Form Over Function

When I first came to Taiwan to study Chinese folk religion, I was surprised to learn that form was valued over function. In a religious context, that meant that if the form of an individual’s prayer was correct, it didn’t matter what was in their heart or their beliefs. If the devotee went from incense censer to censer in the prescribed order and made the obeisances correctly, that was good enough. As I’ve lived here longer I’ve found that form is highly valued in most areas of life.

Form’s importance partially relates to the nature of high-context culture, with its emphasis on community and maintaining a shared perspective, based on shared history and culture (The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock). People are discouraged from scratching too deeply below the surface—there be dragons. If social cohesion’s underpinnings are examined too closely the house of cards will fall. The surface calm and solidarity required by high-context societies necessitates a willful denial of deeper social realities. The form, or surface, needs to be prioritized over the heterogeneity below the surface.

A system of politeness that emphasizes form developed in the Chinese cultural milieu to maintain surface calm. I’d like to turn to Chinese literature for a historical example. The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh (水滸傳) is one of the four great classic novels of China (四大名著). Written in the 14th century by Shi Nai’an, it has been described as China’s tale of Robin Hood. It is an adventure story about bandits. What surprises is how much of the narrator’s time is spent describing the formal modes of address and politeness employed when for example two bandit leaders meet, or a court official and General meet, etc. Much of the story is conveyed in the subtle shifts in forms of politeness. It was surprising to read an adventure novel where several pages might be spent on the minutia of showing respect:

After the usual courtesies as to names, Lu Da said that he had met Lin Cheng’s father at the Eastern Capital. Lin Chong was much pleased, and insisted upon making LuDa his sworn elder brother…. Lu Da ordered his servants to bring wine for the guest and when the later had partaken three cups,…  (Shi Nai’an, The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh. Translated by J. H. Jackson. Tuttle Publishing: Hong Kong, p. 64).


Chao Gai pressed Lin Chong three times to take the seat of honor, but Lin Chong declined the honor. At last Chao Gai gave way and agreed to take the premier seat, and Lin Chong took the second seat. The other six men took their seats in a row. (Ibid. p. 214).

While the actual adventure parts of the story—the chases and battles—can be shockingly brief, occasionally little more than a couple paragraphs. Form is important: Sometimes it is almost the whole story.

I’m not trying to suggest that modern Asia is nearly as formalistic as it was in the Yuan Dynasty, but there certainly are echoes of that history today. Let’s start with a stupid foreigner story. During my first couple weeks living in Taiwan I rode the bus frequently. One day, from my seat, I saw an old Taiwanese man hobble onto the relatively full bus. He was the picture of geriatric distress; a cane, bowed back, small shuffling steps, sagging skin and a constant grimace as he meandered along. Naturally, I got up and offered him my seat, to which he very politely declined, and indicated with his hands that I should return to my seat. I was slightly confused—the guy obviously needed a seat—but, I honored his wishes. I didn’t want to insult him by implying that he was too decrepit to stand. After I sat back down, he gave me a look that I couldn’t decipher. Shortly afterwards a gently smirking Taiwanese businessman offered the old codger his seat, which he gratefully accepted. The old man then spent the rest of the bus ride glaring daggers at me. Most perplexing.

Later that day I found out from Taiwanese friends that I am supposed to offer something three times, so the recipient can reject the offer twice, before finally allowing himself to be cajoled into acceptance on the third time. Who knew? Where I come from, if somebody offers you something, politely reject it if you don’t want it, or take it if you do, because the offer isn’t coming again—function over form.

There are endless examples of the importance of form in Asian social interactions. Korean drinking culture is a great illustration of the importance of form in social interactions. Drinking in Korea is not just about getting drunk, although that is the desired byproduct, it is about showing respect. There are a lot of ritualized rules surrounding how to get drunk with friends. The briefest of lists includes: pour and receive drinks with both hands; don’t pour your own drink; pour drinks for others; definitely for the first drink, and as much as possible for subsequent drinks, try to drink at the same time as others (don’t drink alone); turn to the side when drinking in front of a social superior; etc. As a foreigner, it can be rather odd to watch a group of Korean friends descend into a drunken debauch, all the while, very precisely, observing the correct forms and rituals required to maintain politeness and the social hierarchy. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just distinctly different.

Generally, the form-over-function nature of Asian societies is harmless. Indeed it is part of the culture’s charm. However, it can go too far. One extreme example comes from Chiayi (嘉義), Taiwan. This event happened not too long after I arrived in Taiwan. Four people were working in Pachang Creek (八掌溪) when the water began to rise. The four workers became trapped on a small piece of land in the center of the flooded river. Rescuers arrived in plenty of time to carry out a rescue. However, for three hours no rescue helicopter came. Eventually the four were swept to their deaths, literally in front of the TV cameras, family, and emergency services workers standing helplessly on the riverbank.

The problem? Well, it was a matter of form. There was confusion over whether police air rescue or air force search and rescue should handle it. In my mind, I imagine the gathered rescuers calling for a search and rescue helicopter, and the commander on the other end answering, “Oh, I’m so honored to be considered first for this great undertaking, yet I must demure to my honorable colleague from police air rescue.” And, when they called in police air rescue, the commanding officer there responding, “Oh, the air force commander is too kind, we police are but amateurs compared with the air force’s pilots. I must insist that they take on this grand endeavour.”  And, on and on, until everyone died, in a shockingly literal example of the Midwestern American idiomatic expression; a Chinese fire drill. I’m sure that is not exactly what happened; but, I’m likewise sure it is sort of what happened.

Form is important. For people from lower-context cultures, the importance of social form is perplexing, but it is the glue that maintains the surface homogeneity necessary for a high-context culture to function. It is intrinsic to the culture and not likely to change.