Three well-hewn essays by longtime Asia observer Smith (Japan: A Reinterpretation, 1997, etc.) explore the West’s heavy shadow over Japan, China and India, and new attempts to shake it off.
The author has trekked through these countries asking questions about what is “real” in their cultures and histories and what has been assumed from the West—or, what is often manifested as nostalgia for the old ways, and what emerges as ressentiment (“submerged sensation of impotence”) toward the forcibly new and modern. Since the 19th century, when modernization was introduced in these countries, the Asian self has divided, or “doubled,” into the modern self, which assimilated Western habits and notions of time, and the traditional, which treasured the indigenous and authentic. In “Calligraphy and Clocks,” Smith looks at the blatant effects of Westernization in places such as the village of Kitakyushu, Japan, transformed into a steel town by the postwar “Japanese miracle”; Guangzhou, China, the meeting between China’s past and future, where Deng Xiaoping is quoted as saying, “To get rich is glorious”; and Sandur, India (“the saddest village I have ever seen, though not the poorest by a long way”), where the textile manufacturing so valued by Gandhi has been superseded by mining. The Chinese elemental notions of li (the law of things) and qi (physical matter) have morphed into today’s driving concepts of ti (essence) and yong (function)—a transformation, writes Smith, that provides a key to understanding the Asian mindset. In “The Buddhas at Qixia,” the author examines each country’s manipulation of its past, including Japan’s alienation from nature and China’s amnesia of the Cultural Revolution. Finally, in “The Skyward Garden,” Smith challenges the Western obsession with a nation’s having a purpose, incompatible with Eastern ideals, and suggests rather that each country “will have to imagine itself anew.”
Paradoxes aplenty within this serene, astute book, which will invite much discussion.