Asian Communication Theory

Shelton A Gunaratne. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications, 2009.

Asian communication theory refers to the body of literature covering concepts and theories derived from the rereading of Asian classical treatises, non-Eurocentric comparisons, East-West theoretical syntheses, explorations into Asian cultural concepts, and critical reflections on Western theory. This entry will begin with a definition of Asian communication theory and then will examine Asian communication theory in relation to the seven communication traditions that Robert Craig elucidated in 1999: rhetorical, semiotic, phenomenological, cybernetic, sociopsychological, socio-cultural, and critical.


The three words constituting Asian communication theory need clarification because each word contains multiple meanings. Although geographically Asia includes the Middle East, Central Asia, and eastern Russia, Asian theory focuses primarily on the great philosophies of India and China and the cultures of the region between them. Asian communication theory adds to the different meanings of communication, and it conflicts with the positivist view of theory, which is an artifact of Western science. Asian theory emphasizes systems, groups, networks, and the macro approach and is therefore more akin to philosophy, which cannot be easily tested in the Western scientific manner.

These different approaches to communication and theory result in an Asian worldview that differs from the West’s in its premises about self, nature, space and time, knowledge, and the trans-personal. Johan Galtung summarizes these differences as follows:

  • The West emphasizes individualism;the East emphasizes the reciprocal responsibility between individual and society.
  • The West emphasizes controlof nature; the East emphasizes harmony with nature.
  • The West looks at a world dividedinto center (West), periphery (West’s allies), and outer periphery (all the rest); the East looks at the world and universe as a single unit (an interconnected and interdependent whole).
  • The West sees bounded time;the East sees infinite time.
  • The West sees knowledge in terms of atomism and deductivism (and uses these fragments to engender contradiction-free theoretical frameworks following Newtonian science); the East sees knowledge in terms akin to systems theory such that axiology (values), epistemology (knowledge), and ontology (metaphysics) all become essential parts of theorizing.
  • The West subordinates humans to a supreme being; the East places faith in following the path of righteousness—dharmain Buddhism and Hinduism, yi in Confucianism, and the nondivine Supreme Reality in Daoism.

Asian Theories within Western Traditions

Robert Craig divided the field of communication into seven traditions on the basis of underlying conceptions of communicative practice. Although designed to organize Western theories, these traditions can reflect East-West differences and are used in the following discussion to classify various Asian theories.

The Rhetorical Tradition

Rhetoric (study of principles and rules of composition formulated by ancient critics and of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion) has a long history traceable to Greek sophists (c. 600 BCE). Communication scholar Robert T. Oliver failed to see any paradigmatic examples of Asian rhetoric that are compact enough to be subjected to a thorough analysis. However, Steven Combs was able to derive a unique model of Chinese rhetoric from a rereading of the ancient Daoist texts.

Chinese Rhetoric

Antonio S. Cua attempted to formulate a Confucian rhetoric on the lines of the Aristotelian model. Cua concluded that a society that values harmony and tolerance could not be expected to embrace the values of debate and persuasion. In his study of Xunzi’s moral epistemology, Cua asserted that the ethics of a Confucian rhetoric arose from the background notions of li (propriety), yi (righteousness), and jen (benevolence).

Combs, however, contends that Daoism—as explicated in the classics Dao de jing (attributed to Laozi), Zhuangzi (by Zhuangzi), and Art of War (attributed to Sunzi)—offers no explicit definition of rhetoric or an inventory of rhetorical canons inasmuch as Daoists do not think of rhetoric as a distinct subject although their overall philosophy on language and communication (rhetoric) shows spontaneity and creativity. The concepts Dao (Way/Path/Supreme Reality), de (efficacy/virtuality), yin-yang (passive energy-active energy) polarity, ziran (natural way), harmony, and wu-wei (action-less action) are key components of Daoist rhetoric.

Laozi thematizes the need to avoid contentiousness and unnatural verbosity. Laozi uses two negative methods (negation and paradox) and two positive methods (analogy/metaphor and vague expressions) for communicating Daoism. The outstanding rhetorical strategy that Zhuangzi uses is evocativeness, intended to draw others into interactive communication aimed at engendering self-persuasion. Evocativeness differs from Aristotle’s enthymeme and Kenneth Burke’s identification and adds a vital element to Western rhetorical theory. Zhuangzi uses parables creatively to go beyond the limitations of language; he introduces the readers to the essential unity of the Dao, the errors of making distinctions or passing judgments, wu-wei, and the natural way of things. Sunzi’s underlying strategic principle in Art of War, when applied to persuasion, is the rhetoric of parsimony, which has three key attendant principles: knowledge, strategy, and responsiveness. Sunzi, who upholds the Daoist principle of avoiding conflict, says that justification for war must be made on the basis of harmony. Sunzi’s rhetoric is also comparable at times with Western rhetorical concepts such as presumption and identification. Combs asserted that the genre of Daoist rhetoric has the potential to provide a lens for viewing the limitations of current Western rhetorical theorizing.

Indian Rhetoric

Western scholars have often used the term Asian rhetoric in a pejorative sense because of the alleged Indian preference for form (e.g., exaggeration, embellishment) over substance. However, communication scholars have yet to reread the 550 Jataka (Rebecoming) stories of the Buddha or the hymns of the four Vedas (sacred knowledge), the 108 Upanishads (philosophical commentaries on the Vedas), or even the Bhagavadgita (the Song of God extracted from the Mahabharata epic) to derive a genre of Indian rhetoric.

The rhetoric of India, in both its Hindu and its Buddhist forms, has an ethical basis. The Hindu rhetorician seeks aretaic qualities (virtues)—those by which the individual may fully represent the traditions of family, community, and caste—while the Buddhist rhetorician values truthfulness, compassion, and conciliation.

Reasoning is an aspect of rhetoric. Bimal K. Matilal claims that India’s dharma tradition evolved through an attempt of a rational criticism of itself. Stories in the epics and the puranas mention Carvaka’s use of tarka or hetusastra, the science of reasoning, to ask questions and challenge the validity of Vedic rituals.

Nagarjuna, the 2nd-century Buddhist philosopher, used logic to show that nothing in the phenomenal world had full being and all was ultimately unreal. Therefore, every rational theory about the world would be a theory about something unreal evolved by an unreal thinker with unreal thoughts. Western communication theory has failed to examine communication through the critical lens of Nagarjuna because of the undercurrents of Orientalism and Eurocentrism.

The Semiotic Tradition

John Locke’s language theory, explicated in An Essay on Human Understanding, published in 1690, is credited with setting off semiotics as a distinct tradition of communication theory. Pragmaticism and linguistics, reflected in the current theories of language, discourse, interpretation, nonverbal communication, culture, and media, are contemporary areas of study that rely on the semiotic tradition. Semiotics defines communication as inter subjective mediation by signs.

Chinese Semiotics

Asian communication scholars have yet to develop comparable semiotic theories. However, elements of a distinct theory of Chinese semiotics are reflected in the communication pattern of those who make use of the Chinese ideographic system of writing, which entails the interpretation of symbols—itself a semiotic exercise. Despite the mutual unintelligibility of the spoken language systems and the very different language stocks in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, all of East Asia during the Tang dynasty adopted the Chinese ideographic system that the Japanese called kanji (hanja in Korean and hanzi in Chinese). Because kanji are inextricably tied to a particular set of ideas, unlike the letters of an alphabet, the use of kanji throughout East Asia created an “empire of ideas”—a powerful glue that bound the region together.

Moreover, the Yijing (Book of Changes) system—with the basic yin and yang signs that make up bigrams, trigrams, and hexagrams (various word combinations)—could be considered a semiotic masterpiece. It dates back to the 12th century BCE. The Ten Commentaries for the understanding of the Yijing were written in the 3rd or 4th century BCE. The philosophy of Chinese semiotics is an explicit manifestation of the metaphysics implicit in the signs or forms (xiang). Chung-Ying Cheng points out that the Yijing incorporates four functions—interpretative, integrative, practical, and ingraining—that define a system of communication.

Indian Semiotics

Rhetoric can be looked at as the branch of semiotics that studies the structures of language and argument mediating between communicators and audiences. The Indian theories of syntax and semantics are clear Asian contributions to this tradition.

Panini, the author of Astadhyayi (probably written in the 5th century BCE), explicated the structure of a natural language (Sanskrit), which enabled the Nyaya-Vaisesika school of Indian philosophy to work out the theory that puts meanings closest to the syntactic form of words. Bhartrhari, the 5th-century Indian philosopher of language who wrote the treatise Vakyapadiya, described thought as a unitary thing that fractured and altered form as it passed into words, interacting with other factors in the mind and the speaker’s environment to produce intricate displays of sound and fragmented meaning.

The Pbenomenological Tradition

Phenomenology is the study of consciousness from first-person perspective. It views communication as dialogue or experience of otherness. Martin Buber explicates that dialogue is based on the experience of authentic, direct, and unmediated contact with others. The description of the phenomenon of consciousness is the objective of phenomenology as evident in the three main categories of phenomenological thinking—essentialist (Edmund Husserl), ontological (Martin Heidegger), and existentialist (Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty).

The phenomenological tradition has a degree of consonance with Asian communication philosophy. Buddha often adopted the dialogic form to experience otherness, as testified in Jataka stories. The phenomenologists’ focus on the centrality of language in human interaction, not as a mere means for conveying thought, but as constituting thought itself, resonates with Indian philosophy. The concepts of the structure of consciousness and the communicative environment are central to Asian verbal or nonverbal communication (e.g., Japanese kuuki [atmosphere requiring compliance] and ishin-denshin [communication without language]).

In a reader edited by Alexander Macfie, Reinhard May has documented the East Asian influences on Martin Heidegger’s work, and Irene Eber has documented dialogist Martin Buber’s considerable interest in Daoism. Heidegger’s concept of Dasein is believed to have been inspired by the Daoist concept of das-in-dem-Welt-sein (to be in the being of the world), used in The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo to describe Zhuangzi’s philosophy. Heidegger himself had contacts with some leading Japanese intellectuals of the Kyoto School. Moreover, convergent phenomenology has combined Husserl’s phenomenological concept of transcendental ego with 8th-century Indian philosopher Sankara’s concept of the primacy of self-consciousness. Thus, major aspects of phenomenology show links to Asian communication theory.

The Cybernetic Tradition

Modern communication theory emerged with the cybernetic tradition in the mid-20th century featuring the works of scholars like Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, and Alan Turing. This tradition includes current theories as diverse as systems and information science, cognitive science and artificial intelligence, functionalist social theory, network analysis, and the Batesonian school of interpersonal communication.

Asian communication theory is remarkably congruent with the systems approach of the cybernetic tradition. First, both systems theory and Asian philosophy emphasize the whole because the whole has the attribute called emergence, which the parts lack (although sociologists and economists differ on this point). Second, both accept the epistemological/ontological phenomenon of part-whole interconnection and interdependence, although postmodern systems theorists prefer to emphasize the system-environment interdependence. Third, both tend to agree on the inevitability of change in the light of the arrow of time, its direction toward infinity. Because of the dynamic behavior of every phenomenon, no predictions are possible; only probabilities can be worked out.

The Buddhist paradigm of dependent co-arising (paticca samuppāda) and the Chinese Yijing paradigm reflect these characteristics. The first illustrates the dynamic operation of all dependent co-arising factors to produce any given phenomenon. It rejects the linear independent-dependent dichotomy inherent in the Newtonian paradigm, which tends to imply the existence of permanent factors. The second illustrates how unity gives rise to a multiplicity of co-arising positive (yang) and negative (yin), interconnected and interdependent factors (bigrams, trigrams, and hexagrams) that evolve within the bounds of unity (system). It affirms the Chinese philosophical thesis that everything consists of the unity of opposites.

The Sociopsychological Tradition

This is the tradition dependent on social psychology, a development of the past century, that theorizes communication as a process of expression, interaction, and influence that may occur through face-to-face or through technological mediation from one to one, one to many, or many to many. Most of communication science falls into this tradition, as exemplified by the experimental persuasion studies of Carl Hovland, as well as the voting studies of Paul Lazarsfeld and Bernard Berelson.

Although much of Buddhist philosophy relates to psychological phenomena, endogenous Asian communication theories befitting this tradition are scarce except as appendages to Western theories, mainly because of the testability requirement of science as conceived by the West. However, principles of persuasion (discovered and synthesized through the Yale experimental studies) were used in China by lobbyists (e.g., Su Qin and Zhang Yi) during the chaotic half millennium from the 8th to the 3rd century BCE. The Asian contribution to the sociopsychological tradition needs more systematic investigation to enable East-West synthesis. This tradition in the West has come under criticism for excessive individualism, inattention to macro social forces, and insensitivity to cultural differences.

The Sociocultural Tradition

This tradition, which owes its intellectual inheritance to sociology and anthropology, theorizes communication as a symbolic process that produces and reproduces shared sociocultural patterns. Media are explicated as environments. Although this tradition views the existing sociocultural order as largely a reproduction of our everyday interactions, it also recognizes the creative process that adds to those interactions. Two poles have emerged within this tradition: structural theories that explicate relative stability of macrolevel patterns and interactionist-interpretive theories that explicate microlevel patterns of social-order creation.

The sociocultural tradition agrees with the Asian and Buddhist view that individuals are products of their social environments; the Confucian view that groups develop particular norms, rituals, and worldviews and the idea that that social change can be difficult and disruptive; and the Daoist view that attempts to intervene actively in social processes often have unintended consequences. The Buddhist and Daoist philosophies also emphasize the inevitability of change. However, because this tradition is another Western creation, the endogenous Asian contribution has yet to be documented.

The Critical Tradition

Although this tradition has ancient historical roots, the modern Western tradition of critical social theory is claimed to run from Karl Marx through the Frankfurt School to Jürgen Habermas. Alternatively, one could also include other strands of late Marxism and post-Marxism, current theories of political economy, critical cultural studies, feminist theory, and related schools of theory associated with new social movements (such as postcolonial theory and queer theory).

Normative media theories, which facilitate the critique of existing media systems, can also fall within this tradition. Cultural and media imperialism theory, dependency theory, and world-systems analysis are exemplars of the contemporary critical tradition.

Daoism anticipates a great deal of the contemporary critical tradition, particularly postmodernism as reflected in the views of Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault, as well as of Jacques Derrida and other poststructuralists. Daoism, like postmodernism, denies objective foundations for knowledge, essential meanings of identities, and universal truths and deprivileges reason and rationality. For example, Daoist sage Laozi contends that universal statements are impossible because words, which are finite and temporal, cannot express what is infinite. Therefore, communicators must resign themselves to the conditionality of their discourse or try to express themselves by using means other than words.

Asian communication theory includes a substantial contribution to this tradition, as exemplified by the works of scholars such as, among others, Guo-ming Chen, Wimal Dissanayake, Shelton Gunaratne, Satoshi Ishii, and Yoshitaka Miike. They reflect the influence of critical metatheories of Edward Said (Orientalism), Samir Amin (Eurocentrism), Farid Alatas (academic dependency), and others.