Asia as an Asian Intellectual Project

Does Asia Exist?

In 1963, provoked by the appearance of yet another Western book questioning the validity of Asia as a meaningful label for such a vast and diverse space, Indian journalist Romesh Thapar regarded the question of Asia’s existence with understandable indignation. But Thapar did concede that the ‘‘image’’ of Asia is ‘‘blurred.’’ ‘‘Yet if we act with good sense,’’ he continued, ‘‘it is possible to salvage the best of what is essentially our common heritage.’’ While it may be possible to deconstruct Asia as a mere invention, and a convenience of Eurocentric epistemologies, the term has also expressed a profound geography of hope among many Asians themselves. This hope has at times been conceived in terms that still privilege ‘the West’ as the key historical agent, as illustrated here by Dick Wilson in Asia Awakes (1970): ‘‘The wounds of Western imperialism still throb in the minds of Asians, and the idea of an Asian community, an Asian coherence, remains a favorite medicine to stifle the pain.’’ Such a view risks the assumption that whereas Asians are busy trying to build the impossible (an ‘Asian coherence’) we in the West now know better. If Asia is to be appreciated as an ongoing project of dialog, negotiation, and struggle within a global system of intellectual, cultural, economic, and political change, Asian engagement with this project deserves a more thorough treatment. This section will discuss the challenges of Asian appropriations of Western conceptions of Asia, while the following section will take up the issue of alternative conceptions advanced as explicitly non Western versions of Asian identity.

Putting Asia into ‘World History’

Wang Hui (2005) has argued that the Asian idea in Asia is conditioned by two opposing historical processes: Japanese colonialism and Asian nationalist–socialist liberation movements. By the late 1960s, Western observers were viewing socialism as the very ‘Asian coherence’ sought by the likes of Romesh Thapar. For many of them, like Gunnar Myrdal, socialism only reconfirmed an Asia mired in despotism. But for others, socialism marked the culmination of Asia’s integration into world history and united the continent’s distinct cultural subregions like never before. For many Asian nationalists and intellectuals, however, the revolutionary potential of socialism was tempered by the problem of adopting a conception of Asia which was based largely on European ignorance. That is, the idea of an ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ required significant reconfiguration in order to explain what Asian intellectuals insisted on accounting for: Asia had indeed undergone significant change in the context of ‘world history’. How then would socialists reconcile an idea that presumed an Asia ‘outside history’ with the need for an historical materialist understanding of Asian history that justified socialism as the inevitable outcome of historical progress in Asia itself ?

A common response to this problem was to delimit the Asiatic Mode to a specific period of Asian history, one which had long since been left behind, but which still lingered in various forms of class based oppression. Using Marx’s own derivation of linear history – culled from the nineteenth-century evolutionary theories of Lewis Henry Morgan and E.B. Tylor – leftists in Asia tended to locate the Asiatic Mode in ancient primitivecommunal, slave owning, or early feudal societies. This enabled a rejection of the idea of Asia as unchanging without questioning the rightness of Marxist politics. And the acknowledgment of the Asiatic Mode’s existence was strategic for revolutionaries who saw in the imperial state systems of Japan and China its oppressive vestiges. Others saw the Asiatic Mode lurking in the countryside, claiming that real change in Asia only came in the form of industrial urbanization and urban based revolution. Asking why such a clumsy and ambiguous idea as the Asiatic Mode gained such attention in Asia at all, Fogel argued that there was a need for the ‘‘ontological security’’ of historical materialism as a foundation for an incipient narrative of national identity as well as a pan Asian commonality that could not otherwise be found.

Another significant appropriation among Asians is the idea of Asia as an essentially spiritual identity. More than historical materialism, the idea of Asia as the birthplace of the world’s great religions, and of Asia as still harboring a spiritual essence lost in the secularism of the modern West, has been a resource for dreams of a pan Asian community. Thus, Okakura Kakuzo wrote that ‘‘Asia is one.’’ The divisions of physical geography that separated Asia’s distinct cultural regions cannot, he continued, ‘‘interrupt for one moment the broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal, which is the common thought of every Asiatic race.’’ Rabindranath Tagore evoked Asia as a primarily ‘‘spiritual civilization,’’ and Swami Vivekananda reserved for Asia a monopoly on the spiritual contributions to world history. It is significant to point out here that such pronouncements effectively turned European conceptions of Asia as (inferior) ‘other’ on their heads. Okakura thus contrasted Asia’s pursuit of Universal Truth with a narrow European preoccupation with the Particular. And Vivekananda contrasted Asia’s spiritual contributions with Europe’s political and scientific contributions. Such articulations, of course, offered little in the way of alternatives to the categories – ‘secular’, ‘spiritual’, ‘science’, ‘religion’, and so on – whose dominant discursive forms were themselves the product of European modernity, colonialism, and imperialism.

Postcolonial Asia

It is precisely this conundrum that has come to define Asian postcolonial projects. Recognizing that the very categories of modern scholarship are the products of a particular historical and geographical context, post colonial scholarship has been committed to engaging the universals of modernity – citizenship, state, civil society, public sphere, human rights, equality, the individual, the subject, democracy, popular sovereignty, social justice, rationality – in a way that acknowledges the specific context of their origins and subjects them to sustained interrogation and critique rather than merely turning them on their head. Central to this project has been, not surprisingly, a rethinking of Asia as a space of difference, and a rethinking of Asian history not as occupying a particular place in a (European dominated) world history, but as something representing more than a static past buried under the onslaught of modernity. Chakrabarty puts it this way: ‘‘One result of European colonial rule in South Asia is that the intellectual traditions once unbroken and alive in Sanskrit or Persian or Arabic are now only matters of historical research for most – perhaps all – modern social scientists in the region. They treat these traditions as truly dead, as history.’’ European traditions, by contrast, are never dead in quite the same way.

While the intellectual project of postcolonialism thus raises questions about the universal presumptions of an epistemology which conceived Asia as a mirror for European conceptions of the world, on a political level, postcolonialism represents, in the words of Kishore Mahbubani, ‘‘an effort [by Asians] to define their own personal, social, and national identities that enhances their sense of self esteem in a world in which their immediate ancestors had subconsciously accepted the fact that they were lesser beings in theWestern universe.’’ It is in this context that the political discourse of ‘Asian values’ or ‘the Asian way’ may be viewed. In March 1993 an Asian Summit was held in Bangkok to determine specifically Asian approaches to human rights. It was concluded that there was no single definition of human rights either within Asia or the wider world. This reflected a broader postcolonial project of reconfiguring universal values as local, fragmented, and particular. This discourse marks an effort to not simply appropriate and invert Eurocentric thinking about Asia, but to re imagine Asia as a viable alternative to the West. Such an effort has accompanied the rising economic power of Asian states as well as the eclipsing of Cold War geopolitics by globalization as the dominant reference point for asserting the existence of Asia as a coherent space of some kind.