New life for Asian culture

October 10, 1997

AS A young student, I enjoyed courses that introduced me to ancient civilisations, but I never expected these civilisations to return to centre stage in my lifetime. We all paid our respects to Toynbee's awesome study of dead and living civilisations. Some of us were also dazzled by Sorokin's cultural dynamics, but frankly I did not get far trying to read Spengler's predictions for a declining West.

The recent revival of interest in civilisations in some universities is noteworthy. Historians who had given weight to non-western cultures have come out to join their world-systems colleagues who had earlier focused on explaining western expansion. Centres for the study of comparative civilisations are gaining prominence. An international institute for civilisational dialogue has attracted attention. Inter-religious studies now sound more relevant than the dry courses on comparative religion, and combining religion with international affairs has juxtaposed new political insights with deep moral concerns. Two years ago, an international seminar on Islam and Confucianism in Malaysia attracted some attention; this has recently been followed by another meeting on the "present realities and future possibilities" of civilisational dialogue.

How has this revival of interest come about? For 40 years, the subject of culture was the reserve of anthropologists. A few historians wrote about civilisation, commonly in the singular, which implied that the West was the only living one with a future. But for us in Asia, the real world was about science and nuclear destruction, the ideological war between capitalism and communism, third world politics, and revolution and imperialism in one form or another.

It was not until the 1970s that the idea of culture surfaced again in Asia as something relevant and serious. Two factors were responsible. At one level, the oil shock drew attention to the empowerment of Islam. But more significantly, people began to hail the miraculous recovery of postwar Japan. Some scholars began carefully and hesitantly to refer to cultural factors in economic growth.

Economists on the whole were not convinced, but the success of several East Asian economies, notably the so-called "four tigers" of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, produced cultural analyses that became harder to ignore. Eventually, there came the surprising economic transformation of the People's Republic of China, and this further focused the mind on culture, and on the common heritage of Confucianism.

More claims for the power of culture began to appear, if only to argue that some cultures were antagonistic towards economic development. In some circles, culture even rose to be on a par with politics and economics as determinants of historical change. Where Confucianism was concerned, it aroused the Chinese everywhere, even among those who had denounced it as feudal and anachronistic not so long ago. New terms like "cultural China", "greater China", "bamboo networks" and "Chinese capitalism" were invoked to bring out cultural factors in modernisation. Some claims have gone too far and the sceptical have counterattacked fiercely and effectively.

For the timid student of ancient civilisations, all this is heady stuff. We are asked to see that culture is alive and all around us, that only the insensitive could miss its importance in world affairs.

The final straw was probably the end of the cold war and the displacement of ideology. Without ideology, the temptation to project future conflicts on the basis of cultural differences became harder to resist. As the strategists struggled to redefine power systems in the world, it was understandable why Samuel Huntington turned to an alternative vision like the "clash of civilisations". This produced a minor industry, especially in Asia, which unwittingly stimulated an even greater fascination with the three or four civilisations that survived the West's onslaught.

As long as the anthropologists were in charge, the preferred word was culture. But when culture touches on politics, and global politics at that, there has been a restoration of the idea of civilisation as an expression of past and present power. This is not a casual development. It reflects a major shift in perspective from the focus on nation-states to match the tendency among business executives and political savants to think, talk, and act globally as much as possible.

How will this affect the study of the humanities and social sciences? For the former, civilisations are largely unarmed. Their strength lies in inspirational ideas, their capacity to provide spiritual and moral enlightenment, and their universal appeal to the high and the low, the rich and the poor. For the latter, the starting point is the calculus of wealth and power, and it is hard for most social scientists to avoid the numbing effect of four decades dominated by the cold war balance of terror.

Will more universities enter the fray? Funding structures mean the future of civilisation studies is likely to rise and fall with the extent to which civilisations can be made to explain business success and strategic advantage.

This is not all bad news for liberal education in Asia. There is much work to be done. The quest for a civilisational response from peoples who have begun to regain confidence and self-respect is unlikely to wither away in the face of cynical and bullying voices from some corners of the West and the habitual contempt for things oriental they reflect. But such reactions against western domination among Asian elites need to be supported by evidence and reason. They need scholarly substance if they are to have any long-term educational value.

The work is worth doing. The new life given to ancient civilisations may look like the social science of the weak, but the powerful refrain that means little today in the dominant civilisation - "the meek shall inherit the earth" - could be used to cheer these latter-day cultural workers on.

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

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