High Fidelity

High fidelity, or hi-fi, reproduction is a term used by home stereo listeners and home audio enthusiasts to refer to high-quality reproduction of sound or images that are very faithful to the original performance.

Reproduction, or replication, is a definitional characteristic of life.  DNA, cells, organisms, and cultures are constantly replicating themselves into the next generation.  Hi fi and lo fi replication have different advantages and disadvantages depending on the context.  With DNA and cellular reproduction, hi fi is usually preferred.  I’m no cellular biologist, but I think lo fi replication at this level is often called cancer.

At the level of organisms, particularly those with long life span, lo fi begins to assert its advantages.  Compared to asexual reproduction, sexual reproduction is lo fi.  Because sexual reproduction creates organisms that are not exact copies of their parents, it allows for faster evolution.  As the world’s largest ethnic group by a wide margin, the Han Chinese are the best replicators of our species.  In Darwinian terms, the Han are most successful primates on the planet, making up roughly 20% of the global human population.  They are the master replicators, and it’s not just their genes that they excel at reproducing.

Culture is also spread through replication, and the basic unit of cultural replication is the family.  And at this level as well, the Han are the master replicators.  Confucian cultures stress the importance of family, and of loyalty and obedience to one’s parents.  Chinese people often live with their parents until they get married, and there seems to be a good deal of (overt) harmony between parents and children here.

In the US, things are different.  Much of the popular culture encourages children to rebel against their parents, and living with one’s parents beyond the age of 18 is frowned upon.  Because US culture has changed so much from generation to generation, there is often stress between the generations, much more than there is in HK.

But this inter-generational harmony has it’s price.  Compared to American culture, Chinese culture evolves slowly.  When Chinese culture does change, it is usually dictated from above (this is consistent with the Confucian ethic of obedience to authority).  One of the positive legacies of Chairman Mao is the status of women in modern Chinese society.  In China before Mao, women were subservient to men.  But Mao thought women should be equal, and one of the lasting impacts of the Cultural Revolution is a high degree of economic equality between Chinese men and Chinese women, at least compared to most places on Earth.  This contrasts sharply with Japan and Korea, where the old Confucian ideals of female subordination to males still has a big effect on the culture.  In HK, the British also emphasized a good deal of gender equality, so when HK’s rulers switched from London to Beijing, the status of women remained unchanged.

Fidelity also means loyalty.  In Chinese, like in European languages, the term is connected to the loyalty of subjects to authority.  Chinese culture can change, but this tends not to happen unless authorities dictate that change.  American culture, with it’s emphasis on rebellion against authority, individualism, and adaptability to different environments, evolves in a way that’s much more organic, more bottom-up.  Top-down cultural change depends on individual rationality, which is highly fallible.  Bottom-up cultural change responds more to environmental pressures that large numbers of people are feeling, and is more inherently adapted to new environmental conditions.  Many minds converging is more organic.

Most cultures are adapted to very specific environments.  Han culture, like American culture, has features that allow it to exist over a large, geographically diverse area.  In terms of geography, the US and China are remarkably similar.  Yet one culture has adapted to this geography over thousands of years and the other has adapted to it over hundreds of years.  This difference in time span requires different cultural traits.  If I can generalize to an absurd level of abstraction: American culture succeeds through adaptability while Chinese culture succeeds through complexity.

For the sake of comparison, the Americans first: during a span of roughly 400 years, the United States evolved from a few European settlements along the East Coast into a coherent, continental nation state with a fairly homogeneous culture.  At first, this was done by importing European culture into North America, but as settlers moved west, and the environment began to differ sharply from that of Europe, American culture began to diverge just as sharply: it readily adopted traits from non-European cultures, and it invented new cultural traits.  An emphasis on individualism and self-sufficiency began to replace the more communal and static European values.

Chinese culture is even more communal and static than European culture.  Even though Chinese culture changes less quickly than American culture, it has several features that allow it to exist in disparate environments.  For example, Chinese cuisine is incredibly diverse.  Chinese people eat basically any plant or animal that can provide sustenance.  And they eat any edible part of those plants and animals.  And “edible” is defined quite broadly, by my standards.  Chinese cuisine is incredibly diverse compared to European cuisine.  All European cultures eat some kind of bread, and some kind of cheese.  Chinese cuisine has no such commonalities.  And, no, it’s not true that all Chinese people traditionally eat rice.  Before food became mass produced, it had to come primarily from the local environment.  The land near Beijing is not suitable to rice growing, which is why Beijing has only recently started to eat rice as a staple.

Another example of a Chinese cultural trait that has helped Chinese culture exist over such a wide geographical area is the Chinese system of writing, and that system is incredibly complex compared to phonetic writing systems.  The simplicity of phonetic writing systems made them much easier to learn, but that simplicity had a price, particularly before mass communication technology allowed for the standardization of spoken language.  Before the advent of radio and television, spoken language was very regional.  So regional that different dialects quickly evolved into different languages, making communication difficult from region to region.  The Chinese writing system nicely solves this problem.  Because the characters represent concepts, the same character means the same thing to Cantonese speakers and Mandarin speakers, even though the languages are mutually unintelligible when spoken.   Phonetic writing systems, despite all their advantages, do not solve this problem of mutual unintelligibly.  Perhaps this helps explain why China has been politically unified for a much larger percentage of it’s history than Europe or India, both of which use phonetic writing systems…but I digress.

Both cultural and genetic evolution occur through imperfect replication.  When traditions, language and beliefs are transferred unchanged from one generation to the next, culture evolves slowly.  Throughout most of human history, there hasn’t been much need for culture to change rapidly.  Cultures adapt themselves to specific environments, and when those environments are static, it makes sense for cultural transmission to be high fidelity.

Authoritarian governments are in many ways more adaptable than democratic governments.  When Mao recognized that Chinese culture needed to respect women more, he dictated it from above, and it happened.  This process began earlier in the West, but at this point, China and the West seem to be at about the same stage in this process.  But authoritarian governments adapt only as intelligently as their rulers do, and Mao made many mistakes which put China at a disadvantage.

Art is all about lo fi.  What an artist does is take an existing art form, and create a new work of art that is in many ways similar to other works of art within that genre.  But if it’s a hi fi copy, it’s labeled derivative and uninteresting.  When art is too original, it’s either brilliant, or, more likely, it’s considered garbage because nobody can understand it.

Technological innovation functions similarly.  But here, there’s still an advantage to hi fi, as long as you can do it more efficiently than the next guy.  As I’ve mentioned before, the Chinese have trouble with innovation, and this is because they’re too hi fi.  What has historically been one of their greatest strengths may soon become a weakness, because culture, technology and indeed the planet are changing faster than ever before.

The Chinese excel at hi fi, and that’s why they’re so good at taking technology developed elsewhere and using their advantages in cheap labor and good infrastructure to make that same product cheaper and more efficiently than the inventor.  This has so far been a huge advantage in the modern global economy.  But if the future is about innovation and adaptation then the future is lo-fi, not hi-fi.


6 responses to “High Fidelity

  1. I think dynamics between different ethnic groups also impact genetic reproduction. Miscegenation between ethnic populations causes an increase in genetic variance. The insulated marriage practices of the Han Chinese reduces the impact of this effect. (This is also the reason why the opposite is true in the US.) Obviously, there are some benefits to ethnic solidarity, one of which is the mediation of the high risk of political factions inherent in having such a gigantic population over such a vast space under one state.

    In reference to your argument about American adaptability versus Chinese complexity in dealing with geography, I think that they go hand-in-hand so the differentiation is not quite appropriate. In order to adjust to complex geography, adaptations must vary as geography varies, as well as the respective cultures. It’s probably more likely that the difference in complexity of these two cultures, such as your reference to food and language, is due to the fact that they were actually developed for different geographies. When America was colonized, the settlers transported elements of cultures developed to adapt to European geography. Although it was perhaps not a high-fidelity reproduction, important traces of it remained in American culture, such as the consumption of bread and cheese and the reluctance to consume certain animals. Furthermore, Western European geography facilitated the development of a single spoken language in the country from which the founders of the US came. This language was then carried over to the US. I’m interested to hear your ideas on this.

    • good post, and not disagreeing, just a couple of small observations.

      as far as mao’s respect for women, it should be noted that this was, in equal parts, due to (1) his interpretation (perhaps intentional) of communist ideology and (2) necessity. if mao had not had as much difficulty recruiting for and keeping up enlistment in both the party and the red army (partly due to his own self-destructive crusade to cleanse the two groups of nationalists), it’s unclear whether women would have come to enjoy the relatively equal footing that they found in mao’s china. and indeed, he may have used #1 as a justification and means to remedy #2.

      also, cultural change (especially in cultures somewhat lacking in ethnic or political diversity) comes as much, if not more, from without as it does from within. so china’s sluggish nature, especially as it applies to the considerably rapid evolution of the 20th century, can be attributed as much to its intentional isolation as to confucianism.

      lastly i’ve been meaning to send a couple of books your way that i thought you might enjoy, if you haven’t already. i don’t agree with everything each says, but at the very least they both offer an interesting read.



      • andy,

        Don’t get me wrong about Mao, I got no love for autocrats or mass murderers. I’m just talking about the effects, not the causes, of his policies.

        I think you and Phuong are making similar points about isolation, both cultural and genetic. For sure that’s part of it. I think it’s interesting that China’s historic shifts between isolation and involvement always seem to be dictated from centralized authorities.

    • Phoung,

      Mixing ethnic groups adds genetic variation for sure. Perhaps more importantly, and I think this is part of andy h.’s point, it adds cultural variation. HK has more of both than China, but still not that much, particularly compared to the US.

      Yeah, I tried to find a way to distinguish what I see as two very different ways of adapting to diverse geography, and I’m not totally happy with complexity vs. adaptability. But US culture is highly adaptable, and extremely simple (low-context, anyway). Chinese culture is fairly inflexible, but ridiculously complex. So I went with it. It’s not perfect, but I think there’s something to it nonetheless.

      I did mention that my social commentary was unsubstantiated, right?

  2. a teacher who has been in asia for ten years

    I agree with Andy that one must always see Mao in the broader picture and see any commentary as a bit irresponsible to present him in anyway that shows a positive effect without also mentioning that he was a mass murderer. And for his treatment of women, his whole spate of violence has negatively effected woman by increasing domestic violence, child physical and sexual abuse and the overall acceptance of violence the generations the grew up under Mao internalized as normal. As a clinical psychologist sent to teach the budding psychology moment in mainland china about Post-traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) I bring the conclusion that at least several generations were lost to the fact that PTSD is still rampant in the country. Mao may have brought gender equality to women, but that was more because he killed off the scholars and many wealthy people to make all people share the wealth in his communist society than by elevating women to the stature of men. I think it is changing with the current generation of young people as they challenge the communist system and look out to the western world via the internet and see what we have to offer. that is the true tool that is changing the culture the fastest I see.

  3. a teacher who has been in asia for ten years

    On a different note, i would enjoy a food comparison column as they would for sure show many differences between US and HK….just the different edible parts would bring a laugh to many!

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