Yang Liu's shows us the difference between East and West

By Ding Wang 

Confused, you should be
Yang Liu was born in Beijing in 1976, and moved to Germany in 1990. She studied at UWE at Bristol, UK in 1976, and graduated with a master’s degree from University of Arts Berlin in 1976. Since 2010 Liu has been a professor and chair of communication design at Berlin Technical Art University. In 2003, she left Berlin and moved to New York. At the time she had spent exactly 13 years in Germany and 13 years in China and felt the desire to document this chapter of her life in visual terms. She decided that she would produce a book and that its dimensions would be 13 x 13. In 2007, Liu published West meet East in Germany. During the first exhibition, some of the images in the book were posted on blogs and websites and got a great deal of attention. The intense interest was easy to explain: Liu had rendered the complex social differences between the east and west in easy to understand pictograms. I want to look at some of them and explain how well they explain Chinese culture.

Sometimes the most direct direction is indirectly


When Chinese people express personal opinions, they always beat around the bush. "Yes" does not necessarily mean, "yes" and "no" might mean “yes” or maybe.” Most interestingly, a Chinese person who says exactly what he means would be considered a "shrewd dealer.” An old piece of advice or philosophy goes something like this, “It’s good for the mouth to stay for a while." Therefore, in the eyes of foreigners, it’s hard to understand what the Chinese are saying because they rarely say it directly, even though they do.

What makes the above pictogram so powerful is that it catches this idea. For many Chinese, Westerners talk in a straight line. And for many Westerners, the Chinese are horribly not to the point. Liu catches all this quite well, because the beginning point and the end point for both cultures is the same, but how they get there is radically different.

The dawn of truthiness


Some people like to express their opinions. People in China will hesitate when they express the truth. They would rather observe the situation. For example, in 2017, a high school student named Liu Wenzhan reported that people were paying schools for extra lessons, which is prohibited by the law. The school expelled Liu. He exposed the truth, but the authorities still thought he was wrong. I remember the famous Chinese educator Tao Xingzhi saying, “In whatever teaching, it’s the ultimate aim to teach somebody to seek for the truth; in whatever learning, it’s the ultimate aim to for somebody to learn to be honest.” So the question is why did Liu get expelled and what does it have to do with how the Chinese imagine truth. Even though it was against the rules, the environment is still producing learning and therefore Liu should have never alerted the authorities.

This is a difficult idea for those from the West to understand and in the above pictogram Liu shows the fluidity of Chinese thinking. As long as the result is the desired one, they don’t get hung up on how they get there, whereas Westerners are more interested in taking the clearest path. The image of fruit changing from apples to pears is a nice way of showing how Westerners might see Chinese thinking as magical.

Time is on my side
On Time

Time really depends on the situation, both in the west and east. Chinese like to use words like “almost,” “around,” and “maybe.” When Chinese people make an appointment, they like to say morning, afternoon, or night, something very general. However, people in the west make appointments at specific times. Yet in food and package delivery, China does a better job than the US. For example, food delivery is a mature market in China. The punctuality rate is almost 100%. The reason for this is the benefit relationship.

In 2016, a man filmed a food deliveryman crying in an elevator and posted it on his blog. Because of rush hour, the elevator stopped at every floor and the deliveryman missed his delivery time. He was fined for being late. The video became a hot topic. Some people sympathized with the deliveryman and thought the punishment was unreasonable. Some people think the reward-and-punish system makes delivery more efficient. After that incident, the company actually promised that not only would the consumer get food on time, but also that the deliveryman would not cry because of the unreasonable system that he was suffering under.

The pictogram above shows how one curved line can make a huge difference in perception. Liu demonstrates the way Chinese culture conceptualizes time in large swatches: morning, afternoon, and night. Interestingly, it also shows the way the west is concerned with exact time. What the pictogram makes clear, though, is exactness is not necessarily a path to greater accuracy. Look again at the Chinese timepiece, and you’ll see how taking time in a more general sense can often lead to somehow being on time.

Who am I?

Talking about the conflict between individualism and collectivism. China tends towards the collective. The cornerstone of traditional Chinese society is the patriarchal system, which is the glue that holds 1.4 billion people together. From this system we not only get a sense of family, our ancestors and culture, but we also derive our sense of local autonomy, taxes, law and order, and even a comprehensive system of social security. This collective, political identity comes from Confucianism, and touches all aspects of people's lives.

If centralized tyranny is necessary to maintain social stability, then the patriarchal system will continue as a way of maintaining national continuity and security.Movies are a good example. In the US, there are tons of Hollywood superhero movies. Usually one hero saves the world. In contrast, you won’t find the Chinese movie industry producing many Avengers, Batmen, Supermen, and Hulks. The closest Chinese example is Warwolf, although at the end of the movie the hero reminds the audience that every person is just one element in a greater organization.

There’s a joke talking about the difference between American and Chinese soldiers. When they face a life and death situation, American soldiers take the officer's hand and say “I have a family.” In contrast, Chinese officers have to stop Chinese soldiers from suicidal missions by reminding them that “you still have a family.” It’s not about the courage; it’s about a different vision of community.

In her pictogram Liu offers a sharp view of how the east and west conceive of the individual: On the blue western side, the man is large; on the red eastern side the man is small. In Chinese society, personal power is weak and ignored. One person will always be sacrificed in order to create a harmonious society; however, a harmonious society is not a vision of everyone living like robots. The eastern man and the western man are the same. It’s just that in the west the individual is omnipresent, while in the east the individual is in proper proportion to the whole of society.

Is this the beginning of "Linked In"?


Most Chinese have the same feeling about networking: it is complex. In Chinese, it’s called “Guan Xi.” There is a joke about an American doctoral student who comes to China to learn “Guan Xi.” He gets confused because the terms no “Guan Xi” and “Guan Xi” are the same. After one-year of research, his dissertation is still blank. In Chinese society, networking is both nowhere and everywhere. Engaging in business, registering for school, going to the hospital, buying a house, people need the support that networking provides.

The downside to this is that there is no escaping the network: if it doesn’t support you, you have no where else to turn. If you look at Liu’s pictogram, the Chinese side is an overly complex maze of multiple interactions. There is almost no center and no straight lines and everything seems to happen at once. Conversely, on the Western side, there’s an end point. In other words, you can get out of the system and go to another one. You have options.

The problem with the Chinese model is that if you’re networked in the wrong way, there’s no way out: you’re stuck. It’s great, if you have connections, but if you don’t you’re going to symbolically disappear. For instance, there is a story about a woman whose children suffer from gluteus contracture disease. The disease causes the gluteus to contract at 6 years old—children can't cross their legs, or properly run. Kids joke that they move like ducks. The treatment is a small operation, but if you don’t have the connections in China you’re out of luck and this mother was out of luck. People believe too much in networking and too little in the rule of law.

Liu uses a straight line and a curve to show how networking works in the east and the west The black dot represents the individual. The individual is same in the two pictograms, but the connectors are different.The five pictograms show the differences between eastern and western societies and show the limits of thinking in both the east and the west. Some of these differences are the result of vastly different social conditions. Others find their root in wealth and radically changing economic situations. How we shape our worlds and perceptions will always be different and Liu’s pictograms are an arresting and simple way of understanding this age-old problem.

©Ding Wang and the CCA Arts Review

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