Exchanging ideas: between east and west

‘I couldn’t understand what you were saying’, she said.

‘Was it my English?’ I said.

‘No, no’, she said. ‘We had the English text and a Chinese translation. I read through them both carefully. I could understand each sentence, but they didn’t seem to connect to make a main point’.

‘We’d call that missing the forest for the trees’, I said.

She laughed. ‘Exactly! That captures it’.

We were talking after a lecture I had given for students and faculty at a major university in China. The topic was one on which I had spoken often – Marxism and religion. But after this discussion I was a little alarmed. Had all those overflowing lecture halls, conference venues, small groups and intimate gatherings simply missed the point of what I had been saying until now? Was I that obtuse, unclear, muddled?

‘You know’, she said, ‘whenever a Chinese lecturer speaks, she or he goes straight to the main point, to the core issue. But when you, or any other outsider I have heard, speak, it seems like a mass of detail and I can’t find the main point’.

I had come across all manner of characterisations of Chinese, or indeed Asian education. They are taught to listen and absorb the words of the master, it is said, never to think critically or question. On my first visit to China, I found that was absolute crap. Students fearlessly and vigorously challenge all and sundry on the big issues. Chinese academia is slowly catching up to other places, it is said, and it has a long way to go – quality control, intellectual depth, awareness of the richness of Western thought. They may occasionally stumble across the odd book from the West and become all excited about it, but they really don’t know what they are talking about. And on it goes – one chauvinistic piece of grandstanding after another.

But this conversation after my lecture set me thinking, inquiring, returning to ask more. For here lay a profound difference in intellectual life, a stumbling block for many a Chinese student heading overseas to pursue their studies elsewhere. Slowly what characterises a Western approach dawned on me – and the West really begins somewhere around Iran (ancient Persia) with a Near West and a Far West.

An argument works through a mass of detail to a carefully qualified conclusion, the main point held off until the end in a curious form of delayed satisfaction. On the way there it must wade through a mass of detailed commentary, struggle through the thick undergrowth of references and footnotes, deal with objections (real or imagined), until the conclusion. Like a hunter pursuing a particularly evasive quarry, it finally emerges triumphant, the tattered and sorry-looking central point held aloft triumphantly. Never mind that the reader or audience has been snoring for some time now.

By contrast, a Chinese speaker sprints at breakneck speed to the central issue. He or she states it boldly, clearly, and then explores its implications. Now the details appear, the careful attention to a text or idea, the confrontation with objections. Yet all of this is constantly drawn back to the main point, elaborating and reiterating it.

For students brought up in either tradition, the generic expectations become quite different, the modes of thought and listening move differently and take quite some time to learn. To a Western student, a Chinese lecture or paper seems blunt and unsophisticated, missing the nuance of an argument. To a Chinese student, a Western speaker simply trots out endless detail, massing together loosely related ideas. During the process, the conclusion is lost amidst the clutter, as though one had no real point to make at all, as though one were afraid of dealing with anything important.


12 thoughts on “Exchanging ideas: between east and west

  1. Thank you Roland, I now know why my Chinese neighbour is so to the point and often looks at me as if I am speaking double-Dutch. Very good analysis though which should be set many thinking.

  2. Now that was an illustration of double-Dutch: sorry for the extra ‘be’ in the last sentence. Serves me right for making comments early in the morning. (Or comments at all).

  3. Is it a national or ethnic characteristic? It sounds to me like a difference between being working class (to the point) or middle class (dancing around an issue).

    1. Good point, although I am interested here in deep historical and cultural traditions. Some Chinese friends tell me that what I described varies over time as well. Helps avoid fetishising such differences.

      On class, though, rather than everyday exchange, I was concerned with intellectual interaction. In many cases, but not all, that tends to be an elite activity (or at least, carried on by those useless bits of skin hanging off the ends of ruling class power).

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