HistoryBits: Asia

HistoryBits: Asia

Bits and Pieces of History

In General

Power/Colonialism

It does seem that in some respects the imbroglios in China, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam represented the final blows for empire that brought an end to the era of colonialism that began with the Portuguese and Spanish forays into the New World in the 16th century, and culminated in the carving up of much of Asia into British, French, and Japanese possessions through the 19th century and continuing into World War II. Both Korea and Vietnam seem to have been wars fought by proxies of the United States and Soviet Union–knowing as they did that any direct confrontation could easily result in nuclear holocaust–and both were in a sense wars for empire, whether Communism or Western hegemony. It’s surprising, also, that we were unable to see in the Chinese and Vietnamese experiences echoes of the struggle that we ourselves had fought back in the American Revolution. There was a time when we played the best game of guerrilla warfare in town—against the British—and even if we were unwilling to empathize with the same nationalist spirit that we once laid our own lives down for, we should have seen the sort of fight that was coming. But who cares about history… and all that dead white male stuff?

Power/Colonialism

The American experience in Vietnam put paid to that whole era of Western colonialism, and one of the lessons we might derive from that experience concerns the Achilles Heel of empire that invariably lies in the expense of administering that empire. The Soviet Union and the United States both encountered the same burden of imperial overstretch that the British (and the Spanish and the Romans before them) came up against. The essential difference in our case, however, is that the markets for the American corporate state that we were supposedly spending ourselves broke to defend are no longer ours to defend. Globalization has seen to it that these markets have become populated by countless global players that now cooperate in production alliances and contend for markets worldwide. And with the Soviet Union gone, there is no longer an enemy to protect them against. But it certainly isn’t the first time that an empire has been co-opted by its own offspring.

Society/Responses to Modern Crises

The problems faced by both East and West-whether urbanization, social pathologies, pollution, public health, economic growth versus quality of life—are the same, but the resources we bring to their resolution are different. The West has more money, longer experience, and greater technology; its cities are less chaotic, its standard of public health is high, civil liberty reigns supreme, and material fulfillment is unparalleled. The East, on the other hand, has little crime, and its citizens are prepossessed with family and social obligation instead of material fulfillment, their work ethic is supremely conscientious, and they are consecrated to education. Which makes you wealthier? Which represents mankind’s best hopes for the future? Are the two sets of values mutually exclusive? Do we have something to learn from each other, or was Kipling right when we remarked that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”?

Society/Daily Life

Asian societies and economies (especially Japan) are the most relationship-driven in the world, with virtually everything proceeding on the basis of who knows whom—making it very difficult for outsiders like Americans to break in. Japan places straightjacket constraints on maintaining the harmony of its society and places the interests of the group—from the emperor on down–far ahead of the interests of the individual. And since China’s most abundant resource is people, it has of course made sense to make excellent use of it. China places little stock in such things as contracts and statutes, wisely preferring to invest their trust in relationships. Unfortunately, none of that has changed under communism–it’s still very much the old-boy game. The state provides little security such as we know it in the form of entitlements here in the West, and the Chinese continue to look to each other for their support. With marriage, love is not even a consideration; marriages are regarded as alliances between families for their mutual benefit. The Chinese are nothing is not practical! All that harks back to Confucius, whose entire philosophy was based in ordering the relationships among men so that China’s most dreaded condition—social chaos—might be kept at bay. As one might expect from such heavily populated conditions, Asian societies place a great deal more emphasis on social interaction and relationships than does the individual-minded United States.

Power/Kipling’s Ditty

Having taught Asian studies for some 35 years, I still wonder about Kipling’s ditty, “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” It seems that no sooner does one generation learn the needed lessons (as we did in Vietnam) than that generation becomes history and we’re off to the races, making the same old mistakes again. Nation building worked as well as it did in Japan during the Occupation, in large part because the value system that had served the Japanese from the time they began to modernize in the Meiji through the war had been gutted. Nation building in Iraq may prove to be a very different proposition, given that the war is raging along one of the most fundamental sectarian, religious, and philosophical fault lines in history–most of all the Great Divide between Judeo-Christian and Islamic civilizations. Just a thought.

Society/Societies

Asian societies and economies (especially Japan) are the most relationship-driven in the world, with virtually everything proceeding on the basis of who knows whom—making it very difficult for outsiders like Americans to break in. Japan places straightjacket constraints on maintaining the harmony of its society and places the interests of the group—from the emperor on down–far ahead of the interests of the individual. And since China’s most abundant resource is people, it has of course made sense to make excellent use of it. China places little stock in such things as contracts and statutes, wisely preferring to invest their trust in relationships. Unfortunately, none of that has changed under communism–it’s still very much the old-boy game. The state provides little security such as we know it in the form of entitlements here in the West, and the Chinese continue to look to each other for their support. With marriage, love is not even a consideration; marriages are regarded as alliances between families for their mutual benefit. The Chinese are nothing is not practical! All that harks back to Confucius, whose entire philosophy was based in ordering the relationships among men so that China’s most dreaded condition—social chaos—might be kept at bay. As one might expect from such heavily populated conditions, Asian societies place a great deal more emphasis on social interaction and relationships than does the individual-minded United States.

Society/Social Values

Asians rank family as the very highest of their priorities. What’s more, they view society through a Confucian lens, which sees everyone ordered in a family-like skein of relationships that emphasizes their obligations to each other: father to son, brother to brother, husband to wife, subject to ruler and so on.

Society/Stereotypes

I almost hate to say it, but part of the fun of cross-cultural encounters comes from the sense of humor that arises from lampooning our differences; I suspect that that’s how Hawaii and other ethnic melting pots have generally become such good-natured places. But we need to be mindful of the temptation to allow cultural stereotypes to taint our modest but growing fund of knowledge of Asia. Stereotypes offer us with the reassurance that we do indeed have Asians–or whatever other object of our consideration–properly sussed, and that we’re comfortably on the same page as everyone else with our petty prejudices and misperceptions. In the process of trying to disperse the fog of ignorance, we’ll labor diligently at our studies to accumulate that fund of knowledge, but then the day will come when we’ll join our ancestors, and all of that knowledge will go with us… and we’ll have to leave it to the next generation to re-build that fund pretty much from scratch. And well and truly, I’m astonished at how little net progress we’ve made over the generations with Westerners and Asians (or anyone else) coming to understand each other. It almost seems pointless, and right in line with Kipling’s ditty that “East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” But we need to keep in mind, too, that everything—race and ethnicity most of all, perhaps—means something. And the whole story of America (and globalization) is our struggle to embrace our differences, and become enriched in so doing—with the alternative being that we are overwhelmed by our differences, and become impoverished in the bargain. Globalization will present enormous challenges in the years ahead, as entire industries and millions of jobs are shipped offshore to China and other low-wage economies, and as the war of terrorism widens into a war between the Haves and the Have-Nots. We’ll need all the help we can get from folks like you who will have had sufficient exposure to multi-culturalism to proclaim our profound differences with the rest of the world as opportunities to grow richer, not poorer.

Central Asia

The Great Game

This goes way back: the clan hatreds, blood feuds, and cat’s claw of conspiratorial intrigue that have long plagued the political loyalties of Central Asia all reared their ugly heads to greet Alexander’s invasion. While they may have tolerated the Persians (Iranians)—mere occupiers–Alexander and his Empire (America and the West) were a different proposition: the locals hereabouts don’t march in anyone’s parade. In a land supremely well suited to guerilla warfare, they harried Alexander’s legions to distraction. The logistical complications of their advance reduced his troops to plunder, which hardly endeared them to their unwilling hosts–all in all, a superb case study in the old saw that no war is ever won without capturing the hearts and minds of the people. Given the poisonous hatreds of the locals, their seething resentment of Persian rule, the terrain, its remoteness, its harsh climate, you’d have to wonder why anyone would covet the place… except that it lies square in the path of the ebb and flow of empires throughout history, and square in the path of the flow of oil and the ebb of water—-the two resources that can best assure the contention, acrimony, and continuation of the Great Game.

Mongolia

Culture/Education

Surprisingly for a place that seems such a backwater, Mongolia has—in certain respects–occupied the leading edge in education. More than a thousand years ago, its monastery schools were esteemed to be enough of a threat to Chinese authority that it sparked a long spate of persecution of Buddhism in China; more recently, I read an article in the New York Times about Mongolia’s decision to make English its official second language (the same thing happened recently in Chile)—a harbinger of things to come, I think, since irrespective of the unsavory implications for cultural globalization, I’m pretty well convinced that nations that don’t adopt English will be increasingly marginalized.

Power/Chingis Khan

Chingis Khan was the first to unite the Mongol tribes of Siberia with those of the southern steppes. This unification began the rule of conquest that would extend from Peking to the heartland of Europe, and which more importantly bridged the gulf between the nomadic lifestyle and the new world of literacy, technology, and science. But it was all terribly low-tech, just the same: the vast Mongol Empire was only made possible because of the complete portability of this incredible all-in-one package of transport, cavalry, nourishment, and accouterment that was the Mongol pony–so much like the bison was to the American Indian: the sum and substance of an entire way of life.


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