« Thought Patterns of the Han Ethnicity » – P.H. Huang

« An Observation on the Thought Patterns of the Han Ethnicity and their Impact on Religions and Theologies »

by: Po-Ho Huang

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1. Introduction

Any research work attempting to examine Eastern rationality and its thought patterns inevitably has to take China into consideration. This is the case, not only because of the significance of China’s large population and long history, but also because of its complexity and the plurality of its ethnicity and languages. Despite the tremendous amount of studies on China and Chinese, it is not easy, in my opinion, to speak on any unique issue in relation to these two terminologies besides their political ramifications, because the connotations of these terms are both vague and uncertain.  From an anthropological point of view, Chinese is not a unitary ethnic group, and there is no single ethnic tribe that is called “Chinese” today, even though a traditional theory proposed in the 17th century by Martino Martini and supported by many later scholars, is that the word China and its earlier related forms are ultimately derived from the state of “Qin” (秦), the westernmost part of the “Middle kingdom” (中國) during the Zhou dynasty which unified the kingdoms to form the Qin dynasty.[1] The appellation of China, thus, was named, according to this theory, as a highly political blend. It is, therefore, ambiguous to talk about a Chinese culture. Preferably, the term “Chinese” is used politically to include the Hans, the Manchurians, the Mongolians, the Hui Muslims and the Tibetans. Each of these ethnic groups has its respective and distinct culture. Therefore, it is almost impossible to speak about “a” Chinese culture.

[1] See: Martin Martino, Novus Atlas Sinensis, Vienna 1665, Preface, p. 2.

Even though, politically speaking, it has its own territory, sovereignty and citizens, nevertheless, the nomenclature“China” developed from the complexity of the historical reshaping of the different dynasties struggling for power, particularly when there were so many dynasties that had ruled the country withthe hegemonic mindset of political expansionism. This resultantly produced the frequent and drastic changes to its territory and citizenship. The current controversial questions – on the status of Tibetans, Eastern Turkistans, the position states of Hong Kong, and China’s relation with Taiwan – have contributed to the contemporary perplexity about this term.

Therefore, instead of talking about the ambiguous concept of “Chinese”, I deliberately focus on “Han” Ethnicity, which is one of the major ethnicities of the world population. According to some census and statistics[2], the Hanis an ethnic group native to East Asia. They constitute approximately 92% of the population of Mainland China, 93% of the population of Hong Kong, 92% of the population of Macau, 76.2% of the citizen population of Singapore, 24.5% of the population of Malaysia, and 98% of the population of Taiwan. With a total about 1.4 billion people spread all over the world, that makes them the largest ethnic group in the world. The Han culture, as a major part of the constituency of the so-called Chinese culture, has produced, since the ancient times, great intellectuals, high civilizations and splendid arts, and it possesses a body of extremely rich cultural classics written through the course of the thousands of years of its history, and whichtoday contributes immensely to politics, armed forces, philosophy, economics, history, natural sciences, literatures, art, etc., and has modeled many distinctive figures with far-reaching impact on the world. 

[2] See “Table 139. Population by ethnicity 2001 and 2006”, Population and Vital Events, Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong Government, and Global Results of By-Census 2006, Statistics and Census Service (DSEC) of the Macau Government, 2007.

Nevertheless, considering the popular usage of the terms in reference documents, the concepts of “China” and “Chinese” will still be used in the follow texts whenever the citations are from the said sources. 

2. Particular features of Han language

Hajime Nakamura, a Japanese scholar, when dealing with the Oriental ways of thinking, has pointed out that Eastern Asia has too many ethnic tribes with different cultures to be dealt with. He proposed that four objective countries be taken as the major cultural components of East Asia, namely: India, China, Japan and Tibet. When talking about Chinese Thought patterns, hemainly concentrates on the ways of expression of Han Language (Hanzi or Hanyu) and its reactions towards Buddhist world-view and epistemology.[3] After pointing out the distinctive characters of Han Language as an Isolating language in comparison to the agglutinating character of Japanese language and the inflectional nature of Indian language,[4] he highlights nine special features that the Chinese (Han) demonstrate through their cultural expressions. I will highlight only three of these features that I consider to be most significant to our purpose in this paper:

[3] See: Hajime Nakamura, translated by Hsu Fu Kuan, Ways of Thinking of Chinese people, Taipei, Taiwan StudentBookStore Press, 1991.

[4] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

1. Emphasis on the perception of concrete image: based on the observation and analysis of the ways of expression of the Han language, Hajime Nakamura points out that Chinese (Han) people tend to emphasize particularity and individuality rather than universality. They prefer to express themselves figuratively (bildlich) rather than abstractly, and they perceive reality as being static rather than dynamic.[5] This is why, in Han language, there is shortage of verb forms for indicating dynamic movement, but more for figurative description. Whether this is common to all primitive languages or it is a particular characteristic of Han Language, is yet to be verified.[6] However, this tendency of using figurative descriptions in Han people’s ways of expression can be found also in its language (words and characters) structure. Derived from the most original form of pictographs (象形), it has been developed to ideographic (指事) phonetic (形聲) compound ideographs (會意), derivative cognates (轉注) and rebus of phonetic loan (假借). Wherein pictographs is the foundation of the conceptual perception and ways of expression.

[5] Ibid., p. 62.

[6] Ibid., p. 63.

2. Based upon this particular characteristic of figurative description of the Han language structure, a distinctive way of expressing abstract concepts through concrete images has been developed as a special way of thinking and communication. For instance, the western concept of inscription (inschrift) or epigraphy, which Indian expressions also employ in the abstract concept of  “lekha”, the Han language (Han character), makes use of “gold-stone text” (金石文) instead. Its expressions about speed and distance are also imagery. For example, to talk about the concept of fast speed and long distance, there is no abstract way of expressing it in the Han Language which can directly translate these concepts into abstract terms. Instead, the Han language expression for the concept of “very fast in speed”, “very sharp in sight” or “very long in distance”, very poetic: “thousand miles horse” (千里馬 fast horse), “thousand miles eye” (千里眼 sharp sight),and “ten thousand miles wall” (萬里長城 great wall).[7] An abstract concept, thus, is translated to a countable metaphor. This is particularly popular in the poem that lays emphasis on artistic concepts. 

[7] Ibid., p. 64.

3. This way of expressing reality by means of concrete imagery is also found in the Chan Buddhism translation of Buddhist philosophy to Han characters.[8] Chan Buddhism was established since the Chinese Han dynasty (Bcd 202 – Ad 220). It is one of the three Buddhist sects that were formed in the land of China,[9] which has immense historical impacts on the Han culture. In order to make their disciples be conscious of reality and truth – to purify their heart – the Chan Patriarchs uses alternative ways of teaching known as “eloquent” to guide their scholars, which is also called enlightenment. A core idea proposed by Chan Buddhism is: “do not depend on written doctrines, uphold alternative ways of teaching besides scriptures, directly approach the human heart and attain Buddha through the discovery of nature” (不立文字,教外別傳,直指人心,見性成佛).[10] In the other words, Chan Buddhism developed a sophisticated epistemology that is based upon the subjective perception of the objective reality while the exercise self-denial of physical perception is used to attain enlightenment. Through practicing this process of epistemology, concrete imageries are taken as ways of elaboration. The famous case that describes this epistemology is the three stages argument of negation and transcendence of reality. It is expressed with the following discourses: “Mountain and water are seen as they are” (見山是山,見水是水), then “mountain and water are seen empty” (見山不是山,見水不是水) and finally “mountain and water are seen notwithstanding” (見山仍是山,見水仍是水). Even struggling with the discernment of reality, Chan Buddhism has to use the concrete images of mountain and water to express the concepts. 

[8] Such as: universe as “Shan-He Da Di” (means mountains, rivers and earth), human essence of subjectivity as “a drop of water from Cao source”, and the true nature as “original face”, “local scenery”, etc. 

[9] Most Buddhist Sects that entered China in Han dynasty were from India. The only three Buddhist sects that were formed in China are Tiantai, Huayen, and Chan Buddhism.  

[10] Yu-Lan Fong (馮友蘭), New Edition of History of Chinese Philosophy, (China: people’s Press, 1989) vol. 4, p. 258.

3. Way of thinking developed from the features of Han language 

Based upon these particular characteristics, a distinctive way of thinking has thus been developed by the Han people, which possesses the following features:

1) Intuitive way of thinking: the particular features of Han language and its formation of Han characters to associate with figurative expressions are also demonstrated in the intuitive way of thinking of Han people. Han people’s intuitive way of thinking is derived from their tendency of depending on feeling. According to Hajime Nakamura, the intuitive way of thinking is one of the most important Chinese (Han) spiritual characteristics.[11] He points out that Chinese (Han) people are not so much confident on those beyond living experiences, but more in actual feelings. Yen Chi Toe (顏之推), a Chinese Scholar, has left a famous family discipline guide: Yen Shi chia shuin (顏氏家訓) there he insists that “Nothing can be believed but ears and eyes; besides ears and eyes, all are to be suspected” (凡人之信,唯耳與目,耳目之外,咸致疑焉).[12] In other words, traditional Han people are taught to live their life according to physical sensation, particularly based upon visual perceptions. And this is correspondent to its language origin from Pictographs.

2) Another thinking characteristic of Han people is their preference for the idea of “round circle”. They consider the image of “round” as representing perfection and completion. The concept of “consummation” which is expressed in a pictographic way of Han characters as “round and full” (圓滿) is an example. Round and full are, thus, taken to denote the highest satisfaction and success. Roundtable, therefore, become most preferable table for family union.

3) Individuality versus universality. Derived from the tendency of stressing perception, particularly through the visual way of comprehension, Han people tend to pay more attention to individual and concrete cases, than trying to grasp nature and meaning in their comprehensive and general aspects. This is evidenced by the lack of preposition, connecting-words and synonyms that help in the formation of sentences in Han grammar. The nouns in Han characters neither have different forms for the distinction of plural and singular, nor for distinction of gender.[13] Because independent characters make up the Han language, a single character can be assumed to be a noun, an adjective or a verb. It can only be interpreted according its context, and in many cases, even the context cannot even help to identify them, particularly when it is expressed in a poetic form. The Han linguistic expression derived from the above-mentioned characteristic, concrete and individualistic pictography has prevented it from developing abstract ways of thinking and thus, has been unable to nurture the custom of logical discourses.[14]

[11] Hajime Nakamura, ibid., p. 66.

[12] Yen Chi Toe (顏之推), Yen Shi chia shuin, Return heart (歸心). See: http://ctext.org/yan-shi-jia-xun/ gui-xin/zh retrieved Nov. 21, 2015.

[13] The modern Han characters have been developed from some words to more complicate forms to indicate different sexual orientations and even for distinguishing between the divine and the profane, particularly with nouns of synonyms such like: you (你,妳,祢), he/she (他,她,祂,牠,它) but these are maybe the only words developed in modern society.

[14] Ref. Hajime Nakamura, Ibid., p. 80.

These characteristics have resulted to a phenomenon of underdevelopment in abstract thinking. The Han people, due to their tendency of laying emphasis on outward perception and focusing on particular cases, has been inclined to the individualistic way of thinking and has overlooked the universal aspect of conception. In Han characters, there are different specific words developed to describe one concept in different levels or grades. For instance, the concepts of ‘old’ and ‘death’, have assumed different characters according to different ages, but no single word can represent the abstract meaning of these concepts.[15] In general, the Han language has not contributed much to the development of a universal aspect of thinking for the Han people.

[15] In Han language, the concept of old is describe according to ages or status, over sixty say 耆 “qi”, seventy say 老 “lau/old”, eighty say 耄 “mao”. While the death of emperor means 崩 “Bun”, for dukes or prices, it means 薨 “hong”, senior officials 卒 “Tzu”, scholars 不祿 ”misfortune”, and for common people 死 “Shu/die”.

4. Arts and theologies that derived from particular Eastern ways of thinking 

Patterns of thought have had tremendous impact on many aspects of human life, particularly on their way of life and expression of art. Derived from the particular characteristics of the Han people’s way of thinking, we can also find significant differences between its aesthetic taste and that of the western world. According to Pan ai-chun, a Chinese artist, Chinese painting[16] and Western painting in the long process of historical development formed its own unique characteristics, and also differ in terms of forms and aesthetic characteristics.[17] He says: 

[16] In this case, Pan ai-chun is also referring to the Han ethnic group of people among the so-called Chinese. 

[17] Pan aichun (潘愛軍), Studies on Chinese and western paintings from their different cultural perspectives and spirituality (關於不同文化精神關照下的中西繪畫).

There are significant differences between Chinese and Western painting aesthetic taste. Painting has two states, one is “to paint” and the other is “to write”, “to paint” is an activity of “depiction”, and “to write” is an act of presentation, to express one’s sentiments. Shi Hu has brilliantly defined that “to paint” is an event of reproduction; “to write” is to perform. “Painting” and “writing” vividly reflect the Western and Chinese arts, and their different aesthetic tastes: reproduction and performance.[18]

[18] Ibid.

According to Pan ai-chun, Western arts are more developed along with objective ways and scientific skills, while the Chinese arts are more subjective and intuitive. He points out:

Ancient Chinese painters mostly perceived the social function of painting through Confucians perspectives, while taking Buddhism and Taoism as a guide for their aesthetic exercise, which has stressed the importance of enlightenment and spiritual cultivation. Especially after the Tang and Song dynasties, the development of Chan Buddhism had a significant impact on painting. Under the influence of Chan, painters after Tang dynasty, consider that the principle of painting is similar to the principle of Chan; to practice Chan requires comprehension: painting also requires comprehension. Painters, in Song dynasty, called painting ‘Game of Ink’, while in Ming dynasty, called it ‘drawing Chan’. Thus, painting and Chan meditation are almost inseparable after Song dynasty.[19]

[19] Ibid., translated by the author of the article.

Besides this conceptual difference on “painting” and “writing”, there is another distinctive feature can be ascribed to the two different traditions of arts, i.e. time oriented versus space oriented. Western painting, based upon its historical sensibility, has stressed its art creation to reflect more upon humanity and less on nature and space, while the Asian arts, particularly those influenced by the Confucius tradition and the Han language orientation, tend to focus on nature and preserving space as important elements for their art expressions.

C.S. Song, an Asian theologian from Taiwan, has also consistently insisted on the impact of thought patterns, which have to do with the apprehension of life and reality, onparticular cultures. He argues that some Asians, especially the Chinese and the Japanese, tend to approach the Reality behind all realities through an intuitive way which is contrasts with the western conceptual and rationalistic approaches.[20] He quotes also from Hajime Nakamura to explain that even in the fields of science and technology, where Japan ranks high among the developed nations, the Japanese are intuitively oriented:

[20] C. S. Song, Third-Eye Theology (New York: Orbis books, 1979), p. 45.

In the history of technology also the Japanese people have valued and still value intuitive perception kan (感) more than scientific inferences based on postulational thinking. They were apt to rely on the dexterity of artisans rather than on exact calculation by machine.[21]

[21] C. S. Song, Ibid., p. 46, quoted from Hajime Nakamura, Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India, China, Tibet, Japan (Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1964), p. 13.

Song concludes with these arguments that, for the Japanese and the Chinese, intuition rules their mind, thought, and action in an emphatic way and thus, he says, no wonder that religion comes to be associated more with intuition than reason.[22] As a Christian theologian, C.S. Song’s concerns are not only to distinguish the particularity of the differences in thought patterns between the East and the West, but also to develop discourses on the need to create, beside traditional western theologies, Asian theologies based upon profound Asian cultures. He takes the Japanese concept of satori (悟りenlightenment) as a key that unlocks the mystery of life and the world in Buddhism and particularly in Chan Buddhism. He says: Satori is enlightenment of the mind as the mind is touched by the truth. It is an experience that leads us to the sudden realization of being in the presence of the truth we have been seeking. It can be compared to the artistic inspiration that enables an artist to grasp and apprehend what lies beneath the appearance of beauty and ugliness.[23] In this regard, he argues it further to the religious and theological realms and says:

[22] C. S. Song, Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

In this sense, theology, or more generally, religion, has more in common with art than with science. Art, at its most profound expression, is sublime in the artist’s mind. Theology or religion partakes of artistic profundity at its most sincere level where theology and art cross each other’s path. In that intersection, artistic theology is born and theological art comes into being. Both artistic theology and theological art are children of intuition. Intuition overcomes the normal framework of reason and rationality, breaks into the mystery of mysteries, and enables men and women to come to the presence of the reality they seek.[24]

[24] Ibid.

The concept of satori, which Song takes as an example – even though it is from the Japanese culture – was generated from Chan Buddhism with which the Han culture has shared the same origin as one of its important components. Intuitive enlightenment is not just acting as a significant role in the apprehension of Japanese way of thinking, but also for the Han people as well. 

5. Reflecting context and inter-contextuality from the perspective of Fudo (Natural features)

To advocate that religions or theologies take root in particular cultural settings is, according to some Asian theologians, imperative to giving life to theologies. For this reason, contextual theologies are called living theology.[25] Contextual theologies emerged in late 60’s of the twentieth century, which were constructed mainly by the third-world churches and theologians in order to respond to the oppressive and suffering experiences of the third-world people. They have contributed significantly to churches in different parts of the world in redirecting their evangelical mission to pay attention to the marginalized and exploited in their societies

[25] See: John C. England (ed.), Living Theology in Asia, (UK: Hymns Ancient & Modern Ltd, 2012); Douglas J. Elwood (ed.), Asian Christian Theology – emerging themes (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980).

However, with the overwhelming impact of the process of economic and cultural globalization that has rapidly integrated the world to a global village, the previous concepts about the features of context are no longer valid in this globalized world. Rather, issues peculiar to different geographical settings are now all inter-connected. The former arguments generated from the contextual theologies are thus challenged by the new reality of inter-contextual entanglement. Contexts, therefore, need to be re-examined and reflected upon in order to frame their possible connections in between.

It was another Japanese scholar, Tetsuro Watsuji, who proposed an understanding that climate is the fundamental element shaping philosophies, and developing religions. Contexts thus are based upon natural features (fudo) that interact with human activities. Inter-contextuality, therefore, has a common base: human nature and its struggles with surrounding environments. Tetsuro also perceives Christianity as a religion that has gone through the climate context of desert (Palestine and Northern Africa), pasture (Europe) and monsoon (Eastern Asia), where philosophy and religions have developed into monotheism, pantheism and reincarnation. Although Tetsuro’s argument is yet to be further confirmed by scholarly discussions, he has highlighted points of reference that explain our struggling to respond to theological challenges facing globalization.  

6. Conclusion

Thought patterns are shaped by different cultures, particularly by people’s usage of language. This has impacted significantly upon the human perception of realities and various religious confessions and observations. Theologies and theological education need to be alert to this limitation of contextualityby making efforts to investigate the nature of these cultural elements and their significance, with an attempt to going beyond these boundaries, so that a genuine household of God can be built in responding to the challenges brought about by globalization and theneed to confront our world today.


Huang Po Ho is currently professor of Theology and vice president of Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. He is the founding chairperson of Formosa Christianity and Culture Research Center. He served as President of Tainan Theological College and Seminary, Associate General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan and Moderator of Council for World Mission, London and Dean of PTCA (Programs for Theology and Cultures in Asia), He is now the Moderator of The Asian Forum for Theological Education (AFTE). His numerous books include:A Theology of Self-determinationFrom Galilee to TainanNo Longer a StrangerMission from the Underside and Embracing the Household of God.