The ideological gaps across human cultures or even across individuals sometimes can be greater than ideological gaps across species. The geologic gap of the pacific ocean also create such ideological gap in eastern and western culture, especially in the process of knowledge seeking. No matter in filed of philosophy, religion, or science, Easterns prioritize abstract abstract studies above forms and phases, while Westerns, in comparison, focus more on the specific study which can be put into practice.
Growing up in a traditional Chinese family and educated in Chinese public school, I was deeply influenced by eastern culture. After years, I can still remember most sentences of Chinese ancient classics like 三字经 (the Three Characters Classics) and 弟子规 (the Rules of Juniors), which I recited character-by-character at primary school. Also, boring as it sounds, the notions of traditional Chinese virtues of “温良恭俭让 仁义礼智信” (mild — kind — respectful — thrifty — gentle — humane — righteous — polite — clever — honest), through relentless repetition by parents and teachers, gradually and unconsciously pose impacts on my daily behaviors. However, preparing for undergraduate education abroad opened a new world for me. The Big Bang Theory, the Netflix, Trump’s twitter, the guns, the muscle cars, the language, the traditions, the religions, the ideology, the culture: all the things we don’t (legally) have here in China opened a new world for me. As an international student from China to US, I am both lucky unlucky to experience both educational systems, as the different approaches of knowledge seeking bring me challenges and opportunities.
In ancient Greece around 350 BC, Aristotle wrote Metaphysics, the title “metaphysics” simply means “after physics”. About the same time, 易经 (the Scripture of Changes) started to take form in Ancient China, it writes: “形而上者谓之道，形而下者谓之器”, or translated character-by-character as “form — [conjuncture] — above — [conjuncture] — call — them — “Tao”, form — [conjuncture] — below — [conjuncture] — call — them — tools”. Similar statement can be found in the first chapter of Metaphysics where Aristotle distinguishes “experience” and “technology”. There it started the journey of philosophy, as we started to see there are something other than physical objects, forms, phases, and laws that religions, mythologies, spirits, and phenomenology were there to be questioned and studied. In modern Chinese, metaphysics is translated as “形而上学” (the study of above forms), which I believe is one of the best translation works as it corresponds to development of Western and Eastern philosophy and logos in between.
I always believed there are some kind of hidden connections between the development of Eastern and Western civilization, as even though physical connection or idea exchange was impossible for both ends back then, it was magical how they came up with similar ideas around the same period. It is interesting how it was once widely believed that Confucius were reborn as Socrates to finish his work of enlightening human kind because Socrates was born the year Confucius passed.
However, if examined closely, although seemingly symmetric, the fundamental priority of pursuits of Easterns and Westerns have been different from the very beginning: Westerns tend to prioritize the study “physics”, the tangible facts in physical world, over “metaphysics” (after-physics). On the other hand, Easterns tend to emphasize “道(Tao)”, the illusive study of “above forms” and disregard the study of existing forms. Although it is a little far-fetched to conclude the developments of Western and Eastern ideology based on their terminologies, the patterns can be clearly found across history that Westerns ideology is more practical and Eastern ideology is more illusive, in fields of philosophy, religion, and even science.
The very first sentence of Metaphysics is “it is in human nature the pursuit of knowledge”, and this type of “knowledge” are disregarded by Confucius when he says “君子不器”, which can be interpreted as “great men should not be confined to “tools” (opposite to “Tao”)”. Like almost all other great thinkers of China, Confucius didn’t shine in the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, or any other natural sciences, as they all fall in the category of “tools” (the study below forms). His great contributions are more in the field of “Tao”, which involves moral guidelines, benevolent politics, and philosophy. On the other hand, Western philosophers are mostly mathematicians or scientists, and their philosophical thinking are often parallel to their discoveries in their respective fields. Western philosophy is motivated by the love of knowledge, and philosophers always try to push the boundaries of human knowledge and become “the most knowledgable”. Eastern philosophy is motivated by the love of wisdom, the philosophers always try to enlighten humans around them and become “the cleverest”. There is a huge difference between being knowledgable and being clever: compare me with Einstein at the age of 15, I certainly possess more physics knowledge than he does, (proof: I understand relativity theory while he hasn’t heard of it) but he is still far clever than me in the field of physics. (proof: he will discover the relativity theory I now understand)
Besides philosophy, even religions show the same pattern. Western church has a rather strict set of rules for its believers to follow, especially during the middle age, while Eastern temples normally emphasize more on the enlightenment of the public and less on the specific forms. Even though monks are generally prohibited from killing lives or eating meat, there are exceptions who believes “酒肉穿肠过，佛祖心中坐”, (the alcohol and meat pass through body, while the Buddha remains within) and they are often considered more enlightened than others. In essence, Christianity is commissioned by God and serves to save people from their sins and bring them back to God, but Buddhism is more of a philosophical believe that does not serve a particular purpose. For funding, Western church receives public donation form believers and even government support (for religious country), while Eastern monks typically begs for living. In the first section of Diamond Sutra, it documents a serious of events before Sakyamuni (the Buddha) gives the lecture, including “(monks) entering the city of SheWei and beg for food”. Even for documentation, Western church has a very clear pattern that the Bible is the one book that tells believers what they need to know. However, the most valuable scripture of Buddhism is “无字真经” (the True Scripture with No Characters), which intend to let believers to seek for the ultimate truth themselves. These are all evidence that Westerns religions are more practical and has forms and rules, while Eastern religions are more “above form”.
This ideological differences also deters Eastern scientific development that scientists who study “tools” are not as respected as philosophers, educationalists, politicians, and poets who study “Tao”. According to nation record of Tang Dynasty, when the crown prince presented the emperor with various inventions brought from Western, the emperor censured “leaving instructions of ancient saints aside, why bother learning about peculiar tools and strange techniques?” Also, scientists and mathematicians tend to document their discoveries in an illusive or artistic way (mostly to get “published” and read). Although, putting mathematical and scientific discovery into poems together with metaphors, analogies, and other kind of rhetorical devices might be somehow inspirational, it adds difficulties for others to comprehend the meaning precisely, and precision is of great importance on such subjects. Even when Easterns did invent something like the black powder or compass, they never try to utilize them in fields other than entertainment, like military or industrial production. That’s probably why although China invented black powder first and used it only for fireworks, and had no firearm to defend itself from Western invasion during the 1800s.
Even with ongoing globalization, the pattern is still very clear and can be found in various aspects of Chinese and U.S. education system today.
For curriculum, in U.S., the core curriculum of high schools and colleges, though differing a little across schools, are mainly composed of mathematics, natural science, and writing (language). However, in China, such study of “tools” only comes after the study of “Tao”. In junior high, “Critical Thinking and Moral Education” is a mandatory subject that must be taken every semester; in senior high, parallel to other natural sciences like chemistry, physics, and geology, “politics” is a option which is tested in the GaoKao (College Entrance Examination); in every government funded university, which covers almost all universities, “Maxim (Communism) Philosophy” and “Moral Education” are required for all freshman students. Even with the same subjects, Chinese schools emphasize more on theory and deduction and less on putting knowledge into practice, while U.S. schools encourage student innovation and are generally less demanding in depth and difficulty.
For high school and college application, in U.S., application systems that covers comprehensive evaluation of academic performance, extracurricular activities, personal insights and aspirations, and even family background are generally used. In China, all that is required to do is to take High School Entrance Examination and College Entrance Examination (GaoKao), and declare intended schools and majors.
In junior high, my academic interest was mainly in the field of physics and supporting mathematics, and my intended major was surely theoretical physics. Back then, I only conceive physics knowledge as a set of abstract theoretical laws built upon the great mansion of mathematics, and I learn physics because not only that the elegance and simplicity of fundamental laws of our world fascinated me but also that I wanted to contribute to space exploration and physics is the closest subject I could get my hands on. With extra tutoring at school, I finished classic mechanics, electromagnetics, optics, and even roughly went through some modern physics with simplified math at the age of 15. However, I never connected these knowledge to my life or utilized these knowledge for purposes other than academic discussions and competitions. I didn’t understand what engineering or applied physics was, even though one of my medals was from a so-called “applied physics competition”, which actually is just another paper-test with complex real-life physics models.
Rising to senior high and knowing I will be seeking an undergraduate education in U.S., I had to explore more on my major track which I thought would be physics. Therefore, instead of working hard on theoretical physics, I started to participate in all kinds of physics-related extracurricular activities. I joined national team for a experimental physics competition (International Young Physicist Tournament); I designed, manufactured, tested, and optimized a model F1 car (Pegasus E07, my love), which won me my first world gold medal (F1inSchool2019); I developed my own theory on local whether forecast and built a prediction system that was adopted by local weather bureau. While I was doing these activities, I started to see the meaning of my previous work on physics: to modal real-life scenarios and explain real-life phenomenon, to break previous record of F1inSchool by 0.14s, and to make real contributions to the world I live in (okay I guess I just provided more accurate suggestions for whether you should take umbrellas in Beijing, but that counts).
Most of my friends who was with me in the hyper-advanced physics class back in junior high are now majoring in theoretical physics or applied mathematics at TsingHua University or Beijing University. If I didn’t choose to go abroad, that path might as well been mine. I am now doing double major in Aerospace Engineering and Business Administration as I see that the commercializing space travel actually has little to do with cutting edge of modern theoretical physics, but more on engineering. Similarly, the relationship of business to economy is just like the relationship between physics and engineering: the second is the foundation of the first, and the first is an application of the second.
Looking back at two types of educational experience, I believe finding balance between study above form and below form contributed significantly to my intellectual development. If the study above form is overly emphasized, an individual becomes too idealistic and detached from reality, a culture becomes week and undefended. If the study below form is overly emphasized, an individual becomes too realistic and blind, a culture becomes divided. The Eastern education has given me a solid theoretical “above form” knowledge background, which the Western education taught me how to put the into practical “forms”. Instead of being contradictive, they coexist as my intellectual identity.
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