Monday, October 5, 2020

JJ's "East Asian Studies Project"

I want to introduce here some important scholarly work that I have been engaged in for the past three years on a consistent basis. I generally refer to it as my East Asian Studies Project.

My primary focus has been and continues to be China, where a fifth of the world's population lives. It wasn't until I reached my mid-50s that I realized that my knowledge about China was ridiculously superficial. After many years of historical study, I had little more than an introduction to China's immense history and culture, its geography and natural riches, its people[s], their language[s], their pictographic writing, their unique literary tradition, etc. And yet China is everywhere in the world today. It is becoming positively silly to think that we can speak about the world of the 21st century and know nothing about China.

Venturing into China (by way of study), I have also found the need to do justice to the various related peoples of the region, who have their own proud histories, traditions, and languages while also intersecting with China over the course of more than a millennium: the Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Malay, and (to some degree, at least) Mongolian and East Turkic peoples, as well as the diverse minority groups living among these peoples. This is a broad research project that I think is crucial for the 21st century (even though I'm probably too old to do much of it - at least I can point others in its direction). It entails the effort of a Western-educated mind to acquire foundations for appreciating East Asian history and understanding Asian societies in the new directions they are taking today with all their raw and rapid flow of novelty. It also seeks insight into how Asian societies' "new directions" - often drawn from the influence of the West and interestingly adapted - relate to their roots and their future.

I believe we Westerners need to learn a lot in order to grasp the importance of "building bridges" and deepening the dialogue with this universe of peoples, whom we too often stubbornly insist on caricaturing or misunderstanding. We especially need to be able to pay careful attention to what has happened over the course of the past century-or-so in what used to be called "the Far East," and what continues to happen today. 

The multifaceted, complex, and (from a historical point of view) very rapid series of events that continue to tear asunder and reconfigure life on "the other side of the world" cannot be accurately described in a few sentences. But generalizations do serve useful purposes. They can help us "map out" some of the terrain that we must travel through, and give us some perspective on the noteworthy things we might encounter therein. They also help us formulate hypotheses as we go along (hypotheses which, of course, must be tested, refined, or altered according to what we learn from experience). In the increasingly interactive global village we live in, it's all the more important to "get to know" our global "neighbors," to build bridges of mutual understanding, to peacefully coexist (at least) and even collabrate fraternally on common (and urgent) problems the whole village must face, as well as building mutually enriching relationships.

Let me, therefore, start by proposing a few generalizations. Over the past century-or-so, the peoples of East Asian societies (whose identities were long and deeply rooted in ancient "pre-Christian" cultures) have been experiencing the impact of a sudden, widespread, and often traumatic "involvement" with the Western world. It was (and continues to be, even with the emergence of powerful responsive and increasingly original reverberations generated by Asians themselves) predominantly a massive and pervasive encounter initiated and precipitated over time by the West. 

Many, many good things have come about as a result: tremendous goods and dimensions of human development that no one would want to reverse. Indeed, the way forward is clearly one of dialogue and integration, rather than disconnection. This point is very important to establish and refer to wherever (and insofar as) it applies to our understanding of one another.

The first thing people would be inclined to point to as an unqualified good is the prolific material prosperity in so many areas of the region today. But I think that "the increase in power over material things" is by itself an ambivalent indicator of the health of a society in its properly human realm: its culture, its awareness of the dignity of the human person, its organic communities and healthy sense of inclusiveness, its pursuit of justice and equity, its governing systems, and its regard for the ultimate meaning of life.

Here we need to examine more closely how the historically "recent" phenomenon of East-West interaction came about. Clearly what made it possible were the (previously unimaginable) developments in the West of technology for rapid, convenient transportation and mass communications, as well as the continued expansion of the industrial revolution and everything that followed from it. Thanks to these unprecedented innovations - which also spurred the invention of the technologically enhanced, mass produced, and powerfully destructive weapons used in the devastating wars of the 20th century - we could say that in a sense the West "collided into" East Asia.

This was an "encounter" that was in many respects violent. Some of the violence was "accidental" (at least, at the beginning) and good intentions abounded that brought forth many good fruits (as we noted above). But in many respects the encounter and subsequent "engagement" was (and continues to be) an upending of Asia extending beyond anyone's intentions or control, a "collision" resulting in many abrupt changes and their often unforeseen consequences, precipitated over the course of a century-or-so by the West. 

The Western world brought its "way of life" haphazardly but rapidly and relentlessly into a very different environment it failed to understand. It overwhelmed many Asian peoples, while others adopted one or another aspect of it and turned it to their own purposes. There were some (but not nearly enough) engagements that took root with patience, flowered through mutual exchanges, and bore fruit in enduring friendship. When this happened (even imperfectly) the results included the emergence of people on both sides - Asian and Western - with a deeper perspective that is much needed in today's global village. They are "bridges" between East and West, and those who express their vision in literature and/or scholarship often do so with remarkable and much-needed appreciation. I am always searching for these people who are "bridges" - not because they build perfect bridges - but because of the helpful insights and perspective their efforts provide. Perhaps I should develop a reading list of authors I have found helpful in my research (some of them have already been featured on this blog).

Having noted these fruitful efforts and the legacy they continue to generate, I want to return to the larger view of "the West-East collision" as a whole. What makes this especially complicated is that it reflects something much more than just an "encouter between two different types of cultures" and the crises resulting from it. Underlying the collision, and in some respects accounting for the confusion and violence it generated, was the tumultuous crisis that had already begun within the Western world itself, and that was destined to increase.

The West arrived in the mid-19th century with the intention of being a benefactor and a master, not simply because of racism, imperialism, or an insufficient education and lack of openness and patience, but also and especially to make money. In the midst of this hurricane there were great goods to share - life-giving water, healing medicines, certain approaches to political and social reform, useful technologies. 

But overall what pounded itself into East Asia - beginning with gunboat diplomacy in the mid-19th century and continuing with a shamelessly-rationalized enormous drug-peddling operation, cultural hegemony, colonialism, the introduction of industrialization, consumerism, all kinds of "modernization," and a flood of "Western ideas" - was not some static, stable form of "Western Civilization." It was a strange combustible, concentrated, chaotic "mashup" of "the West" - with its heritage, traditions, and history of intellectual development mixed together and compressed by the heat of its own great crisis as it plunged (and continues to hurtle at breakneck speed) through its own disconcerting transition from "the epoch of human self-assured rationalistic organization and classification of reality" to the titanic, wildly unpredictable and more evidently ambivalent "post-modern technocratic epoch of power."

You knew I would get to the "epoch of power" eventually. It's the factor that enters into every circumstance of our recent history and current affairs (right down me writing this blog post that in a few moments will be accessible to humans all over the planet).

That, of course, is another topic. It's relevant here because some places in East Asia today (certainly China, Japan, and Korea) appear to be "ahead of" the West in heralding the new epoch of the totalization of technological power. They have grabbed it with both hands and entered into it with lightning speed. They are also exhibiting in vivid ways some of the dangers of the new epoch (China and North Korea come immediately to mind, but the social impact in other societies also bears consideration).

At the same time, the ancient heritage and the sense of life that have shaped peoples in East Asia for millennia have not disappeared. Many antiquated superstitions endure, but so does a great treasury of wisdom - religious, philosophical, cultural, and common-sense wisdom. How much of the best of this human wisdom-tradition remains vital in the lives of people today? How does it "intersect" with the blinding materialism that drives the socioeconomic superstructure of China, with its evolving ideological stew of Marxism-Leninism and Fascism (the worst fallout from the historic collision with the West) and modernized versions of the Chinese "Legalist" or Neoconfucian, "extrinsicist" traditions and the ever-resiliant imperial-bureaucratic governing forms of the past?

That's a big long question. I hope I can learn enough to know how to ask the right questions, and how to listen to people who can shed light on the unpredictable path forward, and the hope for further possibilities of East-West friendship even in the midst of the ongoing whirlwind.