Innovation in Chinese culture

As a Stanford student who is studying educational technology, I was challenged by two prestigious professors at my final project presentation. Their questions led me to this post and my life goal.

My final project is about brainstorming, so all my researches are about ideation process and creativity. I analyzed the ideation steps and I searched about all different techniques to generate ideas. I felt very happy about that, because I felt like I’ve mastered the ideation process. So, during my presentation of my work, I was excited and confident about their positive feedbacks. However, after the presentation, I got a simple answer from all the reviewing professors, “It’s superficial.” Well, they didn’t say it, but that’s my conclusion. I am always strict to myself and I don’t want to lie to myself if there is a problem.

The ultimate trigger is a single slide in my PPT. The picture shows a Chinese student who is studying in the ocean of textbooks, painfully. I explained, “this is part of my motivation to research this topic – ideation and creativity, since I want to know more about it so I can help them.” Attention: I didn’t say they are my target users, but obviously the professors might consider Chinese students are my target users. After that slide, I kept talking about my tool, Sparkl. It went pretty well. All the young reviewers or people who are more business-oriented gave me super positive feedbacks. But Professor Terry asked me, I didn’t see anything that is related to Chinese students in your presentation. I was a bit panic and explained immediately, Yeah, they are not my target users, at least in this project. He continued, what’s the situation like in China? How Chinese people see creativity? I was stuck for a few seconds – I have never thought about that! So I tried to answer his question, “Well, in China, many people do not think out of the box, people do not brainstorm. What I want to do here is to figure the ideation process first, and then use something that is practical, which means it can help people to accomplish many practical purpose, to foster the creativity learning in China.” Another professor asked a similar question and I answered based on my personal experience. Then the discussion part was over.

At the time I was about to leave, Professor Renate came to me and told me something like, “do you really want us to comment on that concrete tool, the technical part? Or you want us to talk about the real important issue, which is the creativity innovation in China?” I was listening, “you brought up an amazingly interesting topic – the creativity learning in China, and you didn’t talk about it.” Honestly, I just put a picture there and I guess I didn’t think that deep, so the time she asked me, I was also thinking about what she said. “China has such a long history, how could there is no ideation method?” I suddenly realized, she is right, I didn’t even think about MY OWN culture. She continued, “you know, you have to learn to leverage your value. Tell people what they don’t know. People here are familiar with brainstorming, but they don’t know a lot about China, and that’s your expertise, nobody can beat you on that. Don’t not hide it.” And then she left.

After the talk with her, I thought I realized something but I hadn’t got there yet. Two questions she mentioned: 1. What are the innovation/creativity methods like in traditional (ancient) Chinese culture? 2. How to foster creativity learning in contemporary Chinese education? Those two big questions have been staying in my mind since that moment. The two questions reminded me of some of my personal experience: I started to appreciate more Chinese culture after I have seen my cohort was doing GongFu Cha; I was amazed to see that famous people here enjoy Daoism so much which is part of the textbook for elementary school kids in China; Some of my friends also told me that the big wisdom is in Chinese culture and they started to read more traditional readings; In some discussions, my friends and I all went to the same topic of “innovation in Chinese culture”; my chat with Meng made me realize that the future development of Chinese culture will go through a process of “returning,” which means it will go outside China and then go back after modification by other cultures. All the experience made me realize this is a big issue, and may be my ultimate goal, as the meaning of my Chinese name – 曼文 – spreading culture.

Today I did some basic search about “innovation in Chinese culture,” of course, in Chinese. I did find many interesting results. Here I am going to talk about some.

Chinese culture emphasizes the oneness and the wholeness of human soul and nature. Chinese culture focuses more on the inner world, like in meditation, happiness is flowing inside yourself, and it’s a default state, as long as you can quiet down to hear your inner voice, you can experience the happiness, without the disruption from the external world. Therefore, because of it’s extreme highlight on inner world, some external aspects are ignored and underestimated. Many famous poets in ancient China all live in “poor” living conditions, but they feel spiritually happy – the rich happiness in their inner world. I guess this is part of the reason why contemporary Chinese people are blindly chasing materialism – we Chinese people have been underestimated the joy that materialism can bring for us for such a long time, and now, we want it all.

If we consider the innovation in China, many ancient thinkers have pointed out the method, that is, forming a quiet inner world first, so that you can have the ability to see the world in details, you can think deeply, and you can see the changing (变) world clearly. You should have a open mind to embrace all different things and see the world from a fresh perspective every day, just like a baby. Ancient people even engrave something on the edge of their washbasin so they can see it while washing faces every day. The thing is “every day, we should wash our soul to face the new life and new change.” But all this kind of instruction is missing in our education, and I JUST realized it after I studied one year in Stanford as a master student.

Now, consider western culture, which is more practical and more human-centered. Everything is crystal clear, and it’s step by step. The culture highlights many aspects about individuals, just an example, the human-centered approach in design is completely new to me the first time I heard about it. It’s strange, in China, we also mentioned that we need to be human-centered, but why it’s not like the way it is here? I think it’s the cultural difference. In China, we consider things more from a “wholeness” perspective, so we see people as a whole, and each individual should strive for the mutual goal, which leads to the ignorance of each individual’s feeling. I say things here are very practical, for example, all the ideation techniques can be explained easily and they are all doable and actionable. Chinese culture prefers everything that is not explained straightforward, so my assumption is that, you have to quiet down and think, practice, reflect, think, practice, and reflect, to really master it. It’s hard to do under the current situation in China where people face tons of pressures, and therefore it’s hard for Chinese people to understand as well. Chinese people start to generate a feeling of distance with their own culture. On the contrary, Western culture’s step-by-step instruction is straightforward, extremely easy to manage, and it satisfies human needs, so it makes sense that it’s more friendly and more accessible.

Both cultures have pros and cons, and they need to learn from each other, like the Ying-Yang, it’s flowing and it’s a cycle. You can see more and more famous people here in the States start to do mediation or read Chinese books to understand the life, the world, and the universe; more and more Chinese people, like me, are absorbing the key approaches in the Western culture while reflecting the core values in our OWN culture.

No single culture is better than one another, only when they come together can the amazing things happen.

I am a Chinese and I feel proud of my culture. I am dedicated to make my people realize the value in our own culture. Make it friendly and accessible, with the wisdom and insights from the Western culture. I think that’s not only the innovation in Chinese culture, but also the powerful innovation energy for the whole world.