As the specter of communism fades, some warn of a new East-West confrontation. The remarkable rise of East Asia in recent decades, they say, has been fostered by a civilization very different from the West's, and this poses dangers for international relations. Such thinking, however, is based on Kiplingesque assumptions about an Asian civilization whose existence it fails to demonstrate. At no time in history has an Asian or Eastern civilization arisen over and above the many national and ethnic civilizations and cultures found in that vast region.

Much writing from the West on the purported divide is economically or militarily alarmist, focusing on huge trade deficits with East Asian countries, China's flexing of military muscle, and a few cases in which Chinese or North Korean arms were reportedly sold to Iraq or Iran. Some go so far as to predict that what they see as East Asian civilization may cozy up to Islamic civilization and make common cause against Western power and values. East Asian writers, on the other hand, tend to be extremely sanguine about their region's recent development and its future, contrasting these with Europe's economic plight and the West's social problems. All participants in the debate, however, emphatically affirm the existence of a distinctive East Asian frame of mind, even if they describe it only by saying that it, unlike its Western counterpart, subscribes to no shared value system like democracy or capitalism.

This very diversity and flexibility, some in East Asia argue, will smooth the way for the integration of their region; even North Korea and Myanmar may be brought in. But such integration requires a binding force capable of overriding the logically incompatible value systems the people of the region espouse. That force could only be a tacitly shared psychology or style of life. Some of the thinkers lined up along the artificial East-West divide have noted common features among cities all around the Pacific Basin and even speculated about a melding there of Western and what they call Eastern civilization. What few have seen clearly, however, is that the force behind the convergence observable in the region today is modernity, which was born in the West but has radically transformed both East and West in this century.


In treating the question of civilization in Asia, one must first deal with the ambiguity of Asia as a concept. This ambiguity is an irritant to Asians and non-Asians alike and the source of a more than semantic problem in international diplomacy. From around 130 b.c. "Asia" was the name of a province of the Roman Empire on the eastern shore of the Aegean. Today it refers to a sweeping stretch of land and sea from the Middle East to the South Pacific islands -- an area too broad to make any sense as a geographical unit. The 1994 Asian Sports Festival in Hiroshima saw Kyrgyz and Tajik athletes from the former Soviet Union in action, but no Hawaiians, Siberians, Australians, or New Zealanders were invited because of the host organization's uncertainty about what constituted Asia. At times, admittedly, countries exploit the confusion over the region's boundaries for political purposes. Many nations along the Pacific Rim -- including the United States, Canada, and Chile -- participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, organized on Australia's initiative, but the white-dominated nations are denied membership in the East Asian Economic Caucus envisaged by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. And if delineating Asia is a problem, East Asia poses even greater difficulties. This region's energy is palpable but its identity is elusive. Is it a geographical area, an agglomeration of ethnic populations, or a civilization in the making?

One thing is certain: the region the West disdained for its "Asiatic stagnation" and whose people suffered because of its lack of economic growth is no more. Flush with Western and Japanese capital and technology, Asian nations are growing vigorously, supplying the rest of the world with products and workers and opening their own markets. Riding the global tide of modernization and industrialization, the region at long last has been integrated into the world economic system. This, however, does not mean that the development that has occurred has been "Asiatic," or that an Asia once seen as dormant is now wide awake.


To repeat: there has never been an Asian, let alone East Asian, sphere of civilization. Western civilization is dominant in Europe and North America, but Asia has known only the individual national and ethnic cultures and civilizations that have arisen in areas of the region.

Western civilization, whose beginnings I place toward the end of the eighth century a.d., created a world that contained different nationalities while transcending national identity. Earlier civilizations, by contrast, whether Greek, Judaic, or Chinese, were essentially ethnic or national and maintained their identity through unity. Customs and forms adopted from the outside were fused with traditional patterns, never acknowledged as a foreign presence. Everyone and everything outside the group was relegated to the realm of the "barbarous," beyond the civilized pale.

From Constantine until the latter part of the eighth century, the dominant force in the West was Christianity, which fused the Judaic and Hellenic traditions and, thanks to extensive trade and the use of Latin as the official language, constituted a unified sphere of civilization. But toward the end of the eighth century, as Charlemagne consolidated his empire, Islamic control of Mediterranean trade routes forced fundamental changes in the West. Denied any chance at prosperity through commerce, the West became an agricultural society based on large landholdings. This system of land ownership gave rise to decentralization, leading to dual rule by powerful princes and the Catholic Church. Latin's status gradually eroded, allowing local vernaculars to assert themselves as national languages.

The rise of duality in both rule and language marked the beginning of the Western world civilization. Under the civilizational umbrella dating back to the Roman Empire, and within the unifying framework of Christian civilization, the West set out on its journey toward a world civilization that would encompass national and ethnic civilizations and cultures alien to one another. The crucial factor in the process was that no single nation claimed the supranational umbrella as its own. The Greeks had been debilitated, while the Romans had turned Italian and Latin remained the common language only for writing. The Jews preserved their identity but were driven to the bottom of the social scale, with Hebrew consigned to libraries and Yiddish and Ladino taking its place. Westerners, whether English, German, or French, could and still can talk about Judeo-Hellenistic civilization on an equal footing.

Asia has never had a comparable superstructure of civilization. Asians lack an experience of political unification like the West's under the Roman Empire, nor do they possess a common tradition in language, currency, laws, roads, or architecture. In the absence of an overall, if loose, religious framework such as Christianity provided for the West, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity, and a variety of indigenous religions have coexisted in Asia. There was no writing system like the alphabet that could spell words from different national languages. There was no universal system of musical notation, nor contemporaneous development of artistic styles as in the West's Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance periods. Far larger than Europe, Asia stretches from the Arctic to the tropics, and one cannot find in that swath any fundamental similarity in mores, manners, or customs.


Some would contend that Chinese civilization is the basis of an Asian civilization, and China's influence has indeed been extensive. But the Chinese Empire differed greatly from the Roman. It was the homogeneous empire of the Han, conquering the Manchurians, to be sure, but failing to bring the Mongolians, Vietnamese, Koreans, or Japanese under its control. China exported its laws, religions, art forms, and ideographic writing, but their impact was on the same order as, say, French civilization's on the Germans, in no way tantamount to the framework a world civilization provides. Although the use of Chinese ideograms is widespread in neighboring nations, it failed to progress beyond mimicry into the universalization of the civilization; even today, Japanese politicians are reportedly embarrassed when they sign Sino-Japanese diplomatic agreements with brush and ink, as their ancestors learned to do from the Chinese.

The Chinese, for their part, were generally allergic to outside cultural influences and were particularly reluctant to credit alien contributions to the development of their culture. For them, the Japanese and the Vietnamese were always the "eastern barbarians" and the "southern savages." The Italian descendants of the Romans recognize that they can learn something from the English about Latin language and literature, whereas the Chinese have never turned an attentive ear to Japanese interpretations of Confucius. German directors have impressed and moved Englishmen with their productions of Shakespeare, but the Japanese calligrapher Sugawara Michizane's distinguished work has never had the slightest impact on Chinese practitioners of the art.

The primary reason for Chinese civilization's unusual exclusivity is that the Han have endured, for good or for ill, for 4,000 years. Through the Mongol invasion and Manchu domination, the Han preserved their ethnic civilization as a badge of their identity; "Down with the Manchu, long live the Han!" was their motto as late as the end of the last century. And in the eyes of surrounding peoples, Chinese civilization was simply the source of their borrowings; the civilization never suggested that they had claims on it.

That the Chinese strand has dominated so large an area for so long has inhibited the development of an Asian civilization. The dynamism of a civilization derives from mutual influence, intermixture, and the friendly rivalry of different peoples, but no such chemistry has been at work in Asia. National or ethnic civilizations can undergo such changes only under the umbrella of a world civilization, and Asia has never known such a dual structure.

Buddhist civilization could have become Asia's world civilization. Born in India but disowned there, Buddhism spread to China, northeastern Asia, and Southeast Asia, establishing itself as a religion shared by many ethnic groups. But it has left no indelible mark in the Malay Peninsula or Indonesia, and has been emaciated in China and Korea under the Confucian onslaught that began in the fifteenth century. Buddhism has managed to retain some hold on Japan and part of Southeast Asia, but the two centers have little contact, and the faith survives in Asia at large only as a localized religion. The history of Buddhism, in fact, illustrates how difficult it is for any civilization without an ethnic proprietor to attain dominance and for any dual structure of civilization to take root in Asian soil.

Strangely enough, a prototype of a dual structure was once firmly in place in the early monoethnic Japanese civilization. From time immemorial into the modern era, the Japanese regarded Chinese civilization not as another national civilization but as a world civilization and were painfully conscious that their own civilization occupied a subsidiary position. Few, however, had set foot in China, and their knowledge of the civilization was limited to Chinese characters and other imported traits and institutions. They failed to appreciate that Chinese civilization was a living national civilization, mistaking it for a supranational world civilization. Thus they yielded tamely to Chinese influences, and saw themselves as an alien presence tolerated within the supposedly universal civilization. This mindset may well have facilitated Japanese acceptance of Western civilization in the nineteenth century. If exposure to a strange civilization does not set off alarms warning of imminent clashes but is instead taken as an invitation to share in common property, the recipient nation will naturally be more open and tolerant than it would otherwise be.

The dual structure of rule and language in the West significantly aided the acceptance of Arab civilization that started the West on the path of modernization as far back as the twelfth century. When Spaniards and Italians first encountered Arab civilization, they would have subconsciously placed it on the same level as Western world civilization -- which would make it common property that they were encouraged to share in. Since the Arabs in real life were regarded as a great peril, how else could the West have accepted their insights on such fundamental subjects as mathematics, science and technology, and even -- if Arab mysticism indeed influenced the twelfth-century troubadours, as some scholars believe -- love?

Asia, unfortunately, possessed no such dual structure of civilization or the dynamism it generates. In Japan and a few other nations on the periphery, there was some notion of an Eastern world civilization encompassing all of Asia, but in actuality no such thing existed. This absence ensured that the seeds of modernization in Asia would fail to sprout but would lie dormant until the encounter with the West.


Modern Western civilization has brought the world umbrella to Asia for the first time, and a dual structure of civilization is now taking shape in the region. The Asian world and Asian civilization cited so often of late have their origins not deep in the past but in modernization this century in an Asia in contact with the West.

In the past 100 years or so, East Asian nations as a group have set out to modernize, and they have been fairly successful in the endeavor. Progress has extended beyond economic development; the entire fabric of society is being geared to modernization, more rapidly in some fields than in others. The formation of a nation-state under the rule of law and legitimate institutions, the secularization of ethics and mores, the rise of industry, and the growth of market economies integrated into the global economy all have been or soon will be attained in virtually all countries of the region except North Korea.

The world over, as education is extended, mass media grow, and leisure activities and consumer goods gain popularity, a middle class arises that favors democratic development. Although each country in East Asia defines and protects human rights and democratic principles differently, no national leader except perhaps North Korea's Kim Jung Il would deny their legitimacy. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have nearly reached consensus on such fundamentals as the separation of politics from religion, one man -one vote representation, and public trial. When it comes to social welfare, women's liberation, freedom of conscience, access to modern health care, and other social policies, almost all the countries of the region now speak the same language as the West.

In city after large city in East Asia, one finds glass-and-steel towers soaring, the metric system in use, and intellectuals employing American English as the lingua franca. People drive cars, wear Western-style clothes to work, have electric appliances at home, and enjoy jazz, motion pictures, and soap operas. Often television programs are broadcast across the Pacific Basin. It is getting so that one feels at home on both sides of the Pacific.

These changes began in the early 1900s in Japan and in mid-century elsewhere in the region, with all countries going through the same process, experiencing its drawbacks as well as rewards, in the space of a single century. Nothing comparable has ever occurred in Africa, the Middle East, or Russia. It is this contemporaneous experience that is the driving force behind East Asia's integration as a region.


Looking at the region for common factors that might have made such a transformation possible, the secular tolerance of Asian religions, or the weakness of what is fashionably called fundamentalism, stands out. Asia has had its share of ascetics and spiritual disciplinarians, but they have never joined the establishment. Religions that developed elsewhere tend to slacken in their precepts when they arrive in East Asia. Hinduism as practiced in Bali has reduced the caste system to a mere skeleton, and farmers are permitted to raise hogs for food. Islamic strictures against images and public entertainment, which have led to the closing of movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, are breezily dispensed with in Indonesia, and shadow puppet shows and traditional gamelan orchestra music are all the rage.

During the Middle Ages Europeans and Asians alike looked down on commercial profits, and ascetic renunciation of the world was the ideal. But an emphasis on diligence, if not financial gain, is detectable in East Asian religions. By the sixteenth century commerce and its profits were seen as legitimate in Japan and China, and a "secular ascetism" entailing hard work and thrift became established. In his Religious Ethics and the Merchant Spirit in Early-Modern China, Ying-shi Yu, a professor of Chinese history at Princeton University, calls this ethos precisely analogous with the Protestant ethic that Max Weber saw as leading to the rise of capitalism and industrialization in Europe.

According to Ying-shi Yu, the notion of secular asceticism originated in China as early as the ninth century in the reforms of Zen Buddhism, then a new sect. The farm and domestic work required of Zen novices came to be equated with prescribed ascetic practices, and the Zen precept, "No eating without producing," was quoted and put into practice in society at large as well as the monasteries. Confucian scholars of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) came to interpret the ancient ethic of character-building -- "Work hard, be frugal, save time" -- in terms of whatever daily work one did in the secular world.

In the sixteenth century, with the policies of the latter Ming Dynasty threatening to impoverish them, intellectuals moved away from the classic interpretation of Confucianism and embraced commerce. Business activity took off nationwide, with merchant cliques in Guangxi and Zhejiang provinces in the vanguard. Merchants' social status improved, and they became conscious of their own power. The insight of the neo-Confucian scholar Wang Yangming -- "Though their walks of life are different, all four classes of people are on the same road" -- became firmly established. His followers acknowledged that hard work and frugality were virtues on the same order as study. After the merchants agreed to high tax rates, the emperor opened the prestigious profession of government service to them. Scholars made themselves available to pen the epitaphs of magnates.

Merchants, for their part, committed themselves to diligence and thrift and sought to earn "profits controlled by justice." The moral code of merchants of the late Ming Dynasty and Ching Dynasty (1644-1912) boiled down to honest dealings, as the merchants took to heart the tenth-century saying, "In sincerity lies the passage to Heaven." Ying-shi Yu equates this animating principle with Weber's Protestant ethic, for which worldly work crowned by material success is a sign of redemption: for the Chinese merchant, the secular moral value of open and fair dealings with customers and suppliers became a transcendental passage to heaven. The modern character of Japanese merchants of the period was even more pronounced than that of their Chinese counterparts. They strove to gain a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness, lived frugally, regarded their calling as given by Providence, and took pride in their business because it benefited the nation.

Why East Asians nurtured religious tolerance of the secular and a view of secular activity as akin to religious is not easy to explain. One possibility is that East Asia, along with the Protestant West, which underwent an almost identical ideological evolution, is located far from the centers where the ancient religions were born, and that the religions grew less dogmatic as they spread. In any case, when modern Western civilization encountered East Asia, it found civilizations with which it had a strong affinity. Little wonder, then, that it could serve as the framework for the integration of those civilizations.


Integration under Western auspices, however, does not imply the wholesale Westernization of East Asian national civilizations, let alone an East-West fusion of cultures. Culture is a way of life, a conventional order, physically acquired and rooted in subliminal consciousness. Civilization, in contrast, is a consciously recognized ideational order. There is a gray area between the two, but they are distinct. Handiness with machines, for example, is part of culture, while mechanized industry is an aspect of civilization. The performing styles of individual musicians and idiosyncrasies of composers belong to the former, while the diatonic scale and rhythmic system of Western music belong to the latter. Cultures die hard, but their spheres of dominance are limited. Civilizations can become widespread, but they may be deliberately abandoned.

Failure to distinguish clearly between culture and civilization marks the thought of the prophets of the clash of civilizations. The thesis is predicated on the mistaken notions that a civilization can be as predetermined a property of an ethnic group as its culture and that a culture can be as universal and expansive as a civilization. Working from these misconceptions, it follows that a stubborn and irrational culture posing as a civilization could assert itself politically, stirring up conflict.

The rule of culture extends at most from the family, village, or circle of social acquaintances to the tribe or nation. Civilization, in contrast, encompasses different tribes and nations and creates a world. Ancient civilizations, however, had a limited sphere of dominance; in Greece, China, Judea, and elsewhere in the ancient world, the ethnic-national culture covered the same area as the civilization. After Western world civilization arose in the eighth century, the correspondence between cultures and nations still obtained, but civilization assumed a two-level structure: Western world civilization arching over distinct national civilizations. In twentieth-century Britain, a member of Parliament's oratorical style is part of culture, constitutional monarchy is part of national civilization, and democracy is part of Western civilization.

The peoples of East Asia today can be said to partake of modern Western civilization at the topmost stratum of their world, to retain their national civilizations and nation-states in the middle stratum, and to preserve their traditional cultures in their day-to-day lives. In political affairs, human rights and democratic principles belong to the first stratum, distinct bodies of law and political institutions to the second, and political wheeling and dealing to the third. In theater, the dramaturgy common to modern drama is at the topmost stratum, the national languages in which characters' lines are spoken are in the middle, and at ground level are distinctive ethnic styles and figures of speech.

Under the umbrella of modernization, traditional ethnic cultures are being revived with new elements of universality. The Korean agrarian folk music known as samulnori attracts percussion aficionados worldwide in the jazz-influenced version popularized by the musician Kim Deoksoo. The Japanese dance troupe Sankaijuku, currently popular in Europe, incorporates steps from Balinese kechak dancing, which in turn draws on steps learned from Germans in Bali at the beginning of the century. East Asia has also become a center for cinema, nurturing some promising young filmmakers who bring to their twentieth-century medium exquisite touches of ethnic aesthetics. These developments suggest the imminent birth in the region of what may be called the Pacific-International style.

Charging the West with cultural imperialism or deploring the loss of traditional Asian cultures is the height of foolishness. Under the influence of the reigning world civilization, cultures inevitably change and may lose this or that, since they are living organisms. But some portion of their identity is always kept intact. Traditionalists of a nationalistic bent decry the changes, depicting them as impositions from abroad or trappings of a borrowed civilization. They fail to understand that a world civilization belongs not to any one group but to all.


Modern civilization originated in the West, but it is not an evolutionary phase of Western civilization. To the contrary, modernization began in the twelfth century with the rejection of the Western civilization born four centuries before and can be thought of as an 800-year-long progressive denial of Western civilization.

During the Renaissance the West was deeply influenced by Arab civilization and shaken by underground and local folk cultures that it had deemed heretical and had repressed. The investigations of alchemists led to scientific experimentation, and the grotesque pushed the limits of artistic taste. The seventeenth century witnessed the revival of animistic sensitivity as the West rediscovered and sometimes well-nigh worshipped Nature. Romanticism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fired the imaginations of the era's artist-exiles, and the West felt the impact first of eastern Europe and Russia and then of the East, as evidenced by the flood of chinoiserie and japonisme.

In this century modernization has driven Western cultures to transform themselves as rapidly as Asian ones. American puritanism has declined to the point that homosexuality is widely tolerated, French cuisine is cutting down on fat and alcohol, German has lost its fraktur script, and the British have abandoned their shillings and tuppence for the more rational decimal system. If the social scientist David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd, is right, self-centrism, once said to be the core of Western culture, is giving way among the masses to a group-oriented culture. And the revolution in information and communications is changing the West and East Asia at the same time and at about the same speed.

As its Latin etymology suggests, modernity (from modo, now) is the spirit of living in constant contrast to the past. Despite the conventional wisdom, it does not necessarily have anything to do with progressivism, which sets goals in pursuit of a future utopia. The essence of modernity is not programmed; there is only a patchwork of trial and error and changes in the status quo. Modernity casts a glance back and extrapolates in different directions. In its willingness to reject all previous values and systems, including itself, modernity verges on nihilism but differs from it in its deep faith in élan vital.

If a new sphere of East Asian civilization is in the making today, modernity is the topmost stratum of its "world." The most positive outcome for the region would be not mere diversity but an orderly, widely agreed-on framework encompassing a well-regulated market, human rights, and democratic principles. While narrower political considerations will inevitably affect the civilizational process, an East Asian sphere that defied these fundamental values is inconceivable.

But then, Asian peoples no longer need think in terms of an East Asian framework. In view of the prevailing economic, defense, and political relations in the region, it would seem reasonable to take the entire Pacific Basin as the sphere of the emerging civilization. In East Asia as in North America, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand, the experience of the twentieth century is of crucial significance, which is why one can feel at home traveling between their cities.

The Pacific sphere should not and will not remain closed to the rest of the world for long. As a civilization-in-progress incorporating continually advancing industrial and communications technologies and unfolding mass societies, it will have to collaborate with the Atlantic sphere of civilization that is sharing the experience. As the 21st century begins, humankind must overcome fanatic nationalism and fundamentalism in all their forms. If it is to have historical relevance, the Pacific sphere of civilization must serve as a transitional stronghold in that struggle.

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  • Masakazu Yamazaki is a playwright and Professor of Comparative Studies on Cultures at East Asia University. Mask and Sword collects two of his plays in English translations.
  • More By Masakazu Yamazaki