I like to keep up with current affairs and recently read an article by George Friedman regarding a short trip he made to Beijing, China, in which he said he couldn’t explain China and recognised that the sophisticated Chinese representatives he met there didn't understand America.
He was given a guide who took him around the city. One of the places she took him to was a small traditional neighborhood in the midst of Beijing called a Hutong, which is not a museum but a small village where people live, shop and raise families. A Hutong is comprised of small cottages where you can rent a room with access to a shared stove for cooking in a hallway with no plumbing and to take a shower or use a toilet, you have to walk down the street to a communal bathroom. These rooms are very expensive. Contrasted against this are the upscale shopping malls and modern office buildings that sell and deal in international brands. To a Westerner it is incomprehensible that the capital of the second largest economy in the world would have malls intermingled with peasant villages.
Similarly, something I have noted while watching a construction site in Beijing are the tools and methods used to build modern buildings, they are embedded in ancient tradition.
It is my understanding from conversations that while expats who have spent many years in China they can say they understand China better, but they still have large blank spots in their knowledge.
Perhaps a more findamental exemplar of this is language based.
This month I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Richard Mast who has been a teacher, curriculum writer and administrator in schools for a large part of his life in China. His understanding of East meets West based on his knowledge of teaching, perspective on language and cultural perspective is to say the least enlightening.
We must understand that Chinese culture developed independently of Western culture and as such has a completely different set of perspectives, values and expectations. The Chinese way of thinking is so different and therefore we simply cannot take statements at face value. In terms of language, the process of delving into the meaning and interpretation of the words is entirely polarised. Chinese people value things overtly and deeply in ways that are different from Western cultures.
Chinese students don’t understand phrases and sentences, their focus is on the words and entire concentration is on the characters while the whole context is difficult. Western thought is based on questioning but in China it is all about knowledge acquisition and remembering. The average Chinese student has to memorize 4000 to 6000 characters while Western language is based on flexibility and adaption. The Chinese don’t know how to describe and don’t know why as it’s never been part of the experience and remains unchanged for 1000’s of years. To a Chinese student, language is all about character reading, sounds and history. Students learn the ancient Chinese classics, read out loud, memorise phrases, then when they become adults the idea is to understand the wisdom that will eventually be made aware to them from the ancestors. The Chinese don’t have the mechanism for reading and don’t question whether that text is wisdom as it could threaten the cultural basis or challenge the identity of who they are. Reading and writing is like a poem with no plan or order. While in Western thought the Greek and Roman heritage is so strong as well as the thought organisational process, while in the Chinese tradition it’s a case of simply not being important.
Here are two descriptive examples on the same topic that contrast Western and Chinese thought;
About Typhoon Mangkhut
With Typhoon Mangkhut this weekend changing direction slightly to head west-northwest, the Hong Kong Observatory suggested it would come within about 200km (124 miles) of the city on Sunday evening, a wider berth than Wednesday’s forecast of 80km (50 miles).
Mangkhut typhoon, hurting the outer shell of Hong Kong, but cannot hurt her heart.
The Mona Lisa
The smile of the Mona Lisa is special because it is so open to interpretation. Yet the Mona Lisa has compelled the attention of viewers for a long, long time due to that famous enigmatic expression. Some people have claimed that this is due to its beauty.
Mona Lisa’s smile will always be the mystery of the ages, just laugh, don’t pay attention to why she laughs, laughing is better than crying,
So perhaps we should accept that East and West will never understand each other, however if we know what each other wants, then at least we can understand what is going on.
George Friedman "Visiting China"