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Ma Weidu talks about Bargaining

We Chinese people are quite smart in some small ways, such as the trick of using only five fingers on one hand to represent the numbers from 1 to 10. For us, it is a piece of cake. I remember my father taught me this when I was just a first or second grader. When I grew up, I came to realize its great convenience as it is used across the whole country, apart from in some places where there’s a little difference in symbolizing “10”. In contrast, westerners have to resort to both hands whenever “6” or above is involved. The Japanese, our neighbors to the east, also fail to pick up this one-hand trick. Slightly differently to westerners, they show you first the palm of one hand and then put up one finger or more of the other hand on the palm to tell you “6” or above.

The Chinese flexible minds are shown in the sequence of raising the fingers. In China, you stick out your forefinger to represent “1”; forefinger plus middle finger is “2”; middle finger plus ring finger plus small finger for “3”. Finally when it comes to “5”, it’s time to ask your thumb for help. Westerners, however, are not as nimble as we are. When they are in the same situations, they extend their fingers in order starting from their thumbs. Therefore, the “2” in westerners’ eyes is “8” in Chinese eyes.

Here is a joke. A friend of mine, who traveled around the world but couldn’t speak English at all, once happened to bargain with an Englishman at a London flea market. The seller stretched out the thumb and forefinger of one of his hands and asked for ‘Twenty”. The buyer, being Chinese, mistook it for “eighty” and couldn’t wait to raise his five fingers to cut the price to “fifty. The honest Englishman said: “no, no, twenty”. But the customer still complained: “你别那么死心眼,就给五 (don’t be so stubborn, 50, and that’s all!) The confused Englishman couldn’t help thinking: I’ve heard the Chinese are getting rich, but I’ve never seen such a squanderer. All in all, cleverness in trivial matters sometimes works but sometimes does not. You can’t get far by playing a petty trick with a simple-minded person as they always stick to a fundamental principle. In the face of different situations, you have to know when to resort to petty tricks and when to stick to fundamental principles.

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- 马未都闲言:砍价(2009.10.01—2009.11.30)
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