East is East

Asia in the Making of Europe (Volumes I & II)

by Donald F. Lach
Chicago, 965 pp., $20.00

A great deal has been heard in recent years of the revolutionary impact of the West on Asia and Africa, far less of the impact of Asia on the West. The object of these two impressive volumes is to restore the balance. Here we have an attempt to bring together, in a consistent narrative, everything that a European could know of India, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan, from printed books, missionary reports, traders’ accounts and maps, during the sixteenth century. One can only admire the immense industry and knowledge, and the skill in marshaling the evidence, which Professor Lach has put into his work. Two further volumes will deal on the same major scale with the seventeenth century; two more will carry the story to 1800, when the beginnings of European industrialization changed the whole context of the relations of Orient and Occident. But already one can say that nothing of this scope and magnitude has been performed before, and nothing is likely to be performed again.

Our concern here must be less with the facts than with their implications, though the facts are engrossing enough. That the whole basis for Europeans’ attitudes to Asia was changed in the course of the sixteenth century, no reader of Professor Lach’s volumes can doubt; nor is there any reason to impugn his judgment that it was the discovery of Asia rather than America which had the most profound immediate effects on Europeans. The interest of Europeans in Asia, as exemplified by the number of books published, was phenomenal. No sooner had Mendoza’s History of China been published in Rome in 1585 than reissues appeared at Valencia in Spanish and at Venice in Italian. By 1600 there were nineteen additional Italian printings and eleven in Castilian. A German and a Latin version appeared at Frankfurt in 1589, another German translation at Leipzig in 1597. Dutch translations appeared in 1595, French in 1588, 1589, and 1600, and an English translation in the year of the Armada. By the end of the sixteenth century Mendoza’s work had been reprinted forty-six times in seven different European languages.

This is only one striking example of an interest universal throughout Europe. An examination of new titles printed in France between 1480 and 1609 shows that there were one hundred books about Asia to eighty about the Turks and only forty on the New World. When four Japanese youths visited Europe between 1584 and 1586, they were the subject not only of “much talk” and “many letters by a vast circle of correspondents” but also of no fewer than fifty-five publications. “There can be no question,” Professor Lach comments, “about the impact which they made in Europe.” What concerns us is the nature of this impact. Was it merely an effervescent interest in the strange and exotic, the perennial curiosity in the “marvels of the east” which meets us already in the fantastic illustrations of medieval manuscripts, or had the permeation of knowledge reached a point where it affected European attitudes both to the civilizations of the East and to their own? Certainly, by 1600, concrete testimony was widespread enough to make it “hard for the legends of the past to remain alive.” And contacts were too permanent for it ever again to “be possible for the leading civilizations of Asia and Europe to go their separate ways…utterly ignorant of each other.” That much is certain. “Inescapable and concrete data” testified “to the existence of flesh-and-blood Asians with skills and beliefs of their own which Europeans had to recognize.” Nevertheless the question remains, how deep the “concrete data” cut into the hard rock of Europe’s own religious, technological, and artistic traditions and beliefs.

It is an important question. In 1620 (as Professor Lach will doubtless recall in his next volume) Francis Bacon wrote that, as a result of “the distant voyages and travels which have become frequent in our times, many things in nature have been laid open and discovered which may let in new light upon philosophy.” It is significant that he does not claim that this has already occurred. Professor Lach believes that, with the opening of the sea route around Africa, “consciousness of Asia began to affect a number of Europe’s traditional ways of thought and activity.” It is hard to believe that it did not; but the evidence he produces is tantalizingly small and fragmentary. A genuine admiration for monuments of Eastern art and architectures—The Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon, for example, is acclaimed as “the fairest place, as I suppose, that is in the world”—appreciation of Chinese inventiveness and literacy, praise for Japanese “culture, deportment and manner,” in which they “excel not only all the other oriental peoples” but “surpass the Europeans as well,” and above all respect for the governmental institutions of China—these are some of the impressions which emerge. China, wrote the Englishman, Purchas, is “a mirror for us to look upon.” But how often and how reflectively Europeans looked into the mirror is not very clear; nor what they learned from it either. China’s fertility, a Jesuit wrote, surpasses “all other Kingdoms of the east; yet it is nothing comparable unto the plentie and abundance of Europe.” To begin with, at least, contact with the Orient seems to have fortified, rather than weakened, Europe’s sense of cultural (and, in most cases, racial) superiority.

There were good reasons for this. From the beginning European contacts with the East were predatory. Slaves and gold were the compelling motive of Henry the Navigator; even the Christian missionaries came with a sword. The other basic interest was the spice trade, with its prospect of dividends running from 100 to 400 per cent. From this sordid starting point, marked by pillage, exploitation, and “unbridled rapaciousness,” it was a long, slow, and devious route to appreciation of oriental civilizations for their own sake or to “cultural accommodation.” The beginnings are visible after the arrival in the East of the Jesuits Valignano in 1577 and Matteo Ricci in 1583; but they are tenuous beginnings, and it would be hard to show that they affected European attitudes in any far-reaching way. Earlier missions were uncompromisingly “ethnocentric” and “Europocentric”; for Chinese learning and the spirit of Chinese civilization there was “very little understanding and only slight curiosity.”

In the light of these facts it is tempting to say that the evidence so laboriously collected by Professor Lach tells against, rather than for his thesis. By 1600 the impact of Asia on European thinking, and above all else on Europeans’ conception of their place in the world, seems to have been curiously slight, the advance since 1500 far smaller than might have been expected. At the later date, as at the earlier, knowledge of the East reached the West in the form of “isolated phenomena,” and it would be hard to find evidence in European thought for a “dawning realization…that not all truth and virtue were contained within its own cultural and religious traditions.” According to Professor Lach, after the publication of Mendoza’s history of China, a “great argument soon developed…over the relative reliability of Chinese and Biblical chronology.” But it was not until after 1650 that the French Calvinist, Isaac de la Peyrère, unable to reconcile the Chinese annals with the story of Adam and Eve, broke with the Christian eschatology which had shaped European historiography ever since the time of St. Augustine. Well into the seventeenth century, as Denys Hay has pointed out, the story of Shem, Ham, and Japhet remained “unquestioned as a description of the peopling of the earth”; and it is surely significant that so famous an explorer as Sir Walter Raleigh, when he published his History of the World in 1614, brought nothing new to historical understanding from his experiences. Not until the eighteenth century, as Professor Lach observes, were the conventions of the Ptolemaic atlas finally discarded in Europe.

Nevertheless there is no doubt that the picture changes in the second half of the seventeenth century. The impact of China on the dawning Enlightenment is a well-known fact, set out with admirable urbanity in the pages of Paul Hazard; and it will be interesting to see what Professor Lach has to say of it, when the next installment of his work appears. Even so, one wonders how far the interest of Leibniz, Voltaire, Bayle, and Temple was due to external stimulus, how far it corresponded to a new stage in European development. One wonders, also, how deep, even then, the impact of Asia went. The lesson of Professor Lach’s book—at this stage at least—seems to be that the impact of one culture on another is far more hesitant and superficial than we are sometimes inclined to think. Chinoiserie, japonaiserie, are pleasant diversions or the European spirit, Gauguin’s Tahitian women a breath-taking change from the insipidity of white-skinned femininity. But it is hard to think that the impact of Asia on Europe has been more than peripheral, an embellishment rather than a driving force. Above all else, the emergence of modern science, which is the distinctive feature of modern western civilization, owes nothing of substance to the orient.

These are facts which we shall do well to bear in mind when we speak, as we do, of the revolutionary impact of Europe on Asia and Africa. Nothing is more obvious than the effects of Western industry and technology on Asian and African society during the last century. But we had better ask ourselves whether these easily assimilated techniques are essentially less superficial than the impact of Asia on sixteenth-century Europe. Since the collapse of white domination in Asia and Africa, it has become usual to draw comfort from the belief that the West, while losing political hegemony, has retained its cultural leadership. If Professor Lach’s study of the cultural interrelationship of Europe and Asia, at a time when the latter was “superior in skill and inventiveness,” helps us to reconsider this facile theory, it will perform an invaluable service. Cultural assimilation, it appears, is a stumbling and difficult process, rarely touching essentials. What sixteenth-century Europe learned from Asia did not tear it away from its roots; and what twentieth-century Asia has learned from the West—most of it repulsive beyond belief—has not torn it away from its roots either. If Professor Lach’s book points to any general conclusion, it is that East is East and West is West—a platitude if ever there was one, but a platitude it would be foolish to ignore.


Nehru May 20, 1965