All Is Well E28: Functional Railroading

Previously, on communication as manipulation: “Consensual and Non-Consensual Manipulation,” “All Communication is Behavioral Manipulation,” “All Communication is Manipulation,” “Linguistic Fit,” “Is strategic interaction Machiavellian?,” “A Landscape of Communication,” and “ACiM is a Natural Extension of Cybernetic Theory.

Timestamped link to clip under discussion, beginning 5:30 in.

Shi Tiandong, love interest of protagonist Su Mingyu, is sitting in the restaurant he owns across from Su Daqiang, her father. Daqiang has been living, after the death of his wife, with his second son Su Mingcheng. The arrangement has been marked by strife—both father and son are children who never grew up—selfish, incompetent, and manipulative, in contrast with the hyper-competent and pragmatic Mingyu, or the eternally patient Shi Tiandong, on whose doorstep the elderly Daqiang arrived that morning with a suitcase.

Tiandong asks Daqiang: “Why did you run away from home?” Daqiang stares off into space then slowly speaks: “It’s not good to air my dirty laundry in public.” There is a long pause; Tiandong says nothing, simply sits there patiently with his hands folded. Daqiang turns slightly towards him, continues: “I don’t see you as an outsider. I’ll keep it short.” Was Daqiang here waiting, fishing, during the pause, for encouragement to override his stated reservations? Impossible to say. But on he goes, having acknowledged the possible interpretation of impropriety and side-stepped it with a strategic conceptualization (that he does not view Tiandong as an outsider; that he will keep it brief). 

“At home, Mingcheng…” and now he pauses much longer, looks down as if overcome from emotion. “Uncle,” Tiandong says, firm and supportive. Daqiang continues: “At home, Mingcheng often loses his temper at me. I called his older brother to have him talk to him. But not only did he not feel bad, he came up with ways to control me. He keeps saying it’s for my own good. To take care of me. I know him well. He’s retaliating against me. Tormenting me.” Tiandong closes his eyes, opens his mouth, leans back a bit, and then leans forward as he speaks, shoulders narrow, hands clasped below the table, his eyes closed and his expression slightly pained, the look of calm consolation—steadying, reassuring. “Don’t think that way,” he says. “It’s emotional abuse… You have no idea. Emotional abuse… is so difficult to bear,” Daqiang insists, getting teary-eyed, upgrading the interpretation of the dynamic to something that Tiandong cannot sit by without assisting or intervening in. I have no interest here in litigating whether Daqiang is “sincere” or “performing,” whether he “believes” what he says, whether his feelings are “genuine.” I care only about the pattern of communicative behavior and the pattern of response it engenders in others. 

“If I hadn’t secretly snuck out while he was asleep, [Mingcheng] would follow me and not let me go.” Tiandong blinks several times, putting the pieces together, following the implicative drift, giving a double take. “You ran out last night?! Where did you sleep?” Nodding, with an expression of deep sadness, Daqiang continues: “I was going to stay at a motel. The better ones are too expensive. The cheaper ones… The rooms are too cold and noisy. I couldn’t sleep. I haven’t slept all night. I’m afraid to turn on my phone. I’m also afraid of being too close to Mingcheng’s house in case he’ll find me. I’ve been wandering about. I kept walking and found myself here.” Note how he ascribes no intentionality, planning, or foresight to his arrival, on the opposite side of the city, at Shi Tiandong’s restaurant. He simply found himself there, as if by incredible chance.

And yet he has set up a plight which Shi Tiandong cannot ignore, both from genuine feeling and from a place of propriety. He cannot let his elder, his beloved’s father, simply “wander” the streets at night without shelter. And so while Daqiang has put on every pretense of not asking for help—of arriving at the restaurant as if by chance; of simply sharing his story, without agenda—he has, in effect, directly sought out one of the few people in his life who tolerates his learned helplessness (out of empathy or obligation, it is impossible to say) and asked for money for higher-class lodging.

Shi Tiandong, his fingers crossed, hands rested on the table, looks down, deeply sad and pensive, shakes his head, plays with his thumbs, sighs. Not looking directly at Daqiang, he asks, “So what do you plan on doing now?” Daqiang just shakes his head. “No matter where I go, I’m not going back to Mingcheng’s place. I’ll keep hiding until Mingzhe [my oldest son] comes for me… I’ll buy a ticket to Shanghai to find Mingzhe.” At this, Tiandong must butt in: “Don’t be so rash,” he says, flattening his hands, moving them flatly an inch above the table, as if spreading out cloth. He re-clasps them, makes a gesture towards his chest, signifying the “I,” signifying his own involvement: “Let’s figure something out—together.” First, he suggests Mingyu, the eldest daughter, but Daqiang waves him off: “Mingyu has a hot temper like her mother. I’m afraid of her.” “Mingyu has so many houses,” Tiandong replies; “You might not have to live with her. Just let her arrange something.” But Daqiang refuses: “It’ll still be her house. I’ll still be under her control. I’m not going.” We see the dynamic here: The uncle has some preferred outcome. He may not consciously be aware of it, his end goal, but by continuing to shoot down Shi Tiandong’s proposed solutions, he will eventually force Shi Tiandong’s hand, because Tiandong must continue looking for solutions to Daqiang’s problem; he cannot turn him out again on the street, reneging on his obligations to the Su family. This is true even in Western culture, and obligations to elders, and to ancestors, and to family, runs deeper in China.

“Xiao Shi,” Daqiang addresses him: “I think I’ll have to impose on you. I’ll just stay in your restaurant. This sofa will do.” And yet now it is Tiandong’s turn to refuse; he cannot let Uncle sleep on his restaurant couch, partially because of the impropriety of someone setting up shop, sleeping in the restaurant within sight of other patrons, and partially because merely putting up an elder on a restaurant sofa is itself improper, a shirking of duty. So while Daqiang here has made what seems a very modest request—he doesn’t wish to impose, just give him any old scrap of furniture where he can rest a while—it is not a seriously request, because he cannot seriously accept it to be accepted. And Tiandong accordingly scolds him, lightly and lovingly: “Uncle. How could I make you sleep here? Why don’t you come to my place? My place might be small, but it’s enough for one person. I’ll just crash here.”

But now Daqiang refuses again, he cannot “impose” further on Tiandong. He gathers his hat and jacket and rises: “Oh nevermind. Don’t worry about it, I’ll leave.” As with the request to sleep on the sofa, it is impossible to say whether this suggestion is sincere, because again it must be refused: Sit down, Tiandong insists, standing up himself, patting the old man on the shoulders, “Uncle! How can I just leave you be? I can’t let you leave alone.” Food arrives, and Daqiang half-heartedly concedes that he will first eat—since he has not yet eaten today—and then he will leave. He slurps his noodles noisily, ravenously; Tiandong stands up to give him privacy, and Daqiang makes loud, sobbing-like noises while he slurps, although no tears fall. 

Tiandong calls Mingyu, asking for advice, and she advises him to stay out of it. “Ran away from home? Emotional abuse? He’s just being unreasonable and making up a tragic story.” “He’s your dad. How can you say that?” Tiandong asks. “I’m saying that because I know him too well. Every time Mingzhe calls me to say that Dad can’t stay at Mingcheng’s place anymore it ends up that he was just stirring trouble. Every time I told him to stay at my place he turns me down with the same reason every time.” She again advises him to stay out of it. Tiandong is lost: “But he’s come to me. What can I do?” And this is the crux of it. Sincerity, scheming, foresight, intent—what matters is that Daqiang has put Tiandong in a position where he must help Daqiang, even as Daqiang makes a big show of refusing the help, of asking for very little, of not wanting to impose. Words are the communicative surplus we use to smooth over, modify, contextualize, or falsify and dissimulate the messages our actions send. Had Daqiang planned this out from the beginning, it would have ended the same way. There is no need to hold grand conspiracies of manipulation in mind, when lighter local nudges will do.  

After Mingyu hangs up, Tiandong walks back to the table where Daqiang is sitting, but keeps the cell phone still clutched to his ear, pretending to still be speaking to her: “That’s what I’m thinking too… Right… We can’t let your dad just wander about, right? Find a hotel? …Okay leave it to me… I’ll handle it… Right.” He feigns hanging up a second time, turns to Daqiang: “Uncle, it’s been taken care of,” he says. But Daqiang is stern-faced and solemn; Tiandong asks him why he is upset. “Why did you tattle to Mingyu?” Daqiang asks, a literal child, helpless and pathetic and dependent but unable to acknowledge it, let alone overcome it.

Daqiang bitches some more, in an upset state that Tiandong must fix; he cannot have Daqiang upset at him; there must be a solution. He proposes the hotel again, and Daqiang looks at him, looks away, mutters softly, “Hotels are expensive.” “Mingyu will cover all costs,” Tiandong lies. Daqiang looks at him, eyebrows raised: “Mingyu said that?” Tiandong has manufactured a plausible story which Daqiang can now, following propriety, go along with, even if he does not fully believe it. “In that case, if I can stay somewhere, then… There’s a place I know.” He is already doing up his scarf, cheered up; he begins pre-emptively justifying the merits of the hotel—that it is far from Mingcheng, where Mingcheng will not find him; that there are people who knows who will look after him—which is how you know the hotel will be expensive. “Why don’t I show you there now?” Daqiang asks, taking Tiandong aback at the sudden sense of urgency. Daqiang has finally gotten what he wanted, and there is no point wasting any more time on small talk and storytelling.

And indeed, when they arrive, it is not just a hotel but the Peninsula Spa Clubhouse, a gorgeous lobby with a pink cherry tree in full bloom, dark wood benches and chairs. Tiandong tries to persuade Daqiang to find different lodgings, but he insists: “Don’t worry about me. Aren’t you busy?” But Tiandong is still concerned, for reasons that are difficult to discern to an American viewer—perhaps health concerns around the hot water. “You’re afraid Mingyu will be mad?” Daqiang asks, and continues: “How about this: If Mingyu asks, just don’t tell her the truth. Just say I had you take me to an express hotel.” He clasps his hands in prayer: “Xiao Shi, please. This is all I wish for.” And of course, Shi Tiandong must relent, heads to the desk to fill out the paperwork and pay, handing over a credit card. Daqiang is visibly cheered up, heading gleefully to the pools to soak.

One response to “All Is Well E28: Functional Railroading”

  1. […] We can call games where participants have bright, actively pursued goals “work,” and those which have more open-ended, passive goals “exploration” or “play.” A significant difference between these styles is the local or global scope-kept-in-mind of motivation, attractors, and manipulations, as well as the relative narrowness or broadness of the goals pursued. (In other words, the degrees of freedom and indeterminacy entering an interaction.) That is, in casual socializing, one player may ask another player a question and thereby “manipulate” (attempt to effect) an answer—but the move is not part of a larger project, or subservient to some overarching outcome, other than perhaps a vague sense of sociability. A con artist, by contrast, manipulates his target into a sentiment of greater trust today precisely because it facilitates a money transfer tomorrow. I’ve called this “railroading.” […]


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