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Asia's unspoken codes and discreet thought customs

By Reg Little - posted Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Australia's Asian illiteracy has left it highly vulnerable before the unspoken codes and discreet thought customs that unify Confucian administrative and commercial elites throughout East and South East Asia.

Having followed the issue of Asian literacy in Australia for almost half a century, it is possible to conclude that Australia's Asian literacy has deteriorated in recent decades. Periodically, there are plaintive calls for some focus in Australian education on such literacy but any response is quickly overtaken by more substantial backsliding. Even Mr Rudd's attempts to institutionalise Asian languages in Australian schools have been quickly reversed by others.

In a recent On Line Opinion article titled Australia Betrayed referred to "unspoken codes and discreet thought customs" in Asia. I had in mind the administrative and commercial elites throughout East and South East Asia who, with few exceptions, have been deeply shaped by what are most succinctly called Confucian culture and values. One comment over the name of a poster calling themselves Seneca asked for an explanation.


The question again underlines Australia's pervasive Asian illiteracy. Given Australia's growing commercial dependence on the region one might have expected that such "unspoken codes and discreet thought customs" would havebeen remarked upon in some depth and be the object of widespread interest and some understanding.

The subject is not simple and would require several books to explore at all seriously. Even so, one book by two American authorities, Thinking from the Han, has explained that the Chinese intellectual and spiritual tradition does not have the Western notions of self, truth and transcendence.

A book by a Chinese American, Chinese Dialectics: From the Yijing to Marxism, explains that Marxism in China is fundamentally different to that understood in the West, because it is interpreted within a totally different intellectual and cultural framework. Henry Kissinger has suggested in his recent book, On China, that Mao was moving from the continuous struggle of the Cultural Revolution to a much more Confucian sense of order towards the end of his life as he initiated the opening with the United States. When studying Chinese in Hong Kong in 1975, I was stuck by the fact that many of the Criticise Lin Biao, Criticise Confucius texts that I studied conveyed a good education in the tradition's values and a surprisingly positive appreciation of them. Was it a case of "unspoken codes and discreet thought customs" at work?

In reality, the Confucian world has only recently been introduced to the blessings derived from Platonic forms, Roman practices of the law and Christian doctrines of belief. These basics of Western thought have been studied, understood and practiced seriously in Asia over less than a century and a half and they do not have the character of fundamental certainty that they have in much Western behaviour. One consequence is that the Confucian psyche is generally much less abstract, rational and religious and much more fluid, subtle and practical than its Western counterpart.

The classic sources of wisdom like the Analects, the Daode Jing and the Yijing that define much of the behaviour of those shaped by the Confucian tradition are poorly appreciated in the English speaking world. In some cases, they are almost impossible to translate into meaningful English.

Even basic words like democracy, law and rights can be close to impossible to translate, because of totally different historical and cultural assumptions. This can readily give rise to situations where the mono-lingual or mono-cultural Australian totally fails to understand the manner in which his words are interpreted by those who are bi-lingual and bi-cultural. The profound caution and humility of highly educated Asians makes this situation even more perilous. Caution and humility are closely partnered with an acute strategic intelligence.


I first encountered these challenges not in China but in Japan in the mid 1960s. Much of my thought about the Confucian tradition has been based on later confirming in Hong Kong, China and elsewhere in Asia perceptions I first developed in Japan. Indeed, convictions I carried from Japan led me to argue in the Australian Embassy in Beijing in 1976, while Mao Zedong was still alive, that China could emulate Japanese 10 percent growth. An Ambassadorial dispatch that explored this possibility was greeted with less than enthusiasm in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

It was apparently, however, well received by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and did help prepare Australia for future economic opportunities.

After Japan, I also had the opportunity to follow the Indo-China War for two years from the Australian Embassy in Laos. Several decades later I was intrigued to discover in the translation of a Chinese text attributed to a strategist who lived three thousand years ago an outline of tactics used by the Vietnamese in their successful resistance to the might of the United States.

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About the Author

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat from 1963 to 1988. He gained high level qualifications in Japanese and Chinese and served as Deputy of four and Head of one overseas Australian diplomatic mission. He is the co-author of The Confucian Renaissance (1989) and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997) and author of A Confucian Daoist Millennium? (2006). In 2009, he was elected the only non-ethnic Asian Vice Chairman of the Council of the Beijing based International Confucian Association. His other writings can be found on his website:

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