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The Sinic World in Perspective

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Editor's Note: This article was prepared for a conference on the "Dynamics of Northeast Asia," arranged by the Asia Society and held in Japan in November 1973.

Christendom, Europe, or, more broadly, the Western world is customarily balanced with the Orient, the East, or more narrowly, Asia. This equation, however, is a false one. While the various lands of the West do in fact share a common historical tradition and in many cases similar cultural traits, Asia is divided into major cultural traditions as far removed from one another as from the West. There are vast psychological and cultural gulfs between the Arabic-Islamic world of West Asia and North Africa, the Hindu-Buddhist civilization of India and Southeast Asia, and the Sinic world of East Asia. But within each of these major cultural units there do exist psychological and cultural bonds in some ways comparable to those that unite the countries of the West. This article explores the nature and strength of these bonds among the countries of East Asia-that is, China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam-and the degree to which these affect their present political and strategic relations with one another and with countries outside this cultural grouping.

The Sinic world as a cultural unit in some ways parallels the West, but in others it is sharply different. The higher cultures of all four East Asian countries derive basically from the civilization of ancient North China, as shaped over the millenia by Confucian ethical concepts and the tradition of a centralized empire, just as the cultures of the nations of the West derive from the civilization of the Mediterranean area, particularly that of Greece and Rome, as reshaped by Christianity and a long, shared historical evolution.

While the countries of East Asia show strong psychological variations, these are no greater than those among the nations of Europe, and the basic cultural similarities are certainly as strong. The written word has historically been the firmest bond among the East Asian lands. Chinese characters long served as the common writing system for all, just as the closely related scripts of Greece and Rome served for all the West. The Japanese in the ninth century developed phonetic syllabaries more suited to their language, but for the most part used them only for supplementary purposes, while the Korean alphabet, invented in the fifteenth century, was employed even more narrowly. The literary and intellectual idiom in all four countries was derived in large part from early Chinese history, the ancient Chinese philosophers, and the later Chinese poets. In all four, the early Chinese emphasis on the political unit remained strong throughout, though the Japanese strayed far from the ideal Chinese political norms in their long feudal age from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries. Artistic currents were closely parallel in all four countries, and they shared an almost identical esthetic idiom.

During the heyday of East Asian Buddhism, roughly from the sixth to the ninth centuries, and then to a declining degree for another five or six centuries, the Indian religion, like Christianity in the West, served as a cultural bond among the countries of East Asia, but it has long since lost all significance in this regard. It is rather the secular ethics of Confucianism that in recent centuries has played the unifying role in East Asia that Christianity has played in the West.

The basic ethical concepts and value systems of the four countries of East Asia are surprisingly uniform. For example, all show a strong emphasis on family solidarity, on filial piety, on subordination of the individual to the group, on the ideal of group harmony as opposed to a balance between conflicting rights, on social organization, on careful political (as opposed to religious or purely cultural) integration, on hard work as a value in itself, on frugality, and on education as morally uplifting and the proper road to personal and family success, though the Japanese have added to these values a special emphasis on stoicism, marital virtues, and extra-family loyalties derived from their feudal experience. Seen in such basic terms, East Asia has been in the past and still is in many ways every bit as much of a cultural unit as is the West.

In other ways, however, the Sinic world is much less of a unit. While the tongues of all but a few small groups in the West belong to the Indo-European family of languages, those of East Asia are divided between Sinic (the Chinese languages and possibly Vietnamese) and Altaic (Korean and Japanese), which are sharply contrasting families of languages. It may be in part for this reason that amazingly few Japanese or Chinese speak each other's languages (though the Koreans, as a smaller nation, have been forced to do better at speaking both Japanese and Chinese and many Vietnamese once were reasonably proficient in Chinese).

Even the unity of East Asian writing is rapidly disintegrating. While the traditional scripts of Europe derived from Latin and Greek still continue unchanged, the Vietnamese have entirely abandoned Chinese characters in favor of the Latin alphabet, the Koreans are moving rapidly away from characters and toward an exclusive use of their native hangul, the Japanese have strictly limited the number of characters used and modified the writing of many of those retained, and the Chinese in turn have drastically abbreviated the writing of many characters, though in ways usually different from the Japanese abbreviations. As a result even the written word, which once transcended the differences of the spoken word in East Asia, is breaking up into mutually unintelligible national variants. The simple problems of communication are far greater among the countries of East Asia than among those of the West.

Another basic contrast with the West is that there never has been in East Asia any accepted concept of a community of nations. The national units, for one thing, have always been too uneven. China still has some 80 percent of the population of East Asia. Japan's present possession of more than two-thirds of East Asian economic production unbalances the area in still another way. But more important is the historical tradition, which, while recognizing cultural similarities, has never built on these a concept of an international community.

China is a Rome that never broke up into a multiplicity of peoples and nations. She traditionally viewed other units in the world as "barbarian," participating in civilization only insofar as they accepted tributary vassalage to the "central land" of China. Vietnam and Korea first entered the era of recorded history as colonial conquests of China, comparable to Roman Britain. After they achieved their independence, Korea in the fourth century and Vietnam in the tenth, they remained subject to occasional Chinese conquests and usually accepted tributary status. Even Japan at times entered into what the Chinese regarded as being tributary relations, though the Japanese, never threatened by Chinese armies, always stoutly maintained their equal imperial status.

Intercourse among the very disparate units of East Asia was far different from that among the various peoples of Europe. The distances were greater and contacts therefore fewer. Wars were fought, but far less often than in the West. Trade existed and grew over time, but was usually looked upon with official disfavor. Except for occasional uneasy contacts between the Japanese and Koreans, equal diplomatic relations never developed. The Vietnamese and Koreans, though China's two most important and faithful tributary states, were hardly aware of each other's existence, separated as they were by the great bulk of China. The Japanese, claiming equality with China and in contact with all three of the other units of East Asia through piratical adventurers and traders, came closest to approximating the Western concept of international relations, but could hardly develop a family of nations without reciprocity from the others. Some intermarriage occurred among the lower classes in seaports but, unlike Europe, was not practiced among ruling families or among those of social status. Even today East Asians regard intermarriage with other East Asian nationalities as hardly less distasteful than with people of radically different races.


What is the influence on present international relations in East Asia of this legacy of cultural closeness but a lack of a sense of international community? The Chinese, despite a century of humiliation at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialists, still seem to find it difficult to accept any other nations as real equals. Certainly they would not be inclined to accept the other East Asian states as their particular community of equal states. China's sensitivity to the nature of the regimes on her Korean and Vietnamese borders is a reflection of the special proprietary interest she had in these areas in the past as China's two most important tributary states. The continuing basic hostility toward Japan mirrors former attitudes of contempt and fear-contempt for the "island dwarfs" as representing a strange variant of Chinese civilization, far more alien to China than was Vietnam or Korea, and fear because of the long history of marauding Japanese pirates and more recently the conquests by Japan's imperial armies. To the Chinese, shared cultural traits with the Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese may seem to afford opportunities for more effective leverage in attempts to manipulate these close and therefore important countries. But they are not likely to appear a valid reason for accepting these nations as equals in a special East Asian community.

To the Vietnamese and Koreans, no concept could be less appealing than an East Asian community of nations. Their ardent nationalism is a violent repudiation of the traditional tributary relationship and occasional conquests by China. Among Koreans the only stronger feeling is hatred for more recent Japanese colonial domination. Vietnamese historically have asserted their national identity in terms of the rejection of Chinese rule, and, now that the French and Americans are gone, this traditional attitude is probably reasserting itself. Both Koreans and Vietnamese fear Japanese economic domination. Both will look eagerly to countries beyond East Asia to help preserve their political, economic and cultural independence vis-à-vis their two frighteningly large neighbors.

Only to the Japanese does the notion of a special community of East Asian nations have much appeal. In their anxieties over strategic or cultural domination by the West, they have repeatedly come up with concepts of a modernized but spiritually uncontaminated Japan leading Asia in spiritual and strategic regeneration against a degenerate and corrupting West. Usually the concept has been cast in pan-Asian terms, but in actuality the Japanese show massive disdain for Koreans and little interest in Vietnamese or Asians further afield, and have for the most part had only the Chinese in mind in their pan-Asian theories. What appeal the concept had to Chinese, however, was long ago destroyed by Japan's blatant imperialism. Her dominant economic role makes it equally distasteful today. But we still see a reflection of these ideas within Japan herself in the nostalgic yearning for a special relationship with China which runs deep among disparate groups all the way from old-fashioned conservatives to ultra-radicals.

It is this aspect of Japanese thought which is the one factor derived from the cultural unity of East Asia that could have an important influence on international relations today. Undoubtedly this causes Japanese to lean emotionally toward China and away from the Soviet Union in any situation involving these two. It strengthens Japanese resentments of what seem to them overwhelming American or Western influences, offering, as it does, a supposed alternative to close association with the West.

There are limits, however, to the impact of these Japanese attitudes. The Chinese would dearly love to manipulate the Japanese but not to have a special relationship with them on terms that the Japanese would find acceptable. Despite some shared cultural traits, the two societies are and have always been radically different. Even at the height of Japanese cultural borrowing from China in the seventh to ninth centuries, the Chinese political pattern was imposed on a semi-tribal and highly aristocratic society far different from the more egalitarian, bureaucratic society developing at precisely that time in China. The survival of these basically more primitive traits helps explain the degeneration of the Chinese political and economic pattern in Japan into a feudal system entirely different from Chinese society of that age-but surprisingly close to that of medieval Europe. The political unification of feudal Japan and its extraordinary bureaucratization under the Tokugawa in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries brought Japanese society a little closer again to Chinese norms, but the two countries remained so basically different that their respective responses to the military, economic, and cultural menace of the West in the nineteenth century could scarcely have contrasted more sharply, not just in general outcome but in specific details. The natural reactions of the one proved almost the reverse of the natural reactions of the other.

Where Japan proved to be the one non-Western nation to industrialize with success and build modern Western-style military and economic power on the basis of modern Western types of political and social institutions (as these were known in the late nineteenth century), China almost succumbed to colonial domination, and, when in the twentieth century she at last began to respond with success to foreign pressures, the patterns she used were far different from those of Japan. For more than a century a Japan that already was basically unlike China has been diverging ever further from Chinese norms in economic, political, and social institutions and increasingly in the cultural fields as well. In all these areas Japanese now find themselves far closer to the peoples of North America and Western Europe than to the Chinese. These are the other members of a community of democratic, industrialized, trading nations to which they naturally belong. But their sense of having a different cultural and historical background from the West, when added to the problems of communication between Japan and the nations of the West, make it difficult for both Japanese and Westerners to accept the obvious fact that Japanese and Westerners now form a common international community of shared interests, in a way the Japanese and Chinese do not.


Through Japanese attitudes, thus, the traditional cultural unit of East Asia does have some influence on present international relations, even if it offers no sound basis for international integration, comparable to the way a common cultural background has underlain unity in Western Europe and coöperation in the Atlantic Community. There is also a more important reason why the East Asian cultural unit is a concept to be reckoned with in international affairs. Thanks to China's vast masses, East Asia embraces between a quarter and a third of the world's total population. While it does not and probably never did constitute a true international community, its various peoples do share certain cultural traits that give them potentials for dynamic growth unequalled in most other parts of the world. In other words, they are tremendous competitors on the contemporary international scene and therefore are likely to replace the nations of the West as the chief upsetters of existing global balances.

The peoples of East Asia, as we have seen, share certain key traits, such as group solidarity, an emphasis on the political unit, great organizational skills, a strong work ethic, and a tremendous drive for education. It is because of such traits that the Japanese could rise with unprecedented speed from being a small underdeveloped nation in the mid-nineteenth century to being a major imperial power in the early twentieth-and an economic superpower today. Not just since World War II but for the past century Japan has been the fastest growing major economy in the world. And now her record is being paralleled by all the other East Asian units that are unencumbered by war or the economically blighting pall of communism-namely, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, which, like Hong Kong, is essentially a Chinese city-state. Throughout the non-East Asian countries of Southeast Asia, Chinese minorities remain so economically and educationally dominant as to cause serious political and social problems. One cannot but wonder what economic growth might be in store for Vietnam, if peace is ever achieved there, and for China and North Korea if their policies change enough to afford room for the economic drive of which their people are undoubtedly capable.

These shared East Asian cultural traits also help account for the vigor and dogged determination the Japanese, Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese in turn have displayed on the battlefield in recent decades. They also help account for the fact that the Japanese have developed the only fully successful open, democratic society outside of the Western world, and that the Chinese, despite their tremendous handicaps of gigantic size and economic backwardness, have produced the only political and social system in the less-developed world that is widely emulated and still more widely respected. It is significant that, outside of the West, Japan and China are the only countries that have a broad international impact.

The dynamism and growth potential of East Asia are realities that are of major international importance. They have a strong bearing on the future development of Southeast Asia, where countries whose own admirable traits are less conducive to such national dynamism and growth stand in the political shadow of China and the economic shadow of Japan, internally disturbed by dynamic Chinese minorities and threatened along the cultural borderland in Laos and Cambodia by outright domination by more aggressive Vietnamese and Chinese. More broadly, a faster growing East Asia is likely to go on upsetting the status quo and world balances, particularly with the nations of the West, just as Japan's rapid growth has already upset strategic and economic balances in the past.

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