Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: March, 2015

Who are they, and who are we?

David Mulroney was the Canadian ambassador to China up till 2012. In a speech to the C.D. Howe Institute in Canada just after leaving his post, he quoted Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: “without knowing the lie of hills and woods, of cliffs and crags, you cannot march.” His comment was: “we have got to get more serious and systematic in thinking about China.” But he went on to say: “if the ancient Chinese reminded us of the importance of knowing the other, the ancient Greeks reminded us of the importance of knowing ourselves. We need to think carefully about what we want from a relationship with China.”

He also said: “our future prosperity, security and well-being depend on working out our relationship with a country that is almost wholly unlike us.” This line of thinking studiously ignores the presence of the Chinese-Canadians, who form a natural bridge between the two countries. But for the WASP élite that Mulroney was addressing, I daresay his estimation is right.

Mulroney has now written a book called Middle power, middle kingdom. Lacking a wider perspective on China, his thinking does not go beyond the political and economic interests of Canada there. The middle kingdom of the title is China; the middle power is Canada, which is finding it hard to reposition itself in a changing world.

A recent commentator in the Toronto Globe & Mail found that “this book is not so much about a surging China as it is about a sinking Canada.“ And he asks: “are we a North American country, or are we a Pacific country, or are we both?“

Indeed, it is quite right for Canada’s élites to be thinking about the country’s future relationship with China. Mulroney and others know that China has been changing and will change further. It does not seem to occur to them that Canada is changing and will change further too; and that Chinese-Canadians are bound to have something to do with it.

Big science spells big headache for brain researchers

A lot of turbulence has been reported around the Human Brain Project, which is a “big science” project based at Lausanne here in Switzerland but funded by the European Union with very large amounts of money.

Meanwhile there is the BRAIN Initiative in the US, announced with great fanfare from the White House, and the lesser-known Brainnetome (brain-net-ome) project in China. The purpose of all three projects seems to be to do a sort of “genome” for the human brain, a complete map and specification of all its levels and networks. The emphases are different, though: the Chinese seem to be focusing a lot on medical implications, whereas the Swiss/Europeans have been focusing on the sheer computing technology of it – which has got them into trouble, but more of this anon.

The three projects seem to be rivals, but there is so much interconnectedness between universities and institutes in different countries that there can hardly be said to be a truly national project, even the one in China. Yet the Chinese project lacks exposure in the Western world, and the other two projects easily trump it in terms of showmanship.

I have been involved with such large scientific projects here in Switzerland, and I can tell you that what is essentially going on is a whole lot of researchers in different sub-fields trying to make sure that they get funding. In recent times, researchers in some areas have been thinking that it is better to club together and propose interdisciplinary or “big science” projects so that they can get a higher public profile and thus more money. Many researchers are prepared to take this gamble, but inevitably there are winners and losers. People who are already doing their own independent research fear that these “big science” projects will soak all the funding away from them.

The Human Genome Project at the turn of the millennium was the prototype of this kind of large-scale effort. Brain researchers too have been accumulating a lot of data, and thus the brain now seemed like a plausible candidate for a “big science” project.

The Human Brain Project in Switzerland was funded by the EU, but as it turned out, the researchers who secured the manna from Brussels were more interested in computer modelling than they were in empirical brain science. When they tried to squeeze the traditional brain scientists out, there were howls of protest. Now the research community has got its way and the HBP is going to have to be more accountable and spread the money around more evenly.

What the Lausanne neuroscientists have been planning to do is interesting, actually, in that they want to apply the knowledge of how the brain computes information to computers themselves, thus making them more like a human brain. But you can’t juggle “big science” when everyone isn’t on side because they don’t see themselves getting their chunk of funding. So whether the Lausanne boys will ever get to realize their dream is a moot point.

Geopolitics of emotion

Cultures have an emotional tone to them. We find it natural to speak of nations in terms of their “temperaments”. The Spaniards are supposed to be proud and fiery, the English distant and aloof. The idea of the temperament goes back to Antiquity, more precisely to Hippocratic medicine which saw people as being governed by a particular emotional constitution, one of four: sanguine, choleric, melancholy or phlegmatic. Hippocratic medicine also noted the influence of “airs, waters and places” on the people who lived there, so that whole nations could be thought of as having a temperament that was determined by their natural environment.

In modern times this “emotional typology” has been a particularly French preoccupation. In the 18th century, Rousseau, for example, contrasted the Northern Europeans with the Southern Europeans (in which he included the people of the Middle East). Language originated, he thought, when man felt an inner need to address his fellows. But the Southerner, who was blessed by natural abundance, said aimez-moi (love me!), whereas the Northerner, who was preoccupied with survival in an inhospitable environment, said aidez-moi (help me!).

The French political scientist Dominique Moïsi has taken up the Rousseau tradition by talking about what he calls the “geopolitics of emotions”. He reasons that the great cultural areas or civilisations in the world today are each dominated by one great emotion. The Western world is dominated by fear, because it is in danger of losing its hegemony. The Arab world is dominated by shame and humiliation, because the Arabs are unable to use their resources to regain the advanced position they once had. The Asians, by the same reasoning, are dominated by hope and optimism, because they feel their time has come.

Moïsi’s thesis is interesting, though it all seems too neat and too obvious. How much of it is projection? one wonders. No doubt the real emotional factors are a lot more profound and more differentiated, and not subject to political changes occurring every few decades.

But the theory does remind us that culture is very much a matter of emotion rather than reason. How could it be otherwise, when most of what we call culture goes on below the level of consciousness? The thing is that the emotional tone of a particular culture is closely related to its values, and can be the expression of these. The anthropologist Anna Wierzbicka talks about “cultural scripts” governing the way in which people in a particular society interact, which seem to involve a particular emotional tone. For Poles, she says, “sincerity” is a key element in the script. For Americans, “being positive” is a key element in the script. As a result, Poles tend to see Americans as superficial and insincere, and Americans tend to see Poles as morose and unfriendly. The perceived emotional tone arises from underlying values and perceptions of the world.

It is also useful here to invoke the distinction made by emotion psychologists between real emotions, which are temporary, and emotional dispositions, which accompany us over long periods. Thus anger, sadness, shame and the like come and go in response to particular circumstances, but love is an abiding disposition towards a particular person or persons. Whether we are considered as individuals or as whole cultures, it seems that emotions can be dispositions that colour our social life – and the way we are perceived by strangers who only look at us from outside.


Christian Dotremont was a Belgian artist and poet who did strange experiments in handwriting. It started when he accidentally looked at a page of writing he had done upside-down, then looked at it with the page held up to the light backwards, and discovered it was Chinese! He wrote an essay about this called “Signification and sinification”. The idea was that ordinary handwriting had the power to become something incomprehensible but mysterious and oracular – like Chinese writing to a Westerner.

Meanwhile his artist colleague Pierre Alechinsky had become interested in Japanese calligraphy. He went to Japan in 1955 and made a documentary film, for which Dotremont wrote the commentary.

Dotremont devoted the rest of his career to creating what he called “logogrammes”. These were handwritten versions of his brief poems, executed not with a pen but with a brush and black ink in Chinese or Japanese style. The handwriting was so exaggerated in shape as to be unreadable. It looked like an abstract painting, or an action painting. But he always wrote the text of his poem in small conventional writing like a footnote at the bottom of the sheet of paper.

Dotrement died in 1979, without having become particularly famous, but his work still gets exhibited and discussed. Looking back, it would seem that he somehow foresaw, through a glass darkly, that handwriting was going to disappear – as it is now doing in the West, due to the ubiquity of computers and other texting devices. He also must have realised that a whole dimension of human creative expression was going to disappear along with it. And he looked to Asia, where the expressive capacities of handwriting had long been developed into an art. Inspired by this other cultural context, he showed how Western handwriting could have a “last fling”.

This to me is another example of something that happens all the time now. We lose a way of thinking or a cultural form in the West, or have lost it already, and we find it again in the East. Or we discover some new experience, have no explanation for it or even words to account for it, and we find the other half of the puzzle, as it were, in the East. Indeed, we keep reaching limits, but they are only the limits of our culture – beyond them lies, not nothing, but Asia.


Listening and communicative space

Listening is a cultural act. It is culturally coded. By that I mean that different cultures, different societies throughout the world, listen in different ways. This may mean that the whole emphasis of communication in one society may be different from what it is in another.

In many cultures, you will notice that a person merges into the woodwork, as it were, when they meet other people. Two people meeting for the first time may not say very much to one another or interact at a very intense level, because they are feeling each other out, getting to know one another, taking in one another’s cues at leisure. This pattern of behaviour is expected, and neither party feels embarrassed, much less compelled to start talking nine to the dozen. It is the pattern of behaviour in many parts of Asia.

North American society is quite different, of course. This culture teaches self-presentation. The key to social and business success is to present yourself in a favourable manner to everyone you meet, as soon as you meet.

To put it another way, people in this culture occupy space. Communicative “space” is an intuitive notion. It means the amount of the interaction between two people that is taken up by one or the other of them. When one speaks and the other listens, the speaker usually occupies a lot of space and the listener makes space for him or her.

Now, it is not hard to see that the requirement for self-presentation may end up being inimical to listening. If you are completely absorbed in presenting yourself to the other fellow, you jump in and occupy space. The other fellow has little space left to manoeuvre in. Occupying space becomes a habit for many of us, unfortunately. We may no longer know the art – because it can be an art – of making space for another so that he or she can present themselves. We compete with others for attention, and so we compete with them for space instead of sharing it as we might.