East-West – A Myth

East-West: this distinction is pervasive in many an Asian or indeed Eastern European country. You need not be there for too long to realise how pervasive it really is. My recent experience is from China, where I am based for up to four months each year. Here the distinction takes on a particular form, where ‘China’ stands in for whatever the ‘East’ is. Some examples:

Chinese food (Zhongcan) – Western food (Xican)

Chinese medicine (Zhongyi) – Western medicine (Xiyi)

Chinese medication (Zhongyao) – Western medication (Xiyao)

Chinese clothes (Zhongfu) – Western food (Xifu)

Chinese culture (Zhongguo wenhua) – Western culture (Xifang wenhua)

Chinese language (Zhongwen) – Western language (Xiwen)

Chinese style (Zhongshi) – Western style (Xishi)

The list goes on and on. More specifically the opposition ‘zhong-xi’ means ‘middle-west’, with China being the ‘middle’ and indeed embodying the ‘East’. The comparisons run through Chinese thought and perceptions of the world. However, ‘Western’ is a slippery term indeed. Try to pin it down and it excludes most of the world and refers to ‘Western’ Europe, but the next moment is means the whole world apart from China. It is clearly a northern hemisphere distinction, focused on the Eurasian land mass with its complex history of imperial struggles, massive migrations and shifting powers.

As a result, I refuse to use the terms. They obfuscate rather than illuminate. One solution is to use other terms, such as ‘Chinese’ (zhongran) and ‘foreign’ (wairan), but this risks the ‘inside-outside’ binary. Another solution is to specify exactly what the reference means, by referring to the specific place in question. But this risks identifying something as characteristically French, or Russian, or Korean or indeed Chinese.

Perhaps it is better to analyse the function of the terms ‘West’ and ‘China’. I suspect that ‘West’ really functions as a mythical category. I use the term ‘myth’ quite deliberately. Due to the complex history of the term, it refers simultaneously to a fiction and a deeper truth, to a construct with little basis in reality and to a form of language that seeks to locate a truth that cannot be expressed in the usual referential terms. The various myths of the world’s origins comprise one example, the myths of an ideal future world another.

The fiction is that the ‘West’ as conceived in such a binary opposition simply does not exist. This ‘West’ moves about so adroitly, changes its meaning and shape so effortlessly, that it will never be found. So what is the deeper truth?

I suggest that says much more about China (on indeed any other place that likes to use the ‘East-West’ dichotomy). From the eighteenth century, it became clear that China was losing for a time its millennia-long status as the world’s leading power. As it did so, the obsession with the ‘West’ began in earnest. Again and again, comparisons were made between ‘China’ and the ‘West’, with people moving between one category and the other. Sometimes they rejected one in favour of the other, at others they sought a mediation between them. But all the time, the search was to find what ‘China’ really means. It was and continues to be a search for self-definition by creating a mythical other that is everything ‘China’ is not.

Indeed, the great Chinese story, Journey to the West, insightfully captures this double sense of a mythical ‘West’. The Buddhist monk from the Tang dynasty court and his three comrades make an immensely long journey to the ‘West’ – in this case India! – to find copies of the Buddhist Scriptures. But when they arrive, they find that the ‘West’ in question is nothing like what they imagined. The Scriptures they are given are blank pieces of paper on which nothing is written. It turns out that the journey itself is the real discovery, for it is a parable of self-enlightenment.


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