“Cha Bu Duo”: The expression that fills western manufacturers in China with dread

“Cha Bu Duo” illustrates the difference in the way Chinese manufacturers and their western clients view product quality, says a China sourcing agent.

Vaughn Cook RockWell Window Wells
Jeff Crawshaw
January 26, 2023

In several forums or blogs on China manufacturing, the difference in the way factories in China and their western clients view the subject of product quality is a hot topic of discussion.

As China sourcing agents representing western businesses, it is not unusual for us at Sourcing Allies to find that the client’s product doesn’t fall within the acceptable range of specifications outlined in the technical drawings given to the Chinese factory, but the factory genuinely doesn’t think that is a problem.

If there is one expression that illustrates this difference in attitude towards quality standards, it is “Cha Bu Duo”, which can be translated as “not far off” or “close enough”.

Sourcing agent: “The colour of the product doesn’t match the sample.”

Factory boss: “Cha Bu Duo [It’s close enough].”

“Cha Bu Duo” is evidently not a recent affliction. As far back as 1924, the Chinese philosopher, essayist and diplomat Hu Shih wrote a piece on “Cha Bu Duo” as a way of protesting against the attitude, which he felt was hurting China as a nation.

Hu wrote:

“Do you know who the most famous person in China is? Just mention his name and everybody will recognize it. His last name is ‘Cha’ and his first name is ‘Bu-Duo’. Every province, county, and village has someone named after him. It is certain that you have seen him – and you have undoubtedly heard others talk about him…
“He [Mr Chabuduo] would often say, ‘Things only have to be done ‘chabuduo’ to be good. After all, what sense does it make to be a perfectionist and waste the time and effort necessary to have things absolutely correct all the time?’”

Mr Chabuduo is clearly still around. A few months ago, for instance, we were working with a Chinese manufacturer on a product with high engineering requirements. The factory had the capability required but they still sent us a sample that was substandard. It’s not that they didn’t know the sample did not meet the mark. They just sent it because, well, it was “Cha Bu Duo”.

There’s even a song called Mr Cha Bu Duo that has 18 million views on YouTube!

After years of coming up against this dreaded expression, I have realised that it is futile to allow this deep seated attitude to frustrate you. It is better to accept it as one of China’s cultural quirks that foreigners sourcing from China must be aware of. Once we accept that it exists, we can then work with it and get on with our lives.

Cha bu duo versus product quality

China manufacturing: Dealing with “Cha Bu Duo”

Dealing with “Cha Bu Duo” requires westerners to be familiar with another Chinese concept – Miànzi or “face”. This word covers a wide-range of situations, but I’ll discuss it in the context of manufacturing.

Miànzi can be blamed when a manufacturer produces a sample/product that is not good enough because they didn’t understand your requirements clearly but held back from asking for clarifications because they were afraid of losing “face”.

Miànzi is also why when I buttonhole a factory boss and politely tell him in a very direct manner that the inspected product is not satisfactory and that he must ensure the reworked product meets the drawing specifications, my Chinese colleague will push me aside and request the boss: “If you could just get closer to the drawing numbers, it would be a lot better you know. The customer is less likely to complain. It will really be much better if you really try and follow the drawings.”

Basically, my colleague’s Chinese way of communication – a more indirect method – ensures you don’t offend the factory boss, you don't make him lose “face”, but still get your message across and the job done.

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