The Theosophical Society in America

Lines and Circles: West and East

Originally printed in the July - August 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Biao, Zuo. "Lines and Circles: West and East." Quest  90.4 (JULY - AUGUST 2002):140-145.

By Zuo Biao

Zuo BiaoNOTHING IN THE WORLD IS ABSOLUTE. Everything is relative, cultural difference being no exception.Culture, as the total pattern of human behavior and its products, oversteps geographical limits and historical conditions in many ways, and it is characterized by its strong penetrativeness and fusibility.

The advancement of the globalized economy and the rapidity and ease of modern communication, transportation, and mass media have resulted in an ever increasing exchange between cultures,unprecedented in scale, scope, and speed. Consequently, an increase in universality and a reduction in difference between cultures is an inevitable trend. It is no surprise to see phenomena characteristic of one culture existing in another. As a result, some people even fear that the world will become a dull place when all the different nationalities behave exactly alike.

Nevertheless, the “cultural sediment” formed through long-range accumulation is not to be easily removed, and the cultural tradition handed down from generation to generation shows great consistency and continuity. The cultures of different regions and nations still have their own distinctive peculiarities, and therefore significance still needs to be attached to the study of the individualities of different cultures against the background of their universality.

By and large, linearity and circularity can be used to indicate the major difference between Western and Chinese cultures. “Western culture” here is a general term, putting aside its interior regional diversities in order to contrast it with Chinese culture. A circle is a round enclosure. Aline is a narrow continuous mark. The contrast between the linearity of Western culture and the circularity of Chinese culture embodies itself in such aspects as worldview, core value, outlook on time, and mode of thinking.

Worldview: Linear Division and Circular Enclosure

A line divides an area while a circle encloses one. As far as worldviews are concerned, Western linearity is displayed in the general belief that the Universe is divided into two opposites with a clear-cut demarcation line drawn between the two: man and nature, subject and object, mind and matter, the divine and the secular. Chinese circularity manifests itself in the prevailing viewpoint of combining the two opposites and enclosing them. Although opposites are acknowledged in both cultures, Western culture emphasizes their coexistence and opposition, whereas Chinese culture stresses their interdependence and integration.

The linear nature of the Western worldview can be traced back to such ancient Greek philosophers as Thales, Heracleitus, Plato, and Aristotle. They all advocate dividing the world into two opposing parts: element and soul, reality and reason, matter and form. Their theories laid the foundation for the further development of the one-dividing-into-two view adopted by Western culture. Archimedes said more than two thousand years ago, “Give me but one firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth.” A proverb says, “Nature is conquered by obeying her.” Conquering or obeying, human beings in the West consider Nature as their opposite.

Christianity holds that God creates human beings and human beings sin against God. Throughout the Bible the theme of the redemption of mankind is developed. There exists a clear division between God and humanity. Later hypotheses like those of Descartes and Hegel consolidated the theoretical basis though they introduced different notions, such as matter and mind and real object and absolute spirit. The dividing worldview is the starting point of Western culture’s exploring and transforming Nature and explains the rapid development of science and technology in the West.

The circular Chinese worldview originates from the notion of Tao in the proposition “Tao consists ofYin and Yang” in the Book of Changes (about 600 BC). Lao-tzu, who lived about 500 years before Christ, further enunciated the concept of Tao in chapter 42 of his Tao Te Ching: “Tao gave birth to the One; the One gave birth successively to two things, three things, up to ten thousand. These ten thousand creatures cannot turn their backs to the shade (Yin) without having the sun (Yang) on their bellies, and it is on this blending of the breaths (both Yin and Yang) that their harmony depends” (Arthur Maley’s translation). It is obviously the One, the blending, and the harmony that are emphasized in the explanation of Tao.

Two centuries after Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu (369 –286 BC) used orderly philosophic discussion rather than poetic intuition to clarify the concept of Tao. He believed in “the One reality which is all men, gods, and things: complete, all-embracing, and the whole; it is an all-embracing unity from which nothing can be separated” (Gardener Murphy’s translation). When it comes to the relationship between humanity and Nature, he proposes that “the perfect man has no self because he has transcended the finite and identified himself with the universe.” Thus the concept that human beings are part of Nature is rooted in the minds of the Chinese people. Dong Zhongshu (179 –104 BC), a philosopher of the West Han dynasty, again developed the Oneness worldview. He assumed that “the energy of heaven and earth is a unified one. It consists of Yin and Yang and manifests itself in four seasons and five elements.”

A number of Chinese expressions mirror the idea of identifying human beings with Nature rather than separating them. Here are some examples:

Nature affects human affairs and human behavior finds response in Nature (Tian ren ganying).
The law of Nature and the feelings of humanity are in unison (Tian li ren qing).
Nature accords with human wishes (Tian cong ren yuan).
Nature is angry and people are resentful (Tian nu ren yuan).
Nature’s will brings about human affinity (Tian yi ren yuan).
Nature and humankind turn to one. (Tian yu ren gui).

The Chinese character “tian” is translated as “Nature” in the above expressions, although “tian” carries awider sense than the English word. “Tian” (Nature) and “ren” (human) always react to and comply with each other. They can never be separated. The Oneness worldview also finds expression in Chinese poems:

Flowers smile on the happy occasion.
Birds sing with the joyful congregation.
(Wang Wei)

Trees sway in a mournful gale.
Waves surge like hill and dale.
(Cao Zhi)

Catkins scattered by wind, my motherland is being disintegrated.
Rain striking duckweed, I sink against the tide, broken-hearted.
(Wen Tianxiang)

As the above lines show, things in Nature like flowers, birds, trees, waves, wind, and rain all respond to such human feelings as happiness, sadness, anger, and sorrow. Humanity and Nature blend into a harmonious identity.

Core Value: Linear Individuality and Circular Integrity

A line is a point moving continuously onward, whereas a circle is a centripetal ring. In terms of core value, Western linearity is embodied in the priority given to developing individual potentialities, realizing individual objectives, and seeking individual interests; Chinese circularity is embodied in the importance attached to harmonizing community relationships, actualizing community objectives, and safeguarding community interests.

For most Westerners, individualism is undoubtedly a positive core value. In fact, the social systems of various Western nations, and especially the United States, are based on “rugged individualism,”as described by Herbert Hoover in 1928. The pursuit of individual rights and interests is considered utterly legitimate. Self-actualization and the maximal realization of individual potential are supremeaims in life. It is fully justified for individuals to protect their private interests when they are in conflict with those of the community or the state. Weight is given to the individual rather than to the community, as Margaret Thatcher said in a speech in 1987: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women.” Westerners prefer to discipline themselves rather than be disciplined by others. They take pride in their independence and their right to make their own decisions. They go their own way, not caring much about what others might think about their doings.

In Western culture, an individual is like an independent point, moving forward continuously in aself-chosen direction, forming a line of self-fulfillment. If different people’s lines run parallel, they will each smoothly attain their own aims in life. As one American professor put it: “You are selfish and I am selfish, but you don’t stand in my way and I don’t stand in your way. We are both selfish, and weare both happy.”

However, if two lines intersect, the stronger line must cut off the other one in order to keep moving on itself, thus conforming to the law of the survival of the fittest. Guided by linear competition-oriented value, everyone seeks independence and self-reliance, and everyone feels insecure and makes unremitting efforts. The linear road of an individual’s life is made and extended by the individual’s own feet, and success is achieved through individual effort.

Chinese culture, on the other hand, takes circular integrity as the basis of its value. An individualis incorporated into the integrity of the whole. The center of the circle represents the community’s interests and serves as the common objective of all its individual members. The individual exists in the community and finds the meaning of his existence through it. An individual in isolation has no meaningful existence.

More than two thousand years ago, Confucius advocated that “a public spirit should rule everything under the sun and a gentleman should put others’ interests above his own.” An ancient Chinese would consider it the primary aim in life “to cultivate his own moral character, put family affairs in order, administer state affairs well, and pacify the whole world.” It is evident that the interests of the small circle (family), the intermediate circle (state), and the large circle (world) come above one’s own, and one has to cultivate one’s own moral character and to exert oneself in order to achieve the goal of serving the community’s interests. A couplet from a Ming dynasty academy of classical learning says, “The sounds of wind, rain, and reading each come into my ears; the affairs of family, state, and world are all kept in my mind.” Fan Zhongyan, a Song dynasty poet, expressed his desire “to show concern over state affairs before others and enjoy comforts after them.”

It has been a widely accepted motto that “everyone has a share of responsibility for the fate of hiscountry.” In present-day China, prioritizing community interests remains the mainstream value, in spite of the importation of different values from other cultures. Jean Brick, as an outsider who has come inside for some time, has observed the circular group-oriented Chinese value with keen cross-cultural awareness. She says in her book China, “Private interests are vested in the group, that is in the family or in the community, and not in the individual. True self-fulfillment for the individual lies in fulfilling social responsibilities to the greatest extent possible. In fact, the establishment of harmonious social relations is seen as an absolute necessity, without which any development is impossible.”

Outlook on Time: Linear Extension and Circular Rotation

A line extends and a circle rotates. Western culture looks upon time as the extension of a line going ceaselessly forward and never returning, and therefore holds the future in high regard and plans for it. In contrast Chinese culture thinks of time as the rotation of a circle, going repeatedly round and round, day in and day out, and thus cherishes and reveres the past.

The linear outlook on time finds reflection in many Western literary works. Men of letters compare time to “the devourer of everything” (Ovid, 15 AD), “the subtle thief of youth” (Milton, 1645), and a “winged chariot hurrying near” (Marvel, 1681). Shakespeare in 1601 described time as “most brisk and giddy-paced.” As Jia Yuxin says, “Time is viewed in Western culture as an unceasing one-way movement. It means marching, flowing, and flying. It resembles the river, the waterfall, and the torrent.” Edward T. Hall points out that nobody in the Western world can escape the iron-handed control of unidirectional time. The linear view of time is also evidenced in such proverbs as “Time lost is never found again” and “Time and tide wait for no man.”

As time is regarded as something moving on in one direction and never coming back, Westerners have a strong sense of the shortage of time, which quickens their pace of life and makes them habitually look ahead, having their eyes on the future. People are used to writing in their calendars what is to be done in the future and focus much of their attention on planning for it. They tend to defy authorities and enjoy blazing new trails rather than following the beaten track. It might be said that the linear view encourages bold exploration and promotes scientific creation.

The Chinese circular outlook on time is also revealed in literary writings and proverbs. The flight of time is compared in classical writings to the movement of a shuttle (suo), which flits back and forth in a weaving loom. Qu Yuan (about 270 BC), a patriotic poet of the Warring States Period, writes in his masterpiece The Lament, “The sun alternates with the moon; autumn returns after spring soon.” Time is looked upon not as a never returning, one-way movement, but as a back-and-forth rotation like the endless cycle of the seasons. It is true that time goes quickly, but it comes back soon as the sun and moon do. The circular view results in a sense of the abundance of time and thus doing things in an unhurried manner.

People believe that loss can be made up for as time rotates. This belief is expressed in a line fromThe Biography of Feng Yi written in the East Han dynasty, “What is lost at sunrise can be regained at sunset.” Although people also sigh over “time waiting for no one” (Tao Yuanming, Jin dynasty) and feel“regret for the negligent loss of time” (Han Yu, Tang dynasty), yet they expect “the favor of the time cycle and the change from bad to good luck.” The unhurried and leisurely manner is so appreciated that advice is given and farewell remarks are made by frequently using the phrases “go (eat, play, watch, discuss, do something) slowly” or “take your time.” The road sign “slow down, look around, and then cross” can be found at crossroads everywhere in China.

The view of time as a cycle often directs people’s attention to the past. People keep diaries to record what has been done in the past instead of listing what is to be done in the future. They tend to look back, value past experience, respect authorities, and follow established practice. Confucius advises people “to engage in introspection every day on three points.” He means that everyone should constantly reflect on his own past behavior and try to find out whether he has done anything unfaithful and dishonest or has shunned his studies. It might be surmised that the circular view motivates self-examination and contributes to social stability.

Mode of Thinking: Linear Dissection and Circular Synthesis

With regard to modes of thinking, people nurtured in Western culture tend to dissect things into partsand analyze their relationships. On the other hand, people brought up in Chinese culture are likely to synthesize parts and examine the whole. Linear dissection contributes to the development of logical thinking by abstract reasoning, whereas circular synthesis helps a person to think in terms of images and to gain intuitive insight.

Analytical thinking prevails in Western culture. People are good at classifying things and arranging them systematically. Encyclopedic works appeared long ago and taxonomy was advanced early. Animals, plants, and objects are clearly divided, subdivided, and further divided according to their similarities, differences, and relationships. If you glance at the title, subtitles, and topic sentences of each paragraph of an article, you instantly know its content. When a speech is made, the audience can easily get the message by following the cohesive connectors signaling time relationships, like “first,” “second,” “next,” and “finally” and so on, and words signaling logical relationships, such as “because,” “however,” “actually,” and “supposing.”

Experimental analysis has long been used as the major method of scientific research. Doctors of Western medicine treat their patients by examining parts of the body through tests and X rays before making a diagnosis. Linear dissection is related to abstraction. Qian Xuesen says, “Abstractive thinking seems to be linear or branch-like.” Westerners are relatively stronger in making use of concepts for logical judgment and reasoning. Abstraction is synonymous with precision and clarity, and that may help to explain why more theoretical works on science and technology have been produced in the West.

The synthetic mode of thinking holds sway in Chinese culture. People are accustomed to observing and judging things as an enclosed whole. Analysis is not rejected, but synthesis predominates. There was no encyclopedia of the Western kind in ancient China. Leishu, a kind of reference book that comes closest to an encyclopedia, is a set of political, social, and ethical data dealt with in a circular way with “emperor” as the center. It does not take into account the essential nature of the included items and their fundamental differences. When writing an article, a classical writer would attach great importance to the unity and harmony of the whole piece, giving much attention to the correspondence between introduction and conclusion and the natural transition from one point to another, rather than the clear-cut division between different sections.

A doctor of Chinese medicine diagnoses a patient’s disease by first looking at the patient’s complexion and tongue for its coating, feeling the pulse and eliciting complaints, in order to form a correct judgment of the patient’s general physical condition. The Chinese doctor tries to get at the root of the trouble and effect a permanent cure rather than apply a palliative remedy. Incidentally, Chinese people eat an apple by peeling it around and reserving the whole before biting, whereas Westerners tend to divide the apple into parts.

The synthetic mode of thinking is closely associated with intuition and thinking in terms of images, andit is synonymous with implicitness and fuzziness. As Rudolf Fleisch puts it, the Chinese “formed the habit of expressing ideas by metaphors, similes and allegories, in short, by every known device for making a thing plain by comparing it with something else.” An apprentice learns cooking not by following recipes with precise quantitative descriptions, but by intuitively acquiring his master’s technique after repeated imitations. A Chinese painter seeks close resemblance in spirit instead of accurate likeness in appearance. A Buddhist monk rarely makes or attends religious speeches with clear-cut viewpoints about virtues and vices, but he practices transcendental meditation and seeks intuitive insight. In fact, intuitive feeling and fuzzy beauty are held in great esteem in almost all forms of Chinese art, such as poetry, drama, and painting. As Shen Xiaolong says, “This is a circular dialectic mode of thinking with a strong plastic, flexible, and stochastic nature.”


The linearity-versus-circularity difference in Western and Chinese cultures is merely a matter of degree. There is no absolute distinction between the two cultures. Exceptions are numerous and counterevidence exists. However, the observations above suggest the main historical trend in each culture. To compare them is not to judge which is superior but to promote understanding. A complete understanding of the individualities of the two cultures will clear the way for further cultural exchange and cultural fusion and accelerate the expansion of cultural universality. Different cultures can learn from each other’s strengths to offset their own weaknesses. The moon of the West is not rounder and the Sun of the east has its spots as well. An extensive exchange between Western and Chinese cultures will certainly contribute to the creation of an even more splendid world civilization.


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  • Fleisch, Rudolf F. The Art of Plain Talk. New York: Harpers & Brothers Publishers, 1946.

  • Hall, Edward T. The Silent Language. New York: Doubleday, 1959.

  • Jia Yuxin. Cross-cultural Communication. Shanghai:Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 1997.

  • Murphy, Gardner, and Lois B. Murphy, eds. Asian Psychology. New York: Basic Books, 1968.

  • Qian Xuesen. On the Science of Thinking. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Press, 1986.

  • Shen Xiaolong. On Chinese Humanistic Spirit. Shenyang: Liaoning People’s Press, 1990.

  • Thatcher, Margaret. “Speech.” Woman’s Own, October 31, 1987.

Professor Zuo Biao teaches at Shanghai Maritime University, where he is Dean of the Foreign Languages Department. He has been honored as Shanghai Model Worker and National Excellent Teacher of China and is listed in Outstanding People of the 21st Century? by the Cambridge International Biographical Center. This article is slightly abridged and edited from English Today: The International Review of the English Language (Cambridge University Press), reprinted by permission of the author and the editor, Tom McArthur. English Today is a quarterly surveying the use of the English language around the world