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Origins and Beginnings: The National Question for Asia

Synopsis of talk for Asia-on-the-Edge Festival
Nov 28, 2008
Prasenjit Duara

The distinction between ‘origins’ and ‘beginnings’ was
explicated by Edward Said in the critical study of literature.
Origins are found, discovered, natural, religious and beyond
human production, indeed, transcendent. Beginnings are
associated with human intentions, with meaning and
construction. I want to comment about the applicability of
this distinction in the study of history and politics,
particularly in the history of the nation and large scale
political communities. When Ernest Renan cited the Spartan
song as the hymn of every patrie in his“What is a nation” in
1882, one might say he deliberately fused these two
conceptions: "We are what you were; we will be what you are". The
nation is inherited, but it is also willed into the future.

Renan assumed that all nations need to have a firm sense of
origins, a claim on the loyalty of their citizens that
transcends the self and the human. It is no accident that
modern professional history was co-eval with the nation in
the late 19th century and that to this day the human past is
tracked largely along the boundaries of the present nation.
From the last decade of the twentieth century, a virtual
industry has arisen in exploding the myths of national
histories and origins. It has been a largely deconstructive
effort and little thought has gone into how we are able to
track meaningful histories for our time.

I want to propose here that we utilize the idea of
“beginnings” in the historical study of nations and other
communities of identity. Beginnings do not make
transcendent claims but emphasize intention, will and
agency. Metaphors of family and species are replaced by
notions of complementarities, neighbors and alliances. In
some ways, Singapore is unique among nations in that it is
forced to emphasize intention and will in its continued

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existence. It provides us with a window to possibilities and
choices in a transnational era that are closed to those who
have naturalized their history and community.

The idea of “beginnings” also present us with a way of how
Asia should be thought if the new century is to be the Asian
century; if some form or forms of Asian integration will take
place. Asia too, like Singapore, will not have the luxury of
deep historical myths to unify it—indeed, in their present
form, these deep mythic attachments can be quite
destructive (see for instance the conflicts over Preah Vihara
and Koguryo). We will need the real and tangible history that
has inter-linked Asia in trade, art, religion, conversion, war
and peace. We will need to grasp these links to recognize our
inter-dependencies to forge a new Beginning

The Past in National Histories

Modern historical writing was born together with the nation-
state sometime in the late eighteenth century in Europe, and
emerged in the non-Western world in around the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such writing
frequently served to plant a concept of the nation, instill a
love for it – and hatred for its enemies – and create citizens
who would serve the nation in this new world. In this new
conception of history, the nation – its people and culture, not
the dynasties and aristocracies – was the collective agent or
subject of history. The linear, evolutionary movement of the
nation itself had a propulsive effect since the goal of much
historical writing at the time was to recover the very idea
of a common, or potentially unified, people who could
realize their modern destiny.

Most earlier histories sought to recover the ideals of a lost golden age
whether it is the kingdom of heaven in Christian societies or the era of the
sage kings in China; it was a cyclical conception. But the most basic model
for modern history is linear evolutionism, an evolutionism in which the
species—with an origin and destiny-- is replaced by the nation whether
constituted by race, language or culture. Note that different national

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histories in the world were cast in a common mold of the
linear or progressive history of an emerging national subject
that joined an ancient past to a modern future, often by
overcoming a dark middle age of disunity and foreign

The reality of most history is that people during historical
time did not think about their future existence as a unified
nation. Rulers and subjects, different communities within a
geographical space saw themselves heterogeneously having
different loyalties, world-views and different ideas of what
was important and valuable. Moghuls and Rajputs, Manchus
and Jiangnan gentry, like slave holders and abolitionists in
America were divided and joined by very different ideals and
conceptions of a polity than the modern nation state.

The new historical consciousness synthesized ideas of
progress and popular sovereignty with claims to territorial
sovereignty, three basic assumptions of nationalist thought.
A “people” with a supposed unified self-consciousness
developed a sovereign right to the territory they allegedly
originally and/or continuously occupied. This relationship
became the means of creating a historical agent or (often
juridical) subject capable of making claims to sovereign

This kind of historical writing was often embedded in
mythical elements. An original unity—or rather a unity of
origins—has to be found in the misty past and the story of
evolution is framed by a mythic narrative that foretells the
destiny of the people. Even the United States which may
least be able to develop an originary myth of a people
belonging to the land actually created a powerful myth for
this purpose. Through the 19th and early 20th century in the
United States, this was the propulsive myth of Manifest
Destiny. In 1845, the journalist John Sullivan spelt out the
idea that drove the nation to conquer North America and

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".... the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole
of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the
great experiment of liberty and federative development of self government
entrusted to us. It is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the
earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth."
(Brinkley 352)

Manifest Destiny represented the idea of a mission entrusted
by God (or Providence) to a superior race, the Anglo Saxon
people, to spread over the land occupied by ‘inferior
primitive’ and ‘imbecile’ races such as the native Indians and
Mexicans. In time, this idea spread beyond the continent to
Hawaii, the Philippines and as Michael Hunt has suggested,
washed up on the shores of East Asia as well. This kind of
original divine mission of a people justified the most
extraordinary violence in the history of America.

National myths of origins have also shaped violent histories
in Asian societies as well. Soon after the Meiji Restoration in
Japan, the leaders promoted the idea of the divine origins of
the Japanese emperor descended directly from the sun
goddess Amaterasu and built the cult of state Shinto to rally
the people not only for nation-building but also imperialism.
We are all familiar with the continued if informal state
support of national Shinto shrines that continue to invoke the
imperialist past despite the emperor’s post-war renunciation
of his divinity.

Even in the anti-imperialist nations of India and China, there
are strongly developed ideas of national cultural origins that
generate narratives of a highly developed and rooted sense
of Self versus Other and can fuel hatred and violence. Thus
in India, although Hindu nationalists did not occupy the
mainstream of the Indian nationalist movement led by
Gandhi and Nehru, they were always a major force and have
come to the fore in recent decades. It is notable that when
the BJP came to power in India a decade ago, they actively
sought to change the history textbooks and transform the
people’s self-perception. In place of a history of synthesis

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and unity among India’s different communities that formed
the narrative of the existing history texts, they emphasized
the strong Hindu origins of Indian history and the role of
Muslim and Christian invaders in despoiling the original
culture of the land. They even sought to re-write the pre-
Vedic history of the Indus Valley Civilization in proto-Vedic or
Hindu terms.

It is worth going into some depth into the historical attitudes
in China, not only because that is my specialty, but because
it presents us with an oscillating attitude toward s the
importance of the past and the future. China, more than
elsewhere is a place where visions of history have tended to
look forward rather than backward, but even here the
emphasis on origins and destiny have raised their head at
different points in the twentieth century. It first appeared in
the anti-Manchu revolution that brought the Republic of
China into existence in 1911. The most passionate statement
from the revolutionary point of view was made against the
Manchus by Zou Rong. In Revolutionary Army, Zou wrote,

“When men love their race, solidarity will arise internally,
and what is outside will be repelled. This is the general
principle of the races of the world, and also a major reason
why races engender history… China is the China of the
Chinese. Countrymen, you must all recognize the China of
the Chinese of the Han race.”

The Manchus and other barbarian races in the territory of
China would have to be expelled or wiped out. The
revolutionaries used the Han lineage or clan system to
construct a Han racial nation from a putative ancestral link
to the mythical Yellow Emperor.i Subsequently, though Han
nationalism compromised with the groups in the outlying
regions as the Republic became the Republic of Five

The May 4th movement, which spanned the years 1917 to 1921, is justly
regarded as China’s Enlightenment because students and professors at

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Beijing University and in other provincial cities not only protested
imperialist machinations, but also revolted against centuries of Confucian
orthodoxy and patriarchy. Their slogan was ‘Down with Confucius and
Sons, Long Live Messrs. Science and Democracy’. The movement ushered
in a new era of egalitarian nationalist values founded upon a forward looking
vision of history. During this period the most inspired historian of the
Republic Gu Jiegang attacked the myth of the Yellow Emperor and other
sage emperors that had become the stock of the nationalist myth. He had
some fine insights as to how history tended to re-written for nationalist

“Nowadays we hear of the “Republic of Five Races”, but we
cannot generate any feelings of friendship of the Han people towards
the Manchus, the Mongols, the Muslims and the Tibetans. This is
because the Han have known them to have been “barbarian states”
(fanbang); they harbor an arrogance towards them in their minds and
cannot feel an intimacy. If the Han today were ignorant in the same
way as the ancients and followed those who constructed a false
history, believing that the territories of the Manchus and the Mongols
were in the realm of the Yellow emperor, Yao and Shun and that the
people of those regions were descendants of these sage kings, then
they would see the Manchus and the Mongols as the same as one from
the eighteen central provinces and the five races could truly become a
republic (wuzu jiu zhen keyi gonghele).”ii

This is an extraordinarily revealing passage which suggests that the
fabrication of a deep history is a great temptation for nationalists. But
historians like Gu stayed for the most part true to his professional calling
despite being attacked by the KMT for his critique of national myths. Yet
once the Japanese invasion had occurred, Gu’s work became increasingly
torn between relatively objective historical research and propagandistic
historical writing. Gu began to make deep historical claims upon the
peoples of the vast borderlands of China, because these zones were
contested by the Japanese and other imperialist powers.

In a 1938 text entitled A History of the Changes in China's Frontier Regions,
Gu, who had done more than any other historian to explode nationalist
myths and give the minorities an important role in the making of the nation,
began to deploy the stereotypes of traditional Chinese history. He revealed
that his purpose in compiling such a work was not only to demonstrate
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without a doubt to the Japanese imperialists, but also to enlighten the
Chinese people, that the Han peoples had spread to Manchuria, Mongolia
and even into Korea during the Tang and earlier dynasties and thus had
historical claims there.iii Soon after the fully-fledged outbreak of the Sino-
Japanese war in 1937, Chiang Kai-shek, the President of the Republic in
China from 1927–49 and leader of the KMT party, reversed the Republic’s
formal commitment to the autonomy of the ‘five nationalities’. In China’s
Destiny he declared that the various stocks in China were ‘originally of one
race and lineage’.iv

The principal inheritor of the May 4th legacy was the Chinese Communist
Party that emphasized a vision of national unity (minzu tuanjie) and even an
affirmative action policy towards the national minorities for their shabby
treatment in the past. But while the revolutionary narrative tended to play
down Han nationalist rhetoric of the past, the revolutionaries were
sometimes forced to uphold the greatness of the past particularly when faced
by the contemptuous Soviet view of the Chinese past as having been stuck in
the Asiatic mode of production, a mode deemed to be less progressive than
even the slave mode of production.

In more recent years, of course, the glory of ancient China and the greatness
of the Han people has surged as socialist ideals have ebbed and the need to
tie in with the overseas Chinese has become more pronounced. The myth of
Han Chinese as children of the Yellow Emperor has once again surfaced.
While this may seem like a natural way to connect with overseas Chinese
one should note that it tends to devalue the role of other nationalities in
China, such as Tibetans, Mongols and Muslims, who in turn have also
tended to turn to their own ethno-nationalist roots.

At the same time, however, China has also witnessed more cosmopolitan
efforts as it reaches towards globalization. If in the Maoist years this
cosmopolitanism was informed by a socialist worldview, in more recent
years it has been an effort to embrace a capitalist cosmopolitanism. Thus the
TV series Heshang sought to embrace the “blue oceans” which brought trade
and the Enlightenment and abandon the Yellow River and Great Wall
mentality which they felt was the dominant characteristic of Chinese history.
Heshang was condemned by the Chinese state as having desecrated our
ancestors. Once again in 2006, the city of Shanghai produced a new set of
history textbooks. The high school history books were notable for
eliminating references to Mao Zedong and toning down the references to
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Japanese aggression, imperialism, class struggle and even nationalism. And
once again, these texts met with fierce condemnation across the nation on
grounds that they diluted national solidarity and identity.

I have conducted this long excursus into Chinese history because I want to
show that the 20th century in China has been marked by a distinct oscillation
between thinking historically of the nation as bound by its origins and the
effort to make a new beginning. Indeed we can trace this all the way to the
19th century in China when Chinese thinkers themselves perceived it in
terms of the duality between Ti and Yong (Chinese learning for the essence,
Western learning for practical use) which I will explicate later.

At this point, I will put aside my historian’s cap and venture a bit into
understanding the structural reasons for this oscillation which is in fact not at
all unique to China but to all nations, although it may be more evident
among Asian nations.

The Global Character of Modern Nationalism.

One of the greatest ironies of modern nation-state and nationalism is that
much of it is formed by global practices of other, usually powerful, nation-
states (Meyer 1980). Not only measures such as the hertz and GDP, but the
concept of the child, the deviant, civilization, history and religion are
globally circulatory forms which societies adopt to be recognized as nations
and to become competitive in the system of nation-states. Yet the
sovereignty of each individual nation-state is dependent largely on an
immanent or internal theory of an original people—descended for instance,
from mythic ancestors -- and a historical narrative of this people as poised to
fulfill their destiny in a modern future.

In East Asia, ideas of the nation and technologies of nation-building often
originated in the West but circulated in the region through a complex
process. A common lexicon of modernity circulated in all three societies.
Many new texts, on international law for instance, were first translated into
the Chinese language by Western missionaries and their Chinese associates
in the 19th century using classical Chinese terms (Liu 1999). This
vocabulary was frequently appropriated, adapted and systematized by
modernizers in Meiji Japan and then re-imported into China and Korea to
create a radically new lexicon that, however, still appeared traditional and
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Thus apart from the many thousands of new words coined to express the
language of global culture, an entire class of paleonyms –deriving from the
classical Chinese but re-signifed (originally in Japan) with meaning and
function drawn from Western conceptions of history—such as the words for
“feudalism” (fengjian) or “revolution” (geming) emerged in the Chinese
vocabulary. The word zu, which historically referred to the lineage or
descent line, but came to be translated into the late nineteenth concept of
race or a community of blood ties (zhongzu) by revolutionary nationalists
(Dikötter 1992, 117).

Fetishizing National Difference

While it is practically and cognitively an agent of globalization, the nation-
state also represents the authority—indeed the only legitimate authority-- to
regulate, resist or attack competitors and re-shape society to attain global
and national goals. In practice, many nation-states gain this sovereign
authority not because they were created as such by long-term, home-grown
historical processes, but because they have overhauled their legal and social
systems so that other nations and powerful multi-national entities, like the
United Nations or WHO, may recognize them as such. v

However, nation-states tend to overlook the ways in which they are in fact
the product of foreign ideas and practices and of their own adherence to
external norms of “state-like” behavior. Instead, they prefer to misrecognize
their origins, seeing or presenting only the part of the story in which they
express the will and culture of their citizens. Nationalism as the predominant
ideology of the nation-state has tended to locate sovereignty in the
“authentic” history and traditions of the people—the regime of authenticity--
even while these have been considerably re-signified, if not invented, to fit
the nationalist project. Thus, while world and regional cultures have been the
source of many circulating practices transforming societies into nations and
inter-state recognition has been a crucial source of national sovereignty, the
fact that all nations tend to misrecognize sovereignty as emanating almost
exclusively from within the nation suggests that the dialectic of recognition
and misrecognition is essential to nationalism as a whole.

This founding dualism among nations tends to produce a structural tension,
often schizoid, between a desire to belong or partake of a global culture and
to retreat to the national or more local haven. In China, this dualism goes as
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far back as the late 19th century when reformers couched their tentative
affiliation with global knowledge through the ti-yong (Chinese learning for
the essence, Western learning for practical use) formulation. In Japan, this
dualism was itself doubled: Japan versus the west (wakon yosai), and an
East Asia led by Japan versus Japan in the West (nyuA versus datsuA ) (Befu
1992, 123-125; Oguma 2002, chs 10, 11). Note that the East Asian region
may at different times and for different groups belong to either side of this
duality—as home or the world.

Even in the realm where East Asian national histories evoke their
distinctiveness, they often do so in a common mode. Just as Chinese
nationalists sought to derive the Chinese nation from the mythical Yellow
Emperor and the Japanese from Amaterasu, so did Shin Chae-ho and Korean
nationalists seek to raise Tangun to the same status (Schmid 2002, 183).
Ironically, each of these societies sought to distinguish the authenticity of
their nation often by re-signifying symbols from a common cultural
historical reservoir. One such symbolic role was of the “self-sacrificing
woman” (xianqi liangmu, ryōsai kembo) upon whose sacrifices for the home
and nation, the new citizen and modern society would be built. Similarly,
historical practices of self-cultivation and discipline were evoked from
Confucianism and Buddhism to produce new habits of citizenship, for
instance in the New Life movement of KMT China and later in Korea.

Thus not only have nations been part of the world, but the world has been
significantly within the nation for over a century now. Yet nations often deny
their very globality by evoking the authenticity of national traditions.
Indeed, in some situations, the doctrine of authenticity can blind
nationalisms to the limits of systemically acceptable actions in the world.
During the 1930s, the civilian and internationalist government in Japan was
toppled precisely because it was perceived to have compromised the
authentic traditions of Japan—namely the warrior bushido tradition and
agrarianism-- both at home and abroad. It enabled the nation to defy the
transnational authority of the League of Nations as Japan did in the 1930s. In
a similar manner, the Bush administration has also defied multi-national
authorities in the world.

In our age when overt globalization is making evident the looming tragedies
that require urgent global solutions, can we afford to continue to
misrecognize the common goals and institutions that have formed us? To be
sure I do recognize that humans need community and identity at various
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levels; I am only opposed to the sacralization and hardening of national
identities that can incapacitate common action. Can we overcome the
syndrome that we have identified with the keyword of origins and create
new beginnings?

Today, more than ever, Asia needs to come together because it is growing
increasingly inter-dependent and so are its problems. Interdependence has
both positive and negative dimensions: in the first aspect, we see inter-
investments, job opportunities and cultural efflorescence; negatively, we see
the regional and global effects of climate change, resource and especially
water shortages, economic crises, public health and traveling viruses, among
others. But both need a cultural framework for common action and mutual

The Idea of Asia among Asians

The effort to bring Asia together already has a century of history. It began
with early 20th century intellectuals such as Okakura Tenshin, Rabindranath
Tagore, Zhang Taiyan and many others. I will briefly review this effort in
order to understand the older pitfalls and current possibilities so we may
chart our way a little better this time around. There are three axes around
which Asian unity may be conceived: the cultural and for some in the earlier
period, even racial unity of Asian peoples; the second was the powerful anti-
imperialist movement that developed across Asia and later across Africa
during the first sixty years of the twentieth century. Finally, an axis that has
been much less visible until now is the interdependency within the region
and with the rest of the world. Earlier efforts of Asianists focused on cultural
and political projects and were not founded—or begun, as it were-- on
material interdependence in both the positive and negative senses. This time
around we will need to ground Asian cultural and political consciousness
upon this hard and urgent substratum.

I will review here the efforts of three intellectuals, Okakura, Tagore and
Zhang Taiyan because in this early period, Asianism was principally an
intellectual and cultural effort until it was overtaken by the Japanese military
for imperialist purposes. The early efforts are instructive because they teach
us important lessons. Okakura Tenshin or Kakuzo is perhaps most famous
for his opening line “Asia is one” in the book, The Ideals of the East with
Special Reference to the Arts of Japan written in 1901 (published 1903).
Okakura, who was deeply knowledgeable about Chinese art and culture, was
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closely connected with South Asian Asianists such as Tagore and Ananda
Coomarswamy and American art entrepreneurs such as Fenellosa, probably
did more to establish Asian art as a legitimate and viable domain of high art,
fit for museums and the art market.

It was through his conception of the great civilizational arts of China and
India, and not least the aesthetic values of Buddhism, that Okakura saw the
unity of the Asian ideals that reigned before what he regarded as the
marauding of the Mongols and their successors. In a future project it may be
instructive to consider Okakura’s early conception of the unity of Asia
through art for our own Arts Festival. But even as Okakura was articulating
the ideal of Asia, in the same moment he was also carving out a place for
Japan in the civilized world of the West as the inheritor and leader of this
present fallen Asia. Okakura saw Japan as a survivor and a leader. “Thus
Japan is a museum of Asiatic civilization and yet more than a museum,
because the singular genius of the race leads it to dwell on all phases of the
ideals of the past, in that spirit of living Advaitism which welcomes the new
without losing the old” . The temples of Nara reveal the great art of the Tang
and the much older influence of Shang workmanship can also be found in

Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura had a close friendship and Okakura spent
considerable time in India, acquiring a deep respect for its arts and culture
even while introducing the utterly fascinated circle in the Tagore house,
Jorasankho, to Chinese and Japanese culture. Both men also sought to live
their lives according to their ideals, even dressing in the clothing of their
historical cultures while most of the Western educated gentlemen were
opting for prestige of the West. Yet, of course, let it not be forgotten that they
possessed the self-confidence in advocating their culture because they were
so knowledgeable and polished in the arts of the West. Moreover, theirs was
also sometimes a troubled relationship in part because Okakura could not
quite overcome the social Darwinist presuppositions and imagery of Indian
backwardness, and partly because he was an object of exotic curiosity, if not
ridicule, among many Indians who had never seen East Asians particularly
in their historical dress.

Some have seen a form of Japanese Orientalism in Okakura’s paternalistic
attitude towards the older Asian societies. I believe this is an ahistorical
impulse. Japanese pan-Asianism at the turn of the century had several
different strains including imperialistic ones, but also egalitarian and
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compassionate feelings towards fellow Asians exploited and devastated by
more aggressive cultures. At the same time, pan-Asianism also cultivated a
deep claim of Japanese leadership in Asia and a self-imputed responsibility
to raise Asians from their fallen state. It was this tendency that grew into the
ideological foundations of Japanese imperialism—endowing it with the
mission to lead Asians. Indeed, as is well known, it is the subservience of
pan-Asianism to Japanese militarist imperialism that doomed its future in the
twentieth century.

Zhang Taiyan or Zhang Binglin is widely considered to be one of the most
powerful intellectuals of late Qing and early Republican China. The great
writer Lu Xun certainly regarded him as such and saw himself as a life-long
student of Zhang. Many see Zhang as a maverick thinker who was both
narrowly racist in his violent anti-Manchu revolutionary views and deeply
humanist and learned--being not only the foremost scholar of ancient
Chinese learning but widely read in Buddhist philosophy, especially of the
Alaya or Store Consciousness school of which he was a practitioner.

Zhang became committed to Buddhism during his years in jail (1903-1906)
as a result of his revolutionary activities. He suffered greatly in jail and
watched his younger colleague Zou Rong die under terrible privation. He
claims that he was saved only by his voracious readings of Buddhist
philosophy. We do not have the time here to discuss the allegation of the
maverick’s inconsistency except to indicate that Alaya Buddhism permitted
different levels of consciousness and commitment depending on the needs of
the time. This philosophy disposes one to think very differently from the
principle of commitment to ethical consistency.

Zhang espoused the cause of freedom from imperialism in Asia while in
Japan after his release from prison. There he attended the meetings of the
Indian freedom fighters commemorating the birth anniversary of the
Maratha warrior Shivaji who fought against the Moguls. He is said to have
authored the manifesto of the Asian Solidarity Society created in Tokyo
around 1907. It begins thus,

“Among the various Asian countries, India has Buddhism and Hinduism;
China has the theories of Confucius, Mencius, Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi and Yang
Zi; then moving to Persia, they also have enlightened religions, such as
Zoroastrianism. The various races in this region had self-respect and did not
invade one another…They rarely invaded one another and treated each other
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respectfully with the Confucian virtue of benevolence. About one hundred
years ago, the Europeans moved east and Asia’s power diminished day by
day. Not only was their political and military power totally lacking, but
people also felt inferior. Their scholarship deteriorated and people only
strove after material interests.” (VM translation).

Zhang’s Asianism emerged from his commitment to the values of Buddhism
but also from an anti-imperialism. He saw the threat to the peaceful, agrarian
societies from warlike cultures. But while committed to the ultimate values
of peace, like Okakura, he acknowledged the necessity of creating a modern
nation-state along the Western model to combat the imperialist powers.
Nationalism was a necessary moment in the conception of pan-Asianism.

Only Tagore opposed this position. Tagore was deeply repulsed by
nationalism. Writing about nationalism in Japan, he observed “I have seen in
Japan the voluntary submission of the whole people to the trimming of their
minds and clipping of their freedoms by their governments… The people
accept this all-pervading mental slavery with cheerfulness and pride because
of their nervous desire to turn themselves into a machine of power, called the
Nation, and emulate other machines in their collective worldliness.”
Tagore’s pan-Asianism was deeply affected by his personal friendships in
China, but even here during his last visit to China in 1929 he was severely
attacked by leftist intellectuals and the KMT because of his views. vi Most
of all, he was bitterly disappointed by the growing nationalism of his own
homeland in India where revolutionary nationalists overtook the Swadeshi
movement he had once supported. Their growing narrowness revealed for
instance in their goal to burn every piece of foreign cloth had also begun to
affect the relations between Hindus and Muslims.

Tagore was committed to an alternative cosmopolitanism drawn from Asian
traditions which he sought to realize in Vishwa Bharati (or India of the
World) University at Santiniketan. According to Saranindranath Tagore, who
currently teaches philosophy at NUS, Tagore’s philosophy of education rose
above both abstract and lifeless rationalism as well as violent nationalism
and particularism. He was persuaded that reason would emerge only after a
primary identification with an inherited tradition. Education would have to
nurture the attitude of seeking reason to bridge radical differences by
recognizing the consciousness of humanity’s latent oneness. One of the great
hopes of Santinekatan was realized with the institution of Cheena Bhavan
(China Hall) initiated by the scholar Tan Yunshan whose children, notably
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Tan Chung, remain cultural ambassadors between China and India. Among
others, Tagore’s own relatives were pioneers in introducing Chinese arts and
scholarship to Indians.

Tagore’s cosmopolitanism, which he derived from the Advaita or the
monistic philosophical tradition, has some unexpected parallels with
contemporary thinkers from different traditions such as Jurgen Habermas.
Tagore commitment to the universality of reason as made possible by
working through difference, resembles Habermas’s idea of communicative
rationality as emerging from the negotiation of various value claims of
different groups and communities.

But as with Habermas’s theory of communicative rationality, Tagore’s
educational philosophy could not withstand the historical force of
nationalism and allied ideologies. The logic of communicative acts and
education is not the only or dominant logic of society—the logic of power
often frames this discussion through reified expressions of community (as in
nationalisms or communal religion). For most of the century, while Tagore
was celebrated, his cosmopolitan educational project in Santiniketan was
ignored and marginalized by the imperatives of a competitive capitalism and

Through this brief survey, we have seen how the three major Asian thinkers
were able to conceive of the unity of Asia founded on various different
principles. The idea of a common historical and religious culture, conceived
sometimes as a utopian golden age of peaceful co-existence and dynamic
exchange before the arrival of foreign invaders, may have prompted
Asianists to think of original Asian value. But, by and large they were
looking for new beginnings in the search for alternative values, alternative to
the dominant civilizational narratives of the West. In this sense, they were
the founders of a cultural anti-imperialism and articulators of an Asian
However, their thought was in advance of their time in that it could not be
sustained by the political societies in which they lived. Ideas of race, culture,
anti-imperialism and imperialism to be found in pan-Asianism all spelt a
close relationship with the dominant trend of nationalism. In the case of
Okakura, pan- Asianism became easily absorbed by Japanese imperialism; in
the case of Zhang nationalism took priority because of the circumstances. In
the case of Tagore, the nationalism of his time made his ideas and
institutions irrelevant for a long period.
Duara 15 Nov 13. 08
What can we learn from this experience? This time around, the global
conditions of our continued existence are self-evident. Moreover,
nationalism is not as closely aligned with capitalism because capital itself is
transnational and involves interests and investments in different parts of the
region and globe. Even more important, no single power can dominate the
region as Japan sought to in the first half of the century. These are the
conditions under which it is time to make a new beginning – once again—
for Asian connectedness.

The Asian Arts festival we are celebrating is a cog in the cultural engine that
is generating this new beginning. The festival highlights the inescapable
reality of an increasingly interdependent Asia but it must also attend to the
tensions that accompany this interdependence. We will need to chart this still
unfamiliar zone (of a really connected Asia) with all the resources of
imagination, thought and discussion that the arts can produce.

Finally, it is appropriate that such a festival be held in Singapore. This is not
only because Singapore is a relatively neutral, multi-cultural and modern
Asian territory, but also because Singapore cannot afford to have a myth of
its origins. Singapore, in the well-known phrase, is an ‘accidental nation’
that has to look towards the future to maintain its hard forged unity, sustain
its community roots, and ensure adequate livelihood. As such, like
Singapore, Asia will need to make a new beginning at every turn of history.

Duara 16 Nov 13. 08
Zou Rong, translation in John Lust, The Revolutionary Army: A Chinese Nationalist Tract of 1903,
Paris, Mouton, 1968. See also Kai-Wing Chow, ‘Imagining Boundaries of Blood: Zhang Binglin and
the Invention of the Han “Race” in Modern China’, in Frank Dikotter (ed.), The Construction of Racial
Identities in China and Japan, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 1997, pp. 34-52.
Gu Jiegang. “Qin-Han tongyide youlai he zhanguoren duiyu shijiede xiangxiang” (The origins of Qin-
Han unification and the image of the world during the warring states) 1926. Reprint. in Gushibian, ed.
Gu Jiegang (Beijing: Pu she, 1930), vol. 2.1, 4-5.
Gu Jiegang, Zhongguo Jiangyu Yangeshi [A history of the evolution of China's border regions],
Changsha, Shangwu Yinshuguan, 1938, p. 4.
Ibid., p. 4, p. 12, p. 239 fn. 1.
Ultimately, this recognition is critical: Taiwan which has all the cultural and legal attributes of a
modern nation-state is a pariah state because it is denied recognition by the international system.
Stephen N. Hay, Asian Ideas of East and West: 323-324.