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From one of our foremost experts on Asia and its history comes this brilliant dissection of the relationship between East and West.
In three succinct essays, Patrick Smith investigates the East’s endeavor to adopt Western technology and all that we consider modern. He underscores a crucial distinction between modernization (the simple emulation of the West) and the true task of “becoming modern.” He examines the strategies that three prominent cultures—those of Japan, China, and India—evolved as they encountered materialistic foreign cultures and imported ideas while defending their own traditions. The result, Smith explains, has often been called “doubling”—a division of the self wherein Asians are receptive to Western products and ideas but simultaneously reject these same imports to emphasize the validity of the “unmodern.”
Employing an exceptional combination of reflection and reportage, Smith also examines the often troubled relationship Asians have with history as a result of their encounters with the West. Finally, he considers Asia’s twenty-first-century attempt to define itself without reference to the West for the first time in modern history. The author foresees a new balance in the East-West dialogue—one in which the East transcends old ideals of nationhood (another Western import). Smith asserts that there are fundamental lessons in Asia’s long struggle with the modern: In the twenty-first century, the East will challenge the West just as the West once challenged the East.
This is a book of exceptional significance and extraordinary depth.
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Patrick Smith is the author of The Nippon Challenge and Japan: A Reinterpretation, which won the Overseas Press Club Award and the Kiriyama Prize. He has written for the International Herald Tribune, The New Yorker, The Nation, BusinessWeek, The Economist, The Far Eastern Economic Review, and The Washington Quarterly, among other publications. He lives in Hong Kong and New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Some summers ago, during a time I kept an apartment in central Tokyo, two friends from Boston wrote to say they would come for a visit. An attorney and a designer, they were new to Asia, past and present. It was their first journey across the Pacific, Japan their first stop on a tour of the region. After several days’ wandering along Tokyo’s broad avenues and through the narrow, hidden lanes behind them, the time had come, these two said, to see something of Japan. Tokyo, after all, was not Japan: It was a modern city. (And in truth it is not Japan, if we mean as Paris is not France and New York not America.) So we settled on a route, got the car out, and drove southwest into the green of rice paddies and tea terraces and then into the high, forested mountains beyond them. Lunchtime approached. At the edge of a village, and with a clear, stony stream behind it, I spotted a place I thought would do. It served tonkatsu, deep-fried pork. For some reason, many tonkatsu restaurants tend to serve only tonkatsu, and so it was that day in Yamanashi Prefecture. It is not the most desirable summer dish, tonkatsu, but it has a history. The Japanese came up with it in the late nineteenth century, when they were absorbing Western ways and inventing their version of European cuisine. It is an orphan of a certain time, then. I related some of this as we ordered our biru (which, of course, the Japanese learned from the Germans to brew). My friends seemed a touch disappointed to hear the tale of tonkatsu.
“But is this a real Japanese way of eating?” one asked. It was the attorney.
Their eyes began to wander. There was a window in the front, and in it a few of those plastic models the Japanese use to display the dishes on offer—in this case tonkatsu this way, that way, or the other way. An extension cord ran out the back to a light near the stream. There were fluorescent tubes—the circular kind, with dangling string—and a refrigerator with a glass door, behind which stood all the brown bottles of biru: Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin. When lunch came, the patron asked politely if we would prefer knives and forks to chopsticks.
“Is this a real Japanese restaurant?” my lawyer friend persisted.
I had forgotten this incident—why recall it?—until many years and miles later when I was passing through Calicut. Calicut lies along the southern end of the Malabar Coast, the Indian edge of the Indian Ocean. It stares westward, and it is where da Gama landed in 1498. I had my heart set on seeing the very spot where, I imagined, a pair of heavy leather boots sank into the sand half a millennium earlier and the modern encounter between East and West can be said to have begun.
In town I looked up a professor named John Ochanthuruth. John had taught history and knew the terrain thoroughly. By way of maps, texts, diaries, documents, and years of exploring the coastline, he could tell you precisely when and where da Gama dropped anchor (the evening of May 20 at a place called Kappad, where there is a monument), when and where the Portuguese came ashore (the next day, at a nearby village called Pandarani), and the route the thick-thighed explorer took to meet the zamorin, ruler of the Calicut kingdom.
On the way to the coastline, John wanted me to see some things. He took me to the pepper market that had made Calicut a center of global trade centuries before the Portuguese came.
He showed me fourteenth-century mosques built like Hindu temples and mosques with Greek columns and arches. We passed Hindu temples that resembled roadside Christian chapels. We talked about matrilineal Muslims and the ancient Jews and Syrian Christians who had settled in southern India. We talked about the Parsi cemetery, inscriptions around town chiseled in Arabic, and all the Portuguese words embedded in Malayalam, the local language.
A narrative thread emerged. Hindus, Arabs, Persians, Turks, Nestorians, Alexandrians, Abyssinians, Venetians, a few Chinese, a few Javanese—they had all come and made of Calicut and the Malabar Coast the scene of a glorious syncretism. Da Gama, as Indians do not tire of telling you, had discovered nothing: He had sailed into a world that was already churning. It was an Arab pilot he had picked up on the East African coast who had read the winds for him and had guided him along the route he took.
The stout, graceless Portuguese did transform this bazaar of humanity, however. Refused a trading monopoly, da Gama had his guns blazing by 1503. Within a few years many spice merchants had fled for what would now be called the United Arab Emirates. What had been an all-welcome sort of place was soon a matter of blood and gore, divide and conquer, and local enmities previously unthought of. The jihad Calicut’s Muslims later declared may count as the first in the modern era. The West had come eastward—in a certain way hauling the Crusades into the modern age.
Da Gama’s monument turned out to be a miserable little block of mildewed concrete, an obelisk not much taller than a beach umbrella. It had a tiny plaque embedded in it and was surrounded by a broken fence and a considerable amount of litter. And between the monument and the shoreline, something interesting: The villagers had erected a small mosque. It was bleached pale green by the sun and had a corrugated roof with two truncated minarets; by all appearances it was not much used. The point seemed to lie in the semiology: There would be a Muslim place of worship between the Portuguese sailor’s plaque and the sea that had carried him here.
Walking the shoreline, John told me a curious tale. Some years earlier, as the five-hundredth anniversary of da Gama’s landing approached, scholars planned to mark the occasion. Researchers would gather; papers would be presented. A replica of da Gama’s ship was to sail the original route. New Delhi would support the proceedings, along with various Portuguese foundations. Then the shoe dropped in the villages and at the Malabar Christian College, proposed host of what had grown into an assortment of events. No, there would be no commemorating the coming of those colonizing Europeans. There would be no seminars, no ship, and certainly no money from New Delhi. Protesters came from as far as Goa, a day’s travel northward. And all came to nothing: There was not a single event to mark da Gama’s landfall.
“In the end,” John said with a rueful smile, “they came to the monument and threw dung all over it.”
He paused, a little lost in the events he had just recounted. We were between the empty, silent mosque and the sand, which was by then too hot to walk upon.
“The idea was not to celebrate anything,” John said after a while. “It was to analyze, to understand. We wanted to try to remember.”
“Remember what, John?”
“To remember ourselves.”
What does the green of summer in Yamanashi-ken have to do with the sandy land of southern India? Why think of a long-ago lunch in the Japanese countryside while sitting on fallen palm fronds along the Malabar Coast?
It has to do with perspective—which, bringing it to a single word, is the subject of this book. These essays are about seeing—or just as much its opposite, which is not precisely blindness so much as a failure to overcome received assumptions (or to know, even, that one has received them and lives by them). Clouded vision is merely a symptom of the malady, not the malady itself. The malady is lodged in our minds.
Japan, the “real” Japan one arrives from the West in search of, does not have extension cords running along its floors. Japan is made of wood and thatch and shimenawa, that textured twine hung in Shinto shrines, and of course of silk, translucent rice paper, and bamboo. It is not made of glass and steel and plastic in artificial colors. If it is modern it cannot be Japanese, and we cannot have found what we came to seek, for if it is modern it must be Western. Above all, it does not have Westerners walking around in it: We, having arrived, must feel as if we have transcended our own world and entered another, where only “others” dwell. The sensation of entering is important precisely because we desire the sensation of exiting.
My Boston friends reflected this, though hardly could they have known it. The incident in Calicut was another matter. That was a case of conscious subtraction. We Asians were over here, all together and doing fine, and then the Westerners came, and Asia ceased to be Asia. Instead, it became something spoiled, something derailed, something not itself. The endeavor is to overcome this despoliation—in a word, to resume. There are many versions of this narrative, depending on where one is, all sounding the same thematic notes: harmony, intrusion, one or another combination of nostalgia and what the French call ressentiment, and some inchoate desire to find what was lost and begin again.
The clearest expression of this story line I have ever heard, shorn of all extraneous detail, was delivered during an evening at a private club in Hong Kong. My host was named Paul Ho, the grandson of a noted nineteenth-century reformer, a prolific presence on the late-Qing political scene called Kang Youwei. I was about to make an extended trip into the Chinese countryside, and Ho wanted to introduce a friend who had spent most of his life on the mainland. “He has a certain perspective,” Ho explained.
Dinner proceeded, the dishes came and went, and so did the conversati...
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