In an age where children as young as grade school carry mobile phones and shopping can be done from bed, it is undeniable that technology has transformed modern living. We now live in the “digital age.” The introduction of social media particularly has had a substantial impact on Chinese lifestyles. As the nation has adapted to changing technologies, core cultural elements have evolved as well.

Effect on Chinese philosophies

One of the most noticeable effects of social media on Chinese philosophies is the obscuring of social hierarchy, as defined by Confucius. Confucian teachings have long emphasized respect for authority between elder and junior, teacher and student, boss and employee, parent and child, and ruler and ruled. However, social media has begun to blur that line.

In the digital age, people can acquire information on their own, and facts are more exposed and readily available than ever before. This self-empowerment has resulted in the emergence of a new mindset. Respect is no longer given, rather it is earned. As such, authority figures can no longer pretend to have superior abilities if it unmerited.

Consequentially, modern societies have gradually become more cynical than in past times, seeking transparency and authenticity. It is therefore harder to hide dark secrets and weaknesses. Social media has created a new hierarchy, which has given the masses a powerful voice that has shaken the foundational structures of Chinese philosophical culture to the core.

Effect on Chinese mentality

Chinese mentality too has been altered by the introduction of social media. Chinese people today care less about saving face (面子) for themselves and others, as they can speak freely while hiding behind a computer screen of anonymity.

The notion of “far from your eyes, far from your heart” has also invaded its way into Chinese mentality. While previously, communication was limited to face-to-face contact, internet and social media have enabled people to “connect from afar”, meaning they do not have to physically see or directly deal with the consequences of their words.

In many cases, over-sharing on social media has even backfired, causing people to lose face for themselves by inadvertently exposing content to the wrong circles of people.

Furthermore, the vagueness of usernames on internet forums has introduced ambiguity into politics and other fields, making it harder to prove who stands behind online statements. People can speak irresponsibly and retract statements, or deny writing the words that appear on online, after facing negative backlash.

Effect on Chinese symbols

An additional dimension of Chinese traditional culture includes national symbols, among which are the written language and calligraphy.

The growing reliance on digitized means of communication has resulted in a worrying phenomenon— people are beginning to forget how to physically write symbols. Mobile chat apps such as WeChat, as well as online social networks have replaced letter-writing, while typing documents on a computer have replaced writing-out papers by hand.

The immediate effects of this trend can be observed in the brain— as people type more, they become more skilled at visual recognition of words rather than cognitive recollection and motoric process of physically writing them. Auto-complete texting features have degenerated writing skills and natural motoric memory for the Chinese.

While this trend has been occurring in the West as well, the effect is more severe in China. Since the Chinese language has no alphabet but rather symbols for words, forgetting symbols is more detrimental than bad spelling.

Symbol amnesia is a form of illiteracy, as without a digital device the person would struggle to communicate through writing. In the same situation a Western-language writer might have misspellings due to excessive reliance on spell-checkers, but can still get their message across and be understood.

This occurrence has been general increasing, especially in urban areas, where digital devices are more widely used. Seeing as written language is the unifying means of communication throughout all areas and nationalities of China, its potential loss can be dire.

China also faces the loss of calligraphy, which places special emphasis on aesthetics. Calligraphy has been a revered skill and art-form for over 2000 years, but sadly it has begun fading away in China with a diminishing amount of respected calligraphers. While the 21st century marks a time of great innovation and dynamic change, young people have also grown more accustomed to having high stimuli that involve all 5-senses.

Calligraphy, on the other hand, represents quieter times, in which admiring the serenity of nature in a garden would be gratifying. As China continues to favor rapid economic development, Chinese society has evolved to reflect new more capitalistic priorities.

As modern-day calligraphers are considerably less well paid compared to those of the past, there is less of an incentive for young people to take up the hobby and make it a career.

Social media’s future

While the introduction of social media platforms has impacted traditional Chinese culture, it’s important to realize that these changes are not all negative. Social media has equalized the playing field, meaning that authority figures are no longer considered immune to laws.

It has also opened up the public to the vast information world, empowering all members of society in the process. Additionally, the distancing from saving face and indirectness means people feel more free to share and express themselves on the internet, introducing more freedom of thought and transparency.

Although Chinese cultural symbols have indeed experienced a blow as a result of social media, schools and parents are doing their part to teach calligraphy and writing skills to their children. Mixing modern and traditional elements together has allowed younger generations to breathe new life into Chinese written language.

Time will only tell whether Chinese calligraphy and other cultural elements will become lost art forms as technology continues to advance.  Despite the changes however, it is clear that the country’s top leaders have recognized the importance of revitalizing traditional Chinese culture, and are doing their best to preserve it.

Maya Cypris, an Israeli-American completing her Masters at Peking University’s Yenching Academy. She is co-founder of ‘Innovated in China’ a tech platform written in both English and Chinese, covering startups, innovation and tech happenings in China.

By Maya Cypris, Israel & the USA

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