How China Kills Creativity
Image Credit: Aaron Huo

How China Kills Creativity


Nowadays people may admire China’s economy, but not Chinese creativity. Chinese architecture and art, music and movies are derivative, and many a Chinese enterprise is merely a carbon copy of an American one. China’s best schools may produce the world’s best test-takers, but the United States’ best schools produce the world’s most creative talent.

In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks outlines the four-step learning process that teaches students to be creative: knowledge acquisition (research), internalization (familiarity with material), self-questioning and examination (review and discussion), and the ordering and mastery of this knowledge (thesis formulation and essay writing).

However, this isn’t a linear process, Brooks points out, which means that the learner ‘(surfs) in and out of his unconscious, getting the conscious and unconscious processes to work together – first mastering core knowledge, then letting that knowledge marinate playfully in his mind, then wilfully trying to impose order on it, then allowing the mind to consolidate and merge the data, then returning and returning until some magical insight popped into his consciousness, and then riding that insight to a finished product.’

‘The process was not easy, but each ounce of effort and each moment of frustration and struggle pushed the internal construction project another little step,’ David Brooks continues. ‘By the end, (the learner) was seeing the world around him in a new way.’

But what permits our brains to turn a chaotic sea of random facts and knowledge into an island of calm understanding? Believe it or not, it’s our emotions that permit us ultimately to become creative thinkers. In his book The Accidental Mind, the neuroscientist David J. Linden explains how emotions organize our memories:

‘In our lives, we have a lot of experiences and many of these we will remember until we die. We have many mechanisms for determining which experiences are stored (where were you on 9/11?) and which are discarded (what did you have for dinner exactly 1 month ago?). Some memories will fade with time and some will be distorted by generalization (can you distinctly remember your seventeenth haircut?). We need a signal to say, “This is an important memory. Write this down and underline it.” That signal is emotion. When you have feelings of fear or joy or love or anger or sadness, these mark your experiences as being particularly meaningful…These are the memories that confer your individuality. And that function, memory indexed by emotion, more than anything else, is what a brain is good for.’

What this means is that memories are ultimately emotional experiences, and that effectively learning must involve the learner emotionally. The very best US schools are seen as such because they inspire their students to be curious, interested, and excited; China’s very best schools gain their reputation by doing the opposite.

Thinking is the conscious effort of applying our memories to understand a new external stimulus, and creativity is asserting individual control over this process to create a synthesis between memory and stimuli. In other words, thinking is really about applying previous emotional experiences to understand a new emotional experience, whilst creativity is the mixing of old and new emotional experiences to a create an entirely new and original emotional experience. 

The best US education institutions endow students with creativity by providing a relaxed and secure learning environment in which students share in the refined emotional experiences of humanity by reading books and developing the logic necessary to share in collective emotional experiences through debate and essay writing. A dynamic learning environment allows students at many US schools to feel joy and despair, frustration and triumph, and it’s these ups and downs that encode the creative learning process into our neural infrastructure and make it so transformative. 

A Chinese school is both a stressful and stale place, forcing students to remember facts in order to excel in tests. Neuroscientists know that stress hampers the ability of the brain to convert experience into memory, and psychologists know that rewarding students solely for test performance leads to stress, cheating, and disinterest in learning. But ultimately, the most harmful thing that a Chinese school does, from a creativity perspective, is the way in which it separates emotion from memory by making learning an unemotional experience.

Whatever individual emotions Chinese students try to bring into the classroom, they are quickly stamped out. As I have previously written, from the first day of school, students who ask questions are silenced and those who try to exert any individuality are punished. What they learn is irrelevant and de-personalized, abstract and distant, further removing emotion from learning.  If any emotion is involved, it’s pain. But the pain is so constant and monotonous (scolding teachers, demanding parents, mindless memorization, long hours of sitting in a cramped classroom) that it eventually ceases to be an emotion.

To understand the consequences of Chinese pedagogy, consider the example of ‘Solomon Shereshevskii, a Russian journalist born in 1886, who could remember everything,’ whom David Brooks writes about in The Social Animal:

‘In one experiment, researchers showed Shereshevskii a complex formula of thirty letters and numbers on a piece of paper. Then they put the paper in a box and sealed it for fifteen years. When they took the paper out, Shereshevskii could remember it exactly…Shereshevskii could remember, but he couldn’t distil. He lived in a random blizzard of facts, but could not organize them into repeating patterns. Eventually he couldn’t make sense of metaphors, similes, poems, or even complex sentences.’

Shereshevskii had a neural defect that prohibited his brain from prioritizing, synthesizing, and controlling his memories to permit him to formulate an understanding of self and the world. Like many a Chinese student today, he could experience, but he could not feel.

Chinese schools are producing a nation of Shereshevskiis, students with photographic memory and instant recall, but who can never be creative.

Jeff Lindsay
July 17, 2013 at 18:44

I've been in China for over two years helping a major Chinese corporation grow in IP and innovation. I agree that the education system needs to be improved. But as problematic as it may be, Chinese graduates are smart, creative, and can easily shift into innovation when given the right setting and incentives. I've seen a shy, quiet group become zealous, talkative innovators cranking out too many ideas for me to keep up, as creative as any US group I've worked with, but they need to be approached with an understanding of cultural barriers, etc. And the boss needs to be out of the room.

China is much more ready for real innovation than the West realizes, and as incentives and training increasingly moves its workers in that direction, perhaps followed by a radical change in education, China could become a global epicenter of real innovation.

As for the language, it is a language that takes a lot of work and memorization, yes, but once one has the basics, it is a remarkable tool for creativity. The rich associations it permits and the flexbibility in expression and thought can be a powerful boon to creativity and thinking, not a barrier. English has many strengths, but the power of written Chinese demands respect and even awe.

Joe Skaja
July 6, 2013 at 23:02

I have worked side by side with Chinese workers, technicians, engineers, owners, men and women for 10 years now in China.  Aside from the theorhetical….they simply cannot solve a problem effectively by any measure.  There is also a deep seated resentment of creativity or problem solving and it gets even worse in a group setting.  There is also no aptitude for any sort of organization.   It is shocking to put it mildly and makes me think that China is not a long term player in the world economy.  They have been riding off cheap labor and that is over and done.  I am very concerned about the near future of this country.


July 28, 2012 at 08:57

I used to feel this way about Chinese students, but now that I am father along in my career in medicine I think that a lot of this is an American bias against how they communicate their knowledge and ideas. I have worked with Chinese doctors and they are much less self-promiting- they focus on the group and do not speak up as much or exhcnage ideas in the same way. that being said- their scientific work is often brilliant and sometimes inspired. it is too simplistic to say that they aren't creative- they are. humans are by nature. and when they are creative that often have a deep knowledge of a subject that Americans often don't have because they are so busy being "Creative" they forget to lean anything practical because it's "boring."hard work pays off in fields like medicine where the sheer volume of material requires a lot of boring studying day after day to get it right.  lets judge them on how they use that knowledge and their contributions to their field instead of on how we perceive their method of generating ideas and presenting them to the public. 

October 5, 2011 at 09:50

his/her point is who has caused Chinese to stand up to fight for themselves? you are not from Chinese “50cents party”, are you? lol…

October 5, 2011 at 09:37

“At least they know how to do that properly”, lol, because the money has been saved from the people…
and lacking process for design/creativity will be failed at the end!

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief