Is creativity in China a problem? Or a question?

A key criticism and area identified for improvement both externally and also internally within China is the matter of promoting creativity in the Chinese Education System.

In 2010, Premier Wen Jiabao said that:

“Students don’t only need knowledge; they have to learn how to act, to use their brains,” Wen said “We must encourage students to think independently, freely express themselves, get them to believe in themselves, protect and stimulate their imagination and creativity.”

Creativity is important for China in order to continue its trajectory of development, to develop industry and start companies that will find employment for its 6 million fresh graduates each year looking for jobs, and is a prerequisite for China to achieve its ambitious targets to become global leaders able to compete and contribute in the creative industries that have traditionally been dominated by western companies. Realising the importance of this, China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, has quoted Einstein in saying that “imagination is more important than knowledge”

In order to make improvements in this area, its important to understand the underlying reasons for why there is an issue to creativity in the first place. I have identified three main reasons and from these I suggest some solutions. The first is linguistic, the second cultural, and the third is based on the examination system.

Promoting creative ways to learn the Chinese language

One key aspect, which is often overlooked in an analysis of Chinese creativity, is the need for Chinese children to dedicate a significant amount of their time at a young age in order to learn the Chinese language. The Chinese language has over 3000 commonly used characters which means that between the ages of 3-5 they spend thousands of hours re-writing by repetition each character until it is absorbed into memory.

During this period, Children in the west take far less time to learn the 26 letter alphabet which means they have more spare time in which they can spend time developing in other areas.

An example of the differing attitudes is that the writing and re-writing of lines of text is commonly given as a punishment in Western countries and is known as “doing lines” highlighting the differing attitude in this respect between the two cultures.

The methods of learning the Chinese language by rote is a crucial area to identify since it is one of the most significant activities that all Chinese children perform as a child. The time spend on this sets the standard method for learning, that establishes itself as the dominant method of transferring information from teacher to student, setting a level of tolerance towards repetitive behaviour that would be totally unacceptable, sure to receive complaints from parents in the West. It is also a method which permeates into the teaching of other subjects and continues throughout the education system as the child develops.

I found this astonishing when learning Chinese in a classroom at what is known as the leading University in China. I remember being fascinated by recognising the similarities between the radicals of each character, for example the woman character 女 and how this relates to other characters such as 好 which means baby and child which when together is seen as something pleasing to see, and so has the meaning: “good”, and 安 which means a woman in a house and is peaceful because when a woman is in a house this was associated with being peaceful.  I remember when first learning Chinese and asking my teacher about this, why she was not teaching us more about this and was astonished that she was unaware about the links between the characters of her own language. I have also found myself explaining similar points to other Chinese friends who, I was amazed to see, were unaware of the complex and fascinating ways in which their characters are constructed because they learnt the characters by rote.

Chinese is an incredibly rich language and an learning it is an opportunity to develop creativity and the mind when teaching it, it seems a waste that it is taught by rote and not by understanding the links between the characters.

Culturally, learning the Chinese language is time consuming and those hours from a young age, if taught by memorisation only will impact how creativity develops in children. It is also crucial to promote more creative ways of learning the language at this age and change attitudes about this, which is the most significant aspect of learning which will impact other aspects of learning at other ages. So unless more creative ways to learn the language are not sought,this would continue to be a barrier to creativity.

Promoting creativity within the culture, and exposing people to other “creative” cultures

It is often quoted that in the Chinese language, crisis and opportunity mean the same thing. Which means that when Chinese people see a crisis, they also recognise that there is an opportunity there at the same time. Although, this is not actually correct in reality: weiji means crisis, jihu means opportunity, the connection between language and thought in this context can be seen with the following example.

The word wenti in Chinese has two meanings: problem and question and there is no distinction between the two concepts. As a result, if you ask a question in Chinese, it is also a problem. There have been a few times when I have said “I have a question for you” in Chinese, and got the reply, by a Chinese person who prefers to speak English: “what is your problem?”

We can imagine how if there was only one word for problem or question in English that in order for us to avoid causing problems, this would make us less likely to ask questions,.Whether this is the case with Chinese people or if the lack of the need of a different word is just reflective of Chinese culture, is difficult to say, it is certainly true that Chinese classrooms and teachers have different attitudes towards asking questions than in the west.If it is the case that the make up of the Chinese culture and language means creative, independent thought is less valuable, and that this is seen in the cultural linguistic makeup then there are two solutions to this. The first is to analyse the culture and promote other ways of thinking: how would the introduction of another word that differentiates between question and problem, assigning question a positive meaning, and leaving problem with a negative meaning, impact on students attitudes towards asking questions?

Another solution is that it can be advantageous for Chinese to expose themselves and experience other cultures and languages that do not have these barriers in order to expose oneself to broaden their thinking and promote creativity.

It is also a well-documented benefit, triumphed by artists and musicians, that travel and learning a new language and culture and new experiences will promote creativity in itself. Countless studies have also suggested that living in another culture and travel and exposure to new environments can boost creativity.

So, one solution to foster Chinese creativity is to analyse the culture and then make cultural- linguistic changes that actively promote certain value. Another is to promote travel and expose students to another language, such as western culture and educational institutions which have different attitudes that would foster creativity.

Make creativity a key part of the assessement process

The gaokao is the National Higher Entrance Admission Exam that all students take which is the sole determinant for students place at Universities. It can be fair to say that creativity plays a very small role, if at all and due to the competitive nature of 9.5 million students taking this exam competing for the top spaces, those students who do well in this environment are those who are most successful at rote learning and complying with the rigorous processes of repetitive learning for exams.

If there is no reason to measure creativity and if the only measure of intelligence is the gaokao test system then there will be no incentive for students to develop and teachers to foster other areas of development and intelligence. Successful candidates will then go on to be the leaders in society and teachers and this way of thinking will continue for the next generation.

As Einstein said: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” We need to recognise that there are hundreds of definitions of intelligence, and examinations that compare students based on only one factor can be too narrow to incorporate the multiple types of intelligence that humans are capable of, and this criticism of examinations can certainly be applied to western countries too.

The examination system should incorporate and value equally many types of intelligence that are required in the dynamic and diverse society, such as creativity, and out of the box thinking leadership, emotional intelligence, spatial intelligence, visualisation, sport, art, dance, and other countless qualities that includes the rich nature of human intelligence.How creativity can be measured is not an easy question to answer, but if creativity is going to be promoted then there needs to be a way of measuring it incorporated into the education system.

So, in light of Wen Jiabao’s comments, how can creativity in China be fostered?

Firstly, the learning of the Chinese language is labour intensive and a significant portion of a child’s development is spent learning the complex Chinese language. We can ask if it can be taught in a way that encourages creativity and to what extent learning by rote is necessary.

It is also important to recognise the culture that exists in China, and look at ways to make cultural-linguistic changes, that could promote an increase in creative thinking. Whether this can actually be promoted directly is a complex matter, or if changes in this area would come as a result of promoting creativity in other ways. The exposure to another language, culture, and travel overseas, such as English educational institutions can be a key method to develop creativity for individuals more quickly.

And finally, and crucially, if we are going to foster creativity we need to establish a way in which creativity can be measured, and incorporate this into the education system so that it can be possible to develop in this area.

If you are interested in more articles do check out Rich on Linkedin. Or more about Chinese here.

Founder and CEO at China Admissions. Originally from UK🇬🇧, based in Beijing. Studied at Peking University & BLCU. Preparing for HSK 6. Hope we can help more talented international students have the same amazing experiences and opportunities that I have had
Richard Coward

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