Cultural Relations and Policies - Late nineteenth-century encounters: art, religion, and everyday life




Americans had always been curious about other peoples and had cherished imports from distant lands. But in the age of globalization there arose serious interest not only in curios and exotica of strange peoples but also in the fine arts, religions, philosophies, and ways of life of other countries, especially in the East. During the 1880s, the United States legation in Constantinople was headed by General Lew Wallace and by Samuel S. Cox, both noted for their favorable views of Oriental cultures. Wallace, the author of the popular novel Ben Hur, wrote of the "bloodthirsty and treacherous, recklessly brave and exceedingly beautiful" cavalry of the Ottoman Empire. "Even among the meanest of them," he wrote, "you will see noble, well-set heads of the finest mould, testifying to unmixed blood of the most perfect of living races." Cox recounted his experiences in the East in Orient Sunbeams. The message he sought to convey to his readers was that they should remove their prejudice toward people of different religions. He wrote of Islam: "Whatever we may think of its founder, however unacceptable may be some of his doctrines … yet as a scheme of religion influencing as many, if not more millions of people than Christianity, is it not worthy of being considered by other peoples?"

This sort of serious interest in what would later be called cultural anthropology was quite visible at the end of the century. The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, held at Chicago to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage, provides a good case in point. Close to 30 million people visited the fair, which was spread over 686 acres of land in south Chicago. Most countries of the world participated, including Japan, which spent millions of dollars to construct buildings specifically for the fair and to present an exhibition of all aspects of traditional and contemporary life. Although this was not the first time that Americans had had an opportunity to examine Japanese artifacts closely—Japan had participated in the 1876 Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia—their observations led to awareness that Japanese culture was much more than a phenomenon to be appreciated in isolation from the rest of that people's life. If the Japanese craftsmen at the Columbian Exposition seemed polite, industrious, and capable of producing refined objects, this had to be related to the totality of Japanese history and values. Japanese civilization could not be understood only within the framework of Western moral standards. Indeed, it might be comparable on equal terms with American civilization; and it might be foolish to judge other peoples from the viewpoint of a self-centered value system. "I just made up my mind," says the hero of Carl Western's novel Adventures of Reuben and Cynthy at the World's Fair about the exposition, "that if they [the Japanese] were heathens, there were lots of things we could learn from them."

The Japanese were not the only heathens at Chicago. The Columbian Exposition coincided with the World Parliament of Religions, to which many non-Christian leaders were invited. From India came several prominent figures, including Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu leader noted for his belief that all religions contain truth. His arrival aroused much excitement among Americans. He not only attended the parliament but also traveled extensively in the United States. Americans were fascinated by his stress on religious toleration: "I preach nothing against the Great One of Galilee. I only ask the Christians to take in the Great Ones of India along with the Lord Jesus." To groups of ladies in Salem, Massachusetts, or Streator, Illinois, where he gave talks, it must have seemed quite a revelation that a Hindu monk should have so much to offer to contemporary society. Many were rude; in Chicago, Vivekananda recorded in his diary, "A man from behind pulled at my turban. I looked back and saw that he was a very gentlemanly looking man, neatly dressed. I spoke to him, and when he found that I knew English he became very much abashed." But the Chicago Herald probably expressed the predominant sentiment of those who heard Vivekananda's lectures when it wrote, "Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him, we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation." Far more than an object of curiosity, Indian civilization could be considered an important entity, even an alternative to the modern ways of life.

Perhaps the most logical embodiment of the emerging attitude was that of Ernest Fenollosa, a philosopher and art critic from Salem, Massachusetts. As a lecturer at Tokyo University in the 1890s, he was instrumental both in transmitting Western thought to the Japanese and in discovering the aesthetic value of Japanese art for Westerners. He taught the philosophy of Friedrich Hegel to students in Tokyo while establishing a collection of Japanese prints for a museum in Boston. The two activities were, from his point of view, of equal importance. Whereas earlier Americans had assumed their superiority and gone to non-Western parts of the world as missionaries and educators, he was convinced that West and non-West had a great deal to learn from one another. The two civilizations were of equal significance. Each had its distinctive cultural tradition, and together East and West constituted complementary halves of the harmonious whole that was mankind. The two were like the Chinese dichotomy of yin and yang, standing for contrasting pairs such as darkness and light, moon and sun, or female and male. The West, as Fenollosa saw it, represented masculinity, strength, and vigor; but it was never whole in itself. Only through a harmonizing relationship with the East, standing for femininity and refinement, could it sustain its existence. No wonder that Fenollosa's favorite analogy was to marriage. As he said in the preface to East and West (1893): "The synthesis of two continental civilizations, matured apart through fifteen hundred years, will mark this close of our century as an unique dramatic epoch in human affairs. At the end of a great cycle the two halves of the world come together for the final creation of man."

Not all writers were as sanguine as Fenollosa about the peaceful relationship between East and West. It was at the end of the century that Rudyard Kipling's phrase "East is East, and West is West" became popular. Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-born American novelist who had long resided in Japan, published his Kokoro, a study of the Japanese mentality, in 1896, and stressed that a Westerner could never hope to comprehend the depth of the Japanese mind. In his words, "The more complex feelings of the Oriental have been composed by combinations of experiences, ancestral and individual, which have had no really precise correspondence in Western life, and which we can therefore not fully know. For converse reasons, the Japanese cannot, even though they would, give Europeans their best sympathy." The overwhelming majority of Americans would probably have agreed more with Hearn than with Fenollosa. The popularity of David Belasco's play Madame Butterfly (1900) showed, if nothing else, that there was still a very widespread view that West and non-West might meet on a transient basis, but that their encounter produced tragic consequences because of their inability to understand one another fully.

One additional factor in the development of intercultural relations was the coming of Asians to the United States toward the end of the nineteenth century. Chinese laborers had arrived on the West Coast during the 1840s, but it was after the Civil War that their immigration and residence began to create serious social and political problems. And just when, in the 1880s, their influx was checked through treaty arrangements and congressional enactments, the Japanese began to arrive, first in Hawaii and, after the islands' annexation by the United States, in the western states. The bulk of these people were not exactly embodiments of Chinese or Japanese civilization. They were overwhelmingly poor, illiterate or undereducated, and without more than rudimentary skills. Still, they represented the societies from which they came, and to that extent their experiences in the United States constituted part of America's intercultural relations.

This is best seen in the rhetoric of the Oriental exclusionist movement. The exclusionists on the West Coast and their supporters elsewhere frequently resorted to the argument that the very fabric of American civilization was at stake. Should Asians be allowed to inundate the country, they said, not only would they compete with native labor because of their low wages, but they would also undermine the American way of life. Unlike European immigrants, they brought alien customs and modes of living and, unless checked, would most certainly Orientalize American society. The key to the Chinese immigration dispute, a writer pointed out in 1876, was that the Chinese "never adopts an iota of our civilization…. His civilization displaces exactly so much of our own; it substitutes Mongolianism." Similar expressions would be heard for many decades. The fundamental issue appeared to be the inevitable conflict of civilizations. Americans were called upon to consider whether their country was to remain Occidental or to become Oriental, under Asiatic influence. To those deeply concerned with the problem, it must have seemed axiomatic that East and West could never live together in peace and harmony. Such particularism was a reflection of the growing proximity, physical as well as geographical, of West and non-West in the age of globalization. At this level, then, America's intercultural relations exhibited narrowness and racial prejudice as defensive measures to preserve what were considered unique features of Western civilization.

Not all non-Westerners who came to the United States, however, were poor and illiterate laborers. A small minority of scholars, officials, businessmen, and other members of the elite visited the country, some to stay for a long time. They contributed to America's intercultural relations by associating with their counterparts in the United States and by articulating their views to Americans and to people at home. Some of them came with good classical educations, attracted to an America that was envisioned as a land of the free. For those who were highly educated and politically conscious, but who felt themselves alienated from their own lands for political or cultural reasons, the United States beckoned as a land of freedom, opportunity, and humanism. The image of America as the place to go for education was established in China and Japan by the end of the nineteenth century, as was the image that in the United States one could find a refuge from oppression and persecution in one's own country. Baba Tatsui, a young activist, left Japan for America to pursue his struggle for political rights, and many of his compatriots with socialistic views followed him. Sun Yat-sen engaged in revolutionary activities among Chinese in Hawaii and the United States. Some of China's constitutionalists also visited America, where they founded newspapers and conducted fund-raising campaigns.

What the United States meant to these visiting non-Westerners must be considered an important aspect of the country's intercultural relations. To many of them, this was "the sacred land of liberty," as the Japanese said. But there were others who were shocked by the contrast between that image and the reality. Uchimura Kanzō, the Japanese Christian leader, was repelled by materialistic excesses. Some returned to their homelands to spread certain images of the United States. It can be said that at this time there were non-American as well as American agents of intercultural relations. The United States exerted subtle influences upon other countries not only through its own merchants, travelers, or missionaries but also through foreigners visiting the country. Often it was through America that the latter first encountered Western civilization, and the importance of this is hard to exaggerate. For better or worse, what they saw in the United States epitomized for them the essence of capitalism, constitutionalism, and Christianity. The experiences of a man like Uchimura, who had been introduced to Christianity through American missionaries in Japan but who came to the United States and discovered the gap between what he called Bible Christianity and American Christianity, are fascinating examples of cross-cultural interactions. It was as if America taught him what Christianity was not.

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