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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 99-130

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The Discourse of Civilization and Pan-Asianism *

Prasenjit Duara
University of Chicago

REPORTER: What do you think of Western civilization?

GANDHI: It would be a good idea.

According to the guidelines provided to those applying for U.S. citizenship, a person may decline to take the oath of loyalty to the U.S. Constitution if this oath conflicts with a religious belief. Despite the nation-state's prerogative to make deep claims upon the loyalty of its citizens, it often recognizes that the highest truths are not necessarily to be found within the national community, but in a transcendent or universal realm. Indeed, nations tend to recognize the superiority of religious truths because their own raison d'être is often founded in a spiritual or universal truth. The discourse of civilization in the era of nation-states is closely tied to this yearning for a transcendent spiritual purpose.

This essay deals with the transformations in the discourse of civilization in the twentieth century and its complex relationship with nationalism, particularly in East Asia. Nationalism and racism were not the only sources of identity in the twentieth century. For many millions of people in the world, the older spiritual and religious ideals incorporated in a new conception of civilization continue to be an [End Page 99] even more potent source of moral authority. The essay considers the ways in which the ideas of Asian civilization, East Asian civilization, and eastern civilization were expressed, realized, and embodied in various intellectual, political, cultural, and social movements during the interwar years in East Asia. The critical problem in understanding civilization during this period is the extent to which it could be identified with or appropriated by a nationalist goal. Although nationalism, too, sought its ultimate meaning in civilization, it tried equally to manipulate it for expansionist purposes. As long as nationalists were able to deploy civilization as a supplement to nationalism, the civilizational idea could scarcely realize its promise as the higher authoritative principle from which the nation-state itself could be judged.

Part I: A Genealogy of Civilization

The relationship between nations and civilizations transformed sometime during or at the end of the First World War. From the late nineteenth century until that time, the signifier Civilization had become established as a singular and universal phenomenon in much of the world (Gong 1984, 12). During this period, Western imperial nations invoked the signifier to justify their conquest as a civilizing mission. Whole continents were subjugated and held in thrall because they were not constituted as civilized nations by means of a formulation where to be a nation was to be civilized and vice versa. To be sure, the idea that there were civilizations other than that of Europe or of Christianity had been around from at least the eighteenth century; during the nineteenth century, however, the singular conception of Civilization based originally upon Christian and Enlightenment values came not only to be dominant but to be the only criterion whereby sovereignty could be claimed in the world. In this way, it also became clear that to be a nation was to belong to a higher, authorizing order of civilization.

Arising in the context of European domination of the non-Western world this conception could be specifically found in the legal language of various "unequal treaties" and its interpretation by the international lawyers of the time. At an explicit level, the term Civilization in these treaties and interpretations referred principally to the ability and willingness of states to protect life, property, and freedoms as rights (particularly for foreigners), but this usage necessarily also presupposed and demanded the existence of the institutions of the modern European state, and its goals, values, and practices, ranging from the pursuit of material progress to Civilized manners and clothing. By the late nineteenth century, international law and its standard of "civilization" [End Page 100] became increasingly positivist and reflected the social Darwinist conception that certain races were more civilized than others. The renowned scholar of international jurisprudence, James Lorimer, declared, "No...