Innovation the Chinese Way: Francois Jullien Weighs In

François_Jullien_par_Claude_Truong-Ngoc_octobre_2013François Jullien is a brilliant French philosopher, professor at Paris Diderot University, and heading the chair for Alterity: he likes to take one step back, immersing himself in a different culture, and then come back to his initial matter. That’s what he did with China, adopting Chinese point of view before coming back to Europe, identifying gaps, and questioning back European way of thinking, raising the ‘unconsidered’, what is not currently being thought over. He just published a ‘Lexique euro-chinois de la pensée‘, a short opus that will enchant your evenings!

Last March 20th at Transit City Conference, he explained in what ways innovation perception differs largely between China and Europe. To tell the truth, François does not ‘explain’, he ‘tells a story’, and he’s a master storyteller. I will try not to betray his thoughts, and style of words.

First he shared his faith on transformation rather than on cultural identity: François Jullien believes in gap, distance, rather than differences. Differentiation is separation, while a gap keeps both parties in relationship, in tension, which products a better effect. Gaps unveil multiple resources: the modern citizen can discover them along his journey, exploring gaps to produce commun parts, the ‘conceptual commons’, that he can mobilize.

Then he explored the innovation-related gaps between China and Europe.

While European innovation is disruptive, China thinks about continuous flows

Innovation stands nowadays like a life-saving myth. From the days of Galileo and modern astronomy, innovation is a symbol of rupture, of discovery, where something else is unveiled. There is a Before and an After.

China is not about Apcalypse: the world is made of continuous energy flows, a stream that renews everyday.

European innovation brings up a revisted method (Descartes’ Discourse on the Method), or logic (Novum Organum by Francis bacon), inventing a new knowledge. Progress implies criticism of the past, and revolution. European painting is a perpetual revolution. One must fight the pats: ‘Lets’ burn Le Louvre’ said cezanne who was visiting and working there everyday…

Chinese painting is a continuous transition: there no milestones or manifesto, this comes beyond that. There is not rupture in the course of events: one warms the past up to produce newness. It’s about transmission says Confucius, and walking in the tracks of those who came before.

European innovation seems to make a clean slate of the past. It’s more a myth than a reality: after revolution comes restauration.

Another feature is the focus on the perfect model, without necessarily questioning what’s needed to achieve it. Galileo presents a model that explains universe rules with geometraical figures and equations, as if God were using Mathematics to create the world. But things never happen in real life like in the model… With galileo, engineers are replaced by pure mathematicians, we move to an infinite world, governed by universal laws.


Chinese concepts with regards to innovation

1. Silent transformation

Chinese innovations unfold this way: it’s an underground move, no one talks about it, it’s silent.

While Greek thought is based on visual perception, looking head-on and in a glimpse, for Chinese, hearing is primary. It’s global, you can hear wherever it comes from, and it’s continuous, you can close your eyes, not your ears. Chinese thinking is about processus, continuity, no rupture or sudden shift. Sound notification is perceived as the result of a silent transformation: thus, while we get older ‘silently’ day after day, looking at a picture from 20 years agos is a shock!

Make no mistake: continuity does not mean there is no creativity! Reality is made of flow in perpetual mutation.

2. Discrete starter

Chinese are not interested by world’s creation. They believe in a fuzzy nebulous beginning, a starter, something which starts to walk through, testing the possibility of achieving something real. Better initiating quietly silent transformations and taking care of them, than loud innovations!

China is a master in strategic thinking since Sun Tzu. Europe had to wait for Clausewitz for a similar thinker on war. At war, things never happen as planned, the model is overwhelmed by circumstances. Europeans then mobilize theirs will to force reality to compel to the plan, and introduce the heroïc vision. China thinks of war as a couple, a bipolarity, Ying and Yang: we are cooriginated, the opponent is not second.


3. Letting mature

China is a country for seeds, not for breeding. It’s not spectacular, China has no great epic, it’s only about maturation, letting go and help mature.

‘What new potentiality can be unveiled?’ is the constant question.

While inventing is a super active verb, Chinese doesn’t conjugate between passive and active. European are not at ease at ‘letting’, while Chinese develop the art of maturation. It’s not drawing sprouts out of the soil, neither watching them grow: one needs to be hoeing, weeding, turning the ground soft, making the environment suitable, and supporting the processus: it’s not heroic, it’s about walking along so that something possible comes out of it.

Ideas come from far way, and one day they emerge clearly in our mind. Chinese detect weaknesses, and let them mature. Think of the harvest, think of cob and scythe, rather than to the goal. China is starting to harvest, having taken advantage of its situation’ potentials. Chinese detect a potential, and let it mature quietly.

But they know how to use models too. Akin to balancing Chinese and West medicine, one can combine models and transformation.


4. Seizing the moment (kairos)

This is where Greek and Chinese thoughts converge, in ‘kairos’: making every moment an opportunity. While Greeks capture a furtive opportunity, a passing instant, almost nothing, that will further change the world, Chinese think of the seeds that you will bring to maturity, leveraging any possibility to improve the context, a progressive potential that one supports so that it turns to reality.

To sum up, there is a gap between innovation presented as a loud rupture by Europeans, making a clean slate of the past, and silent Chinese transformation, with a quiet starter, and nimble support to let the sprout mature. But nothing prevents us from keeping both in tension,  combining the idea of the model, which can motivate by designing an ambitious vision, a disruptive goal, and the progressive still path that takes advantage of situations’ potential along the way, seizing every opportunity to turn the odds in our favour.


Author notes: with Clayton Christensen and its disruptive innovation (The innovator’s Dilemna in 1997), we have examples of innovators acting in the Chinese way: changing attributes of a value proposition, detecting potential, and slowly putting the former leader out of business.

Similarly, taking advantage of situations’ potential is something we find in Effectuation, an entrepreneurial approach for innovation: seizing opportunities to produce entrepreneurship, taking advantage of surprises instead of avoiding them.

Chinese smartphones have made their way to genuine originality: “OnePlus is the best smartphone in the field, and it’s made in China

image credits: light,, rg201, Nicolas Bry,

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    future of TV - Leading by InnovatingNicolas is a senior VP at Orange Innovation Group. Serial innovator, he set-up creative BU with an international challenge, and a focus on new TV experiences. Forward thinker, he completed a thesis on “Rapid Innovation”, implemented successfully at Orange, further developed in his writings. He tweets @nicobry

Nicolas Bry

Serial innovator, Nicolas has set up creative units for new business at Orange, Club-Internet, and SFR. Nicolas created crowd platform, Orange Studio for Intrapreneurs, and edits Open Innovation blog International speaker, entrepreneurs & startups coach, innovation teacher at Telecom ParisTech, HEC & CentraleSupélec, and freelance consultant (ECC). Follow him at @nicobry.




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