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The Writing on the Wall

The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity

William C. Hannas
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    The Writing on the Wall
    Book Description:

    Students in Japan, China, and Korea are among the world's top performers on standardized math and science tests. The nations of East Asia are also leading manufacturers of consumer goods that incorporate scientific breakthroughs in telecommunications, optics, and transportation. Yet there is a startling phenomenon known throughout Asia as the "creativity problem." While East Asians are able to use science, they have not demonstrated the ability to invent radically new systems and paradigms that lead to new technologies. In fact, the legal and illegal transfer of technology from the West to the East is one of the most contentious international business issues. Yet Asians who study and work in the West and depend upon Western languages for their research are among the most creative and talented scientists, no less so than their Western counterparts. William C. Hannas contends that this paradox emerges from the nature of East Asian writing systems, which are character-based rather than alphabetic. Character-based orthographies, according to the author, lack the abstract features of alphabetic writing that model the thought processes necessary for scientific creativity. When first learning to read, children who are immersed in a character-based culture are at a huge disadvantage because such writing systems do not cultivate the ability for abstract thought. Despite the overwhelming body of evidence that points to the cognitive side-effects, the cultural importance of character-based writing makes the adoption of an alphabet unlikely in the near future.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0216-8
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    The following chapters explore language, creativity, the brain, technology transfer, Chinese writing, and the processes that link these elements together. A personal anecdote will help bring the relationship into focus.

    In 1997 I sat through a presentation on intracompany “teams,” the latest panacea hawked by management consultants for making America more competitive. The facilitator was giving her pitch for the new program and offered the following proof of its superiority.

    “Think back four decades ago to Japan,” she said. “How would you characterize that country’s products then?”

    “Cheap.” From one of the attendees.

    “Imitative.” Another voice.

    “Do I hear low-tech?”...

  4. Chapter One Japan’s Creative Imitations
    (pp. 8-33)

    This is a book about language, especially written language. I shall argue that the mechanism used to write a language significantly affects one’s ability to engage in creative thinking. In other words, there is a direct, causal link between the writing system people use and the contributions they make to science.

    Establishing this hypothesis will require me to spend some time, indeed several chapters, on what would seem to be an unrelated political issue, namely, the transfer of technology between nations. My purpose in doing so is to show that the phenomenon under study—the poor record East Asia has...

  5. Chapter Two Sources of Chinese Innovation
    (pp. 34-60)

    One of the benefits of getting older is the perspective it gives you on things. When growing up in the 1950s, I was told that China is a “sleeping giant,” temporarily down on its luck, but bound to recover its former glory and rightful place at the center of the world stage. In the late 1960s, the popular wisdom was that China had thrown off the shackles of bourgeois economics and was undergoing a Great Socialist Transformation that would restore the country’s former glory and rightful place at the center of the world stage. Success was just around the corner....

  6. Chapter Three Korean Technology Transfer
    (pp. 61-87)

    Compared to those of China and Japan, very little has been published on South Korea’s efforts to transfer foreign technology. Recognizing this, I began several years ago a systematic review of Korean newspapers, magazines, journals, government press releases, and Internet postings looking for evidence that South Korea, like East Asia’s other two major players, was engaged in programs to transfer core technology that it was unable to develop indigenously. Literature distributed by Republic of Korea government entities and their quasi-official support organizations overseas were also examined, as were the speeches of South Korean science and technology officials and published texts...

  7. Chapter Four Asia’s Creativity Problem
    (pp. 88-112)

    The first part of this book was meant to drive home a truth which Asian policy makers appreciate but which escapes many Westerners, namely, that East Asia’s modernization has depended almost entirely on innovations brought in from the West. This fact is apparent on four levels. To begin with, it is inherent in the concept of modernization, at least as that concept is understood in the East. As evidenced in the phrase “advanced countries of Europe and America,” which is invoked by East Asians as a common standard of comparison, progress in East Asia is measured by an ability to...

  8. Chapter Five The Anatomy of Creativity
    (pp. 113-138)

    It is time to sum up what has been noted about innovation in East Asia and move to more technical areas that will provide the tools needed to explain these observations. In the previous chapters I documented the present dependency of Japan, China, and South Korea on Western ideas and showed that this dependency is most acute in basic science, where theory and abstraction play a paramount role. We glanced at some distinctions between concrete and abstract thinking, saw how these differences are exhibited in East Asian and Western innovation patterns, and buttressed these observations with data from social psychology...

  9. Chapter Six Creativity and the Alphabet
    (pp. 139-167)

    In the preceding chapter I remarked on psychologists’ belief that language acts as a barrier to creativity. Creative thinking requires that the thinker retreat from symbolic thought to a more basic mode of cognition that is more nearly visual than verbal. Symbolic thought by its nature predisposes one to consider problems in existing categories. We benefit enormously in our day-to-day lives from this ability to cast reality in familiar terms and manipulate knowledge structures through a directory of pointers. At the same time, these structures inhibit us from “visualizing” data in new ways. Recurrent neural activation patterns, literally models of...

  10. Chapter Seven Asia’s Orthographic Tradition
    (pp. 168-193)

    Understanding the issues raised in this book presents two types of linguistic challenges. On the one hand, many of us steeped in the conventions of alphabetic writing tend to overlook the impact the alphabet has had on Western culture. Literate Westerners especially, who regard alphabetic writing as though it were a part of nature, are unlikely to ponder its cognitive and social dimensions and may fail to appreciate the full import of this technology. To understand the alphabet’s significance we must rethink assumptions held about writing since childhood.

    On the other hand, applying to the East Asian situation what linguists...

  11. Chapter Eight The Concrete Nature of Asian Writing
    (pp. 194-218)

    East Asian orthography is enormously complex. As noted in the previous chapter, the number of units that make up the inventory of Chinese symbols and the complexity of their design is mind-boggling. Literacy in Chinese means being able to read and write—as a base line—some 4,000 to 6,000 different characters. Although many graphs share common elements, there is no efficient way to describe how these elements combine into characters, as evidenced by the many indexing methods used in dictionaries and by the hundreds of coding schemes that have been designed for inputting characters into computers.

    Complicated as the...

  12. Chapter Nine The Impact of Language on Creativity
    (pp. 219-243)

    In previous chapters we saw how alphabetic writing facilitates creativity by modeling its essential processes. Problems that resist solution in terms of existing paradigms are reduced to their basic components through analytical skills developed in the course of becoming literate. Reassembling these abstract components into new and coherent structures is aided in turn by habits built up through exercising the alphabet’s synthetic functions.

    In the former instance, the alphabet promotes analysis by forcing its users to consider details of phonology that are not apparent on the surface level. Concrete syllables are analyzed into basic segments and further reduced to abstract...

  13. Chapter Ten Chinese Characters and Creativity
    (pp. 244-262)

    The negative impact of character-based writing on creativity stems largely from its failure to facilitate related cognitive processes. When people in alphabetic cultures begin to read they are faced with two new conceptual tasks. On the one hand, they must learn to distinguish abstract language from the concrete speech to which they are accustomed. Since writing maps onto language at a level deeper than the acoustic events used in speech, literacy entails becoming aware of a body of rules kept beneath the threshold of consciousness. The difficulty nonliterates have conceptualizing language and articulating its formal conventions is symptomatic of the...

  14. Chapter Eleven Creativity and East Asian Society
    (pp. 263-283)

    We saw how East Asian writing hinders scientific creativity through its effects on thought processes. The concrete syllabic writing systems used in China, Japan, and to a great extent in Korea do not provide a model for analysis. Phonology is assimilated in East Asia, as in oral societies everywhere, nondiscretely, in lumps. As such, East Asians miss an early opportunity to develop the analytic habits of thought that are forced on Westerners. Without these skills Asians are less prone or less able to dissect intractable problems into their abstract antecedents, which is the first step toward creative reordering.

    More problematic...

  15. Chapter Twelve Conclusion
    (pp. 284-294)

    This study began by noting that the East Asian countries, the “Chinese character nations” (kanji minzoku) of China, Japan, and Korea, suffer a creativity deficit, evidenced by an insatiable quest for Western wellspring technology. This inability to make radical breaks with the past in science and thought, which drives East Asia’s dependence on Western creativity, is a function of the type of writing used there. Without the incentive alphabetic writing provides to think analytically and abstractly, users of Chinese character-based scripts are at a handicap vis-à-vis the West in their capacity to generate new ideas and create entirely new technologies....

  16. Notes
    (pp. 295-322)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 323-336)
  18. Index
    (pp. 337-346)
  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 347-348)