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The Writing on the Wall

How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity

By William C. Hannas

Publication Year: 2011

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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Encounters with Asia


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pp. 8-9

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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 ...

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1. Japan's Creative Imitations

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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 ...

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2. Sources of Chinese Innovation

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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 ...

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3. Korean Technology Transfer

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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 ...

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4. Asia's Creativity Problem

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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 ...

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5. The Anatomy of Creativity

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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 ofJapan, China, and South Korea on Western ideas ...

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6. Creativity and the Alphabet

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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 ...

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7. Asia's Orthographic Tradition

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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 ...

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8. The Concrete Nature of Asian Writing

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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 ...

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9. The Impact of Language on Creativity

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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 ...

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10. Chinese Characters and Creativity

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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 ...

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11. Creativity and East Asian Society

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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 ...

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12. Conclusion

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pp. 284-294

This study began by noting that the East Asian countries, the "Chinese character nations" (kanji minzoku) of China,]apan, and Korea, suffer a creativity deficit, evidenced by an insatiable quest for Western wellspring technology. This inability to make radical breaks with the past ...


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pp. 295-321


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pp. 323-336


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pp. 337-345

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pp. 347-348

I am amused that this book on creativity fulfills Koestler's (1964) definition of creativity by "bisociating" two separate fields of inquiry: the so-called gray aspects of technology transfer and the psycholinguistics ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202168
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812237115

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Encounters with Asia

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • East Asia -- Languages -- Writing.
  • Creation (Literary, artistic, etc.).
  • Creative ability.
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