Blog Post

Do the East and West Meet at All?

It is the time of the year when students from Asia are applying to universities in the US. More and more ambitious young people from the East are looking to American education and culture, nurturing dreams for a bright future. Ironically, just at the moment when the American dream is in doubt and is fading in the midst of the economic crisis, just when the body politic of liberal democracy is breaking up at the seams, and just when the great books of the West sink to small talks, nasty quarrels, or chicken-soup therapy counsels, Asian students are flocking to what they see as the citadel of human civilization and learning, the American university. While Asian banks are bankrolling the American way of life, fruits of hard-working Asian laborers are filling the shopping malls, Asian students still feel that the old glory still stands firm on its legs and have two centuries of wisdom to offer.

The irony also points the other way. More and more ambitious young Americans are learning Chinese and going to China for knowledge of the future and for business opportunities. Many of my students at Stanford told me how inspired they are by rapid changes and dynamism in China, how they have become fans of Chinese culture and “Asian wisdom.” This recalls the similar American fascination with Asian culture in the past. In the 1930s, Pearl Buck, the American writer and Nobel Laureate, sought to find solid virtue and wisdom in Chinese soil. And in the sixties, hippies turned to Buddhism and Daoism for holistic way to inject a vital shot to an increasingly hollow life.

The irony about Chinese obsession with things American is becoming even more perplexing when the Western media keeps sounding the alarm of China threat, and the American military, by carrot and stick, frequently shows who is the boss in East Asia. But this tour de force does not dampen the Asian-style American dream. It is a truth, eminently repeatable, that Asians always see America with colored, if not broken glasses. In the earlier twentieth century, Asian nations looked to rising powers of the US, after American industry and Western gunboats overpowered the dynastic defense and set their foot inside the half-open door. When one was poor, weak, humiliated, and backward, one naturally looked to the strong and tried to emulate it. Hard firepower was taken to be the result or expression of an inner or soft power called culture. So it is well many people in the defeated China began to take the West, especially America, as their future mirror image, as the springtime of China’s revival. Chinese modernizers and revolutionaries, even in their anti-Western, anti-American moments, were very much enamored and desirous of West’s power, wealth, and technology. To leave behind the wintry, aging China for the springtime of the West, the catchword was “search for wealth and power.” In the revolutionary fervor of industrial Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, the rallying cry was “Surpass British and Overtake America.” All this emulation seems quite understandable when the West did look like springtime, even overripe summer, and was perceived to be robust. The Western essence, its cultural personality, appeared self-assured and masculine for much of the 20th century. The weak and effeminate, dwarfed by the real and imagined Western power, would naturally emulate the strong if they do not want to be crushed by it.

Yet this scramble to catch up with the West happened when the German philosopher Oswald Spengler’s bestselling Decline of the West, with its diagnosis of the prolonged twilight of Western culture, caught the grim mood of the time; when doom and gloom hung over Washing Street in the 1930s, and the killing fields in Europe, Russia, and the Pacific were strewn with millions of corpses of civilians and soldiers; when the nuclear bombs threatened to or wipe out the cities and reduce civilizational glories to rubbles.

In these hard and volatile times, when all sign points to a realization of Mao’s early pronouncement of East Wind prevailing over West Wind, the growing passion for Western civilization a la America seems a puzzling phenomenon. Not only do many American universities suffer crippling budget cuts and overcrowded classrooms. The very structure of knowledge is also questionable. The mainstream economic theories may have been one of the culprits for the financial and economic mess. The political theories are confined to procedural democracy and voting statistics and do not worry about how to build a strong democratic polities of the people, by the people, and for the people. In the social sciences, so much ink and pain is spent on describing the malaises of society with elegant models and with digital accuracy, without visions as to how to transform the sick conditions. In my field of humanities, literary scholars bury their heads in the intricate designs of literary arts, fixate on the body as a place to launch radical performance, like a pop singer, or reinvent the wheel of new topics and fancy proposals without thinking about the humanistic mission of transmitting and studying “the best that has been thought and said.”

What is most puzzling is: When winter comes, can you believe that the spring still remains inside?

Wang Ban is the William Haas Professor in Chinese Studies at Stanford University. He received his Ph.D. in comparative literature at UCLA. In addition to his research on Chinese and comparative literature, he has written on English and French literatures, psychoanalysis, international politics, and cinema. He has been a recipient of research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. He taught at Beijing Foreign Studies University, SUNY-Stony Brook, Harvard University, and Rutgers University before he came to Stanford. His current project is tentatively entitled China and the World: Geopolitics, Aesthetics, and Cosmopolitanism. His interests include modern Chinese literature and film, comparative literature (East and West), aesthetics, intellectual history, psychoanalysis, transnational politics and culture.