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Contrasts in Western and Chinese Thinking and Writing

Excerpt from Jerusha Hull McCormack and John G Blair, THINKING THROUGH CHINA (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), chapter 7
© Rowman & Littlefield

This article is excerpt from Jerusha Hull McCormack and John G Blair, THINKING THROUGH CHINA (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), chapter 7.

Here are some characteristics in most Chinese thinking and writing, from a Western point of view: no plain statement of thesis to be argued; lack of clear definitions of key concepts; an impulse to collect rather than select information; an apparent inability to calibrate information by mustering it to support a central thesis. And, finally, in lieu of a clear conclusion, an assumption that “facts” are presented only to provide a moral: that is, to be offered as guidance from and to the larger community. By writing in this manner, a Chinese university student is simply exemplifying the way most Chinese people think: relating all particular instances to the whole rather than taking them apart. That implies synthesizing rather than analyzing, all the while blurring any distinctions that might interfere with the sense of an overriding unity. The result is that Chinese discourse rarely seems to be direct or straightforward. To take in the whole, one must circle around it, reaching one’s conclusion, in the words of François Jullien, “by indirection.”

For a Westerner, this approach may seem merely baffling. If you want to be convincing, why not get straight to the point? Why not say what you mean right away? Why all this apparent deviousness? Here is one of the great divides between Western and Chinese ways of thinking and writing. If one wishes to discern meanings in Chinese discourse, one must often look to the silences, the hesitations, the circumlocutions, diversions, and euphemisms.

The usual Western way is different but not automatically superior. To get from A to B directly requires pushing aside a host of factors that remain relevant to the situation being described. Directness, in other words, comes at a price. While the Chinese way of writing risks never reaching the goal, it has the advantage of bringing into the discourse a variety of related if relatively peripheral factors, factors routinely sacrificed to Western logic.

Even so, Chinese students certainly can learn how to write in a Western-style academic essay. Why are they so reluctant to do so? There may be many interlocking reasons, each inseparable from the others. The first might be social: that to state something directly might contradict or offend the opinions of the person spoken to or about, who would then lose face. As all social relations are hierarchical, to criticize a superior in a direct manner might risk disrupting good relations, which depend on a perceptible demonstration of deference. Another reason, also social, is that a high degree of attention to implicit meanings is both necessary and expected. Almost all of the time one cannot say what one means (or at least one hesitates to do so). One always has an audience, but one from which one’s clear meaning may need to be routinely shielded.

Or, on a larger scale, one might say simply: such indirection has become habitual because that is how Chinese people tend to think. From the onset Chinese people have been acculturated to consider the focus of a discussion in terms of a larger context or field. That field-perception usually dominates thinking – and ensures that someone from China routinely considers wider implications as significant factors in any situation. That habit reinforces the perception that one is part of a much larger, impersonal system which takes no heed of one’s own desires. Thus setting clear goals is difficult, as a Chinese person is acutely conscious that “reality” is always shifting, in a continuous process without apparent cause, beginning or end. This is Dao going on its way.

© Rowman & Littlefield
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Taoism and Western Culture

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