Edward Said, the impressive Palestinian born American scholar and author of Orientalism, a book of enormous global influence, described the way the western world, in particular its scholars, unconsciously interprets the non-western world.
Essentially it sees that non-western world as if it were one: that is as if China and Japan and India and Iran and Malaysia were homogeneously the same. As well, the attributes of this false unity are taken to be inferior in all ways to that of the West. Instead of the west’s rational secularism, the other is irrationally religious; instead of healthy individualism it is unhealthily communal and collectivist; and instead of an inclination towards a responsible guilt it is shame directed to saving-face. It is in other words the strange Other – and they (the many nations involved) are all the same Other. ‘Orientalism’ is Said’s word for an extreme form of unrelenting, demeaning stereotyping.
Said went on to suggest that a secondary Orientalism also exists – among a minority of westerners. It is found among those liberal and tolerant people who, often out of curiosity with the ‘other’ or/and a certain disenchantment with the West, see the non-western world in rose-tinted mono-focal glasses.
Once again the non-western world is homogenised and made singular. But this time its uniform quality is one of goodness, contentment, wisdom – and implicitly, dramatically, contrasting it to the West (The God that Failed). No longer demeaning them, we simply deify them.
To talk of ‘Asian Wisdom’ is a perfect example of the more decent form of Orientalism. We need to move on. The countries of Asia are distinctly different from each other: economically, politically, culturally. In no way is India, for example, China; nor is China Japan. We need rigour in comparing and contrasting them; and we need honestly with ourselves: in avoiding projecting our disappointments with the western world on to uncritical adulation of all those beyond the western shores.
And we need to be chary with the language we use: ‘wisdom’ is a strong word (it is of course also a word full of ambiguity; that is no special problem here – all conceptual words, and beyond, are ambiguous). Which bit of India for example do we find ‘wise’? Don’t all cultures – east and west – have different bits of wisdom? Do any have a wisdom that pervades and shapes all other aspects of the culture? I think not. Further, for every bit of wisdom found in a culture, bits of folly, conceit, foolishness, idiocy, crassness, denseness and recklessness(and worse) can also be found.
And we need always to make two significant distinctions – whichever culture we are considering. Is for example the Confucianism of China we may admire that of its teachings or that of its practice, that of its early form or that of its current quality? Or is it only part of its quality that we find so admirable and other parts we ought admit being quite distasteful?
Or have we made an error of unwittingly putting together into some idealized imagined culture one good bit from each of several Asian cultures; together the mythic splendour dazzling us.
In the past the west have learned a lot from the east (although rarely acknowledged), and I have no doubt we will continue to learn more and new things from different Asian cultures in the future. Already it seems that Australia could profitably learn from certain current Chinese educational practice.
We can be judicious, respectful and grateful in what we see and admire and learn from, without being hyperbolic about the nature of the gift we have taken.
PS. This topic would be an excellent one to stimulate an extended discussion on these pages.