Category Archives: Cross Culture Communication

Collective vs. Individual

See the article Harmony and the Dream by David Brook.

He did touch on a deep distinction although I don’t quite agree with the way he phrased it. A short response is that I want BOTH ( Collective and Individual), and you should too. But I need offer more specifics.

First of all, collective values have been traditionally very hard to evaluate. Thus practically it is better to put more emphasis on Individuals. In my post Why IT Software Makes Our World More Human, I wrote “No matter what we do, we have to come back to “human”. All concept should be evaluated under “human”. Individualism just realizes that it is easy to tell whether a thing is beneficial or harmful for an individual, but it is difficult whether it is beneficial or harmful for the group or the country because we don’t know who will benefit in the name of the group or the country. The history tells us that collectivism or nationalism often benefit just very few people and become tools used by those few people to exploit the majority. Thus individualism says let’s evaluate things mainly based on whether it will harm or benefit an individual. When we are not sure whether if a thing is beneficial for a country, let’s first make sure it won’t harm any individual. This is the spirit of individualism. Of course in the situation when the group will certainly be harmed, the individualism’s answer is very clear. Let’s look at the example of Qiu Shaoyun. If he rolled over, he could have pulled off the fire on his body. But that would expose all his ambushing army under the fires of the enemy. Thus he chose to stay still and let the fire burned him to death. In individualism, every individual is equal. It is better to sacrifice an individual for the lives of a group of individuals. I hope this can answer the attacks on individualism. IT of course gives us new ways of evaluating the group interests and more ways to deal with the group and individual relations.”

To be clear, collective is certainly larger than individuals since collective is a collection of many individuals. So when the situation is very clear that lives of a collection of individuals are going to be harmed, it is the rationale of an single individual to sacrifice his own individual safety for the collective. That is individual consciousness. But whether that value should be imposed as social morale or enforced by law is totally another issue.

We are limited. To work with our limitation, it is better to let individuals working for their own interests as the starting point. I believe in our historical time, it is still practical to do so, especially when it comes to expectation of the mass. But as a whole society, we need to have better ways to gauge collective values and have more ways for individuals to participate in collective goods.

There is actually no collective, since collective is just a collection of individuals. So we have to be careful when we come to collective values, such as national pride. What is national pride/patriotism? Aren’t they too superficial? Do they translate to many people’s dignity and life? Why do we harm an individual dignity or life just for the superficial national pride? For individualism, the answer is that it is more practical and executable to protect that individual if we know for sure that individual’s rights are going to be harmed.

Since there is actually no collective and collective is just a collection of individuals, individual rights and dignity should never be ignored. People talking about individuals sacrificing for collective are often people who are in power and don’t have to sacrifice themselves.

Although Chinese tradition has a strong emphasis on collective (we actually had a tradition of individualism as well, for example, the Spring and Autumn Period and Waring Sates Period more than 2000 years ago, and the great novel of Monkey King ), we had many great individuals. And Chinese history is a history of these great individuals fighting the system and the collective system suppressing these individuals. So the growth of China at our present time is not to continue this oppression, but to finally overcome it. I don’t know Mr. Brook gets this or not.

One world One Dream. To me , this dream is how individuals can live with dignity in a society and how individuals can cooperate/play with each other. We have come a long way. Finally as the world becomes one we can learn from each other to achieve our common dream.

It is not collective vs. individual. It should be individuals’ choice. Thinking collective vs. individual is still thinking in the mind frame of collective. It is still trying to to impose collective values on individuals. True individualism makes this an individual choice. Let individuals choose the best for themselves given all these choices. The benefit of cultural communication is that it offers more choices. When an individual develop himself/herself and pursue his/her happiness, s/he will be able to go beyond the boundary of culture and be with the truth itself. More different elements within a culture, more choice, more diversity, richer culture, more beautiful society.

Collective or individual, the bottom line is that individuals’ dignity should be respected. Individuals should be treated as human being, not as things. Their basic rights should be defined and protected. People shouting the slogan of collective are usually individuals who are on the top of the power hierarchy and try to take advantage of the mass by asking them for sacrifice.  I don’t see any collective in that. I only see bloated individual greed. There is no real collective value in it.   Collective might be a good ideal, but without practical mechanism it only leads to a minority group of individuals suppressing a much larger group of individuals.

But from the general westerners’ perspective, Mr. Brook’s article has some value because western culture is too obsessed with individual self. So to remind them the good values of collective is helpful. (Don’t you think it quite a stupid thing that the westerners need to be reminded that collective has its values? These values are taken for granted in the east. Similarly, what the west has taken for granted of the values of individuals, has to be advocated in the east.)  But for people in the east to read Mr. Brook’s article and mistakenly think that it is just a cultural choice between the two is a dangerous simplification. Thus there is a need to look closely into it. For the westerners, it is also beneficial to know the whole story instead of just blindly following the other way.

So collective or individual, it is not to choose one over the other. It is about how to balance the two together. This balancing is a high art.


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Two ways to help China

So for people in the west who do care about people in China, here are two ways to help.

One is as mentioned in Chinese Renaissance, the bottom level cultural communication and engagement.

The other way is to stop the empire (quoting Blessed Unrest) right here in America. See the post On American Foreign Policy. Also see this one.

With the presence of a strong external pressure, the inner peaceful force cannot be fully functioning. The sole purpose of the entity becomes just fighting the external force and forget finding its own inner voices. This is why America is the biggest thread to democracy around the world. The same principle applies to the feminism movement. At the beginning, the feminism movement is just about fighting the external pressure (imposed by male values), so its sole purpose is to get out of the grip of the male values and prove them wrong. Only after that stage (gaining equal access to opportunities a society offered to individuals), can women really calm down and find there inner voices and be whoever they choose to be individually.

I hate to say this. But the American imperialism does give repressive countries around the world a legitimate reason to strengthen their repressive regimes. I always hated the government using threats from outside as their excuse of state power. But however, from another standpoint, it is justified.

So if you want to help China, the other way is to stop the empire right here.

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The Chinese Renaissance

This article is written for people in America who really care about situations in China. With this article, I hope it can give a basic stretch of the cultural thread that China is coming from, e.g. China’s growth path, and thus might help Americans understand the real needs of China.

Every culture has its own growth path, and its own thread of stories. The one of China is very different from the one of the west. For a lot of things that the west takes for granted, China has to take a long time to cultivate them in the deep consciousness of the nation.

Individual consciousness is a strong tradition of the Greek culture from which the west inherited from. In China, however, individual consciousness is always an undercurrent, never became the explicit culture. As China was torn apart by the west, the pains caused Chinese intellect to reflect on our culture. When put our culture in the contrast with the western culture, it is much easier to find out our limitation and how to make it better. Gradually the efforts merged into a movement of Chinese Renaissance in the early part of the 20 century.

People at that time (including many early leaders of CP) were involved in some educational movement that they hope can have similar effect of European Renaissance. To be specific, they wanted to invoke the awareness of the people of their own individuality, pursuing their own happiness instead of always sacrificing for the country. For example, there were literature about the suppression of individuals by the family (typical big Chinese traditional family hierarchy), young men and women pursuing free love instead of marriage set up by their parents, women pursuing their independence (influenced by the same movement in the west. The work of Ibsen like The Doll’s House was very popular and widely discussed). There were writers experimenting writing novels like the western ones, such as deeply self-confessional. They deeply analyzed human nature, explored humanities under various circumstances. They advocated the potential of individuals. They practiced themselves developing their diverse personalities. They emphasized the potential of individuals to free themselves through learning, and the responsibilities to do so. They wrote essays to tell their countrymen to develop their body and mind so there can be a new young China.

They felt Chinese traditional written language is too obscure and difficult for the mass to learn. So they advocated writing the same way as the oral language and they explored how to write in that kind of language. This is a long time of practice. It took almost a century for some great Chinese writers to figure out how to write beautifully in the plain spoken Chinese.

They translated the Wealth of Nation and many such great works into Chinese to introduce western ideas. They criticized deeply the traditional Chinese culture, especially the Confucianism. Some even advocated young people not reading any traditional Chinese text, saying it is full of words that eat people.

They tried to adopt the three branch government structure of the west, even willingly to be killed for that cause.

Deeply, they wanted to wake people up of their individual consciousness, and develop their individual consciousness. They felt that was the future of China. That was the only way to fight the old deeply drenched habits of culture. This is indeed a trust in common individuals to find their own happiness instead of being bound by many traditional artificial values.

Above is just a glimpse of that movement of Chinese Renaissance. The task wasn’t accomplished. And we don’t know when it can be finally accomplished. But it did transform China in a great degree. I highly recommend the speech below by Hu Shih on Chinese Renaissance.

The speech was about the language movement. (I think it was originally in English. If so, he put me totally in shame. The intellects of that generation were well-trained in the traditional classic Chinese text. And their command of English is also so splendid, –I had always wondered how good their English were and how much they understood the western culture–, but I think I am better in science and engineering training, and about 80 years younger than Hu, I know many things that he didn’t know. 🙂 )

You can notice in this speech Hu mentioned Ch’en Tu-shiu, the founder of CP, and his early role in Chinese Renaissance. This is just an example of many of the early members of CP actually came from the same people who advocated westernization and democracy.

Another great speech is by Li Ao in Beijing University.

In that speech, Li Ao tried very hard to convey to Chinese people the way to obtain their freedom. I highly recommend this speech.

I think if you read these two speeches, you will feel they follow the same tradition. Actually Li Ao is Hu Shih’s little friend across generation. I don’t think they formally claimed a teacher-student relation. But the outsiders always treat Li Ao as Hu Shih’s student. Personally I feel that Li Ao has gone way beyond Hu Shih in knowledge and practice.

I think these two great speeches should give you an idea what kind of change that China needs. In the spirit of these two speeches, more peaceful bottom level cultural communication and engagement are the most effective way to bring about the fundamental changes.

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Watching the Olympics opening

As I said, I didn’t pay much attention to Olympics. So until I started watching it, did some questions come up to me. Now China is before the eyes of the world. This is the chance for China to express herself. How will China express it? For me, I am always looking for individual expression. I am looking for powerful individuals who are able to achieve the height of their arts (arts in the generalized sense) in a culture. I think that is the real thing that can indicate whether a culture is prospering. I heard of the great economic development in China. But I haven’t heard many great individuals making great cultural contribution to the world. I feel if China wants to take this chance to show off, I would like to see if China is currently culturally rich and beautiful. That is my standard: looking at the percentage of the population who are able to make themselves in term of art of life, or on average how much percentage of potential can individuals develop in a certain culture. If we say in America, individuals on average can develop 3 percent of their potentials, in China it is probably only 0.03 percent. I wasn’t really in touch with China these years. So I hope maybe Olympics can be a good window for me to look into that. (Or maybe Olympics is not such a window.)

I was stunned by the opening from the very beginning. It is really beautiful, artistic, and very poetic. I always feel Hong Kong and Taiwan are places that really understand the essential beauty of traditional Chinese culture, and also able to express it in the modern forms. I am very glad to see that mainland China is able to do that as well. (In the past, I had refused to go to all kinds of festivals showing off so-called beautiful traditional Chinese culture, knowing people there don’t really understand the essence of Chinese culture and they just want to show off their national pride. There are a lot of that kind of galas here in New York, like those in Radio City. ) Surely China had a very rich tradition, and its vast diverse geographic area and culture have the great power of original invention, as evidenced by our past history during which we independently invented a whole different system of culture outside the western system (language, painting, martial arts, literature, music…). This is something I am always very proud of. I always believe that this power of original imagination is still within China. China still has that potential. This potential just needs to be released. And in this modern world, as human history has advanced to our current time, for Chinese culture to grow historically, to reinvent itself, the key to release that potential is to empower the individuals. Never underestimate the potential of individual human beings and the power when those individuals work together. If China is able to handle this successfully, I am quite confident that the level of China’s contribution to the world in term of arts and ways of life for mankind will be again at the same level we had in the past.

I was looking for the high art that can be on the same level as the poetry of the Tang and Song Dynasties. I always hope China can again have so many great poets springing up as we had in the Tang and Song Dynasties. I am afraid we are far from that yet, probably not even able to match our current economic status (which I also think is far from satifactory). If the Olympics opening is treated as an art, we probably can see it as a great individual achievement of the director Zhang Yimou. He is always very good at making very beautiful images (although I have a friend saying Zhang is not a good story teller).

As the opening showed off the greatness of Chinese traditional culture, however, the current China is in no way to match her past glory. I certainly take that as a shame. It is a shame of the modern Chinese. We should be ashamed of not being able to match our ancestors’ achievement. If you keep saying our ancestors had the four great inventions and they were a great contribution to the mankind, then this question needs to be asked: what did we, the modern Chinese, invent and contribute to the world? (As far as I know, in the software world, most contribution is from US. Some from Europe and Japan. Even Korea has some contribution in the web2.0 field. Chinese contribution is very miserably almost nothing. This is my personal impression. Correct me if I am wrong.) If Olympics is a show off, I guess it is a show off of shame. That is why I always feel it is not the time to show off. I wonder whether the eagerness to show off so early reflects that the task of releasing individuality is far from accomplishment. Where are the individual voices? Where are the great individuals we once had in the Tang and Song Dynasties? (Not to mislead the reader, I have to point out that even those great individuals in the Tang and Song Dynasties were still suppressed individuals.) However, this show off seem to be useful in one way: at least it made the westerners know of China’s past, as it certainly surprised many people as they found out about the ancient China.

I watched the opening with many Americans. I tried to avoid watching it with Americans because I could expect all those ignorant and arrogant comments regarding China coming up. I just didn’t want to be in that cloud of ugliness. But they have a very huge flat screen. And they are an atheist group and claim to have a great emphasis on humanism. So I guessed there would not be many of that kind of comments. But still they came up very often during the watching. I already knew exactly what they were going to say. They were just exactly the same things that you can read on news these days and what you can hear people talking when they talk about China. Yes, it is exactly the same kind of comments. You know how stupid it is. This tells me something of the current average consciousness of US as a whole. This is the kind of consciousness that make wars, not peace. (How I wish there are more people who are able to experience their own deeper inner peace and love through their individual pursuit of their arts of life!) I cannot help but wonder if this is the same kind of aggressive mindset that savaged the world for the past few hundred of years (what Noam Chomsky called “European … running the world by savagery and barbarism” ). I might be making too much connection here. When Chinese talk about Americans, the same kind of ignorance and arrogance come up as well. (I am not making comparative study here. I just want America to be better, recognizing obstacles in its own path of growth.) Again, as I have said many times before, culture communication at the bottom level between people (instead of between states) is very important to our future. It is a lot more fun that way, and a lot more beautiful. Can you imagine that future? People are always beautiful.

Later a friend said that the opening is dazzling, fantastic, but at the same terrifying. I asked him why? He said that thinking China is going to be our enemy is terrifying. This kind of mood is later echoed on Meet the Press by Tom Brokaw. (To his credit, Paulson who Brokaw interviewed answered the question very well: “those that think that we need to contain or counter China’s economic growth, or that we should be concerned that they’re going to overtake us are worried about the wrong thing, that the best thing that could happen to the United States would have China continue to grow and continue to progress and continue to reform. And the worst thing that could happen would be for China to seriously stumble. And so, again, I looked at what I saw there at the stadium as a symbol of all of the progress China has made as they’re attempting to do something that is really breathtakingly difficult, to move a billion people from a developing country to a developed country. And, you know, we push them all the time to move quicker, to open up quicker, to expand, you know, human liberties quicker and, and, and so on. But I think it’s easier for us to, to, to have impact with them if we recognize how far they’ve come and we engage with them on that basis …. Not just in terms of the economic situation of the people in China, but some of the freedoms now that they enjoy, and their access to information and their access–ability to move around. And so they’re on the right path. And so the question is, how do we get them to move quicker to open up? And I think the answer there is, is engagement.” The original script is at: ) (You can see the interesting syndication between the press and the mass in US. The press seems to be picking up voice from the people. But people’s voices were already framed by the press and became sort of reality. It is cycle of illusion and ignorance.) What puzzled me really is why America has to make enemy, always looking for enemy. Where is that mindset coming from? Why not make friends? If America, the most powerful country on earth that has the most leisure to do so, doesn’t have the vision and determination to make friends, who else can (afford to) have? Unfortunately, in my judgment, neither of the nominees of the two major political parties has the vision and determination to make friends instead of enemy in the world. Smart as they might be, they compromise.

My criticism of America and the west (and China) might be harsh. (However, I wish it is harsh enough to break the thick ignorance.) But every culture has its starting point, and thus limitation. They can only complete themselves by learning from each other. This is true for us as individuals. It is the same for countries. In our time, the whole world is increasingly becoming one country. However, people’s consciousness hasn’t given to this concept of one country. We are already one country! One world, one dream! I like what China has picked as the theme of this Olympics game. As we become one country, we have to work together to solve common problems facing mankind and build our prosperity together. And finally, let the cultural communication and learning happen in a peaceful way instead of violent way as we had done in the past.

I feel that if people want to discuss China they need to at least know a little of China’s thread of stories, know where China came from, and have that as the basis of discussion.

In case you missed, another sentence they picked is a quote from Confucius: isn’t it pleasant that there are friends coming from far away. I like this pick very much.

On a side note, now the number 8 becomes the mainstream lucky number for Chinese is a little surprise for me. And they can be so obsessed with it. (Olympic opening is 08:08pm 08/08/2008). If I remember correctly, 8 is a lucky number only in Cantonese culture because in Cantonese it sounds very similar to the character of making a fortune. In the 80s, because Canton (Guangdong province) lead the country in economic reform and foreign trade, many people imitate Cantonese way of speaking. At that time, the orthodox mainstream culture felt it as a pollution of the standard mainstream language, the mandarin. It is interesting that 20 years later, the whole country is Cantonesized. Now number 8 becomes officially the lucky number of China!

To me, however, it stands as a symbol, that China is currently all about Development and accumulating experiences of development, as I said in the post Development and Environment. It is the triumph of commerce and trade culture over traditional agriculture culture.

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The myth of Chinese population

This came up a lot at last night Olympics watching party. I feel there is some misconception here. People wonder why China and India have so many people.

Actually if you combine all the people in Europe, North America, South America and Australia together, you count all the European descents, the number might be about the same or even more than China or India.

Europe is about the same size as China or India (if you include Pakistan, Bangladesh, and maybe some other traditional India territory), and they have about the same long history. So it makes sense that after a few thousands of years they have about the same number of people. What is different is that European descents are very spread out across the globe and thus don’t appear to be that many people while Chinese and Indian are mostly concentrated in one country. I guess this is why we have this myth.

Actually there were many people died in China in the last two hundred years under the invasion and occupation by the west, while the west enjoyed the prosperity and the luxury to build their democracy. Luckily we survived. But how about the native Americans? How about Africa?

I don’t have all the numbers here. Someone interested might provide numbers for this. But I guess this should be enough to clear the so called “Why China has so many people?” myth.

Out of curiosity, I found this from wikipedia:
As you can see from 1750 to 1950 the percentage of Asia population is continuously decreasing and and that of European and Americas combined are continuously increasing. The percentage of Africa population is also decreasing a lot, and I don’t assume that is solely because they “moved” to Americas and Europe. It is only after 1950 (the time the western powers start withdrawing from the Asia) did the percentage of Asia population start increasing. See this chart, and you get what I mean.

Ok, myth solved. I guess.

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Human world Inside Biosphere 2

I went to a talk by Jane Poynter, a crewmember of first Biosphere 2 enclosure. As this talk was given at a Buddhism gathering, interestingly most questions were drawn to the conflicts the crewmembers had living inside biosphere 2. Although the crewmembers knew each other very well (many of them were even good friends before going in Biosphere 2), they started fighting each other and separated into factions shortly after living inside biosphere 2. Living so closely with each other inside an isolated space proved to be a huge challenge to them. People started discovering things they didn’t know about each other, started hating each other and couldn’t tolerate each other. Jane also mentioned a crewmember from Nepal, however, was surprised by all the conflicts among the westerners and couldn’t understand why they couldn’t get along with each other.

As I came from China, when I grew up, our society is made of pretty much closed isolated units. I don’t know it is our culture that made it so. Or it is something common with traditional societies. Or is it because of communism. Or maybe all of them. People know each other, and you always interact with the same people everyday. Even you hate someone, you could not leave. It was very difficult to change the job then and people mostly work at the same jobs for their whole lives. As in a closed place, a strict hierarchy is maintained and people crush each other.

At the same time, China is going through a transformation of economic reform and adopting market oriented economy. The society became more urban and mobile. People are more free to move around. I certainly welcome this kind of change. And I consider this change a process of modernization and westernization. After I came to US, I realized that the traditional closed village-like life has its own values. In a village, people are closer. You have nowhere to escape. You have to deal with them. (See the article Community vs. Network) From my experience, no matter who, after you stay with them for long enough time, you will discover the beautiful things of their nature, and be able to find fun together.

So in the age of web, as we reconstruct our social structure and make our life style more sustainable, we need to ask whether we want to make it more like a village or more like a network. Then this kind of experience we are talking above will be very valuable. Unfortunately, what I see in the west gives me the impression that many people only have experience with one world, so they rebel against it without having a historical perspective. I am afraid that they will have to relearn the good things of network and the bad things of village. To have the experience of the other world, you can learn of history. One way to learn of history is to read novels and literature, and immerse yourself in that time. Another way is go to developing countries such as China to really take a look of the situations there. This is why I think cultural communication is very important. It is also important for Chinese to come to the west to really experience the what the west is experiencing now and thus can avoid some lessons that the west has paid for.

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Development and Environment

This is the third installment based on a conversation with a friend today regarding China.

As in the previous post, I said the stories in China are following a different thread than the ones in the west. The same is the issue of environment protection.

If we treat a country or a culture as one person. For a person, as a learning person, when s/he first discover something, s/he needs sufficient time to experiment, explore and accumulate experiences with that new discovery. So when the west found how to use oil as the energy, they were just excited to push it to every part of life and production. With technology breakthrough, it is not just a new way of production. It also promotes changes in social structure and how people organize together. All these would take a long time to explore. So in the west, it took several hundred of years to finish that process. After having accumulated enough experience, it is time to reflect on how to better take all the experiences we already have and actually make our lives better. So now the west started to reflect on the environmental impact of the development.

For China, however, it is a different thread. For China, its traditional culture emphasized on harmony with the nature. But our recent humiliating history and crisis taught us that we had to develop and learn from the west. So we started our path of development. So far, we haven’t accumulated enough experiences with the development. So westerners imposing their own reflection of their own culture upon China and criticize China for its pollution of environment in a sense reflected the ignorance of the west of the thread of the stories of other cultures and still applying the same mindset of the old colonial time when they were invading, occupying and massacring people of other cultures.

However, the planet earth cannot afford another big country to live the same kind of life style that US is enjoying, especially considering the population of India and China combined together reaches about half of the world population. China doesn’t have to accumulate all the experiences of development by herself if China can learn those experiences from the west since the west already accumulated those experiences. However, the stupidity of the national borders and the mindset of people shouting boycotting Olympics makes the learning and sharing of experiences difficult.

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