East Asia has a lot of potential. That’s hard to deny. It contains several unified, homogeneous civilizations that date back thousands of years. The six countries with the highest average IQ are all in East Asia. So why is it that so few important inventions and scientific advancements come from this region?
The core problem, as I see it, is a lack of creativity and personal initiative. This is a cultural issue that has plagued the area for much of recorded history. The most likely reason I can find for this is Confucianism. I have been a teacher in Korea and Cambodia, and it was impossible not to notice the Confucian influence in Korea, although it is much less apparent in Cambodia. Here is a map of the early spread of Confucianism.
It now includes all of Vietnam, since the Vietnamese expansion consumed Champa and the Khmer territories in the Mekong Delta. It’s influence can also be seen, in a slightly diminished form, in Japan due to cultural exchange, and also other Southeast Asian countries due to Chinese migration.
Confucianism preaches a rigid adherence to hierarchies and a reactionary attitude towards social institutions. In this ideology, everyone has roles to play, relative to those around them. It is considered honorable to submit to the wills of your parents, husbands and rulers.
The doctrine of filial piety has had its advantages and disadvantages. While honoring your parents is generally a good thing, there is a time and place for a little civil disobedience.
Before I lived in Korea, I often wondered how North Koreans could be so malleable as to allow themselves to be fully indoctrinated by the state. But Koreans, north and south, are a very conformist, go-with-the-flow, don’t-rock-the-boat type of people. I know it’s not PC to generalize societies in this way, but sometimes, when there is a serious problem, difficult conversations need to be had. I seriously don’t believe a North Korean type state would be possible in the West. And it’s not because Westerners are smarter; if anything, the opposite is true. So how can this nationwide hostage crisis (which is what it is) be going on decade after decade? I think the same thing could be possible in South Korea if they were shielded from outside influence; the default is to trust your superiors.
I’ve heard Chinese people argue that democracy is bad. “It leads to disharmony and social unrest. People don’t really know what is best for them like the experts do,” they say. Some of this thinking can no doubt be blamed on Communist Party indoctrination. But can that really be the full picture?
Confucianism also leads to misogyny and patriarchy. Women are expected to be subservient to their husbands to an extent. This type of thinking is on the decline but is still very much alive. Feminism is almost unheard of in East Asia. While I’m not normally one to criticize traditional gender roles, I strongly believe all human beings deserve an equal amount of social autonomy regardless of gender.
The Confucian focus on education has mixed results for me. I’m passionate about education. I think it is one of the most rewarding endeavors a person can undertake, but it needs to be done right. I strongly disagree with the methodology in many Asian schools, especially in China and South Korea.
In China, education focuses almost entirely on preparation for national exams. There is little room for creativity. Children learn to play musical instruments but don’t write songs. Art is not prioritized. Children are overworked and often learn to hate education. Many of them deal with extreme stress and depression. There is an epidemic of child suicides in China.
My experience in Korea was very similar. I taught night classes to exhausted kids who had been at school all day. Many Korean children spend twelve hours a day in school. They are mostly unenthusiastic towards learning. By the time they reach college, most Koreans binge drink to an extent that your average Irish alcoholic would find excessive. South Korea also has the highest suicide rate in the developed world.
All in all, these are not healthy societies where people feel comfortable to break the mold. There are not entrepreneurs in China coming up with creative new business schemes. Most rich people just choose to build and sell high-rise apartment towers. Many of these towers will never be occupied, but they have value just because everyone agrees that they do. This is one of the biggest market bubbles in world history.
Very few important scientific advances have come from East Asia, despite it having a massive population of high-IQ people. This is because thinking outside the box and problem solving are not valued skills. Fitting into society and not causing trouble are much more important. Many scientific geniuses are not socially well-adjusted. Einstein wasn’t known as a captivating party guest or an obedient employee, so he likely wouldn’t have rose to the top in Korea or China.
People have no problem criticizing Western ideologies like Islam and Christianity, and for good reason, but it seems as though East Asian ideologies are over-exoticized and viewed through rose-colored glasses. The influence of Confucianism has not all been bad, but its harmful effects should not be overlooked. This opinion was trendy in Chinese intellectual circles in the early 20th century, but is not often discussed nowadays. In the hyper-PC West, it is almost never discussed. Mostly people have probably never even thought about it.
I do have faith in Asia. I think it is slowly improving, as young people are being more influenced by Western culture. Until then, I’ll keep pointing out the problems in the world, as uncomfortable as they may be.