When Virginia Governor George Allen recently attempted to return the curriculum of his state’s public school system to a solid grounding in Western and American history, his plan, greeted with howls of indignation from the National Educational Association and their minions in the state legislature, was soundly defeated. “It would set us back to the 1950’s! It would ignore all we have discovered about how children learn in the last few decades! It would bring us back to Eurocentrism!” And so a popular governor recent!v elected with a solid mandate proved powerless to overcome the entrenched forces of “educators” and “liberal” legislators to restore the European and American tradition to center stage in Virginia’s schools.
Those in professional educational circles who argue for doing away with “Eurocentrism” often point to the undeniable demographic increase in certain classrooms, including those in northern Virginia, of children from widely different ethnic backgrounds. On the level of higher education as well, many of our universities have experienced a dramatic rise in the percentage of foreign (the p.c. term is “international”) students. How ever, it is not the students’ background that determines curriculum but the categories of knowledge and the cultural expectations of the nation in which they are studying. As for the college and graduate students who flock to the United States from all over the world, they overwhelmingly opt to study various sciences, math, and engineering. If they wished to study Hinduism or Islamic civilization or Confucianism, they could obviously do so far more readily in their home countries. (One exception would be Chinese students from mainland China, where the presentation of classical Chinese civilization remains distorted by Marxist ideology.) American schools must teach, along with the basics, what it means to be an American citizen.
A more intellectually serious argument against Governor Allen’s plan was the familiar cry of “multiculturalism.” Underlying the call for a “multicultural” (as opposed to “Eurocentric”) emphasis in education are two dubious claims, which ironically contradict each other; one, that because we in the West have ignored the great achievements of Asia (and other parts of the world as well, but here I am concerned only with the question of Asia), we need to redress this wrong by removing our blinders and fully integrating the history and civilization of Asia into our curricula at all levels; and, two, that whenever we did pay attention to Asia in the past, the West either denigrated or romanticized it. Both “strategies” of the latter were calculated to sanction or perhaps sugarcoat Western domination and even colonization of Asia, the “white man’s burden” of Kipling. This is Edward Said’s concept of “Orientalism,” dramatically argued in his 1978 book of that name.
It is unclear how the West could simultaneously have ignored Asia and studied it in minute detail with an eve to dominating it, but to our current generation of “educators” it does not matter: in the pseudoreligious, psychotherapeutic atmosphere of contemporary educational theory, both of these claims are legitimate and useful because they expose our guilt, which can only be expiated by means of new curricula. And yet the fact is that both these claims are demonstrably false: the first is obviously bogus, but the second, because it is more intellectually sophisticated, requires subtler analysis.
The history of Europe’s interest in Asia is being systematically documented in one of the most ambitious scholarly projects of our time, Asia in the Making of Europe by Donald F. Lach and Edwin J. Van Kley (University of Chicago Press). This multivolume, encyclopedic work began in 1965, and after reaching eight volumes in 1993 is still not completed. Lach intends to carry the story through the 18th century; Raymond Schwab terminates his massive one-volume survey, I’he Oriental Renaissance, one century later in 1880, and includes the growing fascination of Americans with Asia during that period (original French edition published in 1950, English translation in 1984). Anyone consulting either of these sources must emerge persuaded that at least since the 16th century, the West, far from ignoring Asia, was virtually obsessed with it.
In 1809, when William Blake exhibited a number of his drawings and paintings at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square, he included a picture, now lost, entitled “The Brahmins,” and described by him in the “Descriptive Catalogue,” which was distributed free of charge to all visitors, in these terms:
The subject is, Mr. Wilkin [sic] translating the Geeta; an ideal design, suggested by the first publication of that part of the Hindoo Scriptures translated by Mr. Wilkin.
The “Wilkin” of Blake’s lost drawing was in fact Sir Charles Wilkins (1749?-1836), one of the pioneering Western students of India’s ancient classical language, Sanskrit. Wilkins also studied Persian and various Indian vernacular languages. While in India, as a writer for the Fast India Company, he cofounded the Asiatic Society of Bengal with the even more famous Sir William Jones (1746-94), the first scholar to suggest a relationship between Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, an hypothesis which lay the groundwork for the whole enterprise of modern linguistics. Wilkins’ unprecedented translation of the Bhagavad-Gita was published in London in 1785; a Mench translation from Wilkins’ English appeared just two years later. In 1793, Wilkins published “The Story of Sakuntala,” which like the Gita was an excerpt from the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and which formed the basis for the play by Kalidasa, India’s greatest dramatist. Wilkins and Jones were not alone in introducing Indian civilization to Europe; in 1790 the Croatian Filip Vezdin published in Rome the first comprehensive grammar of the Sanskrit language, as recently shown by Branko Franolic in an important study. The labors of such scholars as Wilkins, Jones, and Vezdin made possible the establishment of systematic linguistics in the 19th century, especially in Germany, where the great Max Müller (1823-1900) issued his six-volume translation with commentary of the Rig-Veda, India’s most ancient and important scripture, during the years 1849-73, and edited the monumental Sacred Books of the East from 1875 to 1900. This series, one of the great achievements in the history of Western scholarship, spread knowledge of the classics of ancient Persia, India, and China not only throughout the learned world but to considerable segments of the broad reading public.
The books produced by the scholars inspired popular writers as well, and in America none other than John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92) provided his innumerable readers with what he called “Oriental Maxims,” or “Paraphrase [s] of Sanscrit Translations.” One of these, “Laying Up Treasure (from the Mahabharata),” shows how Whittier saw a common moral code underlying the wisdom of the East and West, a telling contrast to our current “multiculturalists” who take delight in pointing out the differences which they believe enjoin upon us a “tolerance” for moral relativism:
Before the Ender comes, whose charioteer
Is swift or slow Disease, lay up each year
Thy harvests of well-doing, wealth that kings
Nor thieves can take away. When all the things
Thou callest thine, goods, pleasures, honors fall.
Thou in thy virtue shalt survive them all.
But Western interest in the East did not mysteriously appear ex nihilo. Ancient Greek travel-writers such as Mcgasthenes, who is reported to have visited India from 302 to 288 B.C., were already discussing the doctrines of Indian “gymnosophists,” finding parallels between their thought and that of Pythagoras (and thereby establishing the mainstream emphasis on similarities rather than the differences which so exercise our own “multiculturalists”). It was Megasthenes who provided the geographer Strabo with much of his material on India. Writing in 1883, E.H. Bunbury, in his superb History of Ancient Geography, observes that “it is interesting to compare the notices that have been thus preserved to us, with the full knowledge that we now possess of the philosophical and religious systems of the Hindoos I note that Bunbury is already able, in 1883, to speak of ‘full knowledge’]; and it must be admitted that considering the difficulties under which the Greeks must have labored in obtaining such knowledge, their information is singularly correct.” Thus, already in clas.sical antiquity, the West was gathering essentially accurate information about the East.
The great expansion of Western knowledge of Asia, however, must be credited to the Jesuit missionaries who undertook their heroic journeys to India, China, and Japan in the 16th through the 18th centuries. These men truly deserve the appellation “Generation of Giants,” conferred upon them by George Dunne in his excellent 1962 book of that name. Dunne and D.E. Mungello, in Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology (1989), fully document the Herculean labors of such men as Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) in mastering both vernacular and classical Chinese, and in thoroughly immersing themselves in the Chinese Confucian classics and Buddhist scriptures to the level where they could debate Confucian scholars and Buddhist monks on points of abstruse doctrine in Chinese. It was the Jesuits, long before Wilkins and Jones, who provided Europe with the first translations (into Latin, and then from Latin into the various European vernaculars) of the Confucian classics which were to play such a crucial role in the thought of Leibniz, Voltaire et al. To mention only what was probably the single most influential such book, in 1687, Philippe Couplet, S.J. (1622-93) and Prospero Intorcetta (1625-96) coedited and translated Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, which was then rendered from the Latin into English by a certain J. Fraser in 1691 as The Morals of Confucius, a Chinese Philosopher. This book gave the West the first translations of The Confucian Analects—our primary source for the ideas of China’s premier philosopher—The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean (Ezra Pound would try his hand at this last work centuries later). Couplet and Intorcetta also discussed—and provided excerpts from—The Book of Songs, the ancient anthology of poetry considered one of the key books of China. Of this book, they wrote (in Eraser’s English), ‘Tis a collection of Odes. . . . Virtue is there magnified and extolled to the highest degree, and there are so many things expressed after a method so grave and wise, that ’tis impossible not to admire them.”
Like Megasthenes before them, and Whittier after them, the Jesuit authors find an essential commonality of moral code in both the East and West. Their high admiration for the Confucian texts is manifest, their scholarship outstanding.
Did all this interest and learning translate into curriculum? To begin with, as Dunne and Mungello demonstrate, the Jesuit colleges at such places as Coimbra (Portugal) and Rome, to say nothing of those they established at Goa (India) and Macao, initiated training in the languages necessary for missionary work in the respective countries. But it is in the course of the 19th century that the serious study of Asia really starts to enter the curricula of various Western institutions of learning. According to Raymond Schwab, as early as 1805, “the East India Company founded Haileybury College in England for the purpose of training future employees in remote languages.” These included Hindustani, Sanskrit, and Persian. Wilkins was appointed to the faculty Schwab maintains that these classes were conducted “for practical reasons” (he accepts Said’s theory of “Orientalism,” and Said has in fact written a lengthy and rather turgid foreword for the English edition of the book), but it is hard to sec what practical application the study of Sanskrit would have had for “colonial civil servants.” Even here, one senses an element of pure, disinterested scholarly curiosity.
Chairs in various Asian subjects were established at European universities throughout the 19th century. To take only the example of Russia, E. Stuart Kirby, in his history of Russian Studies of China (1975), records that a certain V.P. Vasil’lev (1818-1900) in 1851 was appointed to the first Russian chair of Sinology at Kazan, and four years later to a similar position at St. Petersburg. Russian scholars had been translating the Confucian classics as early as the mid-18th century.
According to The Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan (1983), Japanese studies were being pursued at European universities beginning “early in the 19th century, for example at the University of Paris and the University of Leyden.” As for the United States, Chinese was being taught at Harvard by 1870, and before World War II the discipline had expanded to Columbia, Chicago, California (Berkeley), and Pennsylvania, all institutions that continue to be leaders in the scholarly study of East Asia today (see John Lindbeck’s Understanding China, 1971). A report on Japanese studies issued by the American Council of the institute of Pacific Relations in 1935 found that “25 institutions of higher education offered courses related to Japan and 8 offered some Japanese-language instruction.” Harvard, whose Harvard-Yenching Institute was founded in 1928, already had ten faculty members teaching Japanese subjects alone.
All of this activity naturally resulted in graduate-level research, and Frank J. Shulman, the leading bibliographer of Asian Studies in the world today, has unearthed doctoral dissertations on Japan alone dating back as far as 1877. These include studies of Japanese porcelain manufactories (Columbia, 1880); flower arrangement (Paris, 1896); imperial court poetry (Halle-Wittenberg, 1892); theatrical history (Paris, 1901), to name only a few (Frank J. Shulman, Japan and Korea: An Annotated Bibliography of Doctoral Dissertations in Western Languages 1877-1969, American Library Association, Chicago, 1970).
Far more subtly than those who complain about the West’s “ignorance” of Asia, Edward Said and his generation of intellectuals recognize the long history of Western scholarship on Asia but castigate the West for its hidden agendas, including the desire to justify the subjection of Asia by Western political, economic, and cultural forces—in a word, colonialism. Although Said’s main concern was with the Islamic Orient, his charges have led to much hand-wringing among scholars of East and South Asia as well. And that is a lot of hand-wringing: the latest membership directory of the Association for Asian Studies, the chief professional organization for Asianists, lists close to 8,000 specialists in various Asian subjects!
And yet, at a recent conference on “Religion in Contemporary China” held at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., the leading Western authority on Confucianism in the world today, Wm. Theodore de Bary, publicly and refreshingly stated his disagreement with Said’s view that Western scholarship on Asia has merely served as the handmaiden of imperialism and colonialism. He pointed to the work of James Legge, the late 19th century missionary who, like many before him, came to admire the richness of the Chinese classics; his translations of them, included in The Sacred Books of the East, remain standard sources today. And indeed there can be no question that such admiration, even adulation, motivated the greatest of the Asianists down through the centuries. Couplet and Intorcetta were praising the Confucian classics before the end of the 17th century. The near veneration of Voltaire and other philosophers for these works is well known. Indeed, Voltaire praised Confucius in a poem:
Salutary interpreter of Reason alone,
illuminating minds without dazzling the world,
he spoke only as Sage and never as Prophet:
and yet he was believed, even in his own land!
If anything, it is clear that Voltaire wished to use the East as a club with which to beat the West! It is unmistakable in this poem that Confucius has been transformed into the living embodiment of pure reason, who never attempted prophecy. The real attack here, of course, is on the Church, with its prophetic and supernatural foundations, and thus by projecting his conception of the ideal polity upon China, Voltaire was merely repeating an age-old pattern. As Bunbury noted in 1883, Megasthenes and the other “Greeks were led to form too favorable an estimate of the state of society among the Indians, as well as of their moral character Thus Megasthenes represented the warrior caste as leading a life of perfect ease and enjoyment, when not called upon to go out to war, while the agricultural peasantry pursued their occupations in undisturbed tranquillity. . . . But this tendency to find a kind of Utopian perfection in any form of society widely different from that with which the observer is familiar, is an error of frequent occurrence in all ages. The flattering picture of China by Voltaire is an instance that will readily present itself to the mind of the modern reader.”
Here Bunbury has demonstrated his superior wisdom to that of Said, his realization that far from wishing to dominate Asia, Western admirers of Asia from ancient times to the present (and we might include the “multiculturalists” of today) have wished to make Asia the standard against which the West is to be measured, usually to its detriment, whether that standard be so defined as to uphold the secularized polity dreamed of by the philosophes, to provide an alternative religious vision—as in the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and Henry Steele Olcott (or our own “New Age” aficionados)—or to inspire and sanction the aesthetic, even decadent luxuries dreamed of by Gautier, Baudelaire, or Rimbaud. We have indeed been in danger not of cruelly suppressing the Other, but on the contrary of becoming seduced by the Other, in an intoxicating narrative parallel on a more refined level to that of Heart of Darkness.
In a faculty meeting some years ago at my institution. The George Washington University, there was a lengthy discussion on revising the General Requirements for our undergraduate students. Debate occurred on whether the university should or should not have a “non-Western” requirement. Rising to speak against such a requirement—to the immense surprise of many of my colleagues, as I am a professor of Chinese language and literature—I lamented the fact that when my students read The Peach Blossom Fan, an important Chinese historical drama of the I7th century that dramatizes a range of responses to the traumatic fall of the Ming dynasty to Manchu invaders in 1644, I cannot draw effective comparisons with the historical plays of Shakespeare, because the students have not read them. Nor can I draw comparisons between China’s great historical novel of the 14th century, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the Iliad for the same reason. My plea was this: let us require the students to receive a solid grounding in the great classics of the West and in the entire Western heritage. Our own university and the whole system of higher education of which it forms a part is a product of the West. The academic freedom which allows us to explore the complete range of knowledge is a product of the West. The very enterprise of systematically and dispassionately studying another civilization, while empathetically entering into its aesthetic sensibility, historically has emerged only in the West. If we repudiate a grounding in the West under the influence of a radical egalitarian ideology which holds all cultures to be of equal value and importance, and of equal interest to us, we will undermine the very ground we stand on.
Of course, once that foundation is again solidly established, those who are interested will be encouraged to undertake the challenging, serious study of Asian languages and civilizations. They will then do so, because such study is and has been for centuries part of the noble endeavor of seeking knowledge as an end in itself, always a characteristic of the West, but also because in the course of encountering other religious and philosophical traditions, they will come to realize again, as did Megasthenes in antiquity. Couplet and Intorcetta in the 17th century, Whittier in the 19th, and C.S. Lewis in this century, that there are ultimately “Natural Laws” shared in common, constituting what Lewis calls, in The Abolition of Man, and using a Chinese term, the “Tao,” a universal, normative moral code. Let the problematic of “difference” vs. “sameness” be resolved in favor of “sameness” on this level, and let the “multiculturalists” take note: the sins we commit against our ancestors will be atoned by our children.
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