond a business partnership, and invitations typically belong to the
so called 'liyi xin' ('letters of social etiquettes') genre -- hence the
Chinese inviters apply particularly deferential register in order to
properly build interpersonal relationships. In the subsequent section
the author compares the communicative purposes and persuasive
orientations of sales invitations. The English sales invitations apply a
logical approach (a) to persuade readers to attend the trade fairs and
(b) to achieve positive image. The Chinese letters, while applying
resembling logical approach to invite the readers/gain positive image,
also try to achieve a collaborative/respectful image and build a host-
guest relationship with the readers.

After studying persuasive orientations, the author examines
intertextuality in the studied E/C sales invitations. In the English texts
intertextuality (e.g. regular reference to Internet) serves informative
goals, while in Chinese letters it serves the attaining of ''a higher level
of politeness'' (p. 107). Beside intertextuality the author also studies
rhetorical structures. Similarly to sales letters, the English invitations
are direct and their aim is to invite the reader for one definite
occasion; the Chinese ones are more deferential in style, and their
twofold aim is to (a) invite the reader's organization and (b) build up
long-standing relationships. For example, Chinese authors tend to
repeat invitations at the closing sections of the texts, which cannot be
observed in the English invitations. In the final part of the chapter the
author compares NZ and Chinese managers' views on the most
successful sales invitations. As it turns out from the comparison, the
Chinese managers find the most successful English letter somewhat
more acceptable than vice versa. This difference is supposedly rooted
in the fact that the Chinese managers ''had no problem understanding
the English letters'' (pp. 121-122), while the deferential/ritualised style
of the Chinese invitations ''may water down the real intent of the
invitation relating to sales'' (p. 122) for the NZ managers.

Chapter 7 compares E/C business faxes, a written genre that have
become increasingly popular in business communication. This
comparison is not only challenging because it is based on a
sociocognitive theory (cf. Chapter 5 and Chapter 6), but also the
cross-cultural analysis of business faxes is a regrettably understudied
topic, hence its examination is of a pioneering character. First the
author introduces the data of the analysis, then she discusses the
technological and sociocultural contexts for fax writing. Interestingly,
while researchers like Louhiala-Salminen (1999) predict that faxes
may be transitory and short-lived as a form of business writing in
Europe because of the increasing use of e-mails, in Australia, NZ and
the PRC fax writing will be prospectively remain an important means of
communication. In Australia and NZ, companies of reasonable sizes
still prefer using faxes to e-mails, while in the PRC ''e-mails have never
become as popular as faxes'' (p. 127). In the next section the author
introduces fax as genre. Fax writing is an independent genre in both
English and Chinese cultural contexts, but also it has mixed
characteristics: e.g. English faxes have the generic features of memos
and letters, while Chinese faxes ''appear to share some formal ...
features as well as personal letters'' (p. 129).

In the subsequent section the author examines the persuasive
orientations and communicative purposes of business faxes; she
claims that ''the persuasive orientations discussed in earlier chapters
still apply to business faxes'' (p. 130), i.e., Chinese faxes tend to
indicate both the emotional and logical approaches, and also they try
to attain long-term relationships with the readers, while English faxes
have a clear stress on logos. The examination of intertextuality in the
texts supports this finding: e.g., the Chinese faxes regularly apply
referential intertextuality related to 'guanxi' or 'connections'. In the
next section the author compares the rhetorical structures of E/C
business faxes. Again, the rhetorical differences support the above
notion of cross-cultural differences between persuasive orientations.
E.g., the Chinese writers prefer inserting greetings and traditional
Chinese good wishes into their faxes (to attain close relation with the
readers), while the English writers tend to avoid using such ''overtly
personal'' rhetorical elements and they focus on the concrete deal. Or,
in the case of business complaints, the English writers use a very
direct tone to express complaints, while the Chinese writers cautiously
avoid direct criticism, and they tend to refer to their ''disappointment'',
which can be harmful towards relationship building (i.e. they apply
the ''emotional'' approach). At the end of the chapter the author
compares the E/C business faxes that were evaluated as most
effective by the interviewees, and also she compares the managers'
views on them. The NZ managers value directness, clear focus and
logical structure in the most effective English fax, while the Chinese
managers criticise it because of its non-deferential style and lack
of ''human kindness''. The Chinese managers like the formal/ritual
style, warm tone, and the skilful mixing of messages of the most
effective Chinese fax, while the NZ managers criticize it because of its
humble tone and ambiguous message. The managers' views reinforce
the aforementioned E/C cultural differences in persuasive orientations.

Chapter 8 ''aims to apply research findings of earlier chapters to genre
teaching across cultures'' (p. 155). The author first overviews the state
of cross-cultural genre teaching and raises the notion of generic
competence. Because textbooks (particularly those that teach
business genres) are prescriptive, i.e., they only teach the form of
genre, it is difficult for language learners to attain a high-level
competence when they can write effectively without conscious efforts
(cf. the notion of ''unconscious competence'' on p. 158). Hence the
author tries to apply her sociocognitive model for the teaching of E/C
business genres, in order to involve students ''in the processes to
understand genres beyond the text'' (p. 161). The proposed model
consist of the following processes:
(a) Learning sociocultural contexts across cultures -- the students first
learn the sociocultural background of the studied genre.
(b) Learning persuasive orientations and communicative purposes --
this process ''enable students to acquire basic theoretical
understanding about persuasion'' (p.165).
(c) Learning to write texts and incorporating peripheral participation --
in this process theories are linked with practice.
(d) Incorporating authentic data and managers' views -- teaching
these helps students becoming involved in the professional practice of
the studied genre.
(e) Learning implications for intercultural generic competence -- ''the
final process aims to raise students' awareness of the implications of
studying genre for cross-cultural generic competence'' (p. 173).

The author tests this model on Chinese students who learn English
business writing. The outcome of the experiment supports the
effectiveness of the sociocognitive teaching methodology.

Chapter 9 surveys the findings of the work and lists their possible
implications for genre research and intercultural competence. In
addition, the author lists some areas where further research can be
carried out on the basis of this study.


Zhu Yunxia's book is a high-level scholarly work, which is a must for
every reader who is interested in the research of Chinese business
communication and intercultural issues.

The following positive characteristics of the study have to be pointed
(a) The reader gets insight into an interesting data. A problem in the
research of business discourses is that it is often difficult to ''access to
sensitive and confidential boardroom discussions, management
meetings and certain types of negotiations ... though linguistic
evidence based on such settings is crucial to our understanding of
international business communication'' (Bargiela-Chiappini & Harris
1997: 3). In the case of modern Chinese business discourses data
collection is particularly difficult, because one needs extensive 'guanxi'
(relationship) network to get access to business circles. Yet the author
successfully manages to collect a large amount of real life data from
Chinese managers, which is a valuable contribution to business
language research.

(b) The author provides a detailed introduction of the
Chinese 'yingyongwen' ('practical writing') in Chapter 3. It is necessary
to mention that 'yingyongwen' constitutes one of the most difficultly
accessible areas of written Chinese, because the style of 'yingyong'
genres is strongly archaising and so their writing/reading requires
preliminary studies in traditional Chinese culture and a strong
command of Chinese language; this is why the Chinese tend to
publish a large quantity of 'yingyongwen' teaching materials for native
speakers. Although studying 'yingyongwen' is unavoidable to properly
understand Chinese professional/official written genres, this topic is
neglected in Chinese linguistics. So the author's detailed description
of 'yingyong' genres is not only important for the research that is
carried out in the work, but in the long run it blazes a trail for the
linguistic research of Chinese written genres.

(c) The author utilizes a remarkably complex research methodology
for cross-cultural genre analysis, which is constituted from modern
linguistic research areas, traditional genre studies, as well as (cross-)
cultural views on successful business. Yet the reader can comprehend
the working of this methodology, due to the detailed introduction in
Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.

(d) The author applies her research findings/methodology for the
practical aim of cross-cultural genre teaching, which makes her work a
valuable source work for lecturers of E/C written languages. Many
textbooks, which teach E/C written genres for non-native speakers,
are of prescriptive nature, i.e. they induce memorization instead of
understanding. The author's sociocognitive approach to cross-cultural
genre teaching/learning, on the other hand, provides a methodology
that helps students to understand written genres beyond their formal

As regard to critiques, the following points can be mentioned.
(a) There are misspellings in the 'pinyin' transcriptions of the Chinese
words (like 'lianxi' ('contact') is written as 'laixi', p. 145). Generally
these do not raise difficulties for the reader, but e.g. in the case
of ''the most effective Chinese business fax'' (pp. 148-149), the
addressee, whose name is Liang Jianwei (see the Chinese text in
Appendix 1), occurs as ''Mr. Wang Jiawei'' and then as ''Mr. Liang'' in
the translation, which makes difficult to properly understand the
English text.

(b) In the author's account on ''Chinese written discourse and the
division of genres'' (pp.45-47) ''literature'' and ''practical/profession
writing'' occur as two basically separated domains of written Chinese.
This, however, is a debatable point, since according to researchers
like Cai (1999), or Yu (2002) some Chinese literary genres serve the
goals of 'practical writing'. E.g., the genre of antithetical couplets
(or 'duilian') is categorised as 'yingyongwen' in most of the studies. At
first sight the relation of ''literature'' and ''practical writing'' seems to be
a marginal issue, but in fact its clarification would be of importance to
understand why modern Chinese 'yingyong' genres are rich in literary
elements, compared to ''Western'' professional/practical genres.

(c) The author defines the presence of honorific expressions in
business genres as ''genre mixing''. In other words, she claims that
modern Chinese business relations are equal, i.e., business genres
belong to the 'equal' type of 'practical writing' ('pingxing' genres), and
so authors mix genres when they apply honorific (self-denigrating and
interlocutor-denigrating) expressions, which typically belong
to 'shangxing' genres (where subordinates write to superiors). The
author uses this argumentation to support the notion that Chinese
business genres are in the period of formation, which results in the
strong mixture of genres. Although the reviewer agrees with the latter
notion, the claim that the use of honorifics was genre mixing in
Chinese business writing is questionable. First, according to
many 'yingyongwen' theorists (see above and also Lü 1979 or Huang
2001) the use of honorifics is not the only a property of 'shangxing'
(from-subordinate-to-superior) genres, but honorifics can also occur
in 'pingxing' (equal) and casually even in 'xiaxing' (from-superior-to-
subordinate) genres. This questions the validity of the statement that
the regular use of honorifics in business genres was the ''mixture''
of 'pingxing' and 'shangxing' elements. Second, in Chinese linguistic
politeness honorific expressions have fundamental role (cf. Gu 1990),
which suggests that in every written genre that require deferential
register (because of certain interpersonal power relations) the use of
honorifics is unavoidable (cf. Kadar 2005). I.e., the managers
supposedly apply honorific expressions because business interaction
is an activity which necessitates deference, or the interpersonal power
relation between sellers and buyers in China necessitates a
deferential tone. This is implicitly supported by the fact that all of the
author's examples contain a large quantity of honorific expressions,
i.e. the use of honorifics seems to be a generic characteristic of
Chinese business letters.

It is necessary to emphasize that the above-mentioned critical remarks
do not decrease the overall high scholarly value of Zhu's work, which
is an important contribution to the fields of both business language
research and intercultural pragmatics.


Bargiela-Chiappini, Francesca & Harris, Sandra J., eds. (1997) The
Languages of Business. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University press.

Cai, Diqiu (1999) Yingyongwen Biaogan (Standard Practical Writing).
Tainan: Wenguo shuju.

Gu, Yueguo (1990) Politeness Phenomena in Modern Chinese.
Journal of Pragmatics 14, 237-257.

Hall, Edward T. (1976) Beyond Culture. Garden City, New York:

Hofstede, Geert H. (1991) Cultures and Organizations: Software of
the Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Huang, Xiangyang (2001) Yingyongwen (Practical Writing). Taibei:
Hongye wenhua shiye youxian gongsi.

Kadar, Daniel Z. (2005) The powerful and the powerless -- On the
classification of the Chinese polite denigrating/elevating addressing
terminology. Acta Orientalia Hung. 58, 421-443.

Kaplan, Robert B. (1966) Cultural thought patterns in inter-cultural
education. Language Learning 16, 1-20.

Louhiala-Salminen, Leena (1999) From business correspondence to
message exchange: What is there left? In M. Hewings & C. Nickerson
(eds.) Business English: Research Into Practice (1-27). London:

Lü, Xinchang (1979) Zuxin Yingyongwen Huibian (A Collection of the
Most Modern Practical Writings). Taibei: Taiwan shangwu yinshuguan.

Yu, Kaijun (2002) Xin Shiyong Yingyongwen (New Practical Writing for
Use) Tainan: Dafu shuju.

Daniel Zoltan Kadar's (Ph.D.) research interests include traditional
Chinese (im)politeness, institutional discourses in imperial China,
politeness in Chinese written genres, and universal theories of
honorific language (with special focus on honorific vocatives).
Recently he works on the research of linguistic (im)politeness in old
Chinese institutional discourses, like business, courtroom, medical
interactions. His publications include books, like "Terms of (Im)
politeness -- On the Communicational Properties of Traditional
Chinese (Im)polite Address Terms" (in press, to appear in "Budapest
Monographs in East Asian Studies Series", Budapest: Eotvos Lorand
University Press), and research articles in English and Chinese,
like "Power and Profit -- The role of elevating/denigrating forms of
address in pre-modern Chinese business discourse" (in F. Bargiela-
Chiappini and M. Gotti (eds.) "Asian Business Discourse(s)",
Bern/Oxford/New York: Peter Lang, 2005).