Photo Credit: Gao Peng
From misunderstandings to couple’s quarrels, help restore harmony to any situation

Chinese culture places a premium on the concept of “peace.” Throughout history, the refrain that “peace is most precious” (以和为贵 yǐ hé wéi guì) has prevailed. For family affairs, we have the phrase 家和万事兴 (jiā hé wànshì xīng, a peaceful family leads to the success of all things); for business, it’s said that 和气生财 (héqì shēng cái, amiability breeds riches).

However, where there are humans, there are conflicts. Even the happiest couple, closest friends, or most faithful partners will quarrel with each other at some point. At this time, a peacemaker might be necessary. But it’s not an easy role to play. Before you throw yourself into the middle of the battlefield, make sure you’re well prepared with the following phrases.

Many conflicts actually result from misunderstanding. A Chinese idiom says that “a bystander is always clear-minded” (旁观者清 pángguānzhě qīng). As a third party who can see both sides’ points of view, peacemakers can try to fix the problem by explaining the situation. In most cases, they don’t need to focus on what has already happened; instead, they emphasize intentions.

He has a sharp tongue [lit. “like a knife”] but a soft heart [like tofu]. Don’t take his words seriously.
Tā zhège rén dāozizuǐ dòufu xīn, shuō dehuà nǐ bié wǎng xīnlǐ qù.

Although he screwed it up, he meant well. I can guarantee he didn’t do that on purpose.
Tā zhè yěshì hǎoxīn bàn huàishì, wǒ gǎn dǎ bǎopiào tā bùshì gùyì de.

What he said was obviously spoken in anger. Actually, he doesn’t mean that at all.
Tā shuō de míngxiǎn dōu shì qì huà, shíjì shang bìng bùshì nàgè yìsi.

But defending one side in a dispute can be tricky. Sometimes you will make one person feel that you stand with the other, and thus you become “the enemy” as well—the peacemaker inadvertently ends up becoming a troublemaker. This is particularly risky when it comes to family affairs or romantic relationships, which are usually too private for an outsider to intervene in. In such a situation, a peacemaker should avoid deciding who is right and who is wrong. Instead, their task is to downplay the conflict so it ends naturally. In these cases, some old sayings can help.

First, make it clear that you are completely impartial:

This is just a case of “everyone has their own way of saying things.” Neither of you is wrong.
Zhè jiàn shì zhēnshi “gōng shuō gōng yǒulǐ, pó shuō pó yǒulǐ”, nǐmen liǎ dōu méi cuò.

Then make them feel that it’s no big deal to have a fight:

Even your tongue sometimes fights with your teeth. Is there any couple who doesn’t quarrel?
Shétou hé yáchǐ hái dǎjià ne, guòrìzi nǎ yǒu bù chǎojià de?

Then, tell them that their problem is not worth blaming each other over:

Every family has a skeleton in the closet. Your problem is really not a big deal.
Jiā jiā dōu yǒu běn nán niàn de jīng. Nǐmen zhèxiē wèntí zhēn de méishénme dàbùliǎo de.

After the both sides cool down, urge them to patch it up right then, so things don’t turn into a “cold war” later, in which nobody talks to the other side and resentment festers:

How can there be resentment between family members for more than one night? Why not make it up now?
Yījiā rén nǎ yǒu géyè chóu? Kuài hé hǎo ba.

Of course, not everything can be skated over so easily. In many cases, a fight is a fight; there’s no misunderstanding, no room to compromise, and the interested parties won’t let go easily. Then, what can you do? Perhaps create a distraction. After all, there is always something more important, which provides a reason for people to put down their personal emotions. This strategy is especially useful in the workplace.

We should give priority to overall interests and finish the task first. Put aside these personal grudges for the moment.
Wǒmen yīnggāi yǐ dàjú wéi zhòng, xiān bǎ xiàngmù wánchéng, sīrén ēnyuàn zànshí fàng dào yībiān.

It’s not the right time to find out who was at fault. Our primary task now is to fix the problem our client raised.
Xiànzài bùshì zhuījiù zérèn de shíhòu, wǒmen de shǒuyào rènwù shì jiějué kèhù tíchū de wèntí.

After successfully distracting the antagonists, seize the opportunity afterward to call a truce. If possible, make them promise to never look back on this unhappy event again!

This matter ends here. No one is allowed to mention it again.
Zhè jiàn shì dào cǐ wéizhǐ, yǐhòu shéi dōu bùxǔ zài tí.

It’s time for you guys to bury the hatchet.
Guòqù de bùyúkuài jiù yībǐgōuxiāo ba.

For my sake, let the past go.
Kàn zài wǒ de miànzi shàng, guòqù de shì jiù ràng tā guòqù ba.

Sometimes, instead of the full picture, you only have one side of the story. A different strategy is required. One can first choose to deploy a mix of sympathy (“I’m on your side”) and flattery (“Lucky you’re not one to hold a grudge”).

Don’t lower yourself to their level.
Bié gēn tāmen yībānjiànshì.

It’s said “A chancellor’s mind [lit. ‘stomach’] is broad enough to punt a boat.” It’s his fault, but you’re a bigger person, so don’t argue.
Súhuà shuō:“Zǎixiàng dù lǐ néng chēng chuán”, zhè jiàn shì shì tā bùduì, dàn nǐ dàrén yǒu dàliàng, bié hé tā jìjiàoliǎo.

The second method is just the opposite—point out if someone really is to blame, and urge them to fix it voluntarily. You can start by saying:

I‘m not judging you, but you really were asking for trouble. You can’t blame others.
Bùshì wǒ shuō nǐ, zhè jiàn shì quèshí shì nǐ méishì zhǎoshì, bùnéng guài biérén.
不是我说你,这件事确实是你没事找事, 不能怪别人。

Your words were too harsh, no wonder she was so mad at you.
Nǐ shuō dehuà yě tài nántīngle, nánguài tā gēn nǐ shēngqì.

Of course, it’s not your job to make the peace between others. As the saying goes 解铃还须系铃人 (jiě líng hái xū xì líng rén, colloquially “he who ties the bell on the tiger must be the one to untie it”), suggesting that whoever started the problem should solve it: President Xi Jinping used this phrase when referring to difficulties experienced by New York Times reporters in China.

If you’ve done your best, feel free to flee the premises with this all-purpose exit line:

You guys should calm down for a bit. We can talk about the rest some other day.
Nǐmen xiān lěngjìng yīxià, shèng xià de wǒmen gǎitiān zài tán.

How to Be a Peacemaker is a story from our issue, “Wheel Life China.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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