The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity

The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity

The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity

The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity


Students in Japan, China, and Korea are among the world's top performers on standardized math and science tests. The nations of East Asia are also leading manufacturers of consumer goods that incorporate scientific breakthroughs in telecommunications, optics, and transportation. Yet there is a startling phenomenon known throughout Asia as the "creativity problem." While East Asians are able to use science, they have not demonstrated the ability to invent radically new systems and paradigms that lead to new technologies. In fact, the legal and illegal transfer of technology from the West to the East is one of the most contentious international business issues. Yet Asians who study and work in the West and depend upon Western languages for their research are among the most creative and talented scientists, no less so than their Western counterparts.

William C. Hannas contends that this paradox emerges from the nature of East Asian writing systems, which are character-based rather than alphabetic. Character-based orthographies, according to the author, lack the abstract features of alphabetic writing that model the thought processes necessary for scientific creativity. When first learning to read, children who are immersed in a character-based culture are at a huge disadvantage because such writing systems do not cultivate the ability for abstract thought. Despite the overwhelming body of evidence that points to the cognitive side-effects, the cultural importance of character-based writing makes the adoption of an alphabet unlikely in the near future.


The following chapters explore language, creativity, the brain, technology transfer, Chinese writing, and the processes that link these elements together. a personal anecdote will help bring the relationship into focus.

In 1997 I sat through a presentation on intracompany “teams,” the latest panacea hawked by management consultants for making America more competitive. the facilitator was giving her pitch for the new program and offered the following proof of its superiority.

“Think back four decades ago to Japan,” she said. “How would you characterize that country’s products then?”

“Cheap.” From one of the attendees.

“Imitative.” Another voice.

“Do I hear low-tech?”


The ritual continued until the facilitator elicited a host of unflattering stereotypes that described the sort of production done in Japan in the immediate postwar period, before its manufacturers adopted a team approach. What came next was mostly predictable:

“And how would you describe Japanese products today?”

“First-rate.” “Superior technology.” “High value-added.” and so on around the room, until one wag blurted out:



“They’re still copying from everybody like before.”

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