Chinese vs Western learning, in a nutshell.

My Leadership class professor disseminated a very, very interesting and conclusive article about the differences between Chinese and Western learning. Having lived and learned with my French boyfriend for the past 2 years, I came to see the differences between our attitudes and how we approach learning, but I couldn’t quite put it to words. Until now.

The article was written by David Brooks or International NY Times, March 2-3, 2013. It summarizes the findings of Jin Li, a Chinese woman who moved to the US. I couldn’t have said these better:

The Chinese tend to define learning morally while Westerners define it cognitively.

In the Western understanding, students come to school with levels of innate intelligence and curiosity. There’s great emphasis on questioning the authority, critical inquiry, and sharing ideas in classroom discussion.

In the Chinese understanding, …. the idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become a sage. The virtues include sincerity, diligence, perseverance, concentration, and respect for teachers.

Going a level deeper, the author argues for the fusion of intellectual and moral impulses in the Chinese culture, which gives rise to the “awesome motivation explosions”. Explosion is the correct word: here in Hong Kong I’ve observed many of my Mainland Chinese peers who spend countless hours studying, be it at the library on a Saturday night at 11PM or in their bedroom right after they wake up at 7 AM.

I, too, am a product of these Confusian culture, where I would work dilligently and slave myself into hours of studying. Having brought up that way for 17 years, I never realised any other way of studying; it’s just how I do it. Spend the hours, get great results in school, and make your parents proud. Diligence and perseverance are the ultimate virtues. Give me the most boring topic to study, and I can still spend hours of trying to master the topic. There’s this endless reservoir of motivation when it comes to studying.

My boyfriend, on the other hand, has always had the better understanding of the topics that we learn in school. He is the model of a critical and inquisitive mind, always going one level deeper than me. He’ll either be deeply passionate about something and soar really high, or very bored at one thing and have no motivation to do anything about it.

The question is, which culture is better? The moral learning or cognitive one? Right now, I would argue that the school system awards the diligent, but the working environment champions the inquisitive. Memorisation can get away with school’s examination, but when it comes to generating innovation to drive companies’ bottom line, I don’t think it’s enough.

The head a Research division in Goldman Sachs once asked the intern class this summer: name one global Chinese brand. I couldn’t answer. No one in the room could answer. Any ideas why?

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