Asia as Other

What is Asia?

As Edward Said observed in Orientalism (1978), Asia has played a crucial role in the stories Europe has told about itself. It has done so by always occupying the other side of Europe in a set of binary couplets: rational–emotional, reason–faith, analytical–aesthetic, and so on. Perhaps the two pairings among these which have had the most purchase have been secular–spiritual, and democratic–despotic. Discourses of Asian spirituality and despotism have long served to make Western secularism and democratic freedoms knowable. It is often noted that all of the world’s major religions originated in Asia, and while this bestows Asia with great historical significance, religion has been often viewed as a challenge to be overcome if Asia is to achieve a kind of rational modernity on par with the West. Spirituality then becomes a sort of pathology, this being a perspective seen, for example, in Paul Masson Oursel’s La Pensee en Orient (1949), in which he wrote that the Asian is ‘‘above all homo religiosus.’’ At the same time, however, Asia has long been looked to as a repository of spiritual values long lost in the West, with James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933) offering perhaps the most famous example of this.

The theme of ‘oriental despotism’ has an even deeper genealogy in European thought, dating at least to Herodotus. Aristotle wrote of Asian despotism in Politics, and these ideas were reintroduced into Europe when Politics was translated into Latin in the thirteenth century. Later, Montesquieu compared French absolutism to the despotism of Asia, and as the modern European state developed, Asia was increasingly regarded as the example of everything backward and despotic that European states would liberate their people from. Perhaps the most well known articulation of Asian despotism comes from the Marxist idea of an ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ and the ‘hydraulic civilizations’ thesis it inspired. This will be covered in greater depth in a later section. But here it should be noted that an important element of Asian despotism is its link to environmental determinism. Despotism was, according to this thinking, a necessary result of large scale water control projects for irrigated agricultural production. Whereas Europe’s environment was generally seen as offering a series of possible options for human engagement and modification, Asia’s was viewed as offering only one possible outcome, and that was centralized, authoritarian, and despotic rule.

Where is Asia?

Given Asia’s role as a representational foil in the develpment of European thinking about the meaning of ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’, the boundaries of Asia itself have always been ambiguous. There are a number of different claims advanced regarding the origin of the term. Some argue that it derives from the Greek asu, meaning ‘sunrise’. But it also possibly derives from the term used by the Hittites in the second millennium BCE for the area where they lived, that is, Anatolia. Toynbee noted that it was Greek mariners who first used the terms ‘Europa’ and ‘Asia’ to describe the lands on either side of the Aegean Dardanelles Bosporus divide. More to the point, perhaps was Toynbee’s observation that the Greeks themselves spanned this divide, but used the term to mark the inferiority of their Ionian kin who suffered the influence of the Persians on the east side of the divide. Still, Toynbee points out, there remained confusion among the Greeks about whether they were ‘European’ or not, with Aristotle, for example, arguing that Greece lay in between Europe and Asia.

In The Myth of Continents (1997), Lewis and Wigen note that the Romans generally maintained the Greek convention of equating Asia with Anatolia. But they point out that as cartographic skills and geographical knowledge expanded in Europe, the convention of dividing Europe from Asia along the divide established by the Greeks, which extended through the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, and up the Don River, was increasingly questioned. Strahlenberg proposed the Ural Mountains as an alternative boundary and this was supported by Russian intellectuals eager to link Peter the Great’s modernization program with Europe while marking Siberia as Asian and thus subject to colonization and exploitation. Here the boundary has essentially remained, although it is interesting to note that Soviet cartographers put the boundary just east of the Urals.

When is Asia?

Perhaps more significant than the precise geographical demarcation separating Asia from Europe is the role of Asia in European conceptions of history. Dipesh Chakrabarty has observed in Provincializing Europe (2000) that European historicism made modernity and capitalism seem global, by making them seem to become global ‘over time’, originating in Europe and then spreading to the rest of the world. Fabian (1983) has called this move ‘‘the denial of coevalness,’’ and it follows from the idea that whereas the West is dynamic and progressing, Asia is static and despotic. For Hegel, Asia lay ‘outside history’. Herder saw no historical progress but only static unchanging civilization, and John Stuart Mill equated Asia with the unchanging village. Such a view was conveyed as late as 1965, when Romein wrote in The Asian Century, ‘‘Thus lived the Asian masses, generation after generation, century after century, living in AD 1500 just as they had lived in 1500 BC, uncoveting, undesiring, and so renouncing the effort to gain an existence worthy of a human being.’’ To the extent that change did occur, it was viewed as the ‘surface storms’ of rebellion and upheavals among elites that never reached into the calm depths of agrarian society.

Indeed, the agrarian nature of Asian society – in which ‘the peasant’ was viewed as the ultimate organic unit of a deep rooted social structure – suggested an Asia governed by the rhythms of the natural world, rather than the linear progression of history. For Hegel, this quality placed Asia at the very beginning of history. And to the extent that historical change was acknowledged, for example, in the development of religions such as Hinduism or Islam, it remained limited to the specific cultural subregions of Asia and not connected with ‘world history’. History with a capital H, bringing Asia as a coherent space into existence and into the world, arrives only with European trade, colonialism, and imperialism. The European conception of Asia as an organic extension of its environment yet unable to act upon and ‘conquer’ that environment found its most well known expression in the concept of an ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’. This term defined, in a very general sense, an agrarian system of centralized social control necessitated by intensive agricultural production and immune to the social disruptions that produce dynamic historical change. And while it was elevated to the level of scientific truth and promoted as late as the 1950s in the work of Karl Wittfogel, the Asiatic Mode essentially reflected both Europe’s eighteenth and nineteenth-century ignorance of Asian society as well as Europe’s ongoing need to use an invented conception of Asia as unchanging and despotic to mark itself as dynamic and liberal.

It was Marx who articulated the idea of an Asiatic Mode most clearly. Working with received notions of Asia as stagnant, he saw a distinctive pattern in Asia’s lack of private property in land, large scale irrigation works, and omnipotent states. In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx mentioned the Asiatic Mode as one of four major societal formations, in which the village was the primary social unit, land was held communally, and social organization was conditioned by large scale irrigation works that required centralized authoritarian control. This explained the predominance of despotism and meant that local societies lacked autonomy. But Marx characteristically devoted scant analytical attention to the concept, and indeed seems to have contradicted some of its tenets in his other work (i.e., his celebration of China’s Taiping Rebellion). The Asiatic Mode is significant less because of its ignorance of the specifics of Asian societies (most of its assumptions about, for instance, private property and the lack of local autonomy are incorrect) and more as a conception that allowed enormous parts of the world to be brought into Marxist conceptions of world history. It thus explained Asia’s lack of history in the only way such a lack could be explained from a European perspective.

It is in this context that Asia has also inspired a belief that upon entering the stream of world history, a ‘slumbering dragon’ would awaken from the ‘stupor of tradition’ and become, finally, a force to be reckoned with. From a Western perspective, Asia has experienced any number of ‘awakenings’, including Japan’s early twentieth century victory over Russia, China’s post Mao economic reforms, and Central Asia’s rebirth in the post Soviet era.

Asia Area Studies

A final chapter of Asia’s construction as ‘other’ comes in the form of post war area studies in United States academic institutions. The study of Asia in the US has always been closely linked to its geopolitical significance, particularly during the years separating World War II and the Vietnam War. But US defeat in Vietnam and the normalization of diplomatic relations with China meant the relative eclipse of Asia Pacific as a geopolitical priority by concerns over its integration into the global economy. As a result, the study of Asia has experienced some significant readjustment to account for the transnational border crossing impulse of a new so called ‘Pacific Century’. Once a key battleground for Cold War geopolitics, Asia was reconfigured as an emerging market and key hub of globalization.

One result of this shift has been a questioning of the territorial basis for our understanding of Asia. Given the problems of defining the continent’s boundaries, there have been proposals for a more maritime oriented understanding of Asia as merely part of a broader network of connection across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. One example is Sugata Bose’s history of the Indian Ocean, A Hundred Horizons (2006). Another is the recent ‘Oceans Connect’ project at Duke University, funded by the Ford Foundation’s ‘Crossing Borders: Revitalizing Area Studies’ initiative. Similarly, in a recent Association of Asian Studies Presidential Address, Barbara Andaya argued that, ‘‘If we insist that the sea and those who live with the sea deserve a more prominent place in the study of Asia ythis framework will go a long way toward overcoming the confines of so called area studies while redressing the scholarly preoccupation with land based societies that has so informed the presentation of Asian cultures’’ (Andaya, 2006: 669–690).

Yet while the area studies tradition has thus been moving toward a much more interregional understanding of Asia as more of a node in an ever changing network of connections, it is perhaps premature to assume that a geopolitical interest in territorial based understandings of Asia died with the military fortunes of the United States in Vietnam. The profoundly ironic ‘end of history’ celebrated by Francis Fukiyama was replaced by the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’, with Asia, once again, emerging as a key battleground. There remains great interest in United States area studies scholarship in coming to terms with Asia (particularly Islamic Asia) as a cultural–religious phenomenon, and a place still in need of secular modernity and democracy.