McLuhan Studies : Issue 3

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Language can be regarded as the extension of thought. Man accepts, understands his surroundings or the world in terms of the mother tongue he was born with. The writing form of this tongue subliminally influences his mind. A nation's cultural psyche and thinking pattern can be found deeply rooted in the configuration of its writing system.

A number of scholars, like Logan (1986; 1995), Innis (1951) and McLuhan (1964), have studied the impact of writing on thinking patterns, and agreed that each writing system is a great force in shaping the thought of its users.

The Chinese writing system has proved one of the most valuable assets in all of our cultures, yet we are blind to its effects and take its existence for granted. Science and technology in ancient China are literally the outgrowth of its culture which boasts of a history of thousands of years. A careful examination of the origin and structure of the Chinese writing system and its impact on Chinese thinking patterns reveals much in regard to China's systematic and theoretic science and technology.

I. Features of the Chinese Writing System

If we went back in time, we would find that Chinese written language, which originated in the drawing of objects, ideas, and images, was increasingly pictographic, ideographic and concrete, though its present-day counterpart is highly symbolic and abstract. The manner in which Chinese characters were created has been summarized in the popular book, Liushu, or Six Types of Writing.

The pictographic and ideographic nature of Chinese characters conduces to thinking in images, which, in turn, renders Chinese thinking, among other things,

1. analogical
2. nonlinear
3. concrete
4. holistic
5. intuitive
6. in harmony with nature.

A large part of the inventory of Chinese characters was created by analogy to physical or mental existence. In recognizing the characters, their users visualize the meaning without resorting to the process (intermediate phonological decoding) used in recognizing alphabetical writing. This visualizing has become so ingrained that it serves as an environment that allows the users of Chinese writing scripts unusual directness of thinking patterns. It is the most noticeable feature of Chinese culture for the Chinese people to think analogically, that is, to make advantage of correspondence or partial similarity between what is intended and what is conveniently available.

Western linear thinking, partly derived from alphabetic stress on sequence in their writing scripts, helped their users to develop the science of deductive logic, a most significant part of the foundation of modern science. In addition, the alphabetic sequence, in which meaningless individual letters are put together linearly to create meaningful semantic units, had provided the paradigm for the development of analysis by those cultures that used the writing scripts.

The scientific method succeeds by breaking down a system into its basic components and then narrowing the focus to one of those components so that a critical mass of research can produce a breakthrough or new paradigm.
Science analyzes systems into their basic components and deals with them one at a time in a linear fashion." (Logan, 1986:131)

But the Chinese writing script lacks this analytical nature. As a consequence, Chinese thinking patterns tend to be nonlinear and holistic, the opposite of those resulting from alphabetic writing. A holistic approach to nature is one of the most obvious characteristics of ancient China's scientific system.

When writing was invented, man "applied [his] mind to symbols rather than things and went beyond the world of concrete experience into the world of conceptual relations created within an enlarged time and space universe" (Logan, 1986: 46-47).

In the same vein, the phonetic alphabet allows its users to go far beyond the observable or concrete world than does the Chinese writing system, since alphabetic writing is utterly abstract, whereas the Chinese one is highly imitative of the concrete world, expressing things in terms of images. The directness, or the lack of abstraction, in Chinese character-formation shaped the Chinese thinking pattern in such a way that concreteness is the significant feature not only of Chinese civilization but also of Chinese scientific thought.

This feature also brought about the famous Chinese pragmatism with regard to science and its application. Logan reports a similar disregard for abstraction in cultures that had not yet adopted letters: "Abstract scientists will go out of their way to perform experiments to test the universality of their organizational structures, whereas preliterate cultures are content to describe nature as they encounter it. They also limit their studies of nature to that which is immediately practical to them." (Logan, 1986: 122)

To write and think with characters that preserve a very close analogy with what is in the physical world is to suggest continually that the user and nature inhabit the same close system; by contrast, alphabetic systems continually emphasize isolation of knower and known. As a consequence, emphasis on oneness of man and nature, or man's harmony with the nature, is a very important consideration in the Chinese approach to nature.

In sum, the impact of the Chinese graphic form on thinking patterns resulted in a comparatively more advanced development of the right hemisphere of its user's brain. By contrast, the Western thinking pattern, shaped by their phonetic-alphabetic literacy, is characteristically left-brain oriented. Such polarly different graphic forms and their subsequent impact on the mind are worth investigating.

A neurological explanation can be made of the impact of writing system on a culture's thinking patterns and, in turn, on its basic patterns of and approaches to science and technology. Studies show that the two sides of the cortex in human brain which, unlike those in animal brain, are asymmetrical, perform different tasks. Increasing evidence has been accumulating to support the argument that the left hemisphere of the brain is predominantly responsible for analysis and serial processing of discrete unites of information whereas the right hemisphere is responsible for synthetic and holistic perception such as facial recognition, pattern perception, and visualization. So it is not difficult to draw the conclusion that the use of Chinese written characters helps the Chinese people develop right-brain thinking, and the use of phonetic-alphabetic writing contributes to development of left-brain thinking in its users.

II. Major Features of Traditional Chinese Medicine :
A Typical Example of Science and Technology in Ancient China

Modern abstract science, based on experiment and empirical observation, tends to be more formally logical and analytical. But science and technology in ancient China developed along other lines.

In Chinese thinking, yin and yang, the Five Elements, and qi have been the most important and fundamental ideas. They have played crucial roles not only in the development of philosophy but also in dealing with all natural phenomena, whether astrological, physical, biological, or medical. An examination of these fundamental ideas will reveal the close connection between Chinese characters and ancient Chinese science.

1. Yin and yang

In Chinese thought, yin and yang are the two opposite but complementary groups of qualities that form the basis of the world. And all phenomena in the world are produced through the interaction of yin and yang. Yin is represented as earth, dark, female, odd, negative, and passive; yang, as heaven, light, male, even, positive, and active. Originally, the word yang refers to sunshine and the word yin to the absence of sunshine. In later development, ancient Chinese used the two terms analogically, to refer to any activity or functioning that displayed the yin and yang characteristics, whether in movement of the sun or in relation to the people living on earth.

Table 1:

The General Law



Hyperfunctional Hypofunctional
Light Heavy
Up and upwardsDown and downwards
Out and outwardsIn and inwards

Table 2:

The Human Tissues and Structures in Terms of Yin and Yang



Qi (Vital energy)Blood
Ventral (The abdomen)Dorsal (The back)
Upper partLower part
The lateral aspect of the extremitiesThe medial aspect of the extremities
The six bowel organs:
gall bladder, stomach, large intestine, small intestine, urinary bladder and triple warmer
The five viscera:
thee heart, liver, spleen, lung and kidney

A feverAn aversion to cold
Feeling thirstyFeeling no thirst
A rapid pulse conditionA slow pulse condition

The relation of yin and yang can be summarized as opposition, interdependence, relative waxing and waning, and transformation.

2. The Five Elements

The concept of the Five Elements or Wu Hsing (Wu Xing in Pingying) was originally used to understand and explain how the universe works. Ancient Chinese people thought that each thing in the universe is composed of some or all of the five elements: water, fire, metal, wood and earth. Later these elements, have come to be regarded as five dynamic, interacting, universally permeating processes or forces. Their relationship can be summarized as generation, restriction, subjugation and reverse restriction.

Table 3:

Nature in the Five Elements

Five Elements Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
SeasonSpring Summer Late Summer Autumn Winter
Environmental Factor Wind HeatDampness DrynessCold
Growth & DevelopmentGermination GrowthTransformation ReapingStoring
Color BlueRedYellow WhiteBlack
Taste SourBitterSweetPungentSalty
Orientation East SouthMiddleWestNorth

Table 4:

The Human Body and its Functions in Terms of the Five Elements

Five ElementsWood Fire EarthMetal Water
Viscera LiverHeart Spleen Lung Kidney
Five Sense Organs EyeTongueMouth Nose Ear
Five Tissues TendonVesselMuscle Skin & HairBone
Emotional Activity Anger Joy Overthinking Grief Fear

3. Qi

The concept of qi was developed in ancient China to assist in understanding natural phenomena: everything in the universe results from the movements and changes of qi. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is qi that promotes the metabolism, generates energy, defends against disease and consolidates and governs the functioning of organs and body. Even today, in Chinese culture, though qi is a frequently used concept it is difficult to define in modern scientific terms. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, qi can be defined as the vital substances comprising the human body and maintaining its life activities. And qi is also used to refer the physiological functions of viscera and bowels, channels and collaterals.

Modern Western medicine makes a clear-cut distinction between what is taken in the body (the substance) and how it functions as the result of the metabolism of the substance. But in traditional Chinese medicine, qi takes over this double role. This integral rather than analytical nature of qi can be seen to have its origin in the thinking used in Chinese characters.

In the history of science and technology in China, nothing is more characteristic of China than traditional Chinese medicine. It would be justifiable to say that since Chinese characters are of pictographic and ideographic nature, there must have been connection between Chinese writing system and the development of Chinese medicine, though it is believed that it originated in folk and religious practices.

One major characteristic of traditional Chinese medicine is its holistic approach (based on analogy) to diagnosis, the treatment of illness, and the physiological explanation of the onset of illness. As Ssu-ma Ch'ien (Sima Qian), a well-known Chinese historian, describes in his Shi Ji (Historical Memoirs), the method of Bian Que was-like that of all the other practitioners-to judge the history and condition of the patient as a whole. [Bian was a widely influential Chinese medical practitioner around 500 BC.] According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, discomforts or illnesses in one part of the body is considered related to the malfunctioning not only of that part but also of the body as a whole system. Thereby, why and how the entire system malfunctions or its imbalance occurs must be taken into account in diagnosis and treatment. This approach is diametrically opposite to the analytical approach of Western medical practice.

What is more, traditional Chinese medicine not only holds the human body as a whole system but also looks at the human body, human society and nature as a larger whole or interactive system, one which must be paid equally full attention. Accordingly, drugs are used as a means to bring a malfunctioning or imbalanced system back into harmonious accord with nature.

Traditional Chinese medicine takes yin-yang and the Five Elements as the core of its medical philosophy. Traditional Chinese medicine, in addition, uses the idea of qi as the vital spirit in explaining the function of the human system.

It is not difficult to discern that all those fundamental ideas, yin-yang, the Five Elements, and qi, involved in traditional Chinese medicine, were created by analogy with what they are in actual universe, and to see how they are used in explanation of natural events (including human bodily function) in an equally analogous manner.

The lack of an analytical foundation in Chinese medicine gives surgery little or no role to play in correcting organic illnesses. By contrast, Western medicine makes the fullest use of surgical means in treatment, for which Westerners' analytical thinking pattern provides them with methodological and psychological preparation.

Therefore, there are good reasons to claim that the emergence of traditional Chinese medicine was formed under the influence of Chinese characters.

III. Critical Remarks

The features of the Chinese writing system discussed above by no means exclusively belong to Chinese characters: they do, however, represent the distinctive psychological and perceptual pressure that Chinese characters exert on their users. Of course, I do not suggest that the origin and development of Chinese science and technology were simply due to the influence of the form of Chinese writing and nothing else. In fact, historically Chinese thinking patterns and the Chinese writing system have been mutually interactive. Some scholars (for example, Lu: 1998) pursued another line and claim that it is the thinking pattern rooted in the culture that shapes the formation of Chinese characters and not vice-versa. But the two hemispheric parts of the human brain do not function separately, with each hemisphere utterly independent of the other. It is often the case that a given task is performed as the consequence of the interplay of the two hemispheres. What is more, many factors play roles in defining the present form of Chinese science and technology.

IV. Advantages and Drawbacks of the Influence of Chinese Characters

Using a holistic approach helps Chinese science to have an overall view and understanding of the matters it examines. In other words, this integrated approach enables us to see not only the trees but also the forest. However, too much emphasis on holism, as is often the case with Chinese thinking, could result in our ignoring the microstructure or details of the matter, hence the frequent underdevelopment of our sciences.

In the history of China, especially in the early stages of our civilization, analogy offered a familiar, quick and easy way to comprehend the world. But in modern time, now that abstract science has achieved such advances, mere reliance on analogy without formal logic makes any reasoning process unreliable. It can result in far-fetched outcomes since it overlooks or blurs differences in the particulars and specifics. The mind-set that underlies Chinese characters offers their users a way of looking at the world that favors certainty of perception rather than that of concepts (Fung, 1948); the disadvantage of this manner of thinking is that the concrete vision thus achieved is not translated or transferred into the form of the sciences.

It is not uncommon that even common abstract scientific terms can only be expressed in concrete form in Chinese pictographic script. On the contrary, alphabetical writing systems, due to their analytical and abstract nature, are the natural and easy way to render abstract scientific ideas.

In Chinese philosophy, the oneness of man and nature-man's harmony with nature-dominates perception of any relation between man and nature. This is just the opposite of the subject-object dichotomy which Western philosophy often assumes as the relation between man and the material world. It might be said that an approach that considers man and nature as constituting one and the same system has left the user-culture with no motive to conquer or subdue nature, and hence is unfavorable to the development of science.

I have tried to indicate in this essay how the form of awareness embedded in the Chinese character has permeated every aspect of Chinese culture and also to explain thereby, at least in part, why China did not develop, even given its high level of civilization, abstract theoretical science, but instead developed a non-abstract practical science, as illustrated by traditional Chinese medicine.


Fung, Yu-lan. 1948. A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. Edited by Derk Bodde. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Innis, Harold. 1951. The Bias of Communication. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

Logan, Robert K. 1986. The Alphabet Effect. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Logan, Robert K. 1995. The Fifth Language. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited.

Lu, Jiage. 1998. "Holistic approach and image thinking in Chinese culture." Chinese Culture Research. Spring Issue.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

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