Mr. Lowell Goes to Asia

by Kenneth Champeon, Feb 10, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / China / Korea, S / Tokyo / Beijing / Seoul

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Review of Percival Lowell's The Soul of the Far East

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Contemporary travel writers usually set out to describe a particular place. A travel writer of, say, a century ago set out to explain the place, and in the process ended up trying to explain the whole world. Travel writing and anthropology and philosophy were of a piece. Such is the glory and the folly of The Soul of the Far East, an attempt by American astronomer Percival Lowell (1855-1916) to explain China, Korea, and especially Japan to a West then increasingly fearful of the "Yellow Peril." Glory, because so many of Lowell's observations on Far Eastern life remain prescient and acute; folly, because for an outsider to generalize about such an enormity as the Far East will inevitably be seen as, at best presumptuous, in any case simplistic, at worst racist.

But those were different times. To know anything about a far-off and inaccessible land, one had to rely on those few with access. Even today, the Far East is not especially known for its command of Western languages; if it does not bother to explain itself to the West, the West will do the job, however faulted, instead.

The Far East, Lowell begins, is the West stood on its head. Everything here is backward, he says - turned inside out, upside-down, topsy-turvy: language, custom, logic, everything. When in Rome do as the Romans do; when in the Far East, do the opposite of what is most natural. Although Lowell exaggerates somewhat - what writer does not? - he resists the temptation to say outright that one way is right, the other wrong.

This is one of the most at once salutary and scary effects of long-term travel: it is lethal to universals. "Ideas of ours," writes Lowell, "which we deemed innate find in them no home." You see? "Innate" goes into the trashcan. "Could we see ourselves as others see us," he muses, "our surprise in the case of foreign peoples might be less pronounced." As a proposition, this is as true today as when Lowell was sitting among the Japanese teahouse maidens. As advice, it continues to be happily, and not so happily, ignored.

The Soul of the Far East is written very much in an Emersonian style: strings of aphorisms begging to be quoted, however irrelevant. "Nothing is so isolating as a persistent idea which one dares not confide." True, true. "In our present refined civilization we hurl epithets instead of spears." Mostly, yes. "If all of us were to say only what were necessary, the delightful art of conversation would soon be nothing but a science." A nice defense of his own digressiveness. He even aphorizes about aphorisms: "Few aphorisms are absolutely true, but then boldness more than makes up for what they lack in verity."

But back to Asia. Lowell is very clear on the point that neither the West nor the Far East can claim perfection. Here is what he thinks the Far East is good at: art, politeness, jollity, imitation, loving nature. He praises the good sense of Asians to celebrate the New Year in spring instead of in winter. He is sympathetic to Buddhism. He likes teahouse maidens.

Yet Lowell came not to praise the Far East, but to bury it. This because the things that the West is particularly good at - science, candor, severity, originality, anthropocentrism - will ultimately triumph. No Yellow Peril says he. "Surely are these races of the Far East," he writes, "if unchanged, destined to disappear before the advancing nations of the West." He becomes St. John the Divine: "Vanish they will off the face of the Earth...."

One cannot hold back a chuckle at this, given that 1 of 6 people on the face of the Earth is now Chinese, Japan its second-largest economy, and 7 of the 10 world's tallest buildings are to be found in the Far East and environs. But Lowell was no dummy: his apocalyptic pronouncement had an "unless" -- "unless their newly imported ideas take root." Take root ideas did. Whether they were imported or imposed (as democracy and capitalism were imposed on post-war Japan and colonial Hong Kong) is a different question.

At that time, a spectre was haunting Lowell: socialism. He predicted that the Far Eastern propensity toward "impersonality" -what we might today call a lack of individuality or perhaps groupthink - made the region susceptible to socialist ideas. He was right. And had it not been for one in particular of the "advancing nations of the West", America, the whole of the Far East save former colonies might now be painted red. It also might have been better off. But to the Yellow Peril was added the Red Menace, and the threat of the two together drove America headlong into Vietnam, where red took on a whole new meaning.

Lowell is at his best when discussing the similarities and differences between Christianity and Buddhism, and his explication is every bit as illuminating now as then. Why have Christian missionaries failed so miserably in their attempts to convert Buddhists? Lowell knows. For one thing, rarely are Buddhists only Buddhists - they are often also Taoists, Shintoists, Brahmanists, animists, etc. When a Christian tells a Buddhist "thou shalt have no other gods" before their God, or even beside or slightly after their God, or perhaps even sharing a harmonious cup of tea with their God, the Buddhist frowns. Second, Buddhism is pessimistic: life is a drag. Christianity is the opposite: life can be everlasting! "To preach a prolongation of life" to a Far Easterner, says Lowell, "appears to them like preaching an extension of sorrow." Both religions preach self-purification, but Christianity "that we might enjoy countless eons of that bettered self hereafter", Buddhism "that we may lose all sense of self for evermore."

Lowell is at his worst when he judges the Far East from the standpoint of that seductive but ultimately meaningless word "progress." Progress, progress, progress - his American soul gorges on it, and when the Far Easterners are not so enthusiastic about forever being required to change, he calls them childish, stunted, not "grown up."

But societies being like individuals, to be ever growing up is to one day grow old. "Could we see ourselves as others see us," the childish and the stunted might see us as elderly and monstrous. In other words, the first step of Western progress might very well have been on the fated path leading out of the Garden of Eden, which resembles in so many ways the Far East of Lowell's fancy, and of his scorn.

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