Summary of Cowboys and Dragons

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Cowboys and Dragons book summary

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative
  • Applicable


Explaining China is a favorite avocation of many Chinese in the West. They usually state that Chinese and Western values are opposed, and that Chinese values are not only different but superior. This fairly typical book can be straightforward and informative, particularly when the author discusses the decision-making process in China and warns that ’yes’ and ’no’ probably don’t mean what the average, unsubtle American understands them to mean. But stay skeptical of the author’s generalizations about Chinese (Dragon) and Western (Cowboy) motivations. He stresses the supposed "collective" disposition of Chinese, but anyone with China experience will wonder just how "collective" the Chinese really are. In an often-used saying, the Chinese compare themselves to grains of sand - to emphasize their difficulty in getting together and cooperating. Sometimes the book describes fact, and sometimes fantasy that Chinese wish were fact. It can be as useful to know a people’s fantasies as it is to know their facts so, properly read, finds this book to be a useful addition to the bibliography on doing business in China. (There are, by the way, some annoying proofreading errors, most egregiously the erroneous pinyin spelling of the Chinese word for face.)

About the Author

Charles Lee is the founder of Charles Lee Enterprises, a venture capital firm. He has earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate since coming to the United States in 1963. Lee is a naturalized American citizen and has extensive experience in Asian-American business.


The Nine Conflict Points

Business negotiations between Chinese (the Dragons) and Westerners, especially Americans (the Cowboys), are most apt to founder on these rocks:

  • Individual interest vs. group interest - Americans, like the cowboys they are, think of freedom and opportunity and ask, ’what’s in it for me?’ Dragons, that is, the Chinese, prioritize group welfare.
  • Bitter history - Americans talk of "free trade," but China’s historical memory of free trade involves gunboats and foreign-ruled enclaves in Chinese cities.
  • Mutual profit vs. exploitation - Cowboys talk about the money to be made in China and about China’s cheap labor, both of which offend Chinese pride.
  • Once is not enough - Cowboys want one-shot deals that make money. Dragons want to build networks of deals.
  • Markets vs. harmony - Cowboys want to sell. Dragons want to get along.
  • Fast vs. enduring - Cowboys want fast growth. Dragons want long-term stability.
  • Superficial vs. deep relationship - Cowboys have occasional friends for this deal or that deal. Dragons like secure networks of relationships.
  • Darwin vs. Marx - Cowboy’s are social Darwinists...

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