The following dialog happened when I was little, less than 7 years old:
“What a pity, Sandy’s just too dark. Otherwise she would be a complete knockout like you.” Sister Chen complimented Nainai.
A few non Chinese read it and asked,
So Sister Chen is paying Nainai a compliment by insulting Sandy?
Well, yes and no.
Yes: on paper, Sister Chen did implied that Sandy’s dark, which in the culture that consider dark’s ugly, it’s an insult.
No: in reality, Sandy’s no more than 7 years old, Sister Chen may not consider Sandy would understand. And, such compliments were quite common. Which leads me to think about the American idiom that If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
Here are couple of videos in synch with the idiom:
Think back prior to 1979, I did recall a few vivid dialogs in Beijing when people said the identical thing as Sister Chen. Non felt it was rude of insulting. And all the years I live in USA, I could not think of one incident.
I am not implying that Chinese are rude and ineloquent but perhaps the social environment made the difference? Since 1949, China experienced campaigns after campaigns. The Three Years of Great Chinese Famine (三年大饥荒; 1959-61) made the situation even worse. Chinese just did not have the stomach to make nice with each other. Primal survival was the order of the day, every day. The ten years of Cultural Revolution had just compounded it.
USA has been relatively peaceful and stable. Everyone enjoys reasonable rules and protected by their right. They just have more time and energy to play nice.
This is just my two cents. What do you think?