Line vs Surface (continued)

It’s crazy how Vilem Flusser’s writings could inform me about Chinese thinking. Vilem Flusser’s work mainly focuses on communications theory, and treats it as a science, almost like physics, approaching with a very analytical and critical rigor. And yet, even though I was reading it mainly for my curiosities in media theory, i somehow stumbled upon some views that coincided with my findings on Chinese culture.

Linear thinking had triumped in the West; after the printing of the bible, after the industrial revolution, after people learned history. Linear thinking was the ability to think in terms of logical sequences, which manifested into writing, mathematics and finally science. Science could be said to be the highest order of Linear thinking, putting theory into practice and method. One could say Western history, being linear itself, was the history of linear thinking, and how linear thinking has ‘progressed’ (grown in a linear fashion) to what it is today. You could say the West dominated the ‘Fission’ process of things, breaking down and analyzing and going deep into things. Such an approach contributed to ‘disciplines’, specialization and industrialization. Divide and conquer, so to speak.

Now, Eastern minds had a different approach for a long time. From the fundamental principles of calligraphy and typography, to cooking, to society and moral ethics, Chinese thinkers have approached things from a wholistic point of view. This is in tune with what Flusser terms as ’surface’ thinking; the ability to synthesize things at once, and put things together to create a greater whole. You could call it the ‘fusion’ of things. Take Chinese calligraphy and art for example: masters in the Chinese arts have always been taught that the unpainted surface of the paper is more important than the painted surface, or to put it in another way, the negative space. In doing so, the Chinese artist seeks to achieve a balance between negative and positive until it is finally in harmony. This philosophy is also resonated in the Yin and Yang from Taoism, where it provides wholisitc guidances for the way of the world, and not to separate individual things from the cosmological body (段章取意). Again, this approach is seen in cooking as well, in things as simple as steaming fish and vegetables; the idea of it is to steam them together in a cooker so that the flavours of the fish and vegetables mix: the fish fragrance goes into the vegetables, and the vegetable flavour seeps into the fish in a mutual osmosis. And then you have martial arts such as Taiji, which stems from the I-Ching, which the word ‘Taiji’ pretty much means ‘The Grand Completeness’, and is all about teaching oneself to balance forces.

Now, when the British attacked China during the Opium war, it was pretty much a fight between linear and surface thinking. The technologies nurtured from analytical scientific thinking were too powerful for the wholistic civilization of China at that time. The world saw Britain crush an ancient civilization with their almighty canons, and signified another victory in the progress of linear thinking. This, and probably many other wars, contributed to the rejection of China’s traditional culture by its own people, deeming it ‘backward’ (another linear term) and superstitious. People lost faith in a culture that had been with them for centuries. As such, since then, from Sun Yatsen to the Cultural Revolution, traditonal Chinese practices and thought were rejected, and western logic and sciences have been adopted. Today, modern China is what it is today because of this, and the people continue to look to the West because of their leadership in linear thinking. In fact ‘modern’ is a term that comes from linear history, almost like the ‘final stage’ of progress.

But yet, somehow, and thankfully, alot of Chinese practices have been preserved. Partly because China is so big, and many Chinese fled overseas, taking their cultural practices and values with them. The Chinese values that had been preserved, such as 凉 and 热气, in Chinese medicine, or Confucious teachings, start to conflict with modern day values and the premises on which modern China is built upon. In everyday life, the battle between line and surface continues, between logic and wholistic, science and magic.

And yet, as China advances (another linear term) rapidly into modernity and linearity, Americans start embracing Eastern practices such as Yoga and Wholefoods. How do things fit together? they ask. How does it all make sense? How can so many races exist together in harmony? China itself has long been a mixture of cultures and civilizations. But it believes in the integration and harmony of plurality, and so even from the time of Qin Shihuang, China has sort to unify its people in so many different ways.

They still are doing so today.

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