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  • Yeow Poon

Thinking About China and the West

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

The first 2 chapters of a booklet by Dr Yeow Poon and Bill Good published in 2022.

The aim of this booklet is not to be prescriptive of what is right or what is wrong. As individuals and society, we will tend to believe and act in certain ways according to the values, attitudes and the propaganda we are subjected to in our society. However, there are strengths and weaknesses in every culture and we should acknowledge each other’s humanity.

The booklet looks at how history has shaped the way the West and East developed, explores some of the differences in philosophy, value and culture between the two and comments on how differences in values are reflected in notions of the state, governance and economic development, as well as concluding thoughts on how we hope the relationship between China and the West might develop in coming years.

The booklet is available here.

Valleys and Plains

In the ‘Geography of Thoughts’, Richard Nisbett suggested that differences between China and the West were due to geography.

The ancient Greek civilisation started in valleys, separated from each other by mountains. Although there are common themes amongst the valley states, each developed an independent valley culture.
Chinese civilisation, on the other hand, began in the plains around the Yellow River, which gave rise to an inter-dependent farming culture. This is because farms further away from the river depended on goodwill and cooperation from farms next to the river.

The ancient Chinese therefore placed greater emphasis on consensual collective behaviour and on blending into the group. The importance of having harmonious relationships with others was codified by Confucius into patterns of behaviour that became the foundation of Chinese society. Another effect of inter-dependence is the need for compromise.

Chinese society is therefore generally pragmatic and decisions are made depending on the situation.

The ancient Greek, which provided the basis for Western civilisation, developed a system of dialectic thinking, whereby better understanding of the truth can be reached through logical arguments from opposing sides. Greater emphasis was placed on individual action, distinctiveness and achieved status.

For Western society, right or wrong is based on objective truths rather than the nature of relationships and situational context.

Hence, we have a situation today, where despite a shared humanity between the East and the West, there are also fundamental differences in values, philosophy, culture and way of life.

East and West have become the essential “other”, viewing the other often dimly through prisms of their own making. 

Emperor and Conqueror

At the end of the Zhou dynasty (475 BC), the various vassal states declared independence and fought each other. This period, known as the Warring States, lasted 254 years (475-221 BC).

Around the middle of the Warring States period, as smaller states were conquered, there were seven states left - Qin, Chu, Zhao, Wei, Han, Yan, and Qi.

Qin was a backward state, until Duke Xiao (381-338 BC) decided to recruit talented people. A Confucian legalist from Wei, Shang Yang, whose ideas were not appreciated by the King of Wei, answered the Duke’s call.

Shang Yang implemented strict reforms to administer society, agriculture, trade and the military. He introduced social mobility whereby successful soldiers could become nobles, and nobles were demoted for poor performance.

Although his reforms were not popular amongst the nobility, Qin became prosperous, ruthless and powerful, until it conquered all the other states and unified China under the first emperor.

Over in the West, Alexander the Great of Macedonia (356-323 BC) began a series of conquests and created an empire stretching from Greece to Egypt, Persia, the Indus valley and parts of Central Asia. He built over 20 cities bearing his name which were settled by Greek colonists. There was an exchange and fusion of culture, philosophy and religion, for example, with Persian and Buddhist cultures. Although the land Alexander conquered was broken up under different rulers, Hellenistic culture spread widely. Alexander died young at the age of 32, but he left behind a considerable legacy.

The Hellenistic period lasted nearly 300 years until the rise of Rome and, through the Roman Empire, Hellenistic culture developed into contemporary Western culture.
Similarly, the Qin dynasty did not last long (221-206 BC), however it left behind one written language, the pre-eminent idea of a unified China and other legacies that were continued by subsequent dynasties until today.

The booklet is available here.

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Alex Yip
Alex Yip
Oct 12, 2023

There is an interesting analysis on 'futureless' languages like Chinese, German etc which is more horizontal (Up week) and doesn’t separate present and future, vs English which is more liner (forward and backwards) and clearly separates the future. This leaves 'futureless' languages encouraging it's users to focus on future focused activities (savings, education, health). Add European history prone to external conflicts of defence and invasion, whereas China's conflicts were more internal, it is curious to consider how land has shaped language, shaped behaviours, histories and nations.

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