Planning for east-west cooperative projects: two logical views

Walter Parham, Ph.D.

August, 2008

The Chinese philosophical view of the world and an associated logic differ in many ways from that of the West (8). An American in China today will see many Chinese using cell telephones, wearing blue jeans and T-shirts, eating at MacDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and KFC, and using the Wi-Fi facilities at Starbucks. These are just a few examples of Chinese adaptation to American foods and culture but not necessarily evidence of acceptance of Western thought processes. Similarly, Chinese restaurants are popular with Americans and in spite of this fondness for Chinese food, Americans still maintain their Western way of thinking.

Beneath these surface features, the age-old Chinese way of thinking seems largely in tact (8). So, when Americans and Chinese undertake cooperative projects today it is valuable for each to recognize how the other’s logic or philosophy can lead to unexpected difficulties in seemingly simple planning activities.

It is useful for cooperating parties from both cultures to examine literature that deals with differences between Western and Chinese thought before a project begins. The following is a sample of what a few specialists in psychology, anthropology, and sociology agree are some important differences between Chinese and Western thinking.

The Western view:

The Western view of the world is derived from the ancient Greeks who saw the world as discrete objects, and who employed systematic descriptions and analyses of nature (8). Western thinking typically is linear, logical, analytic, and goal oriented (3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11) and deals readily with abstractions and universal principles (1,8). It is explicit; it focuses on details, specific objects and their attributes, fosters categorization, and involves critical questioning (3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, 13).

In the West, we feel it is important to establish a specific goal for a proposed project, one that is quantifiable and is measurable in time. Without these, a goal is open ended. For example, a person’s stated goal might be to reduce erosion in a certain degraded area of land. However, stated this way, neither the rate of progress nor level of success can be measured. Is the desired erosion reduction 1 percent, 10 percent, or perhaps 80 percent? Over what period of time is this reduction to be achieved: 6 months, 2 years, or perhaps 20 years? There is no way to tell. Consequently, proper goal setting is an important first step for a proposed activity.

The Chinese view:

Chinese thinking, on the other hand, derives from ancient China and India where the philosophers saw the world as continuous substances (7,8). Chinese thinking is intuitive and holistic (3) where meanings commonly are implicit and inferred (4). They use a dialectical approach to find the middle ground of a question rather than stressing right or wrong (7,8). “Literary work written explicitly may be seen as unsophisticated and culturally inappropriate by Chinese” (4).

In examining science and scientists in China, Chen-Lu Chen, a respected scientist himself, says that “Confucianism…came to dominate Chinese culture from the early Han Dynasty (100 A.D.) onward. Since then, all other kinds of learning have been considered more or less trivial, and scholars of Confucius’ philosophy have ruled over the common people, including scholars of other disciplines. One of the great tenets of Confucianism the need for each individual to know his or her place in the social hierarchy, contributed much to the continuation of Chinese civilization through the dynasties. But knowing one’s place also militates against curiosity and creativity, and I believe that the influence of Confucius explains why China has never been strong in science, especially abstract science.” (10).

The Chinese see events embedded in a continuum in which the elements are continuously changing and being rearranged (4,8, 13), so “to think about an object or event in isolation and apply abstract rules is to invite extreme and mistaken conclusions” (8). The Chinese emphasize the importance of chance events or coincidence at the point of observation (11), and feel that common sense plays an important role in that interpretation (5).

The famous writer Lin Yutang highlights what he feels are Chinese dislikes for Western logic but laces his insights with humor (5).

“Western nations have more logic and less common sense than we Chinese.”

Logic is a form of literature which failed entirely to develop in China.”

“One has to feel one’s way about – to sense things as they are and get a correct impression of the myriad things in human life and human nature not as unrelated parts, but as a whole.”

“The Chinese distrust of logic begins with the distrust of words, proceeds with the abhorrence of definitions and ends with instinctive hatred for all systems and theories.”

The Chinese “know that natural laws are merely statistical truths and thus must allow for exception” (10). The Chinese believe that every process is partly or totally interfered with by chance so much so that under normal circumstances it is highly unlikely that the events will conform to specific natural laws (10).

Many Chinese have difficulty understanding Westerners’ use of formal logic, even though Chinese intellectuals are familiar to a considerable degree with Western ways of thinking (8). The Chinese view formal logic as disaggregating the world into small pieces, thereby removing the pieces from their natural context (3,7).

Like their ancient ancestors, the Chinese strive to be reasonable, not rational. Debate is nearly as uncommon today in modern Asia as it was in ancient China. They prefer interpersonal harmony and consensus, and work to avoid controversy and sharp debate (8).

The Chinese are said to lack a linear rhetoric form like that commonly used in the West when writing a paper, such as, introduction, problem, hypothesis, means of testing, evidence, arguments as to what the evidence means, refutation of counterarguments, conclusion and recommendations. This form is not at all common in the East” (8).

The Chinese typically use inference in their writing leaving it to the reader to fill in the missing parts (4, 9). Consequently, “Chinese documents are thinner than the equivalent document published in English”. This is similar to the blank areas some Chinese artists leave in their paintings to allow the viewer to complete by using the viewer’s own imagination (9).

Xu (12) describes the Chinese view (he says universal principle)  that everything has a relationship with everything else.  Consequently, attributes of object A have some marks of object B because of their interaction and therefore one can learn about A by studying B.  Further he says that the Chinese believe that the universe and everything in it moves in circles and that each circle is in contact with all others.  In such a circular system a cause will become a result and a result a cause much as a causal loop is viewed in systems science.  Zho (13) adds that analysis is not rejected but that synthesis predominates thus leaving no absolute distinction between the linearity of Western thinking and the Chinese view of circularity.

Fuzzy ground:

How much difference exists between the thinking of Chinese and Western scientists today? The literature above suggests that the differences can be significant. Yet, many Western scientists probably know of particular Chinese scientists who are well respected in China and in the West for their clear scientific thinking and scientific contributions.

The following example illustrates some difficulties which may have resulted from differences in Chinese and Western thinking. The example is taken from a workshop I directed in China in 1996 for about 30 Chinese natural-resource scientists. The workshop was designed to provide them with the skills necessary to prepare project proposals that might compete successfully for international funding, primarily from Western institutions. The workshop taught a common form of Logical Framework Analysis (6) which uses an explicit, linear, analytic, logical approach designed to help each participant construct a clearly defined, measurable and quantifiable project goal.

It was challenging for most participants to establish individual goals and to follow the required linear logic that the Framework process required even though all of the workshop materials were in English and Chinese. I had the assistance of an excellent native Chinese translator who was a scientist himself and President of a large Chinese university. His Vice President for Research attended the first day and said that during the first part of the day he did not understand the Logical Framework analysis because of his Chinese thinking process. Later in the day after having seen and heard the presentation he said that he understood the Logical Framework technique clearly. By the end of the day he said that he was going to begin to require authors of project proposals sent to him to include an analysis of the proposal using the Logical Framework method. The workshop which normally could be completed in two days with a Western class required five days in China with considerable exchange of written material between the participants and me for a few months after the workshop.

This was my initiation into what may be an example of how East and West logic may differ. “(The Chinese) use formal logic little in problem solving and they may consider a person immature who is too concerned with logic” (8). Some differences in the thinking of the East and West clearly exist and the time to become familiar with the differences is at the outset of a cooperative international activity.

For illustrative purposes, Bond (2) represents cultural differences between two hypothetical countries, one East and one West, using two over-lapping normal curves and the mean of each. Adapting his model, we might let curve 1 represent China and its holistic style of thinking, and curve 2 a western country like the United States and its linear style of thinking. Though the mean of each curve differs from the other, the overlap of the two curves shows that the thinking of some members of each country have characteristics in common with members of the other country. It seems that such an overlap might explain why some Chinese scientists work well with Western scientists even though the general style of thinking of the East and West differs. Bond warns us though that “the blunt conclusions of any cross-cultural comparison are thus only more or less accurate (2)”.

A question for you, the reader.

I still have some uncertainties in making generalizations as to how different the thinking is between the East and West especially when it relates to science. Consequently, I encourage others who have worked directly with the Chinese on cooperative activities to assess their experience and to share it with the rest of us. Try to recall whether your Chinese counterparts had ever been outside of China for any prolonged period of time where they may have been exposed to Western thinking, or whether they may have been influenced by Western professors during their formal education in China. It also would be important to note whether the individuals were scientists or non-scientists. I welcome your comments.

Walter Parham, Ph.D.
May, 2008 with additions June 2013.

Referenced cited:

(1) Begley, S., Mar. 28, 2003 East versus west: One sees big picture, other is focused, The Wall Street Journal,, accessed 5/6/08.

(2) Bond, M.H., 1991, Beyond the Chinese face, Michael H. Bond, 1991, Oxford University Press, Hong Kong, 125 p.

(3) Buchtel, E.E., and Norenzayan, A., Which should we use, Intuition or Logic? Cultural differences in injunctive norms about reasoning; E.E. Buchtel and A. Norenzayan, U. of British Colombia,, accessed 5/6/08.

(4) Durkin, K., Challenges Chinese students face …., Bounrnemouth U.,, accessed 5/6/08.

(5) Lin, Yutang, 1937, The importance of living, 1937, Wm Morrow and Co., Inc., New York, 462 p.

(6) ____, Logical framework analysis, Bond, Guidance notes no. 4,, accessed 5/6/08.

(7) NIH, Feb. 9, 2005, Cognitive differences between western and east Asians; Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research,, accessed 5/6/08.

(8) Nisbett, R.E., 2003, The geography of thought:How Asians and Westerners think differently … and why, Free Press, New York, 263 p

(9) The Epoch Times, Oct. 25, 2006, Pulling a buffalo without a rope: New Tang dynasty TV’s New Year spectacular,, accessed 5/6/08.

(10) Tsou, Chen-Lu, 1998, Science and scientists in China, Science, v. 280, p. 528-529.

(11) Wilhelm, R., and Baynes, C.F., 1971, The I Ching, or Book of Changes, Princeton University Press, 740 p., C.G. Jung, Forward, p. xxi – xxxix.

(12) Xu, Guangxing, 2005, Rethinking systems: from a perspective of Chinese philosophy and sustainable development, (in) 6 eme Congres de Science des Systems, p. 1-11.

(13) Zho, Biao, 2002, Lines and circles: West and East, Quest, v. 90, no. 4, p. 140-145.



Developing sustainable agroecological demonstrations on two South China tropical islands using science-based ecotourists

January 10, 2013

During discussions with my Chinese colleagues in 1998-1999 on how to develop a science-based, ecotourist project on Damang and Hebao Islands in southwest Zhuhai I was told many times that though they liked the general idea they could see no way that Chinese ecotourists would use their vacation time to assist scientists collect botanical, geological, and wildlife data.  I explained that such a practice was common in the West and that reliable scientific data can be obtained using ecotourist input.  They believed me but still they assured me that Chinese ecotourists very likely would not participate but they did not explain why.  They liked the idea of having non-Chinese participants assist in collection of field data and paying their own way for the opportunity to support such research.  I wanted to involve Chinese participants in the field work to help expand public interest in island agroecology and how science works.  The project was not successful because I could not convince my Chinese colleagues that participation of Chinese ecotourists was essential.

Now, about 15 years later, trying to think as a Chinese person might, I ask myself why would anyone want to participate in such a field activity without receiving something personal in return?  Partly it may relate to the thinking of Confucius which still plays a large role with the Chinese today.

The article I quote here describes Confucius’ Five Constant Relationships: “those between parent and child, elder and younger siblings, husband and wife, elder and junior friends, and ruler and subject.”  Not included is one between an individual and a stranger.  So one might ask, what is the benefit of helping a stranger who offers nothing in return?


There is no exact translation for the Chinese concept “gaunxi,” but it is a mutually beneficial relationship that provides an ongoing link between individuals. It involves reciprocal favors or assistance that two people provide each other.  It has been said that this is the foundation upon which most everything is accomplished in China.

This can be traced to the Chinese emphasis on interdependent personal relationships.  When combined with the structure and protocol of Chinese society, this interdependence takes on a more formal aspect.  This structured interdependence is called gaunxi.  One person will do a favor for another person, with the expectation that the person being helped is then obliged to provide some type of unspecified future assistance in return.  Such relationships may exist between neighbors, with the clerk in the local store, with government officials, or with business associates.”

Perhaps, what my Chinese colleagues were trying to tell me was, that “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” makes their world go round and that the system I was pushing was something quite foreign to the average Chinese.

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