New interest in old powers

September 17, 1999

As the colonial past recedes, Asia is taking a fresh look at what Europe has to offer, writes Wang Gungwu.

A shift in the way Asians study Europe has changed for the first time in a century.

Encounters among officials, academics, artists and businessmen confirm the growing interest in Europe since the first Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Bangkok in March 1996 .

Universities in Asia have been busy activating their European courses, from language and history to a wide range of social science questions about the European experience.

The earliest and most significant response to Europe came from the Japanese. The speed at which Japan sent its bright young men to Britain and Germany to master the secrets of wealth and power was breathtaking.

China followed close behind, but was far less systematic because the Manchu Qing dynasty fell and the new republic founded in 1911 was hijacked by warring generals. Divided China had no budget and even less vision, so students tended to go to the United States or Japan. A few went to Europe but it was obvious that not many had studied, as the Japanese did, with their national interest uppermost in their minds.

The only other country in Asia that was not colonised was Thailand. It followed parts of the Japanese model, but its interests were different. More concerned for the country's survival than for the strength to challenge western power, Thai rulers preferred to send their brightest to France, Britain and Switzerland rather than to Germany.

As for the rest of Asia under colonial rule, they predictably were allowed to send only a few students to the colleges of their European masters.

There were two exceptions. Higher-class Indians did get to Britain in significant numbers and they returned with a picture of Europe that only the British had. They in turn imparted the same image of British superiority and apartness to the elites of lesser colonies such as Ceylon and the Malay states. The other exception was the Philippines after the Americans took over from the Spanish. Its education was so transformed that Europe was seen entirely through US glasses.

Colonials of the Dutch and the French fared better, but it is still remarkable how little they knew about the rest of Europe outside the Netherlands and France. A few enterprising nationalists sought the larger picture as they wondered how their colonial powers were to be driven away. For this, they turned to alternative "Europeans", such as Britain, Germany and Russia. Failing that, they looked to Japan, an Asianised version of Europe.

These made up the broken pieces of the European heritage when decolonisation came after the end of the second world war. Even less remained when Japan led the way by turning to the US and China chose to side with the "European" heresies of the Soviet Union. Having to repair what survived of Europe after the war meant that the Europeans themselves had less to offer those in Asia who were thirsting to learn from the West. Strong nationalists wanted to look for new sources of economic and technological development.

How then was Europe taught in courses at their new universities? At one level, the negative picture of Europe, whose people once thought they were superior, was sustained. But that was quickly replaced by a more abstract rendering of things progressive as coming from "the West".

This helped to displace colonial memories and, depending on political leanings, it allowed the US and the Soviet Union to enter the education frameworks all over Asia without removing "Europe" from its historical position as the source of modern civilisation.

Many Western European countries have never really left the shores of Asia. They continue to be trading powers and, even while they are negotiating for their own security as a new regional bloc, they still tend to represent themselves as competing nations, albeit far less aggressively than in the past. In addition, Britain, France and Germany are still successfully projecting their cultural heritage in schools, colleges and universities wherever they are allowed to.

But except in the humanities - notably literature, philosophy, history and the fine arts - the Europeans have found it increasingly difficult to make a distinctive impact on Asian education. Too much of the heritage of progress is subsumed in a global Anglo-American body of knowledge and skills. Non-English-speaking Europe is fighting back as best it can, but its Babel of voices has remained a handicap. For several decades in Asia, contemporary Europe is rarely seen as an example of scientific advancement.

With the reconfiguration of Asian-European linkages through ASEM, however, there is now a chance for old Europe to be replaced by a new Europe. This is not just because studying Europe has become fashionable.

What is new is the idea that the powers that had introduced almost all aspects of "modernity" and secular education into various parts of Asia still have something to teach. This is in the area of region-building in an era of global linkages. Suddenly, the efforts of the European Union to revive new kinds of European studies among Asian universities have begun to bear fruit. In a curiously modest and tentative way, Europe is returning to Asian tertiary education as a kind of "area studies". Thus, it begins with language, culture and history. But then are added issues of finance and economics, various unfinished social experiments and questions of political compromises. Can this challenge bring Asian students back to the new Europe?

Wang Gungwu is director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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