East and West: The twain shall meet

"Asia is one." It was in Rangoon, Burma, under the soaring golden spire of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda monument, that the truth of those words by art historian Kakuzo Okakura struck home.

I had embarked on my voyage of discovery throughout the arc of Asia – from Japan, to Southeast Asia, to India and Pakistan. It was the summer of 1955, just 10 years after World War II. The image most Westerners held of Asia was that it was a continent of strange religions and great poverty. China had disappeared behind the Bamboo Curtain drawn by Mao Tse-Tung and his Communist cohorts. Even Japan had barely begun its climb out of defeat and near-total destruction, and still lacked sufficient rice to feed itself.

I had come across Okakura's words years earlier, as a student. They were the counterpoint to Kipling's "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." How did Asia's oneness apply to Burma, or Thailand, or the Chinese of Taiwan and Hong Kong? (In those days before Henry Kissinger's trip to Beijing, mainland China was off-limits to Americans.)

Burma, like the rest of Asia, was a land of youth. I had taken an early-morning taxi ride to the countryside outside the capital. I heard a murmur of children's voices reciting in English coming from a straw hut by the roadside, and stopped the taxi to wander in. Sitting on rickety wooden benches were about 15 boys and girls, repeating in unison what their teacher was reading from a dog-eared textbook. It was the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." All I remember are those clear, high-pitched little voices shouting, "The wolf is coming!"

The schoolmaster, elderly and bearded, with glasses propped on his nose and wearing a wraparound skirt called a lungi, couldn't have been more accommodating. He stopped the recitation, gave his class some arithmetic problems, and graciously answered my questions. This was his school, he said proudly, and it was called St. Timothy's. He was preparing the children to go on to high school and, he hoped, to university. English was the language he used because it was the one the British had brought to the school system.

There wasn't much more to the conversation than that, but the children's scrubbed faces and eager eyes made a profound impression on me. Burma was enjoying a democratic interlude between British colonial rule and the military dictatorship imposed by Gen. Ne Win in the early 1960s. It was an old civilization, but a young country. The average age of the Southeast Asians, including the Burmese, was something like 15 years.

Back in Rangoon, I took a trishaw, a Burmese pedicab in which the passenger seat is beside the pedaler. I didn't speak the language, but somehow the trishaw made me feel I was more a part of the life of the streets. Men and women were shopping at market stalls pungent with smells of unfamiliar spices. Children with schoolbooks slid between Buddhist monks in saffron robes. The trishaw made only slow progress along the crowded street, but no one was in a hurry, and the musical language sounded pleasant to the ears.

Was Asia one? What did the Japanese – tidy, disciplined, fastidious even in those days of relative deprivation, share with the passing crowds? Or the Chinese of Hong Kong who, like the Japanese, seemed much more in a hurry? Or the Vietnamese, enjoying a brief period of relative peace between the war with France, which had concluded at Dien Bien Phu, and the war with the United States, which was yet to come?

Then the answer came. Okakura was Japan's first major Western-trained art critic, a friend of Isabella Stewart Gardner and the curator of East Asian art at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. He had written "Asia is one" in 1903, 10 years after his first visit to China and a year after his first visit to India. The words are the opening statement of his book "The Ideals of the East," which he wrote in English in order to show the West that the peoples of Asia were not merely struggling, with varying degrees of success, to imbibe Western culture and ways of thought. Rather, these nations, from time immemorial, had had their own proud civilization, which was in no wise inferior to that of the West.

Indian and Chinese thought patterns, typified by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, had intermingled and fertilized each other in intricate webs of art, music, and philosophy. And over the centuries, Japan had become the repository for these crosscurrents. Therefore, Okakura wanted to tell his Western readers that they had as much to learn from Asia as Asians had to learn from the West.

That was true in Okakura's day, and remains true today. The Asians among whom I was voyaging wanted a better life for themselves and their children; they all wanted more schools, and better schools. Most of them wanted something that had come from the West, but was now taking root in their own countries: freedom, equality, and individual rights.

What I glimpsed in Rangoon became the theme song of later visits to the continent – to the countries of the Silk Road; to Mongolia, the land of Genghis Khan's descendants; and to China, finally open to the outside world though remaining Communist. And I came to recognize that Okakura, also, was no cultural chauvinist. He was not merely defending Asian civilization in the face of the encroaching West, but wanting his Western readers to recognize that Asia had its own contribution to make to world civilization.

Okakura could well have written, "The world is one," for that is the vision that sustains our hopes for the future.

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