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Creativity: The missing ingredient in Chinese thinking?; By Asma Masood

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

Picture Courtesy:ChineseThink

Article No. 0094/2017

Courtesy: Vidura, a journal of the Press Institute of India, October-December 2017 Volume 9 Issue 4

China has woken up to the fact that innovation is the need of the hour if it is to progress economically. Its leaders are encouraging innovation among university students and graduates. These students are being wooed with incentives and national honour. However, China acknowledges that innovation is a double-edged sword. Room for failure must be allowed in the innovation process. Only a trial-and-error approach can yield rich dividends. This is in contrast to the prevailing Chinese attitude, which is burdened by fear of failure and ensuing criticism.

Despite the encouragement being given to innovation, there are some grey areas. The fact that recognition and rewards for innovation are open only to those who are at least old enough to go to universities makes one wonder whether China does not want its school-going youth to get into the groove. For, innovation is the manifestation of creativity. Creativity in turn fosters free thinking and a questioning mind. Both are likely to be frowned upon in China, a country where freedom of speech is discouraged in order to guard the government’s stability.

The Communist Government of China, therefore, is attempting to delicately balance the demand for innovation with an environment that restricts uninhibited thinking. Such policies imply that innovation will be welcomed mostly in the domain of science and technology alone. It will not extend to creative arts such as literature, theatre, film, media, etc.

Chinese literature is tightly regulated. It has reached such a level that most authors practice self-censorship. As a result, there is a plethora of Chinese literary works that may conform to the norms of political correctness, but spins into the realms of the mystic or absurd. Surprisingly though, Chinese literary works are gaining worldwide attention.

Children’s books such as Bronze and Sunflower and science fiction like The Three-Body Problem have gained international acclaim. China even has a Nobel Prize winner – Mo Yan – who was acknowledged and praised by the Chinese media.

Besides, Wangwen or Chinese online literature websites are a rage even in countries such as the US. Wangwen publications devote attention to mysticism, fantasy and the surreal.

Illustration of Chinese women with silk woven during the Han Dynasty.

Picture courtesy: Wikipedia

Perhaps, these trends point to a subconscious cry from the Chinese to release their creative spirit from fetters. It is doubtful whether this will be happen in the near future. Every human being, it is thought, is born with creative DNA, but it is the social and cultural upbringing that plays a crucial role in encouraging or inhibiting the creative process.

It is also ironical that cultural relations in China, be they domestic or international (soft power), are largely regulated by the government. There is, hence, a lack of spontaneity which is crucial for creative pursuits that are the foundation of cultural identity.

China may be supporting the protection and fostering of minority cultures, but it is not always done. Uyghur Muslims and Tibetans fear a dilution of their culture, as the majority Han population is making inroads into their provinces and changing the demographic landscape. This raises the question whether the result will be a spurt of creative expression among one section of the population, while others are denied such opportunities. One dynamic that is common to all ethnic groups in China is the education system. The Chinese embrace rote-learning, as the competition for higher education and good jobs is exceedingly high. While this may also be the case in India, there are exceptions – for example, the ICSE syllabus.

There is little room for such variation in China. It is not surprising that the stress on such education patterns is producing success for China in the fields of space technology, communication industry and manufacturing sectors.

There are some ‘innovations’ such as combining two existing technologies into one (cigarette lighter and cell-phone is a classic example). However, China is well-known for replicating technologies, from iPhones to fighter jet aircraft.

The country has the world’s largest number of patent applications but it is yet to be seen how many of these patents are truly innovative or merely tweaking of existing products.

Without doubt, Chinese youth are capable of finding a way around certain restrictions. A website report reveals how few of them are using imaginative ways to cheat during examinations. The Chinese are also well-known for their hacking expertise.

It will be interesting to see how China will juxtapose its inherent creativeness alongside a political realm that cages freedom of expression. Will innovation in science compensate for the deficiencies in the Hans’ cultural creativity? Only time will tell.

Until then, Beijing will do well to remember that while lips may be sealed and websites blocked, the creative mind remains ephemeral and cannot be stopped from thinking the unthinkable.

(Asma Masood is a Research Officer with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, India, and President, Young Minds of C3S. The views expressed are her own. She can be contacted at Twitter:@asmamasood11)

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