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Monday, October 11, 2021

Eastern and Western Storytelling: The Origins, Development and Differences of Narratives at the Ends of the Earth

Hi everyone! For a while, I've been interested in exploring the differences between traditional Eastern and traditional Western storytelling. However, it's not something I feel qualified to write an article on. Luckily our guest today, Neil Wright, does, and I thought it might be something some of you would be interested in too. So here he is this week to tell us about the origins, development, and differences of Eastern and Western storytelling:


Eastern and Western Storytelling: The Origins, Development and Differences of Narratives at the Ends of the Earth

What does the world look like to you? The answer is subjective and depends a lot on your upbringing. Morals, desires, and even the idea of fun itself — seep into our consciousnesses via cultural osmosis from whichever part of the world we happened to grow up in. Cultures play a part in both orientating and distorting the human experience, and even command the power to manipulate our thoughts on life. 

Here are a few quick examples of how extremely different cultures can be: in the West few things are as reprehensible as cannibalism. Yet in Papua New Guinea eating the dead is an integral funeral rite and part of the celebrations. In Hindu India cows are sacred. In pretty much the rest of the world they are delicious to eat on a hamburger. 

What I’m trying to say is that, when you consider just how vastly different people behave around the world, and how those behaviours are manipulated by their upbringing and host cultures, it shouldn’t really be surprising to learn that how stories are told in other cultures can also be vastly different. 

What is Storytelling?

Despite our differences, every culture on Earth tells and shares stories amongst its members. Even the smallest group of hunter-gatherers will pass tales down from their elders to their grandchildren. It appears that stories are a great way to teach cultural norms to others and to help them to work out how they can control certain situations that are likely to arise in the environment around them. 

Common themes throughout all stories centre around fairness, or what is and isn’t fair in life, along with what should be valued or scorned, with particular emphasis on how to behave in society. As a result of this, stories are often stuffed with moral lessons, punishments and rewards — all, of course, pre-packaged in ways that reflect the host culture. 

Some scientists believe storytelling is a powerful evolutionary mechanism that helps with the development of brain plasticity and development in general, especially in very young children (source). 

How and Why Stories are Told in the West

In the West, we believe in the power of the individual, and so children grow up to hear stories about — and to look at themselves as — individuals. This discovery of the Self is thought to have come about as an accident of geography in the Ancient Greek world. Essentially, more than 2,000 years ago, the Greeks had to work very hard in Greece’s very rocky and hilly landscape to succeed. This reduced people’s attempts to just stay alive down to minimal and almost individualistic enterprises: such as working as fishermen, as producers of olive oil, or as the operators of various other small types of businesses. The landscape was unsuited for, and effectively ruled out, the possibility for large-scale agricultural projects. 

Consequently, the Ancient Greeks came to attribute success with self-reliance, individualism, and the ability to master and control one’s own destiny. 

In short: the geography of Greece helped to create a community of people who had no choice but to see themselves as individuals. This may also be why Westerners tend to look at life as a series of personal liberties and choices, as though the world is made up of lots of different fragments. 

So, with all this taken into consideration, it isn’t all surprising that the Greeks began to laud the individual in the stories they told one another. The all-powerful individual literally became the object of myth, along with their quests for personal glory, progress and perfection. After all, it was the Greeks who invented the Olympic games — which is the ultimate competition pitching the Self versus the Self. At the same time, the Greeks also passed down tales to their grandchildren about the dangers of loving oneself too much (Narcissus), and set up structures of governance that favoured individualism. Such as individual voting rights and Democracy. 

Ancient Greek literature, therefore, centred heavily around themes of self-determination, self-reliance, and their connection with one’s ability to master his or her own destiny or to choose the life they wanted. Birthing essentially what we know of today in modern storytelling as the progenitor of the ‘Hero’s Journey’. 

How and Why Stories are Told in the East

Things are very different in the Eastern hemisphere. Again, this difference can be largely attributed to geography. For starters Korea, Japan, and their mother culture China, are far-flung right on the far edges of the Eurasian continent. East Asians have fostered their own societies literally mountains, deserts, and thousands of miles apart from the Ancient Greeks. The Ancient Chinese and Greeks may have heard whispers and rumours about one another, but they were largely cut off by huge tracts of geography.
China’s landscape is also very different from Greece’s. China is full of empty, wide-open spaces. Making it perfect for large-scale agriculture. And so, it is reckoned that here, the opposite effect on individualism shaped the minds of the Chinese. Instead of working mostly alone, in order to survive, the Chinese had to be very reliable team players. Only by working hard, and working together, could they harvest or irrigate enough crops to eat and trade. 

This meant that, in Ancient China, you had to work in a group. You also had to fit in and get on with your peers. This mentality, which is thought to have developed in China, is understood by some psychologists as the ‘collective theory of control’. In China, then, the opposite of individualism was born. China gave rise to the collective idea of the Self. The Chinese perception of life is also different from the Western perception, with the Chinese understanding existence as a field of interconnecting forces, rather than broken up into chapters of personal liberties and choices. 

One of China’s most preeminent philosophers, Confucius, would reference collective ideals in his writings all the time. For example, he has described the ‘superior man’ as one who ‘does not boast of himself, preferring "concealment of virtue"' instead. This concealment would, according to Confucius, lead to harmony. 

With all this in mind then, it would be naive to suggest that culture has no impact on how stories are told. 

Crisis. Struggle. Resolution? 

If you’re into writing stories yourself, you’ve probably heard of the three-act structure. Or what Aristotle called the ‘crisis, struggle and resolution’ parts of the story. Also known as a beginning, middle and end. 

In Greek myths, we are accustomed to seeing the three-act structure in action. A singular protagonist is forced into a crisis and then overcomes various odds and obstacles in order to defeat the evil antagonistic forces and to return home as the hero. This is a classic example of the Greek culture of mastering one’s environment, determination, and prevailing as a consequence. We tell the same stories to Western children today, and the three-act structure comes as a given to us, as it has been deeply ingrained into our society for thousands of years. 

In China, individualism in writing is so uncommon that even autobiographies are hard to find. And even when they are, Western readers will be incredulous to find they are often stripped of any personal tone of voice, and instead tend to read as though a stranger is reflecting on a life, rather than it seeming to read like from the mouth of the actual author. 

Western stories also tend to feature relatively straightforward cause-and-effect sequences. But Eastern stories tend to have a large ensemble of characters, who all attempt to reflect on and make sense of the plot’s drama. In most cases, the Eastern characters' points of view will naturally conflict and contradict one another. This is all a part of the Eastern author’s intentions to place the reader at the centre of the drama, where they themselves have to try to work out what really happened on their own. 

For example, the plot of the novel ‘In A Bamboo Grove’ by Ryunosuke Akutagawa centres around a murder investigation. The story is told from the POV of many different people, including even from a spirit channelling the victim. In Eastern stories, there is rarely a clear resolution or sense of closure at the end of a story — and especially not a happy ever after ending. Instead, it is up to the reader to work out the ending on their own. This is primarily how Eastern readers derive pleasure from their stories. 

Stories, Power and Unity 

Hero-dramas are conspicuously absent from Eastern stories. That is, plots where the drama hinges on the actions of individual characters. Where heroism does take place, it tends to be as a result of wider grouplike cooperation and team effort. Another important distinction is that, in Eastern storytelling, true heroism is often marked with sacrifice. It is through sacrifice that the wider family and extended community is saved. This is a lot different from Western heroic dramas, where of course the hero conquers the evil forces, love prevails and the truth is set free. 

The Japanese have a type of story structure known as ‘kishotenketsu’. It is a four-act structure and at first seems almost a cousin of the Greek myths. At the start we are introduced to the characters, then the drama kicks off in act two, and there is a midpoint in act three. But the similarities stop there. As the reader enters act four, they are invited to study the ending in an open-ended way and to try to find the harmony and unity that connects the fourth act with all of the previous acts. 

Ambiguous endings might displease or frustrate Western readers, but to Easterners an unclear resolution makes perfect sense. After all, life is ambiguous and things often happen without clear resolutions or answers. Westerners enjoy reading about how individuals struggle to achieve their goals. While Easterners enjoy teasing out the narrative harmony in their epics. The differences in who enjoys what lie in how both groups perceive change. For Westerners, who tend to see the world as in fragments, life is a jigsaw that can be fitted back together. For Easterners, life is a never-ending field of forces that all interconnect. For Easterners, the desire is to try and harmonise these forces if they appear to have unravelled. 

But while there are pretty substantial differences in the way Eastern and Western-origin stories are told, the purpose of the story is always the same. Stories are ways for cultures to transmute lessons in control and orientation. They are effective ways of helping people, and especially children, to navigate the environment of their host cultures safely. To reign in the chaos. 

About the Author

Neil Wright loves reading and creative writing, and is currently working on his first novel Poetic Spaces. He writes for a UK-based transcription and translation company called McGowan Transcriptions

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. Love how you tied the history and geography to the traditions.


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