“…a distinctly Chinese pattern of thought”?

Module systems do not occur in China alone; comparable phenomena exist in other cultures. However, the Chinese started working with module systems early in their history and developed them to a remarkably advanced level. They used modules in their language, literature, philosophy, and social organizations, as well as in their arts. Indeed, the devising of module systems seems to conform to a distinctly Chinese pattern of thought.1

While I was in the UK I took the opportunity to pick up some new books, one of which is
Ten Thousand Things, by Lothar Ledderose
. I hope to gain some insight into the art from this part of the world from this book, but the statement above troubles me. This setting up of “the Chinese” immediately enforces the relation of “otherness” between the author and the subject. Any utterance is liable to create this relationship, between author and subject, between knowledge and practice, between “now” and “then,” but it seems to me that in this case this relation is not a helpful one.

This book covers a spans thousands of years, a span which is itself intimately linked to Western history:

In roughly chronological sequence, the chapters cover a wide time span. The first case study deals with ritual bronze vessels of antiquity, particularly of the twelfth century B.C. Chapters 6 and 8, respectively, concern and encycolopedia of over one hundred million characters printed with movable type, and a series of bamboo paintings, both dating to the eighteenth century A.D.2

So who are these “Chinese” that the author sets up (or co-opts), that have maintained unique characteristics, deserving of a single name, over thousands of years? That’s many dynasties’ worth of people, with many groups coming and going in the history of the country, a country which has itself been geographically fluid.

Much of this relationship perhaps can be put down to the writer’s understanding of what is pragmatic in the face of his position: he reveals with these positioning statements that he writes for a Western audience.

I don’t deny that this categorisation can be useful and helpful, but what can we do when it becomes problematic? Is it a matter of explicitly positioning all our statements within their context (a potentially infinite task)? There can no absolute form to follow for this, no answer.

I’m perhaps making a small, pedantic point here, about a feature of the text that I have unnecessarily latched onto right at the start of reading this book. I know I will learn much about the objects it describes, I am just wary of how it will present the “whos” and the “whats” involved.

  1. Ledderose, Lothar (2000). Introduction. In: Ten Thousand Things: module and mass production in Chinese art (The A.W. Mellon lectures in the fine arts, 1998). Princeton: Princeton University Press. p.2.
  2. ibid., p.1.
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5 thoughts on ““…a distinctly Chinese pattern of thought”?

  1. Not sure whether it is a luxury or a sin to still look at a 'culture' from the outside these days… particularly when the gesture is not matched by a look at one's own from equivalent distance. Such equanimity seems exceedingly scarce though. Desirable?

    [it so happens this sort of parallel came up recently here, in the form of a parallel exposition of traditional Romanian wooden architecture side by side with a modern revival of some of the techniques involved in modern Japanese architecture. The parallel came with a crash course in the history of Japanese aesthetics as a young transplant of western philosophy. Very alien! I could hardly imagine the same exercise on China's 'scale'. ]

    Just a thought…

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Ana, very helpful.

      The problems of an anthropological approach raise their head again. I would go so far as to say any idea of "distance" is untenable. Can we look from the "outside" at all; is there really any outside to look "in" from (I guess we show we have learnt to be wary of these assumptions by our use of quote-marks around words) – post-structuralist thoughts. We always have a "position," but this is but one position within the multiplicity of options, within the field of view (thought of in a physical sense) as it were.

      Thinking about equanimity, one response to the above problems has been to fully immerse oneself in the (perceived) culture – to throw oneself into it, somehow circumventing the perceived divisions. I think, to begin with, by simply being aware of this problem, we may not avoid it, but at least we know when we fail.

      On a unrelated note, is the over-use of punctuation a bad sign in my writing?

  2. I haven't noticed the punctuation – I'd bet I abuse it more then you do.

    Anthropology…

    well, perhaps, I am simply not familiar enough with it to know whether my comfort zone as an on-looker to culture and art is anthropological. For better or worse, economics got me used to (at least try to) explaining things in terms of interaction between individuals of no particular cultural color. This is my 'outside'. On a good day, I may even believe this is possible…

    I suspect economics stages possibly the most extreme exercise in detachment everywhere in the humanities by a long shot, and, even so, the resulting 'outside' is far from a sterile epistemological test tube, by common admission.

    [1/3 ctd.]

  3. I suppose this is the place for an explanation, since … I don't think that an 'economy of culture' is a good joke even. All that methodological detachment leaves way too much space to cover up to such sweeping generalization. Only cultural norms of some narrow definition are fair game. Speaking of 'patterns of thought' characteristic to a culture would be hubris! I would have never looked at any cultural objects though this lens at all if it wasn't for a few coincidences, and it is still simply a pet project. It keeps going because, somehow, I keep finding relevant references and they keep being interesting [the latest: http://www.n55.dk/%5D.

    [ 2/3. way long? … the last bit below should be less of a monologue, at least]

  4. Equanimity…

    I wonder whether the instances when arts 'travel' – are imported, assimilated, reinvented – between cultures could not be seen as useful historic experiments for a measure of how divisions of perception distort cross-cultural observation. Presumably, when a form is naturalized, such distortions would be magnified, rendered tangible. If one may want to built an impartial view over both ends, at least they'd know where the pitfalls are. Does this make any sense? [the idea came up in a discussion at the Romanian & Japanese events, seems only appropriate to bring it up here of all places!]

    I cannot think of any 'Asian Art' assimilated in the West to the point that whatever new developments would be recognized equally. Perhaps crossings in the other direction ? 😉 … :)?

    [3/3. at your discretion…]

    Have a great weekend!