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Misunderstanding Asia

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Misunderstanding Asia

Westerners should put aside their preconceptions about Asian history and culture. November 8, 2017
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

It would be pleasing to think that the historic lack of understanding between East and West—“East is East, and West is West,” goes the well-worn Kipling verse, “and never the twain shall meet”—had been alleviated by trade, travel, and the Internet. But this seems not to be the case, judging by the persistent errors committed by leaders, commentators, and the general public in our relations with Asia.

Consider first Burma, also known as Myanmar. Westerners are amazed that Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese former dissident and current leader, has lent her authority to the mass expulsion of Muslims from Burma into Bangladesh. Is she not the saint of Eastern democracy, worshiped by the Western media, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize? Westerners overlook that what lies hidden behind her kind face is the iron mask of an extreme Buddhist, ferociously hostile to Islam. Suu Kyi recently told an American visitor that Burma would not allow itself to suffer the fate of Java (Indonesia), which was Hindu before becoming Muslim—1,000 years ago. How can a Buddhist act with such violence against a tribe of Rohingyas, poor peasants, hardly equipped to conquer Burma? Isn’t Buddhism essentially pacifist?

In fact, it is not. Hypnotized by the living goodness that is the Dalai Lama, we prefer not to know that the Tibetans were a warrior people who invaded China more than once. We prefer to forget that the Buddhists of Sri Lanka exterminated the Hindu Tamils, and we never took much interest in the fanatical preachers of Burma or Thailand, sworn enemies of moderate Buddhists and Muslim minorities. We should open our eyes to that other East, and admit that Buddhism, like every religion, generates its fundamentalists and inquisitors.

We don’t understand Korean civilization much better. From the West, Korea often appears as an indistinct, transitional zone, a mix, somehow, of Chinese and Japanese civilization—which it is not at all. The peninsula’s shamanist traditions and Mongol origins, the vitality of its Confucianism, and the not-always peaceful coexistence of its Eastern religions with Christianity make the Koreans a unique people. Over a long history, Koreans have never ceased to fight for recognition of their singular identity, in Asia and now in the West. Korean nationalism is fierce in the South as well as the North.

The quarrel between North and the South is not only ideological and military but also cultural. Each side claims to represent the true Korea, and the relative legitimacy of the North for North Koreans—and sometimes for South Koreans, too—has to do with this supposedly authentic Korean character, as opposed to the “Westernized” South. Without awareness of this cultural competition, it is impossible to understand the nature of the conflict between the two Koreas, or the Korean distrust for China and hostility toward Japan—themselves eternal enemies. Koreans’ sense of cultural distinctness also explains their contempt, barely dissimulated in the South, for the Americans.

China represents the apotheosis of the misunderstanding between East and West. Western commentators saw Xi Jinping’s promotion to the rank of de facto emperor of China by the Communist Party Congress as normal and predictable, since China has always had an emperor. It is as if there is nothing more to understand. But this is to ignore what China has become and its history, and to accept a legend that goes back to Marco Polo. The real China is something quite different: 2,000 years of conflict between authoritarian emperors and the independent provinces; a permanent social war between the commercial bourgeoisie and the imperial bureaucracy; a republican revolution in 1911; and an intellectual class and clergy who have espoused the cause of freedom from the days of Lao-Tze down to Liu Xiaobo. The Communist Party has clamped down the lid on this long, diverse history, and we Westerners confuse the lid with Chinese society. We accept at face value the idea that the ideology concocted by Xi—one-third Marxism, one-third capitalism, and one-third Confucianism, seasoned with violence and corruption—is a precise image of the Chinese soul. This is the same way we in the West saw things up until 1911, when Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Manchu dynasty. Xi’s promotion was not fated, but rather the working of an opaque, and thus unpredictable, regime.

Dare I mention India, whose population-growth rate is double that of China, and which will soon take its place as the most populous nation on earth? This civilization is so complex, and its gods and languages so numerous, that we hardly hear of it in the media, except in cases of floods or train wrecks—despite the fact that, as a democracy, it is a country that we should view as a natural ally.

A perfect illustration of our incomprehension of Asia is contained in David Hwang’s play M. Butterfly—a new production of which just opened on Broadway, where it is being directed by Julie Taymor, of Lion King fame. The play is based on a true story of love and espionage between a French diplomat in China and a singer at the Beijing Opera. The diplomat discovers, a little late, that his mistress is a man. In our endless fascination with the East, and our willingness to suspend critical rigor when encountering its differences from ourselves, we are not unlike the deluded diplomat in M. Butterfly. It is incumbent upon serious people to avoid Orientalist, romantic snares in our encounters with Asia.

Let us end, as we began, with Kipling. The first lines of his ballad are endlessly cited, but not the following lines, which contradict them:

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.         

Kipling recommends strength, but strength based on knowledge.

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