The concept of “Asia” in modern China
The concept of “Asia” in modern China
some reflections starting with the 2007 Shanghai cultural conference
Two years ago, we held a conference on “conditions of knowledge” for the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies annual symposium at Shanghai University. (Many people here today were in attendance.) It was the largest Inter-Asia Cultural Studies event in Shanghai (and China) ever.
The topic was deliberately vague, chosen for security reasons. There was, however, another reason why we wanted to keep it vague and broad: we wanted to incorporate more people in this conference. In mainland China, “cultural studies” is a relatively new phenomenon of less than ten years history. “Inter-Asia” is even more foreign to the people. Since year 2000, some Korean scholars (first) and Japanese and Chinese scholars have begun organizing modes of exchanging thoughts and ideas that were based on the concept of a core “Northeast Asia.” However, compared to the Japanese and Korean scholars, Chinese scholars have not responded enthusiastically to these events. If that is the state of “Northeast Asia” as a discourse, the fate of the concept of “Inter-Asia” has been worse. In the past ten years, “going global” has become a buzzword in Chinese universities, but the “global” in the phrase refers mainly to Europe and America (to some degree to Japan as well). When we applied to Shanghai University for funding for the conference last time, for example, we emphasized that we invited “many” “European and American scholars outside Asia” to attend the conference. In reality what we did was the opposite: in order to accommodate more scholars from within Asia, we turned down applications from Europe and America. In fact, when we began preparing the event in 2006, the main concern of the organizing committee was actually the lack of representation of the Chinese scholarly community, but it was not a concern that we could openly discuss with outsiders.
As it turned out, the situation was better than we anticipated. There were many applications from Chinese scholars, although many were not able to come in the end due to financial reasons. The problem still persisted. The majority of applicants were younger people, usually Ph.D. students. Very few senior scholars applied to the conference. This is not the case when we hold conferences on topics such as Chinese literature or contemporary Chinese culture, in which case we typically get many senior scholars who are interested in the event. When you propose a conference on “Inter-Asia,” even local scholars in Shanghai are not interested. At best they send their students to attend. An interesting phenomenon ensued: among the four hundred people who attended the conference, overseas participants took up about three hundred. Fewer than one hundred people were from mainland China. In terms of age and rank, the overseas scholars were on the average more senior than the local ones.
Why was that a problem? You might think that Ph.D. students represent the future, and younger scholars are promising assets to the future of cultural studies and the Inter-Asia movement. To me, however, this conference revealed much about what was insufficient and ill about mainstream intellectual society in mainland China today. To put it simply, most people in the Chinese intellectual community only cared about Chinese affairs; they lack interest in anything outside China and lack a global vision. If they know and care about anything outside China, it is limited to the so-called “modern” nations: the US, western Europe, Japan, and possibly Russia.
Compared to ten years ago, this problem has not been improved. On the contrary, it has become worse. Ten years ago, the economic boom made China “bigger and bigger.” The feeling that “we are a major nation” began to rise. An inflated ego directed people’s attention to “other big countries,” while the “small countries” became increasingly invisible. If they were visible at all, they were viewed from the viewpoint of a “big country.” While people were “looking at” Asia, they were “thinking of” America. Under these conditions, the Chinese (intellectuals included) articulated a form of “global awareness” that was in reality the expansion of the dominant Western countries on their consciousness and the contraction of the lesser countries on the map. You would be surprised how many people in Chinese share this view. They do not openly acknowledge it, because they know it is not politically correct, but deep inside, that’s how they see things.
My comments today will address the discourse of “Asia” in early Chinese (1820-1920) intellectual thought. From the brief examples I offer you should be able to see the broad contours of this discourse.
Chinese modern thought was formed by the invasion of the West. Chinese modern thought therefore had a unique characteristic: it was the viewpoint of the oppressed. Chinese intellectuals during this period typically bore a lot of doubts towards the modern world: you can beat someone up just because they are backward? Yang Du said, “This is a barbaric world dominated by civilized countries.” The statement captures the common sentiment of the time.
In terms of culture, history, population, and territory, China is an enormous country. During that period, the Chinese too developed a big ego. Although they adopted a victim mentality, they did not immediately think of themselves as slaves to the West, as in, “since this is about the survival of the fittest, I will follow whoever is strong, and connect with him and share his power.” Instead, the preoccupations of early Chinese thinkers were: “How do we change this barbaric world and make it truly civilized?” Many of these thinkers advocated Western learning because they were interested in reform and revolution. Reforming China was a prerequisite for changing the world.
This was the basis of the concept of “Asia” during this generation.
The earliest part of this discourse was the recognition that China shared much with the neighboring countries, and had great needs to connect with them, due to their common experience of oppression by the West. The earliest proponent of this view was Wang Tao. In the 1870s, he wrote several essays on “the situation of Asia.” His “Asia” included present-day Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. He paid special attention to the relation between Japan and China and discussed it in several essays. His core idea was that Japan was the last fortress against Western invasion in Asia. Only if the two countries worked together could Asia escape the fate of complete colonization by the West. He criticized the discourse of “exit Asia and enter Europe” in post-Meiji Japan, which, as he saw he, was bound to be disastrous.
In 1924, Sun Yatsen presented his “Great Asianism” in Kobe, arguing that Asia should belong to Asians. He asked the Japanese whether they wanted to be an attack dog of the imperial West, or a fortress in Asia. His basic line of thought belonged to Wang Tao.
From today’s perspective, Wang Tao’s Asian discourse had its limits. Perceptive as it was, it was not much of an advance on the traditional theory of international relations based on national interests and conflicts that we already had since the Warring States period.
The first modern discourse of Asia was developed by Zhang Taiyan. In the years between 1890 and 1900, an increasing number of Chinese intellectuals began to compare China to other invaded countries in Asia, such as Persia, India, Turkey, Vietnam, not to mention Korea and Ryukyu. In this context, more and more Chinese believed in the shared fate between these countries. Zhang developed a complex theory of Asia based on this recognition. Around the 1911 Revolution, he presented his theory in a number of published articles. The basic arguments were: 1. China should develop a peaceful tradition that is superior to the immoral West. 2. China cannot think about its own national interests alone. It has a responsibility to the world and the emancipation of mankind. 3. China has a moral obligation to assist other Asian countries and emancipate the oppressed people in Asia. 4. If someone uses the rhetoric of collective emancipation to advance the particularistic interests of China, that person should be treated as the common enemy of mankind.
Here I will not go into the topic of the transformation of Zhang’s concept of Asia (he, too, started with a Wang Tao-type of position). Neither do I have time to discuss the concepts of “China” and “the world” behind Zhang’s “Asia.” Suffice it to say that Zhang’s utopian concept of Asia was widely accepted by intellectuals of his generation. The obvious examples include Liang Qichao since the 1890s, and Sun Yatsen in the 1920s. The objective of Chinese nationalism should not be the liberation of China, but the liberation of the world, which had to begin with the emancipation of the people of Asia.
Two particularities formed the basis of this concept of Asia. 1. Asia was not just a region. It was also a situation, a shared experience of oppression and colonization. Therefore, once Japan became an aggressor and a colonizer, it was excluded from this definition of Asia. 2. The emancipation of China and the emancipation of Asia were one and the same. What was considered of interest to the Chinese nation should be applied to the world as well. Domestic policy and international relations should follow the same principles. In today’s language, we would say that this discourse of Asia enjoyed a certain degree of flexibility. It was applied to the world and to a particular nation (China) at the same time.
Another example was Li Dazhao, who published three essays between 1917-19: “Asianism,” “Asianism and new Asianism,” and “New Asianism again.” In his work he presented China’s self-liberation and the emancipation of Asia (national self-consciousness and equality) as each other’s precondition. At the same time, the emancipation of Asia was a march towards global revolution (“the triumph of the proletariat”).
At this point, we reached the third stage of the discourse of Asia, which was a Marxist analysis of the region in terms of class struggle. The earliest literature in this tradition was Liu Shipei’s 1907 Contemporary Trends in Asia. Liu made two new points. First, his analysis of Asia was not centered on China, but on Asia itself. He began by talking about India, Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines . . . His perspective was based on the relationship between Asia and the world. Second, he was not looking at individual nations. Rather, he was analyzing the situation in terms of the relation between oppressor and the oppressed. Accordingly, there were two Asias in his thinking: an Asia dominated by imperialism, and an Asia characterized by oppression. In both Asias, there was furthermore a distinction between the government and the people. Class and class struggle provided the dominant terms for his analysis.
There were many critics who followed Liu Shipei’s line of thought, such as Yang Du (who distinguished between class struggles within a nation, and between nations) and Liang Qichao (who differentiated between the world capitalist class and the world proletariat). Li Dazhao’s “New Asianism” was an even more obvious example.
After 1920, Marxism was widely disseminated in China, and “international revolution” became a commonly used term for both the Nationalist and the Communist Parties. Liu Shipei’s “Asia” became a more developed concept. However, the more developed and politicized this concept became, the more tenuous its relation to the region it represented. As a result, “Asia” was replaced by other metaphors for oppression. In the 1950s, the Communist Party proposed the term of “Asia-Africa-Latin America” as a common region. In the 1970s, Mao developed a discourse of Third-Worldism. “Asia” was no longer the operative term. However, Mao’s “Third World” should be viewed as a logical descendant of Liu’s “Asia.”
“Asia” was both a concept and a practice. In the early modern period, the Chinese had intensive interactions with other communities and peoples in Asia, which included commerce, but even more importantly, political and cultural exchanges. Kang Youwei, for example, wrote his Great Unity in India. Sun Yatsen formed the Chinese United League in Japan. Ai Wu’s exile sent him from Kunming to Yangon in Myanmar. Yu Dafu also lost his life in Kuala Lumpur. Countless Asians from other countries participated in the Chinese revolutions in the early twentieth century. Countless Chinese participated in overseas revolutions in other Asian countries. I recently read a memoir, in which a young Chinese man recounts his secret experiences in the Burmese Communist Party in 1968. He spent more than ten years there. Finally, he returned to China as a stowaway. In one of the stories, he mentions that he brought two books with him to Myanmar: Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Ai Wu’s To the South. The unofficial estimate is that there were thousands of Chinese men who went to participate in the guerilla warfare of the Burmese Communist Party in the 1960s. I will not comment on this figure, since we don’t have enough historical records, but the details recounted in the memoir show us that this event might have an important connection to the concept of Asia proposed by early Chinese intellectuals.
Today’s situation is completely different. The interactions between the Chinese and other Asians have indeed increased quantitatively. Most of these interactions, however, are economic. Even in the case of the exchange students, most of them are motivated by survival, which is another form of investment, another business deal one could make with one’s environment. The more profit-driven these exchanges are, the faster they are. This trend is reflected in language and literature as well. Very few people in China today are trained in other Asian languages. In early twentieth century, since Lu Xun and Zhou Zuoren’s translations of Stories from Afar, the Chinese have always made an effort to make the literatures of other Asian cultures available to the Chinese. In the 1950s and 60s, more translations based on the original language (and not English) were produced by experts in other Asian languages. Today, very few people are interested in learning Asian languages other than Japanese. Even for those who study Japanese, very few become experts. Translations and introductions of other Asian literatures based on the original language are fewer and fewer. This has become a vicious cycle. As long as people focus on economic benefits, they are unlikely to be motivated to learn other Asian languages. As long as they do not learn those languages, they are unlikely to know anything about these countries, which in turn decrease their interest. Misunderstandings arise between China and other Asian countries. Compared to the early twentieth century, today the Chinese have a much weaker understanding of India, despite the fact that the economic ties between these two countries have been strengthened.
In short, whether in thought or action, today the connections between the Chinese and other Asians are much more tenuous than they were in the early twentieth century. My comments earlier on contemporary Chinese intellectuals’ common lack of interest in and understanding of Northeast Asia and Inter-Asia describe this phenomenon.
There are many factors that contributed to this phenomenon, and it is difficult to summarize them. I will conclude with two remarks: 1. We have to create a new movement to alter this trend. 2. This is not to be accomplished in a social vacuum or invented out of thin air. Rather, we have many resources from the early modern period in China that can help us build up a concept of “Asia.”
Shanghai, April 2009