The Chinese Lacking in Creativity?

By Dyske    June 5th, 2009

A friend of mine sent me the link to this article about the problem of creativity in China.

I think many people do not consider the fact that “creativity” is historically and culturally dependent. If someone who does not know the existence of calculus invents it all on his own today, nobody would recognize it as “creative”, but if you think about it, it’s actually an amazing feat. What is considered as “creative” is a cultural matter, not some sort of objective and universal standard. As of today, the Western world defines the rules of this game called “creativity”. Naturally, the Chinese would be behind the curves in things like technological innovations. Given that they started playing this game only a few decades ago, what they achieved in this competition is not bad at all.

In the West, there is too much emphasis on “creativity” even at very young age. Earlier this week, I wrote about this on another blog. Because American kids do not adequately master the basics, they risk wasting time on things that have already been done before. Their primary objective is to be “creative”, so they try to skip the first step of mastering the basics, and go straight to being “creative”. In the East, the primary objective is learning. Creativity is left up to the individuals to develop on their own. The assumption here is that true creativity is something unique to each individual, and that it cannot be taught or replicated. So, they don’t even pretend to teach it. True creativity must come from within you, and nobody can help you with it. Any pretence of teaching creativity only confuses the matter, and delays the progress. This is why in Zen art forms, you have to go through years of just mastering the basics without bothering to create anything original of your own.

The West is all about originality for the sake of originality, because of this, many presumably “creative” things grab the attentions of the media, not because there is any substance, but because they know how to paint the facade of originality or “creativity” in order to get attention. The West is certainly winning in the realm of marketing, promotion, and PR.

As I was growing up in Japan, my parents often told me that, if you want to build a mountain high, you need to start it wide. The implication is that, if you start it narrow, you can build it very quickly but at some point you will get stuck. I think this is a common belief in the East. American students are so highly specialized so early on that they are able to build things quite quickly, but their narrow foundation will sooner or later come back and haunt them. Later in life, they realize that they do not have a wide enough foundation to grow further.

China is just getting started. They are not in a rush. They are doing fine. They should just ignore the Western cliche of what “creativity” is. I would predict that in 30 years from now, when these kids reach their most creative and productive ages, China will rule the market of creativity, and the West will be wondering what went wrong with their approach in what they call “creativity”.

28 Responses

  1. Ethan says:

    The problem isn’t that the Chinese lack creativity I think it’s that they don’t have any real forum to use it. From Childhood to adulthood they are so focused on studying that very few people try and create things of their own, it’s all just rote memorization. It’s getting better in bigger cities now but very slowly and the education changes that they were suppose to be making are not being realized. it’s all still just exam exam exam and nothing else…. Hopefully the changes start happening faster…

  2. lol says:

    You’re so right…like in math the teachers don’t give you the basics at all. They expect everyone to be able to make mental jumps and the kids have no idea what’s happening.

  3. Boyhowdy says:

    Dyske (sorry this is so effing long),

    This was an interesting post and something I’ve actually given some thought to. First, I’m a white American and a music history student. One of the things that we talked about relating to world music was the notion of stasis and tradition in the East while the West consistently privileged the new, a concept that you touched on that is applicable in a number of categories. One such example was some article I read a while back naming three inventions that drastically changed the history of the Western world when they were introduced that never really changed much of anything when they were in the East: gunpowder, movable type and the magnetic compass.

    I don’t think the East lacks a creative element. That would be like suggesting that someone is missing a part of their brain for humor or compassion; it just doesn’t make sense. It’s simply a cultural difference like any that has both good and bad parts to it. The “creativity” that I think you are writing about is the whole sense of individual expression in an artistic sense. I think what you said about math is relevant though, because while engineers are rarely called creative, it often takes someone thinking outside the box and look at the issue from a different view to solve math and science problems. It is important to put that into context though because (at least from a musical perspective which is where I approach the question from), has only come around in the past 200 years when musicians started not to write for the aristocracy but for themselves and a ticket-buying middle class audience. Until then, composers didn’t really have a unique sound or style (i.e. Mozart and Haydn), they self-plagiarized constantly (look at anything Vivaldi did) because a piece was usually performed once and there wasn’t an emphasis on originality. Since then, there has been a Western emphasis on finding that unique, personal style. I guess you could argue that has been something our parents have passed down: in the west “you are special and unique and you should just be yourself” while in the east it has been more “work hard so you can do what others are doing better than them.”

    While a drive to be the best clearly has a lot of practicality when it comes to musicianship, it sometimes can backfire. I’m not the first westerner to observe that a lot of the musicians coming out of Chinese music conservatories have incredible virtuosity, but often miss the music for the notes so to speak. It’s technically right, but it missed the feeling, emotion and interpretation. That’s not to say that won’t change. I believe the one child thing will have an unexpected consequence in combination with China’s entrance to the global economy. That is China has a new “me generation” of single sibling children who are used to being doted upon by parents and grandparents. I think you can already see this start to happen, oddly enough in the international politics of basketball. I can’t think of a more individual team sport than NBA basketball and look at who the #1 selling jersey is in China, Kobe Bryant (Yao is like 5 or something). That’s why I think the Olympic games were so fascinating to watch. While a generation ago may have valued the team over the individual (i.e. something along the lines of college basketball), this new generation is interested more and more in personal expression.


  4. Dyske says:

    Hi Boyhowdy

    I work in so-called “Creative” industry, but I’ve always hated this word, because there is nothing inherently creative about what we do. Some graphic designers are indeed creative but most of them are not. The ratio is probably just like any other fields such as engineering and law.

    I agree with all of your observations, however, my question is this: Does encouraging personal expression actually make someone more creative? My answer is no. (I wrote more about this in this essay called “How We Develop Creativity”) My view is that neither encouraging nor discouraging has any effect. In other words, neither Eastern nor Western approach to education does anything to develop creativity in students. My argument is that at least in the East, there is no pretense or claim of doing so.

    As you noted, the art schools in the East usually focus solely on techniques. So, their conservatories do indeed churn out technically competent musicians with no soul. But on the other hand, the Western art schools produce students whose egos are so big that they have no idea who they truly are. Either way, both have a long way to go in order to achieve true “personal expression”.

    Ego is an idea of self, it is not the self. Ego is what we think we are, not what we are. Most of us has an ego that is quite different from what other people see. It’s easier for other people to see who we truly are than for ourselves to see (like it’s easy for others to see how your hair style looks.).

    Western art schools encourage students to focus on their egos, but since ego is an idea, it is not possible for true creativity to spring out of it. Ideas, thoughts, or theories come after the fact. They are not the source, origin, nor inspiration of creativity. So, when you focus on “me”, you fail to be creative.

    The bottom line, at least for me, is that creativity cannot be taught. So, let’s not bother or pretend, and stick to teaching what can be taught.

  5. Boyhowdy says:

    Well said and I agreed with your essay on the subject. I think trying to teach creativity is the inherent flaw as far as schools that are intended to teach “creative” subjects. A good friend of mine just finished up a degree in screen writing at USC, and he told me that the most frustrating part of that program (which has a reputation as one of the best) is that most of the people who have been successful in that field are those who dropped out early and just went and did it. If there is a use in teaching “creative” fields at universities or in primary education, I would say that it is that it gives a foundation.

    Like you said about building up a mountain wide before it can go high, I think that teaching the canon of what has come before is useful if you intend to add to it. Then again, this often leads to people being different for the sake of it, which I wouldn’t necessarily judge as being creative, just combatative. Learning technique, skills and the history of your field is of course important, but I think inherently creative people tend to express themselves whether or not they have any formal training and in some cases not being indoctrinated into the canon allows fresh perspective. Some of the most impactful musicians of the 20th century, for example, can’t read or write music (and some like John Lennon refused to learn because they are afraid it would change the way they looked at it.) And I think certain western art schools sadly only give mediocre talents the skills to disguise their mediocrity in the pretension of knowing the artistic vernacular…

    I don’t think creativity can be taught either, but I suppose in some cases it can be encouraged or fostered. But as far as formal training for “creative” subject matter goes, I’m torn. What works for some people doesn’t work for others. Either way, you’re kidding yourself if you think that where you graduated from makes you a creative person.

  6. river says:

    Well, not sure that your article really elaborates this issue with ahy depth.

    The issue of creativity in China is rather simple. The Chinese live in a tyrannical regime lacking some of the most basic human rights. They have lived in similar situations for hundreds of years. You will not find much cretaivity in a society like that. After all, they cannot run the risk of someone coming up with the idea of being free.

  7. Pffefer says:


    Actually the Chinese “have lived in similar situations” not for hundreds of years but for thousands of years, they were never free to a great degree one could argue. However that didn’t impair their ability to create in the past.

    The notion that creativity is somehow tied to democracy and freedom is completely bogus.

  8. anonymous says:

    The reason is simply because the Chinese system is highly cyclical. Because they are situated, geographically, in a place prone to disasters, famine, disease, invasion and death (neighboring areas too cold and harsh) an authoritarian government always arises for the sake of meeting those threats. The people chafe under that kind of rule, but it doesn’t seem to have any impact on “creativity”.

    China just lacks resources now, they will do much better once the *immediate* issue of feeding and protecting everyone is covered.

  9. SheilaK says:

    ‘If someone who does not know the existence of calculus invents it all on his own today, nobody would recognize it as “creative”…’

    I live in the US, and I have always thought of this as creative. Seems pretty obvious to me. And there are lots of people around me who also recognize this as creative. Lots.

    Creativity is a lot more “basic” than rote memorization, btw.

  10. Marta says:

    I don’t disagree with what you wrote but I think you are generalizing too much. America and the West are two very different things. In Europe alone there’s a wide variety of cultures and consequently different styles of education. Just because American kids aren’t taught the basics doesn’t mean it’s like that in all of the West.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I am afraid I have to disagree with the basic premises of this post.

    Throughout history, the political and economic flourishing of a society has always been coincident with an increase in the expression of individuality and what you term “creativity”.

    Take Prussia as a small example. We have the flowering of creativity that is often referred to as the Vormarz period. And lo and behold, as that creative engine accelerated the strength of Prussia also grew immensely, culminating in the unification of Germany under Prussia in 1871.

    The development of any civilization happens as a creative response to pressures of one kind or another. Civilizations flourish in difficult, not easy, environments. The very first civilizations were finded by those who took the initiative. I won’t write an exposition on this here, but Toynbee made a clear and comprehensive exposition of this in the first few volumes of his A Study of History. When the initiative is lost, and the instrument of expansion becomes institutionalized (and institutionalized knowledge seems to be what you are advocating), societies lapse into decay.

    Individuality and creative expression go hand in hand. Throughout history civilizations have been generated from decaying “parent” civilizations only by those who are prepared to go against established norm.

    This should make clear why creativity is, in the first place, fundamentally important.

    Collectivism and unoriginality, likewise, are interlinked, and the problem with China is that it has relatively recently had forced down its throat the idea that Asian culture is collectivist. This is basic logic: if the group is more important than the individual to the extent that the individual becomes irrelevant, then trends of thought in the individual which contradict the group are also irrelevant. Creativity is therefore stifled.

    America is no representative of the culture of creativity. Creativity cannot be taught! Any attempt to didactically transmit creativity is ridiculous, because it’s paradoxical. Teaching creativity is attempting to force a group to think individually.

    And it is of course ridiculous to claim that one people or another are uncreative by nature of their ethnicity, and I know that you understand that. It is perhaps less ridiculous to claim that one culture is more or less inducive towards creativity than another.

    I am no apologist for America — absolutely not, as should be clear… — but I am certainly an apologist for creativity, and I think that you have fatally missed the point in your post.


  12. Dyske says:

    Hi VG,

    I believe you are misunderstanding my point.

    “and institutionalized knowledge seems to be what you are advocating”

    My point is that there is nothing to advocate with respect to teaching or encouraging creativity, because there is nothing you can do about it anyway. So, it doesn’t matter what you teach or how you teach in schools. I’m criticizing the Western criticism of China (and the East in general) that how they teach somehow stifles creativity. I think that is nonsense. No matter what you do, you can’t stifle creativity.

    You equate flourishing of culture with creativity. I don’t. I don’t think Russia now is any more creative than before or any other country for that matter. Just because they are building a whole bunch of flashy modern buildings and selling a massive amount of luxury goods does not mean that they are being creative.

    New York’s economy was booming before the crash last year, but there was nothing particularly creative about anything anyone did. When the economy is booming, people try to take care of everything with money, and we don’t see much creativity. We just see a whole bunch of crap get produced. I see people becoming more creative with their approaches to doing business or solving problems now, so I’m quite happy about that.

    The way I see it, how creativity manifests in culture and through different periods in history has nothing to do with what true creativity is. As I said in my original post, that’s just “marketing” of creativity. How “creativity” is presented and perceived, is a different matter from what creativity actually is.

    If China wises up to how to manipulate the perception of “creativity”, in a few decades, they would be able to defeat the US, and the Americans will be publishing a bunch of books on that subject like “The Secret of Chinese Creativity”, “China, the Creative Capital of the World”, “The Tao of Creativity”, and so on, just like they wrote a whole bunch of books about Japan in the 80s in a similar way.

    In short, the Western conception of what “creativity” is, is all on the facade, and it wouldn’t be hard for China to beat the West at their own game of manipulating the perception of “creativity”. That’s my point.

  13. VG says:

    OK, I think I do understand your point now, that you are referring to manipulating what people perceive as being “creativity” rather than creativity itself, and in that case I agree with you, China can easily get the upper hand. On the other hand I do feel that that is not manipulating the perception of creativity as such, but merely putting on the facade of creativity (which is, I suppose, creativity in itself in a paradoxical way). I have a great deal of respect for Chinese culture, and I certainly think that, particularly with the excesses of Maoism now well out of the way, China can certainly come out on top.

  14. Inst says:

    In my view, rote-oriented culture tends to produce more late-bloomers. In my experience, if you want to look for original thinking, you look towards the middle-aged and the elderly, and they’re the ones who have new ideas. The problem is, for these kinds of people, they’re usually bound up in social obligations that they never have the opportunity to implement; they have rent to pay, they have a wife, they have to pay for their children’s education, so they never have the opportunity to take the risks necessary to bring their ideas to fruition.

    I like the notion that you have people with more life-experience coming out with their ideas, in part because I have a disdain for other people of my age. A lot of people are told to be creative when they simply don’t have the capability to do such things, so in attempting to do something new, they fall flat on their faces and end up being a waste. Encouraging the young to be creative reminds me of a reverse tragedy of the commons; the society at large benefits from young people taking chances, but for the average individual the failure rate is a disaster. At the same time, in a rote-oriented society, the tragedy is that by the time people develop a unique sensibility, as I’ve mentioned before, they no longer have the ability to execute.

  15. Inst says:

    By the way, regarding the inability of Chinese to innovate, the Chinese are in fact very good at innovation right now. The unfortunate thing is that it’s expressed in terms of melamine in your pet food and carcinogenic dry wall. The proposed reason for that is that most Chinese producers have no idea what they’re producing. It’s like a cargo cult: produce a product in a certain way, and these westerners (or Japanese or Koreans or whatever) show up to buy your product and give you money for it. The profit outcome is already predetermined: if you manage to get your goods to meet a certain standard, the buyer will buy your product and give you money. If it’s above normal quality, well, you wasted a lot of money in upping the quality as your buyer won’t pay more for better quality product. If it’s below normal quality and manages to deceive the buyer, well, this is called cost-innovation, you profit, and your cargo cult process has been streamlined.

  16. Jake says:

    Sorry, but this article is amazingly wrong. Irrational anti-americanism/anti-westernism without any evidence, reasons, or logic. Who is emphasizing “creativity”? How? Americans have no classes in creativity, and supposedly creative classes like art, drama, and music have always been minimal and are even decreasing in frequency. Teachers don’t focus on creativity in their lessons, because instructional time is at a premium due to the emphasis on national test scores. There is no sacrifice of basics for creativity. Creativity occurs in the west naturally because it is not STIFLED as it is in asia. Western cultures allow for wide, open individuality and expression. Asian cultures are much more reserved. Often the restraints are not only cultural, but legal as well (China, Vietnam, North Korea, Myanmar, etc). 35-40 years ago, artists, many artists, writers, poets in China were being imprisoned in labor camps or even executed. Today it is commonplace for a creative film, book, or blog to be banned in several of these countries. There are a million ways to offend an asian (or an asian government). So, in a group society, deviating from the group is frowned upon and has consequences. But creativity requires individual thinking, not group thinking and fear of criticism. Asia is severely handicapped in creative endeavors because of this cultural difference. Luckily, Japan has demonstrated that there is hope. Certainly, all asian countries will most likely become more creative as time goes on and they are gradually westernized/modernized. But they will never overtake or even come close to western countries in this regard. Africa and the middle east theoretically could, but for asia, the ingrained cultural barrier is too great.

  17. Dyske says:

    Hi Jake,

    We just have disagreement about what “creativity” is. You are using the Western definition of it, and yes, as long as we use the Western definition of what “creativity” is, then your arguments are correct. I just think that the Western definition of “creativity” is bogus, and self-fulfilling.

  18. Sara says:

    I see that China seems to have an issue with the fact that mostly Americans won this ‘creativity contest’. But you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. The U.S. is berated for its general lack of academic rigor, but they get the fame and bragging rights of stealing this creativity show. I’ve never seen studies about this, and I’ve never been to China, but I am to understand that the Chinese are much more involved in academics and much more studious while they don’t seem to excel in the innovation department. So, what will it be, China? Academics or creativity? It seems you can’t have both. I wouldn’t complain about not having a Chinese representative among the winners when it seems to be a trade-off for a vigorous academic system.

  19. Dyske says:

    Hi Sara,

    That is an interesting hypothesis. Are “creativity” and academics mutually exclusive? Does that mean, the universities that are academically superior like Harvard are creatively inferior? Does that relationship between academics and creativity hold true within the US among different schools and institutions?

    If yes, it might be universal. If not, then there is no reason why China could not also win the creativity contest.

  20. Mystery soup says:

    I think that the majority of the problem is that Americans are raised to believe that everything they do is amazing and special, no matter what it is. They are also taught to speak their minds on all subjects, because not saying what you think is considered to be “sneaky” and “weak minded”.

    I think that it is difficult to understand a culture that you were not personally raised in, and this causes much confusion.

  21. J says:

    This doesn’t seem like a discussion on creativity, more about modes of art. And I disapprove of the disparagement of the western (particularly American) educational system, as it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The US educational system is not the best, but I was never hyper-specialized in anything (by the way, to say kids are less hyper-specialized in China is to not watch the Olympics or Chinese Opera). Anyhow – I agree that a good base of knowledge will develop creativity – but to say that a wide base is not required to develop an individual style is a fallacy. There are plenty of people on the internet with an individual style without any base – they can’t do anything with their art. China is plenty creative, and if you look at the traditional artistic base you can see it’s creative direction. I don’t think that’s any negative reflection on the creative style of the west, though. It’s just a negative reflection on the enforcement and acceptance of cultural colonialism.

  22. andrew says:

    I know its an old thread, but lets compare Africa and China.
    Doesn’t take a genius to realise the amount of creativity in Africa and the amount of academic rigour in China.
    Which brings to the conclusion that the West has struck a balance of between academia and creativity.

    They’s an old saying, “it will take me 10 hours to learn 100% how it works, but will take 100 hours to improve it 1%”

  23. Kiril says:

    China is not as creative as US yet because their education system is engineered that way. From a young age they are told to study and study hard. At the end of ‘high school’ in China, students are given a test sort of like America’s SAT. This test is believed to tell the students what they should do in the future and what careers are suitable for them. A Chinese student that I know told me that he can in general solve any problem if you give him the question but he cannot come up with ‘creative’ ,for the lack of another word, or new things. They are not trained that way, their education system is centered around a different idea. Which is to become the smartest people and they will become the best country in the world.

    That does not work without having ingenuity and creativity to create new things to import and sell and grow the economy, but China has grown in recent years without being so creative. The main reason why they grow is because US companies like Boeing, Nike, GE, and other Fortune 500 firms import their plants to China and let the Chinese build American ingenuity there. While doing this Americans also allow the Chinese to have the blueprints to literally everything that they build in China. Mark my words, in 20 years China will build everything that we own, they are learning how to make our equipment now and they will only build upon it and make it better and then change the name and resell it to the US. All of this without being a ‘creative’ nation, sounds like a good deal if you are China.

    US companies are digging a whole that we cannot dig ourselves out from, in order to save a few bucks today companies are destroying their own futures, along with millions of Americans lives.

  24. Dyske says:

    Hi Kiril,

    My belief is that people can be encouraged to be creative but they cannot be “trained” to be so. China still has a lot to catch up with. It’s not time for them to be so creative; being so would only delay their progress. As I said before, if you had no idea that calculus already existed, and if you invented it all on your own, you would technically be as creative Newton, but the world would not recognize you as such. On any subject matter, if you are behind others, the first thing you have to do is to study hard to catch up. Trying to be creative before catching up would lead to a lot of waste. So, China is doing the right thing. When the time comes for them to be creative, they will be. There is no need for them (or anyone else for that matter) to “teach” creativity.

    For the US companies to outsource their production to Asia in order to lower the cost and be more competitive was a creative solution. In a free market economy, once your competitors come up with creative solutions to be more competitive than you are, you too have to follow their lead, otherwise you won’t survive. If you try to control this at the government level as a social contract to stop the mutual assured destruction (so that nobody would need to outsource their production overseas), you end up with an uncompetitive, conservative, protectionist nation, precisely like China was a few decades ago. And, THAT, in fact would lead to an environment that discourages creativity. To be creative, we need destruction. So, you can’t criticize destruction and praise creativity at the same time.

    I sort of doubt that China will be making everything we own in 20 years. I don’t think they could stop the escalation of their labor cost and the appreciation of their own currency for that long. I believe those two advantages will gradually disappear before 20 years, and they will have to gradually introduce creativity to compete in the global market. During that period, other poorer countries will gain more advantage for production, and they’ll be making the things we own.

  25. PL says:

    Very interesting discussion. I have never thought of ‘creativity’ as something innate and cannot be taught; that is a very interesting point. Regardless of why (or why not) the Chinese lack creativity, the bigger issue appears to be the willingness to copy, lift, down right violate copyright laws of other people’s original ideas/products. I am of Chinese origin, which doesn’t give me any more right to critize the culture, but this is one of several current Chinese mindset that really baffles me.

  26. Michael says:

    Great thread. China will be able to sustain a western notion of creativity, however the cost will be self annihilation. Not worth it. Foster an intrinsically eastern creativity which elevates eastern ideas of religion, philosophy, and culture – worth it. The world wins as it would force the west to compete with a new set of ”products”, if china plays our game it will lead to war.

  27. jixiang says:

    Quite frankly your analysis is superficial, you clearly have no first had experience of Chinese society. Not only is there no “Western style” creativity, there’s little creativity of any kind.

    The problems are numerous, from censorship to an educational system which leaves the students no time to even develop any interests.

  28. Kevin says:

    Well, we shouldn’t feel bad about what we can do here in the West. Here in the west, yes we do teach basics! How dare you say we don’t??? In Kindergarten, I learned how to count, do addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division in all shapes in forms, including drawing boxes and squares and circles and whatever. That sort of carried over to the rest of lower elementary. Of course, growing up in a Chinese family in America, my family members made me memorize a lot of these things. I also learned how to tell time, deal with money in US $, and all that wonderful stuff. Of course, with Kumon, I learned math quickly, but everybody grows at their own pace and yes, I did learn in my American schools how to do a lot of the things Kumon taught me. I’m good at math but I don’t credit my ethnicity for it. I just love numbers. They’re fun! 🙂

    The Chinese admire the West, especially the USA (well, they often see the USA as the west). The Chinese are becoming more American in the sense that things like burgers and fries in invading the Chinese cuisine, but they are still uncreative in terms of education.

    In addition, they shouldn’t be seen as a threat because of yes their slowing economy, but what about birth rate? They have over a billion people 4 times the size of the US economy, but believe me, those days will be numbered because their birthrate is now below the replacement rate and look at their age structure! They are like another Japan in that respect! In 30-40 years, China will have more old people than the North America, Europe, and Japan combined!

    Anyways, I know I’m off topic but those are just my comments!