Recognizing the Difference between the Eastern and Western Culture Based on Different Ways of Viewing Things

Zhou Zheng

PureInsight | November 7, 2005


(1) Differences in the Visual Senses

According to an article in a recent issue of Science Magazine, the big difference between Eastern and Western cultures can be seen from how people form the two cultures look at objects differently. (1)

According to the article, Richard Nisbett, a social psychologist from the University of Michigan, conducted an experiment. The test subjects of the experiment were 25 American and 27 Chinese students. Each of them was shown 36 photos, and they were allowed to see each photo for 3 seconds. Each photo depicted a single subject against a realistic and complex background. For example, one photo showed a tiger (the single subject) in a forest (the complex background).

Nisbett's experiment shows that it takes a shorter amount of time for the American test subjects to focus their attention on the foreground image of each photo, and they also spent a longer time looking at the foreground image than the Chinese test subjects did. On the other hand, the Chinese test subjects spent more time looking at the background images and less time on the foreground images. When the test subjects were given memory tests afterwards, the Chinese test subjects could remember the background images more clearly and the American test subjects could remember the foreground images more clearly.

The article stated that it was the first time such an experiment had been conducted. The full research results were published on Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Scientific American Magazine also published an article on the experiment. (2)

(2) Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine

Actually the difference between the Eastern culture and the Western culture is not only reflected in how people from the two cultures view things differently, the difference can be seen in many different areas. The Eastern culture puts more emphasis on looking at an issue holistically while people from the western culture (such as Americans) tend to analyze different objects independently. This point could be clearly seen from the practices of the Chinese and western medicine.

As a part of the long-lasting traditional Chinese culture, Chinese medicine was quite advanced in ancient times. Its accomplishments could be seen from the stories of legendary doctors of ancient Chinese medicine, such as Hua Tuo and Sun Simiao. A doctor of Chinese medicine uses four methods to diagnose a patient, looking, smelling, asking questions and checking the pulse of the patient. Comparing to today's western medicine which relies heavily on performing laboratory analysis and tests, Chinese medicine can be practiced in an easier and more straight-forward manner, and is able to cure the illnesses at their roots.

The splendid historical accomplishments of Chinese medicine had everything to do with the divine culture of ancient China. Ancient Chinese science put emphasis on "heaven and humans becoming one" and following the rules of the nature. For a human being, all his major organs are interconnected and form one body. If his inner organs are not functioning properly, the problems are reflected in his surface pulse, and in his facial expressions, his voice, and even his behavior. It is truly like what one Chinese saying states, "from the falling of a single leaf, one can tell what has happened in the world all around him."

There is an ancient Chinese saying, "a practitioner of medicine is also a scholar of Yi." It means that the inner meaning of the Chinese medicine is as intricate and unfathomable as the ancient book of Zhou Yi. Therefore, someone who really understands Chinese medicine can easily find the root cause of a person's illness from his surface symptoms. For example, if one knows that the Yang and Yin sides of the patient's inner organs have become unbalanced, curing it is a very easy thing.

Western medicine doesn't take this path. It studies the function of each organ through dissecting it. It studies what the illness is through looking at the structures of different parts and different cells of the body. Now it has progressed to performing research on molecular and genetic levels. But a human being is, after all, not a machine made up of different parts. Therefore using such a dissecting method makes it difficult to identify the illness at its root and curing it effectively.

In addition, Chinese medicine puts emphasis on "adjusting," "supplementing", and "resting upon" the body of the patient while the western medicine talks about "treating" the body. Therefore even if doctors are able to offer a patient effective western medicine to treat his illness, the medicine often has side effects that cause damage to normal cells and lead to other problems down the road.

With the passage of the time, today's Chinese medicine is very different from what it used to be in the ancient times. The change is resulted from a variety of factors. One major factor is that today's people look at the materialistic world and the human body science differently. Many modern doctors of the Chinese medicine simply copy herbal prescriptions that have been passed down for centuries to treat patients. But in reality, even if two patients have identical symptoms, because they are different individuals, the cause of their illnesses could be very different. Since the technique of using the same old prescriptions based on the symptoms exhibited is practiced widely in today's Chinese medicine, it is very difficult to achieve good results. Sometimes it might even have negative results.

Of course, the large gap between ancient Chinese medicine and today's Chinese medicine can also be attributed to other specific reasons. For example, the doctors of Chinese medicine in ancient times tried very hard to lead their lives naturally without having any pursuit, so gradually they came to know the heavenly mandates. Today many Chinese medicine doctors are interested in pursuing fame and self-interest. In addition, the herbal medicines are planted and collected differently today from what were done in the ancient time. There are many other reasons. But all these reasons are byproducts of the decline of the moral standard of the entire Chinese society. It can be said that the decline in Chinese medicine is also a part of the overall decline of traditional Chinese culture.

The good thing is that in recent years, along with the practice of Qigong, more and more people are looking at the traditional culture in a different light. According to many media reports, more and more people are practicing medicine. It will definitely lead to people gaining new understandings of Chinese medicine and other elements of traditional Chinese culture.

(3) Art

The different characteristics of the Eastern Culture and western culture are also reflected in many different areas, such as art and music.

Many Chinese people are familiar with the story of "High Mountains and Flowing Water." It relates to the legendary Zhou Dynasty qin player, Bo Ya, and a humble woodcutter, Zhong Ziqi. [A qin is a Chinese organ with immense tonal capacities. The qin, along with poetry and calligraphy represent literate China.] The story goes as follows: Bo Ya was assigned to work during the spring and autumn in Chu. After Bo Ya reached the Hanyang River's inlet to the sea he stopped due to a heavy storm. He moored the boat under a cliff. The rain stopped during the mid-autumn night and the sky became clear again. The bright moon could be seen in the sky. Bo Ya played the qin to express his feelings. At the same time, Zhong Ziqi, a woodsman had also stopped under the cliff to avoid the storm. Zhong Ziqi heard the music and understood what Bo Ya wanted to say through his music. Bo Ya couldn't quite believe that Zhong Ziqi understood the meaning of his music and thus decided to test him. Bo Ya asked Ziqi, "Can you hear in my music what is in my heart?" Ziqi was willing to give it a try. After some thought, Bo Ya thought of a high mountain. He put this thought into his music. The woodsman blurted out, "It's really beautiful. You are thinking of a high mountain!" Bo Ya remained silent, contemplated and came up with another theme, flowing water. The woodsman again listened to Bo Ya playing the qin. He said, "Beautiful! It is about flowing water." The woodsman could truly hear what was on Bo Ya's mind. Bo Ya was very amazed. He put the qin aside and got up. He and Ziqi became great friends, and the legend about their meeting has been passed down for several thousand years.

According to records from Shi Ji – The Family of Confucius, Confucius once studied how to play the qin with Shi Rangzi. He learned only one piece, and played it for the next 10 days without learning anything else. Shi Rangzi said, "You can go ahead and learn some new pieces now." Confucius said, "I have already learned how to play this piece. But I still haven't learned the key things of how to play qin." After a period of time, Shi Rangzi once again said, "You have already learned the key things of how to play qin. Why don't you learn some new pieces?" Confucius said, "I still haven't understood the inner meaning of this piece." After a period of time, Shi Rangzi once again told Confucius, "You should go ahead and learn some new pieces." Confucius said, "I still haven't understood what kind of person the composer of the piece was." A while later Confucius became very solemn and tranquil. He was in deep thought. Then suddenly it seemed that he had come to understand something. It appeared as if he had gained a broad vision and a lofty ambition. He told Shi Rangzi, "I now understand what kind of a person the composer was. He had dark skin. He was very tall. His eyes were bright and deep. He seemed to be a monarch who lorded over kings around him. Who could he be other than King Wen of the Zhou Dynasty?" Shi Rangzi got up from his seat and bowed deeply toward Confucius twice, "My teacher had told me that this piece was indeed composed by King Wen of the Zhou Dynasty."

The two stories above reveal tantalizing pieces of the intricacy of the traditional Chinese culture.

Let's move onto the subject of painting. After they master the painting techniques, accomplished painters from the Eastern culture and western culture express things differently in their paintings. Qi Baishi, a renowned painter of traditional Chinese painting, is famous for painting shrimps, while another artist Xu Beihong is famous for painting horses. Both of them could bring their subjects to life with just a few strokes. In his painting, "The Last Supper," Da Vinci was able to illustrate the expressions and the mental states of each subject in the painting in a vivid manner and bring the subjects to life. These artists all possess extraordinary painting techniques, but the styles of their paintings are completely different. Master Li Hongzhi said, "As for these two artistic systems of mankind, both the East and the West have had an inheriting process in their respective ethnic cultures for several thousand years, but the styles of these two types of art are largely different. They are different in their techniques and approaches, their ways of expressing things, the feelings they project, and the visual effects they produce. From the very beginning of its inheriting process, the Chinese arts were established from a semi-divine culture. In other words, half of the emphasis was not on the human surface but on the spirit of the subject, its allure, and the inner meanings. That's why the manifestations of all aspects of the Chinese culture had that characteristic, especially in fine art, where they don't really pay attention to depicting the details on the surface, they focus on expressing the ideas, or the spirit of it, and the inner meanings. Western arts were also passed down to humans from Gods, but their emphasis is on human beings' surface culture. They stress superb, precise, and refined techniques, and realistic, superlative artistry. The emphasis is placed on demonstrating the techniques at the surface human dimension. So in their works of fine art, the surface of objects is expressed in a very refined and precise manner. So the artistic styles of the West and of China have taken two different paths." ("Teaching the Fa at the Discussion on Creating Fine Art")

(4) Summary

In the East, people say that human beings were created by Nu Wa. In the West, people say that human beings were created by God. Because they came from different origins, they have developed different cultures and different customs. How to fully demonstrate the good things from each culture, balance each other and create beautiful and pure things together, maybe that is the reason why the two cultures were created in the first place.


1. Eye on the Tiger:

Translated from:

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