June 18, 2007

Is this the way you think?

Filed under: culture,east-west,language — Kim @ 4:14 am

What do you make of this little diagram without any context, I wonder?


For your information, it’s taken from a 1966 academic article called ‘Cultural Thought Patterns in Intercultural Education’ by an American professor called Robert B Kaplan and is better known in linguistics’ circles as Kaplan’s doodles. It aims to show (in a rough and ready way) how five different cultures approach the task of writing an essay – or presenting an argument perhaps – and he came up with it after teaching international students for a while at the University of Southern California.

As you can guess, it shows the English style as being straight to the point, Semitic writers tending to use parallel structures, Orientals circling around the point, Romance writers straying from the path somewhat, and Russians going off on unconnected tangents, hence the broken lines.

Hmmmm, as you can also doubtless guess it’s pretty controversial and was heavily critiqued in academic journals. But where I think it is useful is as a pedagogical tool for raising awareness about how different cultures might approach the the task of writing essays, or arguing a case.

In Hungary, about eight years ago, I used to teach English for Academic Purposes (EAP) at a place called The Central European University in Budapest, which had a fair mix of nationalities from that neck of the woods, such as Russians, Hungarians, Romanians, Serbs, Croats, Mongolians, Czechs, Polish etc etc. I worked part-time at the university’s Writing Centre, popularly known as the WC, (staffed by toilet attendants from Britain, Ireland, and the US) and our main task was to help these easterners to write research papers in English. Some students had absolutely superb English but even a few of these, together with those who were struggling with the language, still had a problem writing English style papers.

Yes, even if they were word perfect in English and knew their topic inside out they still had issues, and probably the main problem was the organisation of ideas. So, we used to use Kapan’s doodles early on in our course to kick off discussions about how students were accustomed to writing esays.

The Russians were often none-too-happy with this depiction of their “cultural thought patterns” and indeed it does kind of come across as something out of American Cold War propaganda…remember it was published in 1966. On one memorable occasion, one of my Russian students pondered the handout for a while and then gave his considered opinion:

“Zis is bollshit…is zat direct enough?”

And here is a more academic style refutation

In Kubota’s words (1992, p.20), Contrastive Rhetoric tends to “construct a homogenous representation of the ‘Other’ while legitimating a certain kind of rhetoric as a canon”. Other scholars have also criticised contrastive rhetoric for its reductionist, deterministic, prescriptive, and essentialist orientation (e.g. Leki, 1997).

Well, it is is a complex and controversial notion but nonetheless, to ground it in my experience at The Central European University, the issue was that some of our students -we thought- would either beat about the bush too much, or sometimes never even really make their point clear at all. Some stronger students would tend to include too much stuff in their essays (showing off their wide reading a bit too much perhaps) and end up losing the thread for much of the middle of the paper. The weaker ones would string together rather random points and often conclude with a vague exhortation such as “this is an important issue and it needs more study!” To which it was tempting to respond, “Yes it does, and you should have done it.”

Not that these are not issues for students from English speaking cultures of course!

In any case, Kaplan was one of the pioneers of a field of study now known as Contrastive Rhetoric, which can be considered as a hypothesis claiming that the logic expressed through the organization of a certain written text is culture-specific. I guess most people would agree that different cultures express themselves in different ways and it’s an interesting endeavour to compare cultural texts, but it does, inevitably, lead to some clumsy generalizations…which I am about to indulge in in this post, so apologies in advance for that.

Quite a bit of later work in Contrastive Rhetoric involved itself with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writers…mostly student writers. A lot of East Asians have been doing stints in “Anglo-American” universities for a while now and so a fair bit of research has been done on them. Perhaps the best known researcher of “Oriental Writing” is a Dead White European Male called John Hinds, about whom I offer the following.

Hinds has shown that writers in different languages use certain textual structures to
achieve coherence. He has described how Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean
writers prefer to use a quasi-inductive style rather than an explicit inductive or
deductive style. He argues that there is an Oriental writing style, which cannot be
classified as either deductive or inductive. This style involves ‘delayed introduction of
purpose’ with the topic or thesis statement implied, not stated. Hinds’s argument for
quasi-inductive style is related to his (1987) assertion that Japanese is a reader responsible language as opposed to English which is a writer-responsible language.
Hinds claims that readers in Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean languages are
expected to think for themselves, to consider the observations made, and draw their
own conclusions. In English, however, it is usually the writer’s responsibility to
convince readers by explicitly presenting the idea in a way that they will be able to

Ah yes, those inscrutable Orientals! Not like us straight talking Anglo chaps, what?

Actually, Hinds was a serious academic and was careful to hedge his assertions and to back up his claims with a fair amount of samples. Hinds also used to write about the influence of the traditional four-part Chinese style essay, called a ‘qi-cheng-zhuan-he’ (‘beginning’, ‘development’, ‘turn’ and ‘conclusion’) essay. This was copied by the Japanese (surprise, surprise) and is known over there as ‘ki-shoo-ten-ketsu’.

I can’t say I’ve come across this very often, but here’s an interesting opinion from a Japanese guy, Paul Kei Matsuda, who moved to the US to become a writing teacher

I tried to argue that ki-shoo-ten-ketsu was not just a fantasy created by ethnocentric native-English-speaking readers, as some people seemed to be arguing. In fact, I was explicitly taught to use it by one of my elementary school teachers, my parents, and some of the popular writing handbooks in Japan. This organizational scheme was also apparent, I thought, in some student texts that I encountered in my work as a tutor.

The bit that tends to puzzle westerner academics, apparently, is the third part, the “turn”. This “turn” is often seen by them as a diversion from the main point, rather than a development of it.

And if that wasn’t enough, there is also something known as ‘ba gu wen’, “the eight-legged essay” and as I have never encountered one of these exotic sounding creatures I shall have to borrow this explanation

In Kaplan’s book (1972), he argued that the indirectness of oriental writing was largely
due to the influence of the Chinese ‘eight-legged essay’, which was actually a
traditional essay form used as a standard device in civil service examinations
hundreds of years ago. The origin of the ‘eight-legged’ essay ba gu wen can be traced
back to the Bei Song Dynasty (960—1127AD) in China. It was not until the Ming
dynasty (1368—1644AD) that the rules for the composition of the eight-legged essay
were explicitly laid down (Tu, 1974). The eight legs, or ba gu, refers to the
rhetorically parallel paragraphs (legs) of the four central parts of the essay—-the qi gu,
the xiao gu, the zhong gu and the hou gu. The required style of the parallel legs of the
eight-legged essay was, “as one falls another one rises” (yi fan yi zheng) (Tang, 1980).
This structure was extremely complex. The ability to write a good eight-legged essay
took scholars several years to master.

Cripes! I’m glad I didn’t have to do any of those at school…but as it turns out, neither, it seems, do Chinese students these days either

(Kirkpatrick, 1997), finds that Mainland Chinese students do not have to learn traditional Chinese text styles (eight-legged essays or even qi-cheng-zhuan-he) in order to enter university. In fact, eight-legged essays have been not been used for quite some time and have very little influence on contemporary writing. As for qi-cheng-zhuan-he, this model is not focused on in the Chinese school curriculum either. Chinese students do not have to master any contemporary style that could be classified as intrinsically Chinese. Furthermore, they are encouraged to be inventive and original in their writings. After a survey of contemporary Chinese textbooks on composition, Kirkpatrick (1997) concludes that the prescriptive advice given in these texts reflects a contemporary ‘Anglo-American’ rhetorical style more than a traditional ‘Chinese’ style.

And I must say that this clicks with my experience too. Having taught writing in both Japanese and Chinese universities now, I can’t say I have had many encounters with exotic essay forms. Although I have had to read a fair amount of drivel and dross over the years, it is not that much different from the kind of problematic writing I got from the non-asian students I taught in Hungary.

However, many studies do suggest that there are significant Oriental-Occidental differences

Among the contrastive rhetorical studies that have found their ways into composition
studies, Matalene’s (1985) ‘Contrastive Rhetoric: An American Writing Teacher in
China’ has become something of a classic. In her article, Matalene uses parts of
English compositions written by Chinese students and translations of various Chinese
texts to explain the characteristics of Chinese rhetoric. Unlike Kaplan, Matalene does
not dwell just on formal aspects of rhetoric (i.e., the forms that paragraphs take), but
discusses Chinese writers’ reliance on memorization and manipulation of set phrases
and textual forms to emphasize group values over individualistic goals. She found that
Chinese students could not use English rhetorical devices effectively to establish
arguments. Usually they would use narrations and statements that seemed
unconnected in the eyes of Western readers. She concluded that Chinese rhetoric
lacked argumentative coherence because of its reliance on references to history,
tradition, and authorities.

My guess is that there must be a generation gap here because the overwhelming majority of my students write clearly argued and coherent essays that use quotation in familiar ways. Although it’s also probably because I teach English majors who have learnt writing from American composition textbooks, or at least textbooks that are influenced by American composition.

Anyway, it’s not really that surprising that English majors are influenced by English language culture, but maybe it does hint towards the wider issue that what with our wired-up-world and the global village and all that, modern students, journalists, and other opinionated types are tending to think, talk, and write in similar ways.

The main exception to this, in my limited experience of course, has been the essays I’ve had to mark from Saudi, Omani and Jordanian students…Muslim Arab students in other words. Now they really do create flowery and winding pathways for their prose and my best guess is that it’s to do with their religious (medieval) worldview and constant references to and deference to The Koran, and their duty to memorise huge chunks of it. But that’s a WHOLE other topic there.

I’d like to end with the suggestion that a significant section of literate people around the world these days are not only tending to hold similar sets of opinions but are also expressing those written opinions in similar ways…with easy to follow points, clear paragraphs, and unconvoluted prose. Does that sound like most of the blogs and papers you read?

Is that the way you think?


  1. Thanks! Yet another educational post. I had wondered about the origin of the doodles. One of my students made the same claim as Kaplan (as an excuse for his inability/unwillingness to write a five-paragraph essay). I wrote about it in a post entitled The God Effusion. The post isn’t really about “zis bollshit,” but you might enjoy it.
    When I write posts, I try to use three major elements. It’s usually quite a stretch to string those three together. I can’t imagine how hard eight would be.

    Comment by Josh — June 23, 2007 @ 3:45 pm

  2. From time to time I’m a book editor – English language, written by Chinese, usually university professor. The books have a lot of the content written by English major students. On average, more than half the work come from having to rewrite the text so that it actually relates to the point(another 2/3rds is getting rid of the political ideology, an additional 40% is punctuaton and spelling, and the rest is general corrections – it ain’t easy being an editor when you are mathematically living in L-space!).

    Comment by MyLaowai — July 4, 2007 @ 12:38 am

  3. Thanks for the Kaplan doodles, Kim. I was looking for them on the net, which is where I came across your blog. You write very well…really amusing. Anyway I used the doodles in a session with university staff, explaining the reductionist nature of them but pointing out that they are a useful starting point in understanding WHY we get such odd-looking assignments. Not that we don’t get them from Aussie students, but we attribute different reasons to them, as you said, like a drunken bender the night before, et al. Anyway there were about 15 staff at the session and I think they all “got” it…there were a lot of genuine questions. So that was great!

    I take care of the academic needs of our international students in the School of Education (we do teacher-training) here – we have a few Chinese students – I do like the Chinese students because I find them open to new ideas, and prepared to work hard to learn new things. Of course my sample is really small, we only have about 5 students from China in any one year (and about 20-30 internationals) but I am realy impressed with the students.

    One big problem we have is with the students’ accents…they go out to primary schools for teaching practice, and young Anglo Australian students (who are 5-6 years old) can’t understand them. Very small children are still grappling with receptive language in their mother tongue…they often can’t yet understand all native speakers of their own language – so a very strong accent can completely elude them. This is a problem for our students. Although it is somewhat balanced by the fact that many Australians (and thus many parents) these days are Asian, and so teachers from Asian countries are very much welcomed for their diverse backgrounds and their committment to education. Nevertheless, the problem remains with the very little kids trying to understand out trainee teachers …and I am at a loss as to how to try to change students’ accents without sounding racist. Should I be direct…would students lose face? If so, how can I tactfully solve this problem? Some of our students fail their teaching diplomas because of this, which I think is avoidable. Can anyone help?

    Comment by Aussieocean — July 28, 2008 @ 4:42 am

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