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What Makes Chinese Chinese? -- part II [Copy link] 中文

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Post time 2003-12-3 09:12:50 |Display all floors
For earlier postings please go to the thread   <a href=""><font color="#0000CC"><b>What makes Chinese Chinese? </b></font></a> , which has become too long for easy browsing. Thanks.
We value education and worship knowledge to the point of becoming more ignorant than curious/adventurous

"万般皆下品,惟有读书高." (All walks of life are unworthy; only the educated is highly regarded). This saying has been one of the core values of Chinese culture probably since as early as Confucius’s time (Can anyone conduct a more scholarly study on the source of this saying?). For many a generation, Chinese, poor or rich, relied on education, often the sole means, to elevate themselves out of poverty.  

I grew up with my grandma and my uncle, who was then a peasant with only a high school diploma. After a day’s toil in the field, he would round up the kids of our clan in his neighborhood to study, doing homework or recite poems. Getting into troubles, my punishment was often more homework, not too bad a punishment considering the alternative of being spanked or, worse, working on the farm. Being a poor farmer, my uncle knew nothing else than education that would bring a better life. (It was said in the poor deep south of the U.S. that the only future for a man was either playing football or joining the army).

The spirit of valuing education was also carried abroad by Chinese immigrants. In the US, it appears that Chinese kids tend to do better than others of similar social economic background (or in test scores?). As the newer generations of immigrants become better educated, their kids start to excel in college and university. The portion of Chinese kids in the best California universities is substantially higher than its percentage in the general population.

Why do we worship education?

Since as early, probably, as the Han dynasty (roughly the beginning of our era or the peak of Roman Empire), some sort of civil system was established to select the most intelligent people to staff the imperial civil service. This brilliant system had thus brought a dem_ocra_tic flavor to the monarchy in both name and substance. Through such a system, the most educated citizens, not just the ones with the royal blood, became imperial officials, who, for most practical purposes, were the ones actually running the country while the emperors indulged in their life.

Through such a system, a poor kid, at least in theory, could become a high rank government official if he (seldom she though) happened to have the means to get a good education. Even in reality numerous average citizens, not particularly wealthy, did rise up through this channel in their social statuses.

For whatever reason (can someone contribute on this?), private enterprises seldom developed to the point of rivaling state-run business in the history of China, and commercial enterprises thus offered relatively fewer opportunities than employment in the imperial government. As such the only realistic means to climb the social ladder was climbing the bureaucratic ladder.

Often, the brilliance of Chinese civilization in the period between the fall of Roman Empire and the Renaissance was at least partially attributed by many historians to this somewhat dem_ocratic civil servant selection system.

This system appeared to work so well, maybe too well, to the point that we started to worship it. A drawback of this system lies on precisely its brilliance. Education became a tool for political selection. The purpose of education in China changed its meaning, no longer a tool to gain knowledge, but a means to pass exams for government officials, by memorizing mostly writings by ancestors that were often of little practical uses. For example, the exams did not include military knowledge, nor science and engineering, nor industry and agriculture, nor finance and commerce.

The frequent invasions into China by its northern neighbors, even in its most powerful period such as at the peak of Tang dynasty, may at least partially be blamed to the lack of military knowledge and experience among its civil servant officials.  Had the military officials (generals or defense department officials) been selected through exams on military knowledge or skills rather than poems and paintings, China might not have suffered so many invasions.  

Through such a system, the most intelligent people were trained to memorize, not to create. Knowledge was worshiped, not used, nor enhanced, explored and created. Gradually the educated Chinese actually became more ignorant than curious. In their education, knowledge was merely a tool for passing exams.

In my own experience, to be educated was simply to be able to pass examinations. To pass exams, we drilled on thousands of examination exercises for thousands of times. The Chinese nowadays are thus able to beat a native English speaker in GRE or TOEFL test. I heard that some students in China were advised to intentionally make one or two mistakes in their TOELF tests lest the TOELF test administrators in the US suspect of frauds.

Gradually, the original purpose of education was forgotten. Generation after generation, we memorized and we passed examinations. The educated become ignorant through their education. They were more contented to memorize what Confucius had to say than actually explore the universe to gain more knowledge.  

Such ignorance exhibited itself in our view of the world.

While all people tend to regard themselves more superior to others and their nation the center of the world, even to these days, hence the West Europe being the center, Greek and East Mediterranean Sea becoming the near East, Egypt, Persia the middle East, and China and beyond the far East. Such division, however, is more based on convenience of reference than a keen conciseness of superiority. On the other hand, Chinese truly regarded themselves more superior regardless of the evidence available to them; outside the Chinese civilization, only barbarians existed; of their cultures or civilizations there was little of use to the Chinese. Such a mindset was exemplified by the reply of one of the most able emperors, QianLong, of Qing dynasty to the request for commerce by the British.

Roughly: (Of your merchandises, we find little uses. …. Please leave us alone at peace and behave yourselves like an obedient subject, and in doing so you may secure your safety from this empire.)

Such self proclaimed superiority was genuine at least in the Chinese own belief. In their history of conquering its neighbors, their behavior was quite different from those of Greeks and Romans. The Greek’s and the Roman’s in particular are essentially a parasitic civilization, built on the foundation of looting and enslavement. It was customary among the Mediterranean civilizations to conquer a nation (city/state), loot all the treasure, kill the able ones, and enslave the rest. Greek citizens were those who did not have to work with their hands and instead rely on their slaves to do the laboring. Roman citizens were all warriors and their education was mostly military training, and their life long task was to loot more treasure and capture more slaves for the empire.  While all human civilization seems to have been motivated by greed and empowered by evil brutality, the Chinese appeared to be the lesser of the evils. They did not frequently enslave people in its neighbors, and the tribute exacted on their neighbors was no more than a symbolic token of subjections, of little practical value.

In the Ming dynasty, its huge fleet sailed as far as India and Africa, roughly the same time the Portuguese looted these areas and captured slaves for sale. While the return from looting and slave sales funded a profitable Portuguese exploration, the Chinese were reported to scattered their treasure along the ports they explored, feeling they were superior and had little need for the local treasure and civilization. So, the Chinese exploration died after its return for it returned nothing to the empire. Had the Chinese expeditions been managed by merchants as greedy and evil as the Portuguese ones, would the profit have kept driving the Chinese to more explorations?

The ignorance also exhibited in the Chinese view of the universe, or the lack of it.

I am myself such a product of ignorance. I had so little knowledge of our own history (more study has been planed for though). Among the limited knowledge, the poorest I have is our view of the universe. It appeared that we were quite contented with what we already had and showed little interest in things not quite related to our daily life. Chinese are known for their pragmatic philosophy. What was our view of the universe? Was it square, or round, was it flat or sphere? For sure we had very good record of astronomy observation, but did we try to figure out how the universe worked?  (can someone contribute on this?)

Such ignorance was also exhibited in the lack of great scholars in Chinese history since Confucius’s time.

China is not short of ingenuous or inventiveness. Great volumes of work on medicine and astronomy were written. Gun powder, printing, ceramics, silks, and even papers (the credit of Egyptian paper should go to the Egyptians, but any Chinese would argue that the Egyptian paper is merely a laminate of plant stems, not truly paper in the modern sense, which is prepared by first dissolving the fibers in solution and then filter them into paper. I can still find such papers hand made in my home town, simply a web of fibers, that can be used  as a lamp shade for it is nearly transparent or translucent if you care to argue) However, I for one (again forgive my limited history knowledge) am keenly seeking for a great scholar who did more than accumulation of known knowledge, who developed an entire new discipline or pushed the understanding of our universe to a new level. Undoubtedly, our education system had more to do with the lack of such a giant than our intelligence.

The ignorance exhibited (exhibits?) in the way we worship and mystify knowledge.

While our scholars were trained to memorize Confucius’s works, in doing so, they were also trained to mystify knowledge. It appears (purely personal observation though) that we Chinese tend to think that knowledge is quite mysterious, our body beyond our understanding, and the mechanism of how the universe operates, too, quite beyond our understanding. Thus it is futile to even try. Often such an understanding can only be achieved by a mysterious meditation, through which you may suddenly reach that understanding.  For example, super natural ‘gongfu’ may be attained through meditation. Most people including myself tend to believe such super power may actually exist, and thus more likely be fooled by magicians.  

When I was in Tinghua in 1987, an old woman came to do magic, claiming able to heal illness by giving a sick person some ‘Qi”, “magic gas’, or ‘field’ in modern term. I was suffering a nervous stomach, and thus went to buy her ‘Qi’. A line of highly educated scholars from the best engineering school in China thus lined up on benches, with our eyes closed ( in full sincere meditation)  and money in hand in front of us. The old lady moved from person to person, collecting money while casually patting on the payees. My curiosity drove me to open my eyes to take a peep of her magic, but in doing so I lost the concentration and sincerity and consequentially to these days I am still suffering from my stomach pain and of course not sure if she would have actually cured me had I been more sincere.

The most spectacular one in Tsinghua was the performance of master “Yan Shing”, who has a large following in the US among the most highly educated Chinese. Some of my friends are among the followers. Once in Tsinghua in the late eighty’s, he had more than a thousand students and faculties awed by lining up a dozen honorable guests including Tsinghua University president on the stage and passing a 220v current through them. Of course, none was killed for it was said they were empowered by the master’s ‘magic gas’ and all audience were impressed. Is it his ‘magic gas’ or the physical principle that saved the life the honorable guests? Go to figure or to experiment it yourself. (do not try this alone at home!)

Even in something as simple as cooking rice, the knowledge of the right ratio between water and rice was mystified, very unconsciously though. I was assigned the job of cooking rice for my family as early as when I was eight years old, a task involving making fire with fire wood, determining the right amount of water and the right amount of fire. My father was quite skilled in measuring the right amount of water needed. He would look at, study, and measure the depth of water with his fingers and then declare the amount of water was correct or not. As a little boy, I suffered a lot in practicing this trade. After numerous struggles, I finally became skilled in judging the right amount of water, but then the type of rice changed and you know what I had to do again. Eventually I got so fed up with this and decided that I need to quantify the water/rice ratio with a cup. Using this new method, it usually took me fewer than 4 times to get the right amount for any new rice, or new water for that matter.

Years later, when I married my wife, also a Tsinghua student, and saw her measuring the water level with her fingers with an air of an expert, claiming that she had apprenticed this trade with her father in her childhood, I could not help laughing at how two families, 2000 miles apart, suffered the same problem in knowledge transmission across generations. Why did not our parents quantify the ratio of water and rice and pass down the knowledge as a measurable quantity? In stead, every generation had to relearn the mysterious skill of judging the right amount of water through years of apprentice.  Nowadays, I hope such quantifiable knowledge is plainly printed on the package. Is it?

Okay, I am running out of ideas and also have offended enough people from both West and East. I will rest now and go to the kitchen to study the labeling on the rice bag, to see if indeed it has an accurate rice/water ratio printed :)  

Have a good evening!


Wave,  (a Chinese scholar, with limited knowledge of the world, but nevertheless he dares to share his views with many of the more knowledgeable readers on this board, encouraged more by his bravery than wisdom)

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Post time 2003-12-3 12:26:03 |Display all floors

Would there be a "What Makes a Chinese, Chinese - Part III"?

Hi Waveheatin,
Your last post appeared to have both the first and last words. It's so long that there may not be much room left for Part 2 ^_^.
OK, let's get the ball rolling, so to speak. I think your question is best answered by separate contributions from readers as they roll in. I can imagined little pieces of a jigsaw puzzle from readers contributing their ideas and views. At the end of it (I ain't sure there's going to be an "end"), the full picture will unfold. Hey, Waveheatin, you've got a beautiful mind (it's fashionable to borrow from movie titles these days:).
I like to think that one of the earliest form of education is through philosophical dialectics. Socrates and Confucius were proponents of the good of nature and that truth is the key to understanding human action. I believe, and this is where I stand to be corrected, Chinese education (at least at the elementary and high-school level which are most critical) does not place enough emphasis on the "questioning" mind. You've explained the historical background to this legacy adequately.
Education does not start from the school system. It is not the sole responsibility of the school system either. Society, the schools and home/neighbourhood are educational environments. Society, the media, teachers, parents, elder siblings, peers and playmates are educational catalysts too.
It will be wonderful if we can blend the hunger for knowledge ( or the search for truth) into our society as a way of life. How can we develop into a culture that every societal catalyst carry a responsibilty to bring forth the best in human thinking.
That an obstacle, a problem and or a puzzle is not just there, but is there for us to overcome, to solve and to philosophise.
That natural phenomena have their explanations, and not just for us to see and feel. That we can harness their occurrence to improve our lives, if only we bother to reflect upon them.
Of course, introducing the questioning mind may have to vary with the age and type of people we target and the environment . It need not take the rigid form of information transfer. It can be a form of experience, a poser, or a household task. It can be an individual efffort or a group experience. It should be the subconscious responsibility of every societal catalyst.
In short, it should be a WAY OF LIFE.

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Post time 2003-12-3 23:23:13 |Display all floors

From Education, to Civilisations, to Rote-Learning....

Upon reading Waveheatin's post, I realised I haven't done justice to his topic. Worst, my response was off-tangent and did not contribute to the question he raised.
As an overseas Chinese, I find it hard to stomach some of his controversial remarks, eg. "While all civilisations seem to have been motivated by greed and empowered by evil brutality, the Chinese appeared to be the less of the evils", "the Chinese were reported to have scattered their treasure along the ports they explored...", "Had the Chinese expeditions been managed by merchants as greedy and evil as the Portuguese ones..." etc.
I'd like to think that China during the European Medieval Period was a land of plenty. It was also ahead of Europe in science and agriculture at that time. While European nations had to venture far away for trade to supplement their agrarian economy, China was content with itself. So, it wasn't a case of who is more evil or brutal; unfortunately, it was who was hungrier. Besides, China's neighbouring lands were definitely less attractive to conquer eg. the Gobi Desert, the Siberian wasteland, the mountainous south compared to the effort in doing so. This is unlike the Mongolian Empire under Genghiz Khan which stretched from China to Eastern Europe. History has it that the Mongols and other northern nomadic tribes eyed China's fertile lands. They were not more merciful than the Mediterranean empires of Greece and Rome.

Let me state that I'm no scholar nor historian. However, that "private enterprise seldom developed to the point of rivalling state-run business in the history of China" is not unique only to China. We should remember that pre-Industrial Revolution Europe was essentially an agricultural economy with petty commerce and trade associated with it. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and later British trading expeditions were all under their monarch's patronage. Large trading conglomerates were relatively unheard of until much later. Of course, the Industrial Revolution brought about rapid and significant change in this economic structure.
Unfortunately, China never really underwent an Industrial Revolution under the Qing Dynasty. Its feeble attempt at building a navy, railway and heavy industries were borrowed technologies. Its isolation from the world is largely to blame. The collapse of imperial China and the short-lived republican state was followed by communism. Again, there were no trading or commercial conglomerates to speak about under communism.

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Post time 2003-12-4 11:32:38 |Display all floors

Cultural reference system

Really appreciate your effort to profile Chinese in such an introspective way. It抯 painstaking to read but nevertheless idea nourishing. My impression (could be wrong) is that both your conclusions and confusions articulated in your posts had been derived largely from your progressive transition through different cultural reference systems: from traditional Chinese rural culture to a Chinese-culture- modulated western value system as embodied by TsingHua , and from the hybrid TsingHua culture to a fully native soil grounded US culture. I guess the transition has given you a changing perspective to re-examine and revalue what you had previously been accustomed to or what you抎 previously taken for granted. It抯 really a luxury to most of Chinese people.

Dare I say Chinese culture is relatively more spiritually oriented while the western culture is more materially based? Surely one will be surprised or confused when he/she takes a look at the Chinese culture from a reference system for the western culture. Just like our Emperor QianLong, anchored in the centre of Chinese culture,  found it odd when he was confronted with western technologies. To examine a culture from an externally located position will certainly give you the advantage to see the forest rather than just the leafs, and the advantages to identify faults and merits through comparison, but you may also take the risk of being misled unless we have a universal reference system for value.

Unfortunately the wisdom of human being is not yet enough to create such a universal system, so, when I got confused, I often hopelessly resume an open-mind mode: Qi is good - if it抯 not real it contributes a new dimension to the art of magic; finger gauging water level is good ?it抯 inefficient but adds bit extra human flavour to this increasingly materialised world.              

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Post time 2003-12-4 12:14:03 |Display all floors

Some things I would like to add

Waveheatin stated the following:

"The Chinese nowadays are thus able to beat a native English speaker in GRE or TOEFL test."

First of all, TOEFL is an acronym for "Test of English as a Foreign Language." The purpose of the test is to measure a non-native English speaker's English language abilities, such as to allow American universities and colleges assess the applicant's ability to sufficiently comprehend the learning materials.

As such, this test is never given to native English speakers; therefore, it is false to posit that Chinese students out perform Americans on a test that Americans never take. Such would be as absurd as a Chinese university student taking a "Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language"  as a part of the application process.

The GRE, in American education, has been found not to necessarily predict graduate school performance, as it does not measure important intangibles, such as motivation and, especially, creativity.

For the American graduate school application, a high GRE test is one of many factors for admission. Many applicants with lesser scores are selected over those with much higher scores.

American universities acquiesce to non-American Asian students to compensate for the difference in educational systems; thus, there are two very different sets of admissions criteria.

Asian students are test-driven rote learners; whereas,  American students must not only demonstrate fundamental knowledge, but they must also demonstrate creative, nonlinear thinking and the ability for original work.

American born Chinese, themselves, are quite aware of this difference.

The American born Chinese--especially those of a few or more generations--are not so much a "Chinese race in school", as they are Americans in the American educational system. As such, they find racial comparisons as abhorrent and useless. Such thinking serves no utility for humanity and only serves to be divisive and dangerous, such as it was during the era of Adolf Hitler.

Rather than propagandize a notion of racial superiority, the accomplishments of all humans should be admired.

There has always been--and will probably always be--a difficulty in defining what really comprises what an education is. More difficult is attempting to define intelligence. Even the concept of "race" has been under careful scientific scrutiny, more recently.

Are there indeed different races, or are is there indeed one humanity, with people distinguished by environmental adaptation?

Myself, I would rather think there is one humanity that must cooperate and live in harmony...or all will eventually perish!

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Post time 2003-12-4 13:27:16 |Display all floors

Rote-Learning and Foreign Languages

Blue tiger, plz allow me to provide the probable background to your remark "Asian students are test-driven rote learners; whereas, American students must not only demonstrate fundamental knowledge, but they must also demonstrate creative, nonlinear thinking and the ability for original work."
Students in China are not rote-learners under their Chinese-based examination system. I was surprised to discover this when I asked a recent high-school graduate who has been admitted to Tsinghua University recently. The examination questions were a real test of creative and non-linear thinking, not regurgitation of text materials. Otherwise, there would be hundreds of thousands high-school students who could excel in the examinations in China!

However, the moment they are put to a test in a foreign language, Chinese students become helpless. They had to resort to memory work because they're incapable of arguing out a case in the foreign language as well as the native American; certainly, not in the time constraint of an examination. Perhaps, some readers here might wish to comment on this remark.

The same might be true for foreign students in Beijing. Whilst it is easier to reason in a Chinese conversation if given the time, to do so in writing in an examination is a different ball-game altogether.

I can write this post in Chinese too. It would probably take a little longer time and would not be as brilliantly written as that of a native Chinese's. The interesting difference is many Chinese today are effectively biiingual. And there are many who can appreciate the works of Shakespeare, Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, T S Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, Hemingway, Kipling, Maugham, Dickens etc as much as they can appreciate Chinese literary works like 三国演义,红楼梦,西游记,家春秋,水湖传,AH Q 正传。I can read the New York Times and the People's Daily without a fuss. To me, this is good enough. Just don't put me to a test in a language that I don't use daily, and definitely not within a specific time frame.

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Post time 2003-12-4 14:44:45 |Display all floors

Thank you for putting up with my long message


Thank you for your responses, which, critical or supportive, are all gratefully appreciated. I have to admit that my opening message for this thread is a bit too long and thus may have got some readers lost, or turned off. (much to learn on my part). But I am so glad that you have not labeled it as “Grandma’s old socks, long and stinky”.

The main message I was trying to put across is that the Chinese education system had served us well in the past, perhaps too well to the point we became ignorant. Is something fundamentally wrong with our education system? Can anything be done to fix it? Or need it be fixed at all?  

But under the heading of “What makes Chinese Chinese?” one should feel free, actually feel invited, to discuss any aspect of Chinese culture.

I am a self-claimed Chinese scholar, engineer/scientist by training, but NOT a scholar on Chinese though. As stated early in its footnote of my opening message I was encouraged more by my bravery than by my wisdom.

Please remember that our original purpose is to compile a list of key attributes of Chinese culture, many of which will turn out to be beautiful and many be ugly. However, every ugly one we find may also present us a wonderful opportunity to become more beautiful in the future.

Thanks again!


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