Somebody Else's Century: East and West in a Post-Western World

Somebody Else's Century: East and West in a Post-Western World

by Patrick Smith

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Written explicitly for a Western audience, this searching and philosophical text eschews the demographic and statistics-driven approach to the rise of Asia, opting instead for an essayistic and existential meditation on modernity and modernization. Smith (The Nippon Challenge) focuses on China, India, and Japan and skips nimbly between topics as varied as raids on an Indian temple dating back a millennium, the impact of the Opium Wars on China's development, and Nietzsche's reflections on travel and "the foreign." The author examines each country's relationship to economic transformation and to their pasts, describing the new century as a "post-Western" era, one in which Westerners will confront the challenge that this book suggests has largely defined the contemporary Asian experience, the sense of living in an era that does not belong "to us." This demanding, rich book provides few answers, but offers a valuable intellectual frame for approaching the evolving relationship between the East and the West. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“This thoughtful and highly original meditation on the future of Asian societies should be required reading for anyone interested in where our planet is heading.”
—Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire
“[There are] paradoxes aplenty within this serene, astute book, which will invite much discussion.”
Kirkus Reviews
“Ruminative and high-toned…A gift-box of suggestions, it could push thinking about Asia into a deeper dimension.” –Time Magazine

“The great human and strategic subject of the next generation will be the interaction between Asian societies increasingly confident of their achievements, prerogatives, and power, and Westerners increasingly nervous on the same score. Patrick Smith’s decades of immersion in the variety of Asian life give him an original, elegantly wrought, and important perspective on this change. Even when I disagreed with his conclusions I found myself thinking about the rich and careful way he makes his case. I am very glad to have read this book.”
—James Fallows, author of Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China

“Searching and philosophical…offers a valuable intellectual frame for approaching the evolving relationship between the East and the West.”
—Publishers Weekly

"Thoroughly absorbing…The writing is more poetic in tone than political, a gentle hand-holding, guiding readers from past to present." –Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Written from the perspective of an author that travels the world in search of something and comes back with just as many questions as he might have found answers…Kudos to Patrick for this. It's definitely a book for the history books.” –Cyrus Webb, host of Conversations LIVE! Radio

An extraordinary work whose thesis is grounded in the realities of day-to-day Asian life…Somebody Else’s Century is worth reading, particularly for those interested in East Asian studies.” –Harvard Political Review

“Thoughtful…this volume is concise, lucid, erudite, lively and a delight to read.” –The Asian Review of Books
“Insightful.” –South China Morning Post

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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 conversation with the same variety. We talked about Chinese ideograms and yin and yang, the New Culture Movement of the 1920s and Mao. My friend’s friend, an older man with gray stubble and a brittle physique, was named Joe Poon. At one point I asked him about the various kinds of nostalgia I find during travels in China. These fascinate me: There is Shanghai nostalgia, Xi’an nostalgia, Beijing nostalgia, Suzhou nostalgia, nostalgia for the 1920s, the 1950s, the nineteenth century; nos­talgia for Ming, nostalgia for Sung. Each version has implicitly within it an idea of how China should be and a critique of how it is. Nostalgia is a subject threaded through these essays, as it is a characteristic sentiment among many Asians—if not, indeed, most of them.
“Not too much,” Joe Poon replied. “I don’t see too much of it.”
He thought for a moment. And then: “There’s sentimental nostalgia, which means the past was better than the present. Then there’s rational nostalgia, logical nostalgia, which means the past was logically better than the present.”
“You’ve switched but a single word,” I protested.
At this, Joe Poon piped up. We were headed into what the Japanese would call the honne, the inner truth, of his thinking.
“Let me tell you about village life in China,” Joe Poon began. “You know about the old villages?”
“Well, as a matter—”
“Let me tell you.
“In the Chinese village, there was a mulberry tree. That’s first. Then in the mulberry tree there were silkworms. The silkworms used to drop their droppings into a lake next to the tree. The fish ate the droppings. Then the droppings of the fish settled at the bottom. And then we scooped up the drop­pings of the fish from the lake and . . . How do you say? In the fields . . .”
“Fertilized the fields with the fish droppings. You can’t use human waste unless it is . . . They do something to it first.”
“Processed. So it was an environmental circle. The water was always sweet, the air clean, we had clothes, we had food, there were no divisions of anything within the village. It was a society of conservation, not of consumption. You had the man, the spouse, the household; there was no divorce.”
Joe Poon skipped half a beat and then continued.
“But the Western people came along and introduced what?”
At this, Joe Poon banged his fist on the table—escalating things, I considered, beyond any point of retrieval. I offered no answer.
“Opium,” Joe Poon exclaimed. “Pollution. Consumption.”
There was another pause. Then: “I don’t hate foreigners. I’m just telling you history as if—how do you say?—looking down from the stars.”
Joe Poon seemed to have found a resting place. Our host alternated between glances at me and a search for something in the middle distance he might plausibly stare at for a while.
“Interesting,” I said, and indeed it was. The imagery re minded me of the paintings one sometimes finds on old fans and scrolls. This was Chinese nostalgia and ressentiment, that term we will consider later, in its purest form. China had once been whole and untarnished and its people contented. Then came the West, and all was disrupted.
Everyone, westerner or easterner, has his or her Asia. My companions from Boston had theirs, and the vague dis­appointment that overtook them as they began their travels is standard among first-time arrivals. Joe Poon, emphatically enough, had an Asia: Even if he gave an account “from the stars”—a big-picture account, a bird’s-eye view—he considered it accurate. The Muslims of Calicut had an Asia of their own devising, as did Donald Richie and Mishima. The Chinese, the Japanese, the Indians, all of the societies surrounding these, and then certainly Westerners—we all have our Asias. No place else, not even contentious America, seems to inspire so many ideas as to what it is.
One may work through numerous of these notions. In the course of some years as a correspondent, I have concocted a term intended to counter all our inadequate perspectives (wrong; yes and no; sort of true, sort of not; yes but misleading, and so on). Awkward but to me irreducible, it is written here and there in many notebooks as “AAII,” or, if I was in a scientific mood, “A2I2.” It means simply “Asia as it is,” and it describes a way of seeing—the seeing of things past conventions and commonly held assumptions.
This term is not intended to take on any life of its own beyond its occasional use in these essays. It is not coined to keep pace with the inventions of clever newspaper columnists. It has a use. This comes to an act of subtraction in some cases and in others one of addition. It is meant to suggest that Asia can be modern and still be Asia. It is meant to discourage use­less habits: dropping the modern era as somehow not part of the Asian story, assuming that “Asia” ended when East and West encountered each other and all that followed must some­how be erased. To put this another way, the West is indelibly part of the East—now and as it has been throughout the mod­ern era. This cancels all searches for an uncontaminated Asia, for such a thing cannot be retrieved.
If we are to see Asia as it is, nothing is to be censored—and certainly not blocked out in the manner of, say, the Chinese authorities today. We do not avert our eyes or imagine: A building in Osaka or Madras that looks as if it could stand in Kansas City is a Japanese or an Indian building. We do not paint rural idylls on paper fans (as Joe Poon did), or paint our­selves out of the picture (as my Boston friends did), or move the picture’s frame to exclude part of the canvas (as Calicut’s Muslims did). Above all, we neither mourn nor regret, as my friend Donald Richie did, for there is no more (or less) to mourn or regret in Asia than there is anywhere else. Nor do we think in terms of “nothing left to save.” Mishima was his own Orientalist on his own search for the exotic. It is indefensible, but the great novelist meant it: He took his own life shortly after the conversation Richie recorded in The Japan Journals—we must assume because he believed somewhere within himself that a Japanese life in 1970 was not worth saving.
If it helps give us perspective, we can think in terms of back­ground and foreground. There is the remote past and the recent, and they are both parts of the picture. Above all, we—we Westerners in this case—must dispense with any illusions that we are not within the frame, moving around in the story. Our engagement with the East has been intimate for a century and a half; the foreground has its own history now. There is nothing left in Asia to “come upon” that does not already involve us. There is a strong but useful term to name this condition. Asia is miscegenated, the first portion of the planet that can be so described. To grasp this is to grasp Asia as it is.
By way of richness and variety, it seems to me, all pasts are equal—logically enough and no surprise, since our pasts are one in the end (or at their beginning). If we consider continuity, however, East and West are different. The history of the East is as filled with great events as anyplace else, but Asia does not think in terms of departures. The past is not “another country.” Nothing of it is left behind, however sharp a turn in the road may be. Past and present are indivisible, and events are understood to lie in a long line. The remote past is not so remote as we Westerners assume because of the way we imagine our own past has unrolled—momentously, discontinuously, often abruptly. “It’s history” cannot have in Asia the dismissive ring it has for Americans.
Asia took on Western habits in matters of chronology during the modern era. But they were superimposed, and the old notion of time’s flow and fluidity has always remained beneath the surface. The past is still the way one understands, and sometimes defines and determines, the present. It is now generally accepted that Mao, who condemned the Confucian classics before the great, broad masses, spent evenings reading them for guidance as to how a proper ruler rules. Ask an Indian about the religious strife in Gujarat, the Indian state where South and West Asia have touched and mingled for millennia, and you are likely to get back an account of things that begins with a Hindu temple that was sacked in 1026, or with a sixteenth-century mosque in the north of India that was burned in 1992 because, the arsonists believed, there had been a temple there before it. This is “social memory,” and it is made more powerful in Asia precisely because so much that is modern has been placed atop it.
Animosities between Hindus and Muslims notwithstanding, among the notable attributes of the continuous Asian past is how inclusive and absorptive it has tended to be. In this the zamorin’s domain in Calicut was nothing exceptional. Da Gama, by contemporary accounts, was welcomed with extrava­gant ceremony when the sailor’s entourage, passing through throngs of cheering onlookers, reached the royal court. It was eight days after those heavy boots hit the sand, and already da Gama was part of Asia—Asia as it is (or was then). He was hardly the first Westerner to set foot in the East, but, yes, something new entered the frame when he did. At that moment there was a very considerable departure. This had to do with da Gama’s choices, how he determined to manage things, which in turn reflected material advances Asia had not yet made. Nothing more. And beneath the commotion, things fundamental remained as they were.
Asia as it is, then: To be part of it has nothing to do with skin color, the shape of one’s eyes, shophouses, strong family ties—and still less with anything so modern as national frontiers, which do not come naturally to Asians and often sit awkwardly upon their lands and seas. Nothing so fixed comes into it. Bet­ter to think of a large part of the planet in constant flux, a part that is by definition without definition: The “as it is” is always changing. Fixedness, our new century will require us to recognize, is a Western trope.
China—in many minds (including Chinese minds) that most fixed and homogeneous of domains—is worth a moment’s con­sideration. Ai Weiwei, the noted artist, once began a conversa­tion with the observation that if we are going to think about China, we need to decide which one we mean. Han China (which was in fact rather small)? Tang China (which extended far out west)? Manchu China (the China of the Qing, which collapsed in 1911)? They were all different. None of what is now “southern China” was China until nearly 1700, not quite a century and a half after Francis Xavier made landfall (and then died) in Shangchuan, a part of not-yet-China. The China we mean when we say “China” today, with its reluctant Tibetans and Uighurs, is but a half century old. It is a China. The in-built myopia of the living: We—we, all of us—will have to overcome it if we are to understand and situate ourselves.
“It is plural, it is fragmented, it is disrupted. Some of its ‘traditions’ died a long time ago. Others have persisted in ‘medi­ated’ form, in Western and Eastern minds alike.”
I was in a conversation with a retired Harvard professor named Lee Ou-fan, we were both living in Hong Kong, and our subject was China. But all Lee said can as well apply to all of Asia, and I do not doubt he would accept this as so.
There is plenty of background and foreground in the professor’s account. This is natural: To distinguish between the two is the way we look at and understand pictures. But the distinction is in our minds, not on any canvas, and so it is with Asia. In the end, there is not so much difference as we might think between what lies deep in the past and what lies just behind us or before us. The inclusiveness of Asia’s past—the Syrian Christians, the Venetians, and all the others on our list—is not much different from the inclusiveness of the present (which includes us Westerners). So we can make use of the aesthetic habit of seeing background and foreground, but then we must put it aside for the sake of seeing the whole.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

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.

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