The 100-Year Wrong Turn Of The East


For several decades before and after 1900, much of the East was being wholly colonized or (as was the case in China) semi-colonized in a piece-meal fashion by the West.  Proud nations with long and impressive histories found themselves suddenly suffering manifold subjugations, large and small, along with stunning military defeats and their ensuing humiliating treaties, often including agreements to hand-over large chunks of national territory to the victors.

The ongoing crisis of the East was one not just of confidence and prestige it was quickly turning into that worst of all national nightmares– the fear of total defeat, of losing completely all semblance of sovereignty and national identity– of being wiped off the map, and of being erased from pages of future history.

Once Easterners began to realize that these were not just fluke or isolated defeats, but that the barbarians to the West had somehow managed to completely surpass them militarily, technologically, and materially– they groped in the dark for some sort of explanation…  How had this happened? And perhaps more importantly– How can we STOP it?

As I have explored in other posts, the responses to this crisis ran the gamut– from leaders and intellectuals calling for sweeping reforms, to those who called for a return to the virtues of the past.  Reforms suggested ranged from the overthrow of monarchy and the adoption of democratic values, to the creation of a national “spirit”– something more akin to the patriotic feeling that existed in the West’s nation-states; this latter suggestion required, some said, more national uniformity in both language and moral/religious outlook.  Others stressed better education as a way forward, including the education of women– if for no other reason than that women were often in charge of molding the next generation. The Social Darwinism espoused by Spenser and others was also a hot topic of the day, as many felt that the theory applied as well to nations as to individuals or species– that life, everywhere, was a matter of survival of the fittest… and woe unto the vanquished.

The political activist known as Al-Afghani exemplified the reformist outlook in his younger years when he called for the eradication from the East of those “basic evils of fanaticism and political tyranny.”  Citing the authority of the Koran, itself, he warned that “God does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition.”

As Pankaj Mishra writes in his book, From The Ruins Of Empire, the defeat of Russia by Japan in the Russo-Japanse War had a major impact on the collective psyche of the non-European world.  It proved that the “white man” was beatable.  China and other downbeaten countries began to look toward the Land Of The Rising Sun for inspiration, with Japan becoming an intellectual center for the East in much the same way that Paris had long been one for the West.

However, as the 20th Century progressed, the evils of Imperialism began to make themselves more manifest. The Nobel-prize-winning writer Rabindranath Tagore despised much about the Western model of civilization, speaking disdainfully of the “carefully nurtured yet noxious plant of national egoism” that drove the modern nation-state, and the superficial “worshippers of self” who comprised their citizenries, and whose greatest talent was that of being “shrewd bargainers.”

In 1907 Gandhi was rhetorically asking, “is this then the end of the long march of human civilization, his spiritual suicide, this quiet petrification of the soul into matter?”

The Japan which in 1905 had defeated Russia and shone a beacon of hope unto the East, was the same ruthless Imperialist power which, 19 years later, was massacring Koreans by the thousands.

And the Western powers — in spite of all their progress, military-prowess, and high-flying rhetoric– had proven by the mass-slaughter of World War One and the value-betraying Versailles Treaty concluding it that the methods of the West came with their own black bouquet of hellish consequences.

Besides their growing disenchantment with both Japan and the West, some Eastern intellectuals were becoming convinced that their own people were not yet ready for democracy, that they had too long been bred to be subjects, not citizens.  Liang Qichao after visiting San Francisco and witnessing first-hand how the Chinese emigrants were handling life in America, decided– in an about-face of opinion– that “the Chinese people must for now accept authoritarian rule” for they were not adequately prepared for the special tribulations of a society based upon personal liberty and laissez-faire economic principles.  He estimated that, if the re-education of the Chinese began right away, they would be ready for Western-style liberties in maybe fifty years.  “Then we will give them Rousseau to read and speak to them of Washington,” he said.

One outcome of the post-War disenchantment with the West was that modernizers lost their political power along with their enthusiasm, and were pushed aside by reformers possessing different agendas– such as reformers motivated by religious-fundamentalism or the Communist ideal.

I can’t help but wonder…  What would the last hundred years of Eastern history have looked like if that enfeebling disenchantment with Western values had not set-in. Seeing as how the East is now largely hewing to the Western mode of life, one could make the case that the East took a hundred-year “wrong turn” when it turned its back– however understandably– on the Western model, as greatly flawed as it is.

Lastly, Mishra brings-up an interesting perspective when he writes in From The Ruins Of Empire that “for most people in Europe and America, the history of the twentieth century is still largely defined by the two world wars and the long nuclear stand-off with Soviet Communism. But it is now clearer the central event in the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of both Asian and European Empires.”


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