Are Eastern values “better” than Western values?

posted in: MASRN, Philosophy | 4

This article is based on a lecture given by Dr George Jennings at a MASRN (Martial Arts Studies Research Network) event called New Research in Japanese Martial Arts in Bath – Japanese Philosophy and Global Sociology: Possibilities for an International Martial Arts Studies. 

A friend sends sends me a yoga blog article called: “The Shocking Differences Between East & West Values”.

She shares it because she guesses that a Karateka will find it interesting.

I do find it interesting – but not for the reasons she expects. It’s interesting because of its simplistic analysis of such a complex issue; and its unintentional irony *Which as always leads onto all kinds of reflections related to martial arts . . .

西 (ง •̀_•́)ง    ゚・*:.。. .。.:*・゜゚・*    Q( •̀_•́Q) 東

The article tells us:

Westerners put more stock in individual rights; Easterners in social responsibly […] The East considers human beings as an integral part of the universe and society. People are fundamentally connected. Duty towards all others is a very important matter […] The West prioritises the individualistic nature of humans.

Maybe I’m being oversensitive, but the way this is phrased sounds a little judgemental. Is the writer saying that people from “Eastern” cultures care about others, while people from “Western” cultures basically don’t . . . ?

Novice meditating in forest. By Kochphon (Honey) Onshawee [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
It goes on:

Beliefs and Values
East believes the true key is inside. The inner world of a human being and his or her ability to control and develop it is of the highest value. The way to the top is inside yourself, through self-development and self-awareness.

Westerners value success and achievement. These can be achieved in many ways, but rarely through developing inner strength. The majority of success and achievement criteria have an external nature (money, career, faith, popularity, etc.). 

This analysis doesn’t feel very neutral at all. I read it as saying that Eastern people function on a higher spiritual level, while Western people are superficial and materialistic (and selfish).

In other words, the writer seems to be implying that Eastern values are “better” than Western values. Perhaps that’s the “shocking” truth referred to in the title . . . ?

西 (ง •̀_•́)ง    ゚・*:.。. .。.:*・゜゚・*    Q( •̀_•́Q) 東

Why is this article ironic?

Firstly, contrasting and judging pairs of opposites like this is a typically “Western” approach (see below). In other words, the writer is showing their strong “Western” values and ways of thinking – even while implying that these values are a bit inferior..

Secondly, the article is written to promote a yoga school, and so it’s not surprising if it “sells” the values apparently underpinning this most “Eastern” of practices. However, Yoga is not actually as “Eastern” as many people think.

Ben Spatz draws on the research of Mark Singleton and others to argue that: Much of what is currently practised under the name of “yoga” dates to the early twentieth century, drawing heavily on European gymnastics, calisthenics and bodybuilding.

Ben also explains how the primary ideology behind yoga today is often the Western concept of “healthism”, where we judge health and happiness in terms of athleticism, and the visible shape of our body. He writes:

It then becomes possible to ask in all sincerity: “Will yoga make me thin and happy?” [… This question …] tells us a great deal about today’s biopolitical landscape, and about the pressures faced by anyone who hopes to learn or teach yoga within it.”

What a Body Can Do p.85

When you add in consideration of the market for expensive yoga retreats – and fashionable luxury “yoga wear”’ – the boundary between Eastern and Western values starts to look decidedly blurry . . .

Thirdly, the article is also ironic because it implicitly criticises the “West” for materialism and superficiality; yet this very dislike of materialism is also an expression of Western values. As materialistic and superficial as we may sometimes be, we do know that these aren’t particularly “nice” values, and that they hurt our souls – hence being attracted to a simplistic vision of “Eastern” values that seems to offer an antidote.

This ambiguity of values can be quite confusing. Betty Macoon writes:

We admire honesty, responsibility, tolerance, hard work, compassion and so forth. On the other hand, we also respect cutthroat competition, individualism, greed, absolute freedom and the possession of tremendous wealth. In fact, we have contradictory value systems. One is based on the ethics of our mainstream religion, the other on “survival of the fittest,” our paradigm of survival

西 (ง •̀_•́)ง    ゚・*:.。. .。.:*・゜゚・*    Q( •̀_•́Q) 東

I probably would have forgotten all about the article, except that a few days later, I attend a talk by Dr George Jennings (Cardiff Metroplitan University) as part of a MASRN (Martial Arts Studies Research Network) event: New Research in Japanese Martial Arts.

George’s talk is called: Japanese Philosophy and Global Sociology: Possibilities for an International Martial Arts Studies. You can watch the talk below, and download George’s slides here.

He talks about how we might move beyond rigid, distinct categories of Western v. Eastern philosophy, and find a more open, multiple, interactive, even merged way of looking at the relationship between the two.

The heart of George’s talk is the relatively new concept of “global sociology’, which Pavel Sorokin defines as:

active, open, mutually beneficial and equal interaction between sociologists from different locations, countries and cultures, in their joint efforts to comprehend, explain and improve the social world.

This vision of genuine integration helps me to think about the yoga blog article in a more nuanced way. Here are four key insights from George’s talk . . .

西 (ง •̀_•́)ง    ゚・*:.。. .。.:*・゜゚・*    Q( •̀_•́Q) 東

  1. Non-dualist thought can lead to interesting places

George explains (citing Thomas Kasulis on Japanese philosophy) that in some ways Eastern and Western philosophy are similar. We all look at the same issues and ask broadly the same questions:

– What makes something beautiful?
– What is the nature of reality?
– What does it mean to be a good person?

But there’s one important difference. As mentioned above, Western philosophers traditionally think in binary terms. They often posit a pair of opposites:

– mind and matter
– self and other
– reality and appearance

and explore the distance between them.

Meanwhile, Eastern philosophers are more likely to explore the overlap between these apparent opposites.

But there’s no hard and fast rule saying that Eastern and Western thinkers have to stick to these respective approaches. Indeed, the media is currently reporting some highly dualistic thinking from Chinese citizens in the wake of a recent (now viral) 12-second long fight between Xu Xiaodong (MMA) and Wei Lei (Tai Chi).

The fight has been viewed symbolically by many, demonstrating a common tendency in China to view the world in terms of a struggle between Chinese tradition and Western influence (The Economist)

Eastern and Western viewers alike have also posted some astonishingly black and white comparisons of Eastern and Western martial arts in response to the fight:

Most Chinese martial arts are horse shit. (Comment on YouTube)

The most interesting commentary has been from people going beyond the easy, apparent East/West dualism of the fight, and asking bigger questions:

What this shows is that although the discussion about this unequally matched fight between Xu and Lei has been highly polarized and sensationalized, there is a legitimate question that all martial arts practitioners and enthusiasts should consider asking themselves: What does the future of martial arts look like?

Sarah Barnes: “Taiji vs MMA: The Fight and the Future

Talking about which style is better than another is an exercise in futility. What is worth discussing are the misconceptions by the general public about what is “traditional”, what is “modern”, and the truer history and reality of traditional vs modern martial arts.

[…] When methods are presented as simple, practical, and “modern”, they are often presented as purely a product of the west: boxing, wrestling, mixed martial arts, competition and quality control of martial arts schools through hard, heavy contact based, and free flowing competition.

The non-western martial art is often presented as: myth based, convoluted, story based, and lacking in empiricism. This is helped by various movie portrayals, too numerous to count. In reality, “tradition” is more manufactured than something that evolved organically from history and cultural customs […] 

– Frank Zhong: “Tai Ji vs MMA”

2. The famous Eastern “mind-body connection” is not an automatic given – it’s something we need to work towards

It’s well known that Western thought traditionally separates mind and body, while Eastern thought sees them as more integrated. But what does this latter position actually mean in practice? 

George cites two interesting thinkers on this topic.

Yasuo Yuasa (1987) argues that in Eastern philosophy, mind-body unity is NOT just a given, that we can take for granted. In fact, it’s seen as:

An achievement; a state to be acquired – rather than essential or innate. Depending on the individual’s own developmental state, the mind-body connection can vary from near dissociation to almost perfect integration.

Whereas Western mind-body theories have typically asked what the mind-body is, Yuasa asks how the mind-body relation varies on a spectrum from the psychotic to the yogi, from the debilitated to the athletic, from the awkward novice to the master musician.

Chikako Ozawa-de Silva (2002) builds on Yasua’s thought. She explains that the Western approach to the body tends to focus more on controlling it, through diet, exercise and so on.

Meanwhile, the Japanese position tends to see the biological, the psychological and the social [ . . . ] as a unity.

The Japanese tend to see bodily practice as cultivation, seeking as its end not power, but the recognition of mind-body integration, the natural expression of which can be seen in activities such as Zen archery.

This is a really helpful explanation. Neither view is right or wrong, or even clear-cut. But it’s helpful to reflect on this perhaps unfamilar way of viewing mind-body unity – as a goal to strive towards, for example through a practice such as martial arts.

3. Our ideas of other cultures (and their values) may be skewed – because we see them through a Western lense

Do you spot something “different” about this world map . . . ? [public domain via Japanese Wikipedia]
Anthropology is the study of various aspects of humans within past and present societies. On the surface, anthropological research has given us tons of information about other cultures.

But George explains that Western anthropology has often treated “other” cultures as fascinating, exotic – and utterly alien to our own culture.

In a martial arts context, this could take the form or collecting mysterious weapons that you have no idea how to use; or romanticising the Samurai or Ninja without really knowing anything about who they were. 

However, newer models of anthropology are more focused on what we can learn about humanity as a whole by exploring other cultures. So rather than an “us and them” mindset, it becomes more about “all of us”.

In this way, we can gain genuine, valuable sociological knowledge from exploring other cultures – not just enjoy their artefacts or rituals as commodities or exotic diversions.

4. The difference between East and West is not always that clear cut

A few days after the conference, I’m talking to George about this idea for a blog article. He says thoughtfully:

It’s so true about the oversimplification and dualism of “the West” and “the East”. If you think of how many of the Eastern countries were colonised and are now capitalist or post-communist, we can see a great diversity among them, and at the same time, a lasting Western influence.

Meanwhile, in the West, we have people who are more “Eastern” than Easterners – practising [what is seen as genuinely Indian] yoga and eating tofu! If you think of manga, and how young girls are portrayed, we can see how Japanese thought and culture is far from pure or perfect.

There are countless other examples, such as the famous notion of “Bushido Values“. The key text defining these values was Nitobe Inazô’s The Soul of Japan (1899). This heavily romanticised book was a political project – written in English, for a Western audience – specifically to make Japanese culture seem to resemble Christian values. 

Let’s return to the idea of individualism v collectivism in the original yoga blog article. Ed Yong writes:

The simplistic notion of individualistic westerners and collectivist easterners is undermined by studies […which…] find that local and current social factors rather than the broad sweeps of history or geography tend to shape the way a particular society thinks.

For example, Nisbett’s group recently compared three communities living in Turkey’s Black Sea region who share the same language, ethnicity and geography but have different social lives: farmers and fishers live in fixed communities and their trades require extensive cooperation, while herders are more mobile and independent. He found that the farmers and fishers were more holistic in their psychology than herders […]

A similar mosaic pattern of thought can be found in the east. “Hokkaido is seen as the Wild West of Japan,” says Nisbett. “The citizens are regarded as cowboys – highly independent and individualistic – and sure enough, they’re more analytic in their cognitive style than mainland Japanese.”

[…] Clearly, the dichotomy between holistic eastern and analytical western thinking is more blurred than the stereotypes suggest […] The minds of east Asians, Americans or any other group are not wired differently. We are all capable of both analytic and holistic thought […] Instead of dividing the world along cultural lines, we might be better off recognising and cultivating our cognitive flexibility. 

西 (ง •̀_•́)ง    ゚・*:.。. .。.:*・゜゚・*    Q( •̀_•́Q) 東

Implications for martial artists

Instead of dividing the world along cultural lines, we might be better off recognising and cultivating our cognitive flexibility . . . 

Could martial artists hold the key?  😉

Take this five-minute video:

On one level, if you know nothing about Kalaripayattu or other martial arts, you might watch this video and think that the art looks cool – or exotic – or beautiful (or not).

But a sincere martial artist would be likely to go deeper, and naturally view it as a series of hints to deepen and perhaps challenge what they already know about:

– Warm-ups
– Weapons (I’m sure you’ll agree that the shields are intriguing)
– Healing practices
– Theatrical elements v martial effectiveness 
– Martial arts as a form of political resistance (check out Sifu Tim Smith’s excellent podcast on social exclusion and martial arts)
– Uke/Nage relationship

Because although we may not explicitly realise it, serious martial artists tend to be natural critical thinkers and interdisciplinarians (people who study across various academic fields in an integrated way). 

In fact, martial artists may be in a better position than many to embrace the kind of multiple, inclusive perspective that George is talking about.

On the surface it may just look like we’re just learning to punch and kick. But in fact, most of us are actually informally pursuing a diverse academic curriculum as we study a martial art – often drawing our material from national cultures other than our own. Our “curriculum” typically includes:

– Sports science
– History
– Sociology
– Philosophy
– Literature
– Art
– Languages

And so on. This can put us in an excellent position to think outside the “boxes” of our own culture; and think more fluidly, openly and connectedly.

Perhaps most importantly, we’re studying these subjects in an embodied way. So a concept such as in-yō (yin/yang) is not just something we read about in books. It’s something we actually experience through our body, as we explore the hard and soft sides of our art; the giving and receiving of blows and techniques. And this inevitably transforms us . . .

西 (ง •̀_•́)ง    ゚・*:.。. .。.:*・゜゚・*    Q( •̀_•́Q) 東

The role of the Martial Arts Studies Research Network

So martial artists may be in a special position to think in exciting, unconventional, connected ways. The MASRN takes this to a higher level, and George rounded off his talk by acknowledging this.

The Network is unique. It brings together academics and martial arts practitioners from across all disciplines (those listed above, and many more!), under the single umbrella of studying martial arts.

It brings together top academics and people with no qualifications whatsoever, to share ideas and learn from each other. The only requirements to participate in the Network are a passion for martial arts, and a sincere desire to ask and explore complex questions.

The Network’s director, Professor Paul Bowman unapologetically pitches the activities and discussions at a reasonably high intellectual level. This isn’t to be exclusive; indeed promoting inclusiveness is a core value of the Network.

It’s to create a dedicated space where the big questions of martial arts can be explored in an intensive, focused, collaborative way, by a passionate interdisciplinary community of like-minded people.

西 (ง •̀_•́)ง    ゚・*:.。. .。.:*・゜゚・*    Q( •̀_•́Q) 東

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article! The next MASRN event is the annual Martial Arts Studies Conference at Cardiff University (Wales) from 11-13 July. Hope to see you there, or at one of the Network’s other excellent events (many of which are free).

Related articles: 

You can also watch all the presentations from the MASRN Conference: New Research in in the Japanese Martial Arts (3 May 2017) on YouTube.

Additional information:

  1. I have no financial or other interest in the work of the MASRN, over and above obviously benefitting from attending its excellent events – and being a huge cheerleader for its work to build a thriving community and break new ground in thinking about martial arts.
  2. * I contacted the yoga blog to check they were cool with me critiquing their article in this way, and they were – otherwise would not have published this!






4 Responses

  1. Joelle White

    Thanks for sharing this, Kai! I’ve learned a lot from interacting with three young Japanese college students. In the dojo (training hall) they outrank me. No question they are superior in skill. But because I’m old enough to be their mother, I “outrank” them outside the dojo. Not to mention we have business relationships – they are students (customers), I’m an office worker who helps them (service provider). Interestingly enough I do have some authority over students – I have to make sure the students are following the rules of the office and the laws of the US government, so sometimes I have to draw a boundary. A polarized Western view would make us out to be constantly jockeying for social status. We’re not. I haven’t the foggiest clue what a polarized Eastern view of our relationships would be! But what I know is this – by following conventions loosely, flexing them as needed, those three Japanese students and I are learning how to build respectful relationships across culture, language, and yes, age. One can do this without karate, of course, but karate adds an interesting twist because they are senior to me!

    • Kai Morgan

      Hi Joelle, thanks for sharing your story here; that’s such a great example of multiple factors feeding into how you and these young students interact. Sounds like a rich and enjoyable experience for both sides! take care Kx

  2. Logen Lanka

    The problem with the eastern vs western values debate is even having a consensus of what constitutes as Eastern or Western. I think your article covers that adequately. It’s very difficult to fit values in a perfect box.

    Moving beyond the realm of philosophy and martial arts now… and speaking about it from someone in Singapore (truly a mixture of East and West), I tend to get annoyed with conservative traditionalists here. They are the ones who hold the view that the West represents selfish materialism. It is the same old talk about Easterners running on the principle of collectivism, while Westerners adhering to individualism.

    As much as many like to put Eastern culture on a pedestal, it has its faults. For example, there is great pressure to appear part of the group, especially in homogeneous societies like Korea. Having contrarian views or perhaps being different becomes a problem. The majority can be unforgiving to those who are different.

    Some notable examples would be how traditional Indian society views its women (and dictate their decorum and career), and how people in the LGBT community are unfilial for not following the norm of settling down and having kids. There is also this notion of “face” in Eastern societies. People, especially in China and India, compare their kid’s careers, income, spouse and more.

    So, as much as philosophy goes, what happens in practice is different. After all, we’re not all zen monks here. I think that’d be the same in the West.

    In defense of Western values (at least as a stereotype), this is what I like…

    – Free thought and the freedom to express dissent. Without criticism, there can be no progress.
    – Assertiveness. Being politely straightforward. In Singapore, you have no idea how annoyed I get when asking my friends where they want to have a meal. They’d tell me anything is fine, but reject suggestions in an indirect way.
    – The idea that the majority is not always right, and that the majority cannot oppress a minority in a democracy (this has to do more with politics). In Singapore, and I believe many countries in Asia, culture and tradition has been used to suppress people who are different.

    That said, Asia is an extremely diverse region. So, whatever I’ve said applies to my own observations and experiences within Singaporean society, and interactions with other Asians. Being ethnically-mixed (half Indian and Chinese) also gives me unique perspective. After all, I fall into either ethnic group (but am sometimes not seen as either).

    Apologies for the rant. I have some thoughts on how it affects martial arts here, but I’m kinda lazy to organize them coherently. I’ll probably revisit this some time later.

    But awesome work, Kai. And, also, I like how you mentioned that sincere martial artists would look deeper than exoticism in a culture.

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