Business Culture

How to talk about getting things done in Chinese (执行力 – Zhí xíng lì)3 min read

27 February 2021 2 min read


How to talk about getting things done in Chinese (执行力 – Zhí xíng lì)3 min read

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The Chinese language is geared towards doing.

Verbs in Chinese, as with so much of the language, are flexible. Basic action verbs tend to be single character words – look, hear, eat, read, do etc.

The are two main single characters in Chinese that mean ‘do’. Both sound the same but refer to different kinds of doing.

  • 做 (zuò) – to do in the physical world; take a specific action; with a sense of making or creating something.
  • 作 (zuò) – to do in the abstract world; has less of a feeling of action than the former.

But to be honest these are quite interchangeable and vague. For example, the verb to ‘dream’, in Chinese ‘do a dream’ can use both of these forms. So in Chinese to do physically, and/or in the abstract, there is a subtle but distinct difference.

If this isn’t confusing enough, there are several other single character verbs, that can all mean “do” amongst many other things, but in slightly different ways (sometimes):

  • 办 (bàn) – to do, generally used in a work context; real world doing
  • 干 (gàn) – to do, less formal, normally involves hard work; general doing
  • 搞 (gǎo) – ‘doing’ when there is often a challenge is involved; abstract or real world doing
  • 弄 (nòng) – doing when something can be completed quickly; often pejorative (i.e. – he/she did one over on me); abstract or real world doing

And if that is not confusing enough, there are at least eight further ways to say “do” in Chinese.

  • 落实 (luò shí) – doing as in making something happen, has a sense of immediateness
  • 执行 (zhí xíng) – to do as in to execute
  • 实施 (shí shī) – doing something that has been planned according to an overall strategy or framework
  • 实行 (shí xíng) – doing when moving from theory into practice
  • 施行 (shī xíng) – doing according the rules or regulations
  • 实践 (shí jiàn)- doing what you said you would do, doing by putting things into practice
  • 践行 (jiàn xíng) – doing what you said you do – action-based
  • 履行 (lǚ xíng) – doing what you agreed to do (normal based on a contract)

Doing is not just about making things happen. It’s also a way to show respect and be polite.

When someone asks you to do something, even if it is impossible, the correct response is:

我马上办 (wǒ mǎ shàng bàn) – I will do it immediately!

Any other response would be rude.

This is not to say that the Chinese cannot accept reality when something is impossible. Some of the most pragmatic people I have met are Chinese.

So the ‘yes – immediately’ is more of a mindset (心态 – xīn tài), or an attitude (态度 – tài dù). And attitude is everything in China. The default position is: anything is possible. When something is not doable, then adjust, change direction, or innovate.

With so many ways to say, “I will get this done immediately” in Chinese, plus the tendency to show politeness and respect through taking action, or at least committing to it, it is no surprise that things can happen so quickly in China.

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