Friday, October 14, 2005

Stir-fried Logic

A Taiwanese friend of mine, a father of twin girls, once provided me with perhaps one of the greatest insights into the Chinese mind to date. Commenting on our parenting, he said "in Western families, you love your children, and will do anything to ensure their happiness and fulfilment. But in China, children are investments; they are raised to support and care for parents in their old age." I've have repeated this many times to locals, and invariably recieve a confirming nod of the head.

perhaps explains some of the behavioral oddities I have noticed over my eleven years in Hong Kong; frustrating as they might be, I would truly miss China were I to move. But even after eleven years of awareness building – negotiating life’s various commercial and social transactions and passing time with the locals, one aspect of the Chinese still leaves me in complete bewilderment. I have never made sense of the ‘logic’ that underlies decision making in everyday Chinese life.

For example, a typical conversation in a Hong Kong bank might go like this:

Clerk: Can I help you sir?

Customer: Yes, I wanted to know why you have returned this check. (Shows check and bank statement to clerk)

Clerk: I’m sorry, but we can’t reveal that information

Customer: Why not?

Clerk: It’s bank rules.

Customer: Can you show me where that is written?

Clerk: I’m sorry, but I cannot.

Customer: Why not?

Clerk: It’s bank rules. (…and so on)

You can be assured that most of these ‘rules’ are being made up on the clerk’s whim, but once articulated, they are defended as a matter of ‘face’ …. Go figure. Banks call me for the pettiest of reasons – a missing decimal point or a word misspelled on a personal check. Architects allocate minuscule spaces to stores, offices and personal apartments, yet set aside acres of space for hallways that lead nowhere. Every transaction multiplies with ‘inviolable’ rules trotted out that I can only guess have been concocted on a whim. Form is all, and substance universally disregarded.

My classes at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology attract a mix of expatriate and local students. The contrast in styles is immense. Chinese love checklists. Rote discipline in the local schools emphasizes memorization – the mind is used more as a disk drive than as a central processor. Chinese students work comparatively hard, and excel in fields where memorization if important, like languages and bookkeeping. Chinese fail in tasks that are poorly structured. Unfortunately, this is creating huge problems for China as a country which has serious problems generating the management talent that it needs.

Western ‘logic’ – the formal or informal procedures through which we make decisions – has traditionally been predicated on ‘just’ decision making. In contrast, Chinese language traditionally did not even contain a word for logic (that is until quite recently). Only after the exposure to Western influences. The characters for logic 逻辑 (luóji) are a phonetic transcriptions from the Western word. Humor is similarly the transcription 幽默 (yōu mò), which perhaps explains Chinese failure to grasp situations that to Westerners seem patently absurd.

As with so many things Chinese, there is an ancient tradition at the root of this perspective. The traditional Chinese bureaucratic examination system first appeared 1500 years ago. The candidates were recruited by the criterion of knowledge and not by heredity. They arrived at the exam site in boats decorated with flags bearing the name of the examination and were greeted by the sound of gong and cannons. They were shown to wooden cubicles, two meters long and in poor condition. The contents of their dissertation were of little importance. However the candidate had to ensure that the eight=legged essay had a high standard of calligraphy and that a ‘dignified’, ‘informal,’ ‘serious,’ ‘grave’ or subtle’ tone was adopted as required.

The Chinese did long ago employ ‘logic’ as a social problem solving tool. The art of social problem solving developed with a contemporary of Confucius, MoZi. "Master Mo" founded the Mohist school, whose canons dealt with issues relating to valid inference and the conditions of correct conclusions. Unfortunately the Mohist path of logic – which very well might have led the Chinese to a more Western world-view – was short-lived, quashed by the harsh philosophies of the Qin Dynasty. It was forcibly replaced by Legalism (法家; pinyin FǎJiā, one of the four main philosophic schools at the end of the Zhou Dynasty). Legalists believed that a ruler should govern his subjects according to the whims of the ruler; that individual problem-solving was dangerous and needed to be quashed.

Over the ensuing centuries, Legalism was adopted by one ruling warrior class after another – its most recent incarnation in the tenets of Maoism. Given this enduring history, it should not be surprising that students gravitated towards the safety of rote memorization. In a globalized and cosmopolitan China, flexible problem solving is increasingly a necessity for competitiveness. Mercifully the legacy of Legalism is in the process of (I believe) once-and-for-all being quashed.


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