THE ASIAN VOICE

Why do Chinese think differently from the West?: ANN columnist

Sculptures of Confucius with his students are seen near the headquarters office building of Chambroad Holding in Boxing, Shandong Province, China, June 27.
Sculptures of Confucius with his students are seen near the headquarters office building of Chambroad Holding in Boxing, Shandong Province, China, June 27.PHOTO: REUTERS

We live in an age of science and technology, so strictly speaking science should be able to forecast the future and help us make decisions better.  But in this Age of Uncertainty, the best economic models did not predict the global financial crisis. 
 
How did the ancients attempt to make better decisions?   They relied on history, their own experience or oracles, astrology or mumbo-jumbo.  In a situation of uncertainty, you make decisions on the basis of information that you have, and if don't have that information, you simply have to consult someone or something you believe in. 
 
Some people turn to old sacred text, such as the Bible, with a priest to interpret what God intends.  The Greeks used the Delphic Oracle, dating back to 1,400 BC, whose predictions were in riddles that were interpreted by the female diviners.  Divination was then serious business, with astronomers studying the stars for some cosmic order. 
 
Most people think that Chinese philosophy began with Confucius [551-479 BC], but his school became famous because it compiled the existing ancient books into the Five Classics, of which the I Ching (or Book of Change) is one.   The problem with any translation of ancient text is that we can never differentiate translations from interpretation.  How an ancient text is read depends very much upon the translators’ biases or ignorance.  This is why reading of sacred text is always personal.  
 
My own view is that the I Ching deserves to be considered a book of early Chinese science, rather than as a book on divination, considered at best as pseudo-science.
 
The I Ching comprises two books, an earlier classic dated to roughly 1,000 BC, and an interpretive text written about 400-600 years later.  The earlier classic comprises the Eight trigrams, attributed to Fuxi, one of the legendary founders of China, and the 64 hexagrams, reputedly invented by Duke Zhou, one of the founders of the Zhou dynasty.   In simple terms, the Eight trigrams simply stand for eight possible situations, from good to bad; whereas the 64 hexagrams stand for 64 possible predictive outcomes.   The later text is attributed to Confucius and his disciples, which helps the interpretation of what the hexagrams mean.   To use the I Ching for divination or decision purposes, you randomly choose a hexagram and then consult the I Ching for what it means.   
 
Herein lies a fundamental difference in decision making between Western science and the Chinese approach to life.  
 
Science developed in the West partly because of the alphabetic language, derived from the Arabs, which means that you can define words and meaning much more precisely, since the English language comprises today over a million words.  As the philosopher Wittgenstein argued, all concepts are defined by language.   
 
The Chinese language, on the other hand, is basically ideogramatic and phonetic, meaning that each character comprises radicals that originally were pictures. For example, the character for man can easily be identified as a drawing of a standing man.  Because there are limited sounds for each character, each character carries four or five tones, and complex words comprise combinations of different characters.   Most people can read basic Chinese with about two to three thousand characters, with the maximum number of characters being roughly 50,000.   Complex words are combinations of two or three characters.  
 
Given limited sounds, tones and characters, the Chinese language is not as precise as English.  A single character can have different meanings and different sounds, so that Chinese words and phrases can only be understood in context.  So when I hear a Chinese speak, I often have to ask in what context is that particular sound/word being used?  In other words, we have to add contextual information in order to interpret the meaning of what is being said. 
 
Western science, following the Aristolean logic, is essentially reductionist and linear, seeking cause and effect.   The language enables the conceptualisation to be precise and the logic flow to be consistent.   The imprecision inherent in the Chinese language means that conceptual thinking is more organic and fluid, and subject to interpretation, including guessing.  
 
In other words, whilst natural sciences could be more precise in communication between two machines, the communication between two human beings carry a huge amount of uncertainty.  The social sciences are much more qualitative because one human being cannot by definition fully comprehend the other person’s life experience, values and preferences.  Uncertainty is built into the social sciences.
 
Modern economics dealt with this problem by assuming perfect information, which actually assumed away uncertainty.   Economic models based on such perfect information and rational players (mechanical decision-making) gave rise to precise or “optimal”, first-best outcomes.   The first best ideal is then thought to be a natural outcome, and life will simply revert back to equilibrium or a stable situation.    
 
Real life is obviously not so simple. The eight trigrams mean that in binary good and bad or black and white terms, there are eight possible outcomes in any decision: good, bad and six mixtures of good/bad.  The 64 hexagrams makes life even more complicated, since black and white are only two possible manifestations of any system, the rest being 62 shades of grey (mixture of black and white).   
 
By definition, any fundamentalist view of life is more likely to be wrong, because life is mostly shades of grey. 
 
The best games that illustrates this difference between Western and Chinese thinking are the games of chess and Go (weiqi).   Chess has defined linear moves with six types of pieces.  It forces one to think logically and sequentially.  Go comprises only black and white pieces, but the player has to think spatially, playing the piece in any position on the board, continually trying to outguess the other player.    
 
Without understanding these fundamental differences in language, context and decision-making under uncertainty, it would be difficult to bridge the yawning gap between both sides of the Pacific.   It also means that the Chinese approach to economics and geo-politics will be quite different than is more commonly interpreted outside China. 
 
The writer, a Distinguished Fellow with the Asia Global Institute, writes on global issues from an Asian perspective.