Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Jun 24, 2016

Cannes 2016: Chinese imitation explained through the eyes of Confucius

A talk at Cannes addressed why Westerners are known as better at innovation and the Chinese commonly seen as imitators.

Cannes 2016: Chinese imitation explained through the eyes of Confucius

CANNES - A cultural difference regarding the penchant for innovation goes back to the fundamental differences between the West's and East's relationships with nature, according to René Chen, partner and managing director at Jones Knowles Ritchie Shanghai, who spoke on the Forum stage.

When it comes to adverse environmental changes, Westerners would attempt to dominate and challenge nature. It is in their innate hunter’s instinct to do so.

The Chinese, on the contrary, have a herding instinct that leads them to collaborate, adapt and conform in order to co-exist with nature. Confucius, a highly regarded philosopher, further seeded this mentality over 2000 years ago by preaching the value of harmony, inward thinking and internal cultivation.

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"The Chinese don’t challenge anything. If it rains, we just accept it," said Chen. "The Westerners will ask a fundamental question like, why does it rain?" 

Chinese culture is very much influenced by Confucius' cornerstone teaching about heaven and human as one unity. "As water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it, wise men adapt themselves to circumstances" is a soundbite that still holds up today.

The way that Chinese people approach and present creativity largely reflects the nation’s more artistic and ambiguous manner. Chinese calligraphy proves this point—it is not about realism, but about drawing out the spirit of an object.

"The Chinese are born very inward-looking; we are not as expressive as the Westerners," Chen added. "That’s why we are not able to articulate our creativity. We know it, but we won’t express it."

This is the complete opposite of Westerners’ methodical and scientific approach to creativity, and articulated well.

"A lot of marketing in China is forcing the work to be Westernised," Chen said, but Chinese creativity at its heart is more adaptive to its environment. Take for example ancient Chinese architecture with its criss-cross timber structure, which shows harmony. 

These worldviews have spilled over to the realm of marketing innovation.

In the West, the objective of innovation is to "do something differently in a disruptive, breakthrough, ground-breaking way", she described. Whereas in China, it is more "an adapter style of innovation" that builds on, improves, extends on something and is more about "a sense of continuity in expression".
 
Today, the innovative style of the West has become the de-facto standard of creativity, but Chen questioned that perspective. "People perceive that real innovation comes from the West and the Chinese copy. But why must China’s adapter style be perceived as imitation?"
 
The Chinese innovate through adaptation, Chen asserted, citing WeChat and Alipay as examples.
 
Even many Chinese innately still believe that they are not as innovative as Westerners, but they really need to turn those "old-school" Confucion concepts of balance and harmony into inter-connectivity and inter-dependency for the modern age, she concluded. 

Campaign Asia-Pacific's take:

Yes, at the beginning, it was imitation. Like a kid, he or she learns by imitating. Chen's message is delivered to the Chinese as much as to foreign media that often assume Chinese creativity is a result of mimicry. This has been a prevailing argument in the startup circles that we're glad has spilled over to our industry, though sometimes we've sensed a nationalistic sentiment driving the message more than anything else.

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