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The Not-So-Spiritual East

God’s Dust: A Modern Asian Journey

by Ian Buruma
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 267 pp., $18.95

Beside the road that connects Solo to Jogjakarta in central Java, a beautiful village named Begajah was barely beginning its quest for a modern way of life when I arrived in 1971. People there lived under thatched roofs and padded barefooted down dirt paths. Its rice fields were meticulously cultivated. Its palms were laden with coconuts. Bananas and papayas ripened everywhere. Chickens and goats and water buffalo and ducks were tended by small boys who always seemed to be laughing or jumping into the new irrigation ditches. People poured buckets of water over their heads from backyard wells each morning. Tiny oil lamps flickered inside houses at night. Electricity was sixteen years away. But ghosts and spirits, both good and bad, lurked everywhere as they always had in defiance of centuries of teaching by the importers of ideas called Islam and Christianity.

Reading God’s Dust, I was reminded constantly of Begajah as Ian Buruma roams Asia listening patiently to urban natives from Japan to Singapore pine wistfully for the villages of their past, the villages where the real Japan or Taiwan existed pristinely before Western modernity ruined them.

Begajah was “real” back then, and it looked very much like the paradise village urban Asians now miss and foreign visitors claim they can no longer find. It was immaculately clean because it was too poor to afford to throw anything away. It had no garbage, no scrap paper or wrappings. Women even saved their hair combings for the man who came around to buy them for the wig factories of Singapore. No dust either, because most Begajahans were too poor to buy anything that went fast enough to create dust. Half the families couldn’t afford bicycles.

Begajahans ate precious little of the fruits and protein their trees and animals produced. That high-priced food had to be sold to buy cheaper dried fish, soybean cakes, tapioca, and other basics that kept stomachs fuller longer. Still, there were hungry times. The young boys may have giggled a lot, but conditions of hunger and ill health took their toll. Boys who were twelve and thirteen years old in Begajah looked like well-fed eight-year-olds in Jakarta. To Begajahans, their twelve-year-olds were normal.

Begajahans those days would not have been complete without the resident Indonesian army sergeant, whose job it was to maintain order, in part by limiting the importation of ideas that conflicted with what Indonesia’s military rulers had decreed to be the truth, namely that Indonesia was developing into a prosperous and modern nation, and all that stood between the chaos of communism on the left and the chaos of fanatical Islam on the right was their inspired leadership. Other truths weren’t even whispered. It was relatively easy to police thought in a village where so few truths circulated.

I went back to Begajah sixteen years later and found garbage and dust and noisy motorbikes and boogie boxes blaring pop songs late into the night. Dead batteries were strewn along the footpaths and plastic bags littered the ditches. Electricity, Coke, and refrigerators had arrived, as had beauty parlors, where women actually paid to have cut and discarded hair that once had a market value. The people thought nothing of going to a town three miles away to watch movies or use a telephone. Young men were home from college on vacation, or back from big cities with incredible stories about their wondrous delights.

It would be easy for someone without Mr. Buruma’s sense and experience to cite the new Begajah as yet another example of how the spiritual East has been spoiled by influences of the materialist West, how its people, like millions of fellow Asians, mainly young people, have been cast adrift from their spiritual village roots and propelled into cities, their inherent decency forever polluted by Western values, their aim in life to consume, their morality broken, their self-esteem sinking faster than an Eighth Avenue crack addict’s. For Begajahans themselves, this was a silly notion, because they knew better than any outsider what the old paradise was really like and they preferred the new one, thank you.

These were very good times. Begajah was now a long way from the hunger and sickness of the past. Young people’s minds were no longer stunted by malnutrition. They had been exposed to education and were agile as never before. They had enough material and mental wealth now to be able to make choices. The choices weren’t always good but they were made much more freely. Education had given young Begajahans the ability to decide things, an ability Asian urbanites and foreigners ignorantly assume they always had.

Ian Buruma is not a purveyor of distorted nostalgia for the paradise village. He knows what luxuries choices are there and how disorienting it can be to be confronted with them. In an elegantly written account of his journey through eight Asian nations, he seeks to know “what happens to people when the loyalties and traditions of the village break down and are replaced by the complexities of the modern world.” He is sympathetic to those caught in the transition and he listens sympathetically to Asians who say that paradise has been lost. But he is less sympathetic to those who say it is the fault of “the West,” especially those inclined to say the spirit of the East has been poisoned by the pollution of the West, as if Asian villagers chose the impoverished but spiritual village and were now being lured away from that choice by Coke.

Buruma, a writer who has lived and traveled in Asia for a decade, is irritated by two clichés: that the modern way of life is necessarily an import from the West, and that the world can be divided into the spiritual East and the materialist West. He writes:

Naturally, like all clichés, these two contain fragments of truth. Western influence in Asia cannot be denied. And capitalist modernity is to a large extent materialistic. But have rock music, McDonald’s hamburgers, and Dynasty really made the Thais less Thai, or the Japanese less Japanese? What does it mean, anyway, to be “Thai” or “Japanese” or “Filipino” or “Korean” in the modern world? Does it simply mean clinging to old ceremonies and traditions? Is it a matter of language, or race?

It is the main theme of contemporary Asia—and not just Asia. How to be modern without losing your cultural sense of self.

Many Westerners visiting the East have had a remarkably arrogant tendency in the twenty years of my acquaintance with the region to take credit for all they see wrong there, which usually includes most of the things that make the East more like the West. Just as they pine nostalgically for the small American towns of their youth—towns they couldn’t wait to escape—so do they pine for the pristine Asian village they cannot find. They see the abuses of Western imperialism recast in new forms. Colonial scars remain, of course, but it is not unimportant that the youngest two thirds of Asia’s population have lived under their own Asian rulers all of their lives, and the rest of the population for most of their lives.

Westerners blame themselves for the ruination of Asian cities simply because those cities contain much of the same bad taste as their own do. They want to blame themselves and the West for ruining the East because it seems important to their self-esteem. Not to assume responsibility is to leave open the possibility that the West isn’t as important to the East as they presume it to be. They want to believe that Asians are suckers for Western seduction, that they are easily taken in by beads and slogans. This, of course, is not only racist but also not far from being in accord with Deng Xiaoping’s views on the evils of Western “spiritual pollution”—a toxin that took People’s Liberation Army tanks to clean out of Tiananmen Square in June. Deng wants the gleaming modern city populated by village nerds. Spiritual pollution is not, after all, Coca-Cola and rock ‘n’ roll. It is not material pollution. It is free thought: the freedom and ability to question the emperor’s mandate to rule, whether the emperor is a king, a sultan, a general, a president, a prime minister, or the puppeteer who pulls the Politburo’s strings. Such pollution opens up the possibility of choices, bad choices and wrong choices, which breed chaos. Chaos is not bred in villages but in marketplaces for ideas, in cities and on campuses and in places where young people freed from the control and isolation (call it serenity if you like) of their villages can open up their minds to everything, an exercise that has been known to lead to an ability, eventually, to make wise choices. In some parts of the world, this is known as growing up. It takes an emperor to be threatened by it.

Mr. Buruma journeys from Rangoon to Hiroshima, through Burma, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. It is striking that in all these nations, and in China and Indonesia, young people have in the last few years rebelled anew against their emperors. The demands of the students in Tiananmen for a little more freedom and a little less corruption are present throughout the region, in nations with very different levels of wealth, economic development, equality, corruption, and political repression. Burma is the most isolated and un-Westernized nation on this tour, but “spiritual pollution” is rampant there. Last year extensive demonstrations against the military dictatorship of Ne Win and for free elections, a free press, and the end of one-party rule were crushed. “Thousands of unarmed demonstrators were shot in the streets,” Buruma writes, although Western television was not around to record the festivities as it did the events in Tiananmen.

Sealing off a culture from the corrupting influences of the outside world has a somewhat similar effect to shutting young girls up in a segregated boarding school—they fall in love with the first bit of corruption that comes their way,” Buruma observes. “At the black markets teenagers buy T-shirts with Japanese or English words on them—no matter what they mean, as long as they are foreign.” Buruma isn’t partial to Western schlock, but he doesn’t see it as a toxin either.

It is hard to say which is worse, the tackiness of Coca-Colonization or the peculiar flowers that grow in a culture artificially but imperfectly isolated from the modern world.

Burmese rulers have sought to strangle Rangoon, that British edifice, as part of a deliberate attempt, Buruma writes, “to return to precolonial village Burma, ruled by a ruler who knows best but is accountable to no one.” The village allows an emperor. The city fights the emperor. “It is a common theme in Southeast and East Asia, the use of tradition to bolster modern authoritarianism,” Buruma notes.

Modernity was thrust upon Burma and the rest of the non-Western world. Asians had no choice in the matter. But is that a reason for rejecting it? Is rejection of modernity, in the name of kings, secular or divine, not infinitely worse than rational measures to benefit from its fruits? I felt that it was. And it was to test this feeling that I undertook this journey, beginning in Rangoon and ending in Japan.

Buruma describes Ne Win: “His alleged irrationality, his extraordinary secrecy, his merciless punishment of the slightest hint of disloyalty, all this reminds people of the royal Burmese style.” It also reminds me of the style of Deng Xiaoping, Lee Kuan Yew, Suharto, Marcos, Mahathir bin Mohamad, and Pol Pot. He quotes an educated Burmese as saying, “Socialism is just an excuse for the Old Man to nationalize the economy. Not because he is opposed to private enterprise, but because he wants total power.”

Bangkok, with its brothels and sex tours and discos, makes guilt-ridden Westerners twinge. Not Buruma: “After the air of slow death of Rangoon, I felt like kissing the ground of the newest Bangkok shopping mall. Here the king plays jazz.” Westerners mistake Thailand’s tourist bubbles for Thai reality.

The same girl who dances to rock ‘n’ roll on a bar top, wearing nothing but cowboy boots, seemingly a vision of corrupted innocence, will donate part of her earnings to a Buddhist monk the next morning, to earn religious merit,” he writes. Despite catering to the corrupted taste of Westerners, Thais “know who they are,” he says, adding, “Under the evanescent surface, Thais remain in control of themselves.”

A Bangkok human rights lawyer says rural villagers in Thailand are poor, ignorant, and exploited but “spiritually richer than us.” Buruma doubts this as one might doubt American blacks were spiritually richer as slaves.

The Hmong drink Pepsi-Cola, as do most Thais, as do most people,” Buruma writes. “It is sad, perhaps, that popular consumption is often in bad taste and wasteful, but a poor choice is better than no choice at all.”

The modern authoritarian rulers of Asia have used Western weapons and methods of control to maintain their power but they have also used notions of tradition and village order to preserve it. In the Philippines, Western-financed King Ferdinand and his fiesta queen, Imelda, tried to make distracted munchkins out of villagers they were stealing blind. In Malaysia, Western-educated Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad exploits Islam and affirmative action programs for ethnic Malays in order to keep political power away from ethnic Chinese who are as numerous as Malays. In supermodern Singapore, iron-willed Lee Kuan Yew, who thinks in English, has made Singaporeans terrified of speaking freely and suspicious of outsiders who do:

The anxious suspicion of outsiders in Singapore is not merely a matter of political oppression, which is clearly worse in Peking (Beijing). In Singapore it is social as much as political: it is the fear one finds in a very small town, where everybody knows everybody, where all walls have ears, where careers are destroyed by neighbors who tell tales, where those that stick out, behave oddly, speak out of turn, are seen as threats to the perfect order and must be dealt with, as the fussy housewife deals with those shameful specks of dust.

It is Lee Kuan Yew’s special village. Taiwan’s Nationalist Chinese rulers had theirs too. So did Park Chung Hee and his successors in South Korea and the Beloved Leader Kim Il Sung in North Korea. And so to a remarkable extent do the Japanese. As Buruma writes, “Individual sacrifice for collective ends is extolled as being part of Asian culture. Adversarial politics is not.” As Lee says, down that latter road lies “contentiousness and confusion.” Deng’s chaos.

When Deng opened China to Western technology and aid ten years ago, he said “a few flies,” which is what he called Western spiritual pollution, or bourgeois liberalism, would come through the open door too. I would like to have read more from Buruma on how thoughtful Chinese were coping with those flies before Deng sent in the tanks.

I remember when Deng stepped off his CAAC charter at the Beijing airport after his one and only visit to the United States in 1979. Chinese dignitaries, foreign ambassadors, and the press were there to greet him, and Xinhua, the government news agency, issued a historic bulletin. The “running dogs” and “lackeys” that spiced Xinhua’s reporting in years past were long gone. Now even the official presumption that Deng’s American visit had been a triumph was missing. Instead, to the amazement of Western reporters who watched the bulletin clack onto their Xinhua printers, the official news agency of the Chinese Communist party reported that “informed sources” said the trip had been a success. In a flash, one of the wiliest spiritual pollutants in Western journalism, the informed source, had infiltrated the mainland press.

In August of that year, Vice-President Walter Mondale toured China. At Xian, he visited the burial ground of Qin Dynasty clay warriors, and a Western scholar along on the visit noted that the burial ground might represent an early case in China of human rights in action, because clay models were buried with the emperor instead of live warriors and horses, which had been the custom in the past. Perhaps the very notion of human rights, like gunpowder, came from China and therefore wasn’t a Western spiritual pollutant at all. This was not a thought on which senior officials chose to dwell in those days, and the subject matter quickly changed to the care and preservation of the ruins and what a marvelous addition to the hard currency tourist bubble they were going to be.

The moment passed, the visit ended. Back on the press bus, an interpreter-guide who sheepishly admitted that he had been a resolute Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, said that we would be going straight back to the guest house to rest before the evening banquet. The day’s touring was over and, he said, we could all “mellow out.” Oops. Somebody from the vicinity of California had obviously been there before us, spilling language toxins willy-nilly.

Then at Christmas on that first year of normalization of relations between the United States and China, Seiji Ozawa and half a dozen first-chair Boston Philharmonic players arrived to help the Beijing Central Philharmonic Orchestra with professional classes and Western sheet music. Ozawa conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a cold, dusty concert hall that made tuning futile. But the real surprise came when the Bejing musicians walked on stage. Instead of their old Mao tunics, they wore suits. The vocalists wore tuxedos and long dresses (polyester no doubt), and the women wore makeup. The audience literally gasped. Buruma’s boarding-school girls once again.

Through the door to the West, Deng saw vast quantities of expertise and hard currency pouring in to turn China from one vast, primitive village into a shining city full of enviable, if not free-thinking, inhabitants. He needed the fruits of Western free thought to save China from the failure of another Western-controlled thought, which after three decades had left his country controlled but mired in poverty, a poverty that was shared with admirable equity. China must sacrifice and get rich and modern first before such luxuries as free thought could be tolerated, he said. Bourgeois liberalism would have to be fought for twenty years, and even after that it would never be allowed to challenge the supremacy of the Communist party.

But a few flies did come in through the open door. Soon China would play host to Coca-Cola and John Denver and Maxim’s and Isaac Stern and Marlboros and five-star hotels dispensing cheeseburgers and pizza. These things didn’t worry Deng a bit because they were very much contained in tourist bubbles segregated from all but privileged Chinese and floating as specks on a vast sea that remained feudal China. They were mere symbols, and poor competition to the earlier Western idea, communism, with which Mao Zedong and the others had rolled back Western imperialism. Those symbols loomed in the form of huge black-and-white portraits of four Caucasian faces, Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, that faced north from the edges of Tiananmen Square toward the Forbidden City. They were dubbed “The History of Shaving” by Western journalists and eventually the Chinese government found them incongruous enough to dismantle them from their permanent roots and display them temporarily each October around Revolution Day, the day on October 1, 1949, when Mao Zedong who had never read any of these men’s ideas in the language in which they were espoused, and little of them in Chinese translation, proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

The history of shaving has come and gone from the square but two things remain constant: the color portrait of Mao Zedong hangs above the main gate of the Forbidden City, facing the square, the same direction from which emperors once faced their subjects from inside the city. And centered in the south end of the square is Mao’s mausoleum, in which a shrinking, oranging Great Helmsman rests for pilgrims and tourists alike to shuffle past. Maybe Mings go better with Coke, as some wag suggested when former president Jimmy Carter visited the Ming tombs eight years ago, but Mao is still there in the middle of the square, in the symbolic heart of China. This is not Mao the Communist. This is Mao the Emperor.

What Deng did in Tiananmen came after Ian Buruma completed God’s Dust, but his book firmly suggests that the tanks had less to do with Marx than with the tradition of the emperor, guarding the social order against the chaos of free thought and choice. Buruma writes:

I am convinced that if Deng Xiaoping had a blueprint for a perfect modern China, it would look rather like Singapore: clean, prosperous, disciplined, pragmatic. One of the outstanding traits of Singapore officials is to use Western tools—parliamentary speeches, newspaper editorials, legalistic arguments, etc.—to put down Western (though not uniquely Western) concepts such as individual freedom or the right to know. What the PM (Lee Kuan Yew) is aiming at is the solution to a Chinese—not to mention Japanese—dilemma that goes back to the dawn of our modern age: how to separate Western science from Western ideas, English as a tool for practical use from English as a conduit for liberalism, Cambridge from Confucianism.

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