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Archive for February, 2009

Creativity in China

Authors: Joshua Campbell
February 2, 2009

Many stereotypes with some truth behind them proliferate in China, particularly the idea that Chinese society does not teach people creativity, expressiveness and originality well when compared with the Western world. Apparently this has even resulted in the emergence of a niche industry that aims to teach creativity to Chinese business executives, as reported here by the AP and picked up by the International Herald Tribune:

“There’s a lack of creative teaching in schools here, but we bring in pro-active students with potential and train them,” said Sam Jacobs, British creative director at Jellymon Shanghai, a media design company that moved its operations from London to China. “There’s no question that the biggest obstacle holding China back from becoming a true global player is innovation.”

I have worked in creative industries in China for a number of years and have to say that overall I have been impressed by the innovation of many of my colleagues at the various multinational companies I have worked for. However, these professionals are the exceptions not the rule. There is a significant amount of truth to the idea that there is limited creativity in Chinese society mainly as a result of the strong influence Confucianism still has on the educational system. This system emphasizes cramming and memorization for a huge test at the end of high school which essentially determines your entire future life depending on the quality of the college that you are able to enter.

This has also led to Chinese targeting top colleges in the U.S. as documented by the International Herald Tribune in the article “Chinese Aim for the Ivy League” The book ”Harvard Girl,” written by the mother of the first Chinese girl accepted into Harvard, apparently created an entire genre of books for Chinese people detailing how to raise your children properly to get them into the Ivy League. However, very questionable parenting methods are detailed: 

“‘Going to Harvard means that the way they raised their child was successful,’ said Yang Kui, publisher of the best seller. ‘People are willing to copy and learn how they did it.’

The book, which features a photo on the cover of Liu posing with her admission letter to Harvard, espoused unconventional techniques for turning out an Ivy-caliber child. Liu’s parents challenged the young girl to hold ice in her hands for as long as she could bear it to improve her endurance and made her jump rope every day for increasingly longer periods until she won a school contest.

They put toys out of her grasp when she was a baby to make her work harder for them, timed the girl’s studies to the minute as soon as she entered elementary school and made her do school work in the noisiest part of the house to develop her ability to concentrate.”

Confucianism also encourages a highly hierarchical way of thinking, all based on your position within society. As highlighted in the Know China Business ebook this can have a major influence on important creative functions in the workplace, particularly brainstorming, which can turn into sessions where those in lower positions of power simply support the bosses’ ideas. If you are a high-level expat this can also be a problem because those that report to you might be scared to challenge ideas that worked in your home country but may not be applicable for China. 

Proof of a lack of creativity can also be found throughout the streets of China, where high quality knock offs of famous Western brands are available ranging from Rolex watches to Louis Vuitton hand bags. In the Internet sphere, generally regarded as a highly creative industry, those Chinese companies that have achieved success have simply emulated successful Western Internet company business models such as Google or Facebook. While on television some of the most popular programs are simply imitations of popular programs in the U.S. ranging from Sex and the City to Project Runway.

China Hearsay also blogged on the original AP article and argues that creativity is very difficult, if not impossible, to teach adults:

“I’m a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic on this issue. Creativity can be encouraged but it is very difficult to foster in adults. I understand that China desperately wants to move up that value chain and have an IP-based economy, but you need patience for that sort of thing. Running around clucking like a chicken just makes everyone uncomfortable.”

I tend to agree with this argument. Creativity really is very hard to teach adults, no matter what their cultural background. However, I think that it is worth a shot. Team building and creativity workshops such as those described can possibly be valuable depending on the course make up, willingness of participants to open up without being too intruded upon on a personal level etc. So clucking like a chicken might be out but other methods might be useful in fostering creativity.