30th Aug 2007

It’s True. Asian can’t think

Until it abandons its twisted Confucianism, the region will trail the West

Can Asians think? That’s not a racist slur, it’s the title of a book by Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani. While he offers no answer, the question he poses is excellent and long overdue.

The facts are not in dispute: 1,000 years ago China under the Song Dynasty was the world’s most advanced nation. Even 300 years ago China under the Qing rulers was first among equals. Yet in the past 100 years, the West’s superiority over Asia has widened exponentially over any advantage the East ever enjoyed. No civilization with such a commanding lead, not even classical Greece, has declined more dramatically. The issue is not about economic growth or engineering dexterity; Asia’s record in these areas is indisputable. It’s about originality of the mind and its resulting influence over how mankind shapes the world.

China may have mastered cutting-edge nuclear technology, by stealth or otherwise, and Japan may have the best-engineered semiconductors. But these developments are ultimately based on Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics, both purely Western paradigms. China justifies its political system by invoking Marx while trying to restructure its economy using the theories of Keynes and Friedman, even employing Goldman Sachs for financial advice. Taiwan is a democracy more informed by classical Greek philosophers than by Chinese. Japanese leaders wear Western formal dress with tails for signing ceremonies. And everybody loves an Ivy League degree.

Asia must not merely reflect on why Western thoughts shape the world we know, it must also ask why so many Asian minds flourish only after they have gone to the West. For evidence, just look at the many Nobel Prizes won by Asians living and working in America. Time and again, talented émigrés say they had to leave Asia because the intellectual atmosphere was stifling or because the established hierarchy respected seniority over brains.

Blaming Asian schools for focusing on memorization–as opposed to “thinking”–is too pat an excuse, as schools and universities reflect the basic values of a society. It is ingrained in the Asian psyche that “correct” answers always exist and are to be found in books or from authorities. Teachers dispense truth, parents are always right and political leaders know better. In executive-led societies such as China and Hong Kong, leaders act like philosopher-kings, often uttering unchallenged banalities. Senior officials sometimes resemble the powerful palace eunuchs of past dynasties: imperial, unaccountable, incompetent. Questioning authority, especially in public, is disrespectful, un-Asian, un-Confucian.

It is time to deconstruct Confucius. He said many things. Some emphasized order above all: on filial piety, never disobey. Others were democratic: without the trust of the people, no government can stand. Past emperors manipulated his work to justify a static order while they themselves rarely abided by the same rules. Japan became Asia’s most advanced nation largely because it dared to change its own values during the Meiji Restoration in 1868 (though it now needs a similar impetus to regain its creative energy).

The conventional wisdom that Asians cherish learning is misleading. In the past, learning meant passing imperial exams that led to well-paid jobs in the civil service. It’s not altogether different in modern Asia. Learning for its own sake is considered a luxury, if not a financial waste, unless it also leads to an attractive income stream.

The twisted Confucian philosophy passed on by generations has played a damnable role in denting Asian creative thinking. U.S.-trained physicist Woo Chia-wei, president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, believes the Confucian stress on order is a major obstacle to creative thinking that has sometimes affected even his own instincts. All important advances in knowledge involve substantial revision or rejection of an existing framework. Scientists call that a paradigm shift. Order for the sake of order is the opposite of creative thinking.

Which Asian society, informed by home-grown precepts, is most likely to nurture and keep at home a future generation able to write better software than Microsoft, find a cure for cancer and replace quantum mechanics with a Theory of Everything, now the Holy Grail of physics? The odds are not good, but the best bet is Taiwan. Alone among Asian societies it possesses the right combination of institutions that allow talent to blossom. Institutionalized disputes and a respect for opposing viewpoints, publicly aired, are not just about political democracy, they are fundamental to creative thinking. They act as a filter so that a rare gem may be found among the intellectual garbage. It takes only a few powerful ideas to change the world.

If Japan, China and the rest of Asia–perhaps even India–ever manage to cast aside mind-numbing communist, Confucian and caste values, then the region’s talents could one day dominate the Nobel Prize lists, enriching the world through intellectual property, not property development. And they will be doing their creative thinking right here in Asia. Eventually, someone might even ask, “Can Westerners think?”


9 Responses to “It’s True. Asian can’t think”

  1. Lien P Says:

    Hey, it’s called Confusian. Its purpose is to confuse your thinking. So clear. Time to adopt the American slogan: “Just do it”

  2. hoaianh Says:

    I find the part about learning truly appropriate. In the future, we will gain more economic power, take up most of the world’s land and population :D, we will even dominate the West and honour our way of thinking as “mainstream” :D Eventually we may not remember this at all. It’s imaginable that another theory like quantum mechanic will never be born in the future world because we’re all busy developping property :D

  3. Le Says:

    Tớ đồ chừng cái bác tác giả này hiểu biết về Khổng Tử qua dăm ba đoạn văn trong Luận Ngữ. Hiểu biết về văn hóa của khoa học hiện đại qua mấy cuốn best-seller, hay những bài báo trên các tờ “main stream” kiểu như New York Time. Để rồi bàn về văn hóa, lịch sử mà cũng chẳng thèm đối chiếu cẩn thận theo tư duy chặt chẽ mà một người phân tích lý thuyết chuyên nghiệp cần phải có.

    Tớ đồ chừng thế thôi. Cái này gọi tinh thần phiếm luận hàng nước, rất đỗi suy bụng ta ra … bụng nhân loại :P

  4. Hieu Says:

    It’s true. Confucianism and Communism are perfect partners for a dictatorship/totalitarianism country. In such structural/hierarchical societies, individual is not required to think independently. They only need to act and think as their respective positions in that hierarchical systems suppose to act/think. It can be said that Asian are still adolescent (not enlightened yet :-D). For the greater good! (which can be either national security or the people’s / the nation’s … [fill in the blank] shits).

  5. Linh Says:

    Thực ra ý kiến này của tác giả bảo đúng thì cũng đúng nhưng vẫn chỉ là các quan sát bề mặt, chưa có gì là cố gắng phân tích sâu sắc cả.
    Ngay như tại sao khoa học phương Tây phát triển, hiện nay vẫn chưa có sự thống nhất. Văn hóa phương Tây được xây dựng trên hai cột trụ lớn là văn minh Hy Lạp- La Mã (chủ yếu là Hy Lạp) và Thiên chúa giáo. Nhưng đâu là yếu tố chính giúp khoa học phương Tây phát triển và có thực sự Thiên chúa giáo kìm hãm khoa học không? Nếu nó thực sự kìm hãm thì sao đạo Thiên chúa vẫn có vai trò lớn trong xã hội phương Tây.

    Khổng giáo cũng vậy. Đúng là trong quá khứ, Khổng giáo được các chế độ phong kiến lợi dụng bởi cái quan điểm chính danh “người nào việc nào chỗ ấy” của nó nhưng cũng không có nghĩa là nó gắn liền với các chế độ độc tài hay nó kìm hãm khoa học. Nếu thế nhìn vào các nước Mỹ Latin theo Công giáo thì cũng có thể rút ra kết luận tương tự là Công giáo đi liền với độc tài và chậm phát triển. Vấn đề là Khổng giáo có thể thích nghi trong thời hiện đại, để phù hợp với sự phát triển của khoa học hay không. Còn các ví dụ về Newton với quantum physic cũng không nói được điều gì cả. Nếu chúng ta sống cách đây 10 thế kỷ chẳng hạn thì liệu chúng ta có thể nói là Khổng giáo là số một vì Trung Hoa lúc đó là giàu có nhất, đông đúc nhất, có trình độ khoa học kỹ thuật cao và đời sống văn hóa nghệ thuật phong phú, trong khi châu Âu lúc đó còn là một bọn man di, bị dân Hồi giáo khinh bỉ như những kẻ mọi rợ không biết tới văn minh và đời sống đô thị là gì. Nói như thế không có nghĩa là nhìn vào thành tựu quá khứ để tự ru ngủ, mà chỉ là một phản đề cho cái quan điểm đơn giản Khổng giáo= triệt tiêu tư duy sáng tạo.

  6. Nam Says:

    quick feedback from an American friend

    “It is thought provoking … no pun intended.

    While I wouldn’t dispute much of what it says about education, I would note that it tends to equate “thinking” with science, and logical analysis. A bit narrow from my point of view.

    Sure … if thinking is nothing more or less than science and logic than “Asians can’t or at least don’t think”. But thinking in the west has a much deeper and richer tradition which only narrowed down into science and logic a few hundred years ago. In the west, truth has been the traditional object of thinking. The object of science and logic is predictability and control … even if we confuse that for truth.

    In my view, we have as much a crisis in thinking in the west as you do in Asia. In the west we have a crisis because we have lost our tradition of thinking/philosophy/metaphysics to the imperatives of science and control over nature. Maybe it’s not exactly a crisis in Asia because maybe you never had the tradition to lose in the first place. That I can’t judge. And I’ve never met an Asian intellectual able to argue articulately in English for an Asian tradition of thinking. That would seem to say something.”

  7. today20 Says:

    It sounds very much like Don’s. Is it?

  8. Nam Says:

    Yep, you know him well

  9. hoaianh Says:

    Cai title thi nghe co ve kinh hoang nhung ma doan noi ve su hoc cua dan chau A thi ro rang tren binh dien chung la …dung roi chu gi nua :D
    Nhung chau A gio bat dau thang the roi, dan cang ngay cang dong, cua cai lam ra nhieu, roi may chuc nam nua chung ta se het ban khoan ba cai chuyen le te nay khi ma China la nen kinh te manh nhat, roi lai con India, Indonesia,hy vong la Japan van con cam cu, luc day thi tat nhien la Asian can think, but we think different (giong nhu ban gi o tren moi comment), thinking doi voi ta la cu kiem cang nhieu tien ap buc bon Tay tro lai cang tot, thuyet nay thuyet no phat trien khoa hoc am nhac nghe thuat dinh cao la chuyen cua chung no :D
    Cai nay la minh cung suy bung minh ra bung …dan toc thoi, trung thi trung khong trung thi thoi a :D

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