Why there is no word for ‘the’ in Chinese – using Cat Theory (猫论 – Māo lùn)2 min readReading Time: 2 minutes
Chinese does not have a word for “the”, or “a” or “an”.
How could such an inoffensive, but fundamental, word be so problematic when communicating across cultures?
Because the Chinese language doesn’t need it!
There is no such thing in Chinese. Which explains why even the most fluent Chinese speakers of English can still mis-place the occasional ‘the’ in conversation.
Chinese tends to miss out specific details and assumes the listener knows them. For example, adapting one of Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxims:
“The black cat caught the mouse, so it is a good cat”
(hēi māo zhuō dào lǎo shǔ ， jiù shì hǎo māo)
It could be any black cat, or cats, catching any, or many, mice. And to make things more confusing, there is no tense in Chinese either so the cat or cats could be about to catch, in the middle of catching, or already caught, the mouse, or mice!
But being vague can help make things happen in China. It leaves options, possibilities and opportunities open – broad and sweeping statements that can come across as nebulous can actually spur ambitious and entrepreneurial types into action.
In the case of Deng’s black cat, or the Cat Colour Theory as it is known. When first mooted in the ’60’s, it was used to oppose ideology, and encourage people to focus on getting the job done: it really doesn’t matter what colour the cat is, if it is THE cat, A cat, or a number of cats – as long as it/they get the job done efficiently, that’s what counts.
More importantly, it offers a different mind set to have when engaging with China. Try using the same approach when negotiating with Chinese partners – rather than starting with the transaction specifics, leave things open at the start, talk in broad terms, be intentionally vague, embrace that vagueness, and build the rapport first.
In my experience the specifics can follow naturally, and often a lot quicker than expected!