I just stumbled upon this wonderful essay by Gwydion Madawc Williams on why the Ming voyages led by Zheng He (郑和) led to nothing. The quote of it particularly memorable to me was this:
The separation of craft and education as represented by China’s illiterate shipwrights was indeed a genuine weakness in the Chinese system. Christian Europe always remembered that St Peter had been a fisherman and St Paul a tent-maker, and it was quite acceptable for learned people to also be involved in manufacturing. The weakness of Confucianism was not so much that it rated agriculture and craft above merchant trade, but that it insisted on the educated being a learned caste distanced from all of these matters.
Again, it’s the Asian stereotype of being a study hard grind lacking in practical, hands-on skills and “well-roundedness” and “social skills” and all that that admissions officers use to justify denying Asian applicants. I’ll say that from what I know, that is still very limited, Confucianism was very much like that. The quote that epitomized this was: 劳心者治人，劳力者治于人, which translates to roughly “the worker of the mind governs, the physical worker is governed.” The whole imperial examination system essentially created an upper class of bookworms for whom any form of hands on labor was beneath. To be a true 君子, gentlemen, you were supposed to study the classics and write poetry and engage in all that Confucian bull shit. I myself don’t have a very high opinion of Confucianism. It’s too conservative for me, with all the emphasis on ritual and filial piety. It discouraged any form of innovation outside the system, outside what was already there, which is partly why China could not make the giant leaps in science that the West did. I’ve read some of the Analects of Confucius and know some of the quotes, and I don’t think Confucius was a deep philosopher at all; there is little actual substance in what he said. On the other hand, Mo Tzu was a much further reaching, more scientific, and surprisingly modern thinker, and had China followed his path instead of banishing his school of thought into obscurity, the world would be completely different now, with China likely having made many more leaps of progress than it had actually done. I’ll say that the West was able to escape the shackles of Christianity, but China could not by itself escape those of Confucianism, until its dire situation, with reached its nadir in 1900, forced it too.
Apparently, the elite college admissions officers aren’t terribly good at filtering out the real Asian grinds either, as I know one who went to Princeton, who I found ridiculous. He said that all he did in college was study, and even though he majored in math, he hardly knew any. Like, he didn’t know what a topological space is. When I went ice skating with him and some others, he was near the edge the whole time, and he characterized my skating backwards (not well at all) as “scary.” I told him I’m not very athletic and wasn’t even any good, unlike the girl he was dating at that time, who could do spins among other fancy “figure skating” things she was trying out. I did show him the video taken of this 360 somersault I did off a 15 feet cliff in Hawaii, into the water, which was the first time I had done anything like that. He was like: “that’s so scary.” I honestly didn’t know what to say. To justify himself, he was like: “Chinese parents only want their kids to study.” I told him that in China, there are some very athletic people who attend special sports schools. On that, he was like: “but those aren’t normal people.” I also remember when we went camping once, everybody else got drunk, so I got to drive that kid’s BMW back. He had told us that his father does business in Beijing, which might explain why he drives that kind of car. He came to US at age 4. His Chinese is absolutely awful though, and he doesn’t realize it. He will of course say: “I already know enough. Some people can’t even speak it.” 怎么说那，不仅是个书呆子，而且是个书都读不好的书呆子，连这样的sb还都被Princeton录取了。I’ve talked with one of my very smart Asian friends about this, and he was like: “but he’s socially normal, unlike us.” And more recently: “Maybe they do accept Asian grinds, just not the ones with bad social skills.”
From what I’ve seen, there are plenty of super conformist Asian grinds like him, but there are also many who aren’t, who are actually smart and interesting, like myself (or at least I hope). I think what he said about Chinese parents is somewhat true actually; after all, I saw many growing up. They do see academics as a way to get ahead more so than others, largely because in China, to get out of your rural village and/or not be stuck with a working class job, you had to do sufficiently well on the gaokao to get into a good major at a good university. It’s funny that I’ve actually seen a ton of ignorant, narrow-minded, and risk-averse uncool tiger Chinese parents. And I have also seen some extremely impressive ones, not just academically. There is again quite a wide range and variety.
There is a phenomenon I’ve witnessed, which is that if a person is extremely strong at X and merely above average at Y, then that person will seem weak at Y, even compared to another person about as good at Y but less lopsided. It seems a natural human cognitive bias to think this way. This is in fact applied rather perversely to Asians in stereotyping. For example, Asian students are perceived as weak at language and humanities because they are generally stronger at STEM. We all know that in fact math IQ and verbal IQ (which we can use crudely as proxies for STEM ability and humanities ability respectively) are highly correlated, which makes it highly unlikely that a STEM star is actually legitimately weak at humanities. He might not be interested in reading novels and such but that’s rather different. There is also that humanities is more cultural exposure loaded with a much higher subjective element to it, with much less of a uniform metric. It actually seems to me based on personal experience that is by no means representative that in terms of precise use of language and the learning of foreign languages, mathematicians and theoretical physicists are at or near the top in terms of ability. On this, I will give an opposing perspective that I identify with somewhat, which is that even if you’re very strong at Y, having an X that you are significantly more talented at is a weakness for Y, because engaging in Y deprives the joy derived from engaging in the X, which often leads to loss of interest over time. Maybe this is why employers shy from hiring people who they deem “overqualified?” On this, I have thought of how possibly the lopsided cognitive profile in East Asians (with what is likely at least 2/3 SD differential between math/visuo-spatial and verbal, normalizing on white European scores) predisposed the thinking of the elite (assuming that lopsidedness is preserved at the far tail) as well as the development of that society at large in certain ways, some of which may have been not the most conducive for, say, the development of theoretical science. This is of course very speculative, and I would actually hypothesize that the far tail cognitive elite among East Asians is more balanced in terms of the math/visuo-spatial and verbal split, given the great extent to which the imperial examination system, which tested almost exclusively literary things, selected for V at the tail instead of for M.
On the aforementioned bias, I’ll give another illustrative example. I once said to this friend of mine, a math PhD student, not Asian, how there’s the impression that people who are weaker academically tend to be better at certain practical things, like starting restaurants and businesses. We sure all know there are plenty who weren’t good at school but were very shrewd and successful at business, at practical things. That guy responded with reference to Berkson’s paradox. He said something like: “That’s because you are unlikely to see those who are bad at both. They tend to be in prison or in the lower classes.” I could only agree.
I’ll conclude with another more dramatic example. I used to, when I knew nothing about the subject, think that people who were really at math were weirdos and socially awkward. For one, there was this kid in my high school who was way better than me at math at the time, who was incredibly autistic. Also, summer after 10th grade, I saw A Beautiful Mind, which depicts the mathematician as mentally crazy. Now I would bet the incidence of schizophrenia among the mathematically gifted is lower than it is in the whole population. It just happens that certain combinations of extreme traits are vastly more noticeable or exposed by the media to the public (a mathematician or physicist may think of this as weighing those with such combinations with a delta function, or something along that direction at least). I wasn’t quite aware of that at that time though. Only later, after meeting more math people did I realize that math people are not actually that socially out of it in general, far from it, at least once they’re past a certain age, by which they will have had the chance to interact with more people like them and form their own peer group.
It is my hope that people can be more cognizant of these biases described in this blog post.