Effect of Technology on Traditional Chinese Culture:
In an age where children as young as grade school carry mobile phones and shopping can be done from bed, it is undeniable that technology has transformed modern living. Ranging from having unprecedented access to all scopes of information at the tips of our fingers, to altering the essence of interpersonal relationships, modern technology has created a new era, dubbed by many as the “digital age”. Of these technological advancements, social media is among the most noteworthy. As in the West, the introduction of social media in China has had substantial impact on many aspects of Chinese life. China is a country whose rich culture and history has long been a source of its pride and joy. But as it has adapted to the changing technological times, so to have certain core cultural elements evolved accordingly. Ranging from Chinese philosophies, to mentality and national symbols, Chinese culture today has been transformed by the rapidly developing technology era of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Effect on Chinese Philosophies
One of the most noticeable effects of social media on Chinese philosophies is the obscuring of social hierarchy and respect for seniority, as defined by Confucius. While traditional Confucian teachings have long emphasized the relationship balance between elder/junior, teacher/student, boss/employee, parent/child, and ruler/ruled, the introduction and rapid expansion of social media has begun to blur that line. Previously, civilians knew only what their superiors chose to share with them, and had little choice but to trust what they were told as truth. With the entrance of social media however, the playing field has gradually been equalized. Social media grants no special privilege to rankings or hierarchy as everyone has the same basic profile and access to information. Not only do civilians have the power to acquire information on their own without relying on an authority figure, it is furthermore far more difficult to paint a falsified image through propaganda when facts are more exposed and readily available than ever before. This self-empowerment has resulted in the emergence of a new mindset. In modern times, respect is no longer automatically given, rather it is earned. As such, authority figures can no longer pretend to have superior abilities, never make mistakes or easily take credit for another’s actions.
Beyond the element of credibility, the emergence of the internet has created a world where anybody who is somebody must have an ‘online presence’—and for that to be achieved the inevitable price to pay is self-exposure. In the name of authenticity, rather than value publicized merits and accept pre-determined Confucian roles, modern times are oriented around transparency and open-questioning. This has in turn giving birth to an era where strangers feel it is their right to have access to the personal lives of their fellow peers. Our world is resultantly blunter, more cynical and peer-pressure driven than in past times, making it harder to hide dark secrets and weaknesses. The social media era is an age of paradox, one in which people are far more willing to share information, and at the same time fighting harder than ever for their privacy.
One group particularly feeling this shift of powers is the Chinese government. Despite their best efforts to censor content that is deemed inappropriate, leaks to the public have become something of a commonality. While long relying on tactics of “information-control”, the internet age has forced the CPC to take public opinion into account in their decision-making process. Though opposition to the ruling party’s decisions has always existed, the social media age has influenced protest-culture as well. Due to the simplicity of contacting the masses via social media, it is now easier than ever to coordinate, cooperate and accumulate in numbers when the public feels something unjust is being done. The result is that rebellions and protests are now a bigger threat to the government than ever before.
To put it simply, social media has created something of a new hierarchy. The social harmony defined by Confucianism and Daoism is no longer a given, as people have more choice in who/what they listen to. Social platforms have given the masses a powerful voice over the authoritarian minority— a concept which has shaken the foundational structures of Chinese philosophical culture to the core.
Effect on Chinese Mentality
Chinese mentality too has been altered by the introduction of social media. Previously, the driving force behind the effort to avoid conflicts was the preservation of social harmony. However, the internet has created a new kind of communication platform that has challenged these long-standing societal norms. A phenomenon mirrored world-wide, online interaction has enabled people to speak freely whilst hiding behind a computer screen of anonymity, resulting in people feeling comfortable to express their politically-incorrect opinions for the first time. The direct implication of this is that Chinese people today care less to save face (面子)– both of their own and those of others.
Instead of saving-face and being indirect, the notion of “far from your eyes, far from your heart” has gradually invaded its way into Chinese mentality. While previously, communication was limited to face-to-face contact, internet and social media have enabled people to “connect from afar”, meaning they do not have to physically see or directly deal with the impact and consequences of their words. With the absence of visually witnessing someone being embarrassed or humiliated, there is less discomfort in being openly disrespectful towards others online. Resultantly, there is more general disregard for people’s feelings and reputation.
Social media has also often backfired into making people lose face for themselves. Oversharing paired with murkier hierarchical boundaries has yielded increasingly frequent instances of individuals inadvertently exposing content to the wrong circles of people. The consequences of underestimating the internet’s reach can be big or small—ranging from losing a friend, to losing a potential job. As many have discovered, even if detrimental content is deleted, the internet never truly “forgets”, and records or archives are always still accessible to some degree. Conversely, the vagueness of usernames on internet forums has introduced additional ambiguity into politics and other fields, as it is far harder to prove who stands behind online statements. As a result, people can speak irresponsibly and retract their statements in retrospect, or deny they even wrote the words that appear on online, should something posted have negative backlash.
While typically, ‘face’ is associated with either an individual or family reputation, the concept also extends to society and governmental entities on a whole. The government, as a representative figure, has always needed to be seen in a good light in order to retain the face of the country, and with it— power. However, with the internet’s introduction, the increasing number of corruption scandals gone viral via web and social media has collectively caused the Chinese government to lose its precious face numerous times.
Effect on Chinese Symbols
An additional dimension of Chinese traditional culture includes the country’s many national symbols, among which are the written language and cherished art of calligraphy. More so than social media, it is perhaps the increased use of messaging apps on mobile phones or any form of typing on a computer that has been endangering these elements of Chinese culture. With every passing generation, the growing reliance on these digitized means of communication has resulted in the development of a worrying phenomenon— people are beginning to forget how to physically write symbols, instead being able to only recognize them. Mobile chat apps such as WeChat as well as online social networks have for the most part replaced letter-writing, while typing documents on a computer have replaced writing-out papers by hand. The immediate effect of this can be observed in the brain— as people type more, they become skilled at visual recognition of words rather than the cognitive recollection and motoric process of physically writing them. Furthermore, the introduction of texting features such as auto-complete have served to only further propel this problem in China, degenerating Chinese people’s natural motoric memory and eroding their writing skills.
Though this trend has been occurring in the West as well, the effect is more severe in China due to the nature of the Chinese written language. As Chinese has no alphabet but rather symbols for words, forgetting the symbols is more detrimental than forgetting spelling. Symbol amnesia is a form of illiteracy, as without a digital device the person would struggle to communicate through writing. In the same situation a Western-language writer might have misspellings due to excessive reliance on spell-checkers, but would still be able to get their message across fairly easily and be ultimately understood. While the extent and severity of symbol amnesia is of course relative to each person, it is still undeniable that there is a general increase in the occurrence, especially in urban areas where digital devices are more widely used. As the written language is essentially the unifying means of communication throughout all areas and nationalities of China, the loss of it with each passing generation is especially dire.
An additional consequence of the increasing dependence on texting devices is not only the gradual loss of the written form, but also the loss of calligraphy. A starring element of Chinese culture is the emphasis on aesthetics, particularly in the art of calligraphy. A revered skill for over 2000 years, the art is gradually fading away as there are fewer respected calligraphers with each passing generation. The 21st century marks a time of great innovation and dynamic change, where young people have grown more accustomed to having high stimuli that involve all 5-senses. Calligraphy, on the other hand, represents quieter and more peaceful times, in which simply admiring the serenity of nature in a garden would be immensely gratifying. As China continues to focus on economic growth and expansion, Chinese society has likewise evolved to reflect new more capitalistic priorities. As modern-day calligraphers are considerably less well paid compared to those of the past, there is even less of an incentive for young people to take up this hobby and make it a career. Though still widely practiced in China, the pool of calligraphers is diminishing. Should this saddening trend continue, calligraphy- a staple of Chinese traditional culture, could become a lost art form within a few short centuries.
While the introduction of social media platforms has undoubtedly cast its mark on numerous fields of traditional Chinese culture, it is important to realize that these changes are not all necessarily negative. Challenging the delicate Confucian hierarchical balance has introduced a new time in which those in power can be essentially “supervised” by the public. As a result, authority figures who might otherwise have abused their power are no longer considered immune to the laws of the common man. These changes have also opened up the public to the vast information world, and has empowered people to acquire information for themselves and not be fully dependent on one source to stay informed.
While Chinese mentality has clearly been affected from the introduction of modern technology, these changes are also not as profound as they seem. Communication has always revolved around the concepts of exposure and secrecy, only now they exist in new form. The distancing from saving face and indirectness means that people feel more free to share and express themselves on the internet, but can also deny association or hide behind an anonymous user when necessary.
Finally, Chinese cultural symbols have indeed experienced a blow as a result of the social media revolution. But fortunately, this has not gone unnoticed. With schools doing their part to educate about these mediums, and parents teaching calligraphy skills to their children, younger generations are breathing new life into Chinese written language. Time will only tell whether this will become a lost art form as technology continues to rapidly develop, or if steps will be taken to preserve these national Chinese cultures and symbols.