[Book] Lee O-young (III): A cultural theory of rock-paper-scissors

Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present)

Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present)

Continuing from Part II of this series. Lee O-young – having highlighted some key differences in outlook between the East and the West as embedded in linguistic structures in the first half of Janken Bunmei-ron [ジャンケン文明論] (2005), or “A Cultural Theory of Rock, Paper and Scissors” – then proceeds to the main argument of his book. He argues that the game of rock-paper-scissors is a metaphor for understanding how East Asians perceive the balancing forces of nature and adopt the game to govern certain aspects of human relations.

Rock-paper-scissors is a game of random chance. Anyone has the chance to win at this game. It is also a game that is outside the traditional top-down structures of social relations. More importantly, the game reflects the idea that there is never an absolute top-dog or winner in nature (even the strongest or cleverest mammal can fall prey to germs). So rock is defeated by paper, paper is in turn defeated by scissors, and scissors is in turn defeated by rock.

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[Book] Lee O-young (II): ‘As above, so below’ in linguistics

Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present)

Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present)

Continuing from Part I of this series, Lee O-young also observes the tendency of East Asian languages to incorporate contradictory properties into the same noun. For example, the English word ‘elevator’ becomes 升降機 in Chinese, meaning ‘a machine that elevates and descends’. Whereas the Chinese mind observes the elevator’s abilities to both elevate and descend, the western mind focuses on the ‘elevation’ bit and the ‘descent’ part just disappears.

The tendency of European languages to submerge two polarities into one is also observed in the word ‘man’ which can include both male and female. In a sense, the ‘woman’ has disappeared into the ‘man’.

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[Book] Lee O-young (I): Of linguistic bugs and pitfalls in perspective

ジャンケン文明論Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present) is a renowned critic of East Asian cultures from South Korea, and though he is best known in the West for his study of Japanese culture entitled Smaller is Better: Japan’s Mastery of the Miniature (1984)*, I think his magnum opus is actually an untranslated work named Janken Bunmei-ron [ジャンケン文明論] (2005), or “A Cultural Theory of Rock, Paper and Scissors”. It is a compact collection of his penetrating observations and insights into East Asian cultures and their contrasting differences with the West. This series of posts is intended to be an introduction to some of his ideas.

A language is like a software programme that is installed in the human brain. When you use that language to think, the programme executes certain commands that lead to certain inevitable results – that is to say, the language you speak predisposes you to think in a certain way. Moreover, the language programme also comes with bugs.

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