Who Is Better?

I’ve always been fascinated by Chinese culture. For just a start, it’s close to a toss-up who’s the oldest surviving civilization on the planet – China or India. You can find evidence of cultures back past 5,000 BC in both regions.

Interestingly, they still maintain a strong distrust between them, even though most of China’s spiritual culture has flowed out of India over the millenia. But one thing distinctly Chinese and as likely influential as any spirituality, is the written Chinese language.

Unlike the Indian and English languages, the Chinese language is based upon “pictures”. They have thousands of pictures and combinations of pictures that represent words and meanings. Other cultures, such as Japan and Korea, adopted the Chinese written system very long ago. This is radically different from the accustomed English way of representing the sounds of words through abstract symbols. And, it has many ramifications.

By using pictures to represent language, the Chinese instill additional layers of meaning upon the reader. One example is the Chinese word for “good”, which is represented by the combination of the symbols for “woman” and “baby” – even though the word “good” has it’s own unique spoken sound. The word “trust” is the combination of “man” and “speech”.

So, it becomes fairly obvious that the Chinese language, by its very nature, imparts greater meaning, if even just subconsciously, upon the reader. However, this extra layer of meaning is not limited to the poetic or abstractly philosophical. There is also a very practical aspect.

There is a Chinese symbol for “tree”. If you want to represent a “grove”, you just put two trees together into one symbol. If you’d like to represent a “forest”, you place three trees together.

The number “13” is represented as “ten” “three”. The number 23 is represented as “two” “ten” “three”.

It’s actually quite matter-of-fact – organized. Very unlike the English “thirteen” or “twenty three”. And now, we’re beginning to more fully understand the subtle implications of these differences.

Research has recently shown that Chinese people may have superior raw computational skills to their English-speaking counterparts. Further research has shown that native Chinese speaking and native English speaking people process math quite differently in the brain.

Both seem to process the concepts of quantity in the same way. However, when it comes to computation, the Chinese brain utilizes the visual/spatial centers of the brain, whereas the English utilize the interpretive/language area of the brain.

It is an interesting difference. In numerical computations, the English brain processes the “meaning”, while the Chinese brain processes the “physical appearance” of the numbers.

The next several decades are likely to be influenced heavily by the emergence of China out of its shell and into the spectacle of the larger world. I hope very much that we all will help by sharing our strengths rather than exploiting our weaknesses.

I think we are all overly schooled in exploitation. And though such things can be hollowly satisfying, they are, unarguably, at least inefficient.