If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swam.Skeptical about whether modern Chinese culture really is less individualistic than modern American culture, I was going to offer an alternative explanation for the results of the fish tank experiment, as discussed, for example, by David Brooks. What I like about this explanation, besides the fact that I can claim it as my own, is that the variable it targets also accounts for that other common stereotype about Chinese culture: that the education system is based mostly on rote memorization.
The variable I have in mind is the Chinese writing system.
In my earlier post, I wrote that the rote memorization in Chinese schools stems mostly from the logographic system of written Chinese. The thousands of characters prerequisite for literacy in written Chinese require many thousands more hours of memorization than the few dozen sound-symbol correspondences of written English.
But learning the Chinese vs. the English writing systems doesn’t just involve quantitative differences in time spent memorizing things. Also at play are qualitative differences in the memorization process. Learning an alphabet means attending to the symbols’ most salient features: the big lines and curves rather than the little serifs (or lack thereof) around the edges. Learning Chinese characters means attending to everything: the big lines and curves, but also the patterns of smaller lines and dots all around them. If Chinese people are more aware of the context of a fish tank, perhaps it’s because learning the Chinese writing system trains you in a certain attention to visual detail; in particular, to the details that surround the larger, more visually salient elements.
I liked this explanation so much that I was sorry to find out just now that, along with all the other experiments that supposedly show today’s Chinese to be less individualistic than their Western counterparts, the fish tank experiment fails, across many dimensions, to support not only the broader claims that I’m skeptical of, but the proximal claims about who reports what about the fish tank. The details are found in a 2008 post by Mark Liberman on the Language Log—a post so delightful and interesting that, for me at least, it more than makes up for my sorrow at having to abandon something I really, really wanted to believe.