- The West as the Other: A Genealogy of Chinese Occidentalism by Mingming Wang
This volume is an epic ride through Chinese historical records of major trips to the Western side of the Middle Kingdom, starting from the “synthetic text of myth as history,” as the first evaluated source, Biography of King Mu, is described, up to The Gazetteer of Foreigners (1225), The Customs of Cambodia (1311), The Brief Description of the Barbarians of the Isles (compiled during the Yuan dynasty), and finally Ba Chun’s reports from the first Chinese embassy to Europe (1866). This is followed by the modern receptions of these classic volumes, both in China (from Liang Qichao and Republican China until today) and in the West.
This is a unique, unparalleled study of the “immanent transcendence” of classical Chinese reception of “the other,” focusing on the West. Prior to this volume the Western interpretation of the Chinese world view was dominated by some excellent cultural studies by Marcel Granet (highly valued by Mingming Wang) or international studies and history by John King Fairbank. According to them, among others, the Chinese World, known as tianxia, was highly centralized and hierarchical, with civilization spreading from the “men of letters” of the Middle Kingdom at its epicenter to “cooked barbarians” (shufan 熟蕃) in yewai (wilderness 野外) and farther to—even less civilized and unknown—territories described as lin (林) and finally jiang (疆). The outside “foreign” non-Han world was known as “raw barbarians” (shengfan 生蕃), or the “ocean of barbarians” (yangyi 洋夷).
In the opinion of the author, this was nothing less than a sinified version of Western prejudices and simplifications so well described by Edward Said in his influential theory explained in Orientalism, serving here as a kind of mirror to discover the highly elaborated Chinese “internal Occidentalism”—both dynamic and more detailed than current Western literature on this subject. In other words, the author wants to “internationalize” Chinese interpretations and theories of “the other” (the West among them), and his main aim is nothing else than to produce a [End Page 253] countermeasure to existing stereotypes. As he writes, “to differentiate China from the world is to suggest that China is outside the world.”
Thus, in response, in the meticulous study of first-class anthropology presented here the Chinese perception of “the other,” and especially the Western world, is much more sophisticated. Instead of a static and thus simplified point of view, we have here a very dynamic re-interpretation of Chinese “explorations to the end of the world.”
Following in the footsteps of the author, we discover several reorientations of direction in a constant search for “the other.” In ancient China, the East and the West initially “were not merely directions; they also conveyed the meaning of the world.” Then, when King Mu in the first-ever known (partly mythical) travel to the West went to meet the mystical Xi Wangmu, he was supplementing the East (sunrise) with the more mysterious land of the West (sunset). However, several centuries later the main direction of Chinese exploration in search for “the other” changed and was synthesized with the Immortality Mountains Overseas (Haiwai xianshan), located not to the West but to the East of the center. Then we observe the surprising attempt to “easternize the West, and westernize the East.” Only during the Han dynasty was the West down-graded and put on a lower level. However, the world outside was still perceived as partly magic, partly mythical, and it remained illusionary and mainly unknown in fact. It was still more cosmography than geography. Reality came with the fearsome forces of the Xiongnu tribes from the northwest. With a real source of external challenges, this inter-cultural relationship became more historical and less mythical.
Then, with the major explorations by Chinese envoys (Fahsien after 399, Songyun, Fali, and Huisheng in 518, and especially the seventeen-year trip by Xuanzang, finalized in AD 645), Buddhism (from the West) was adopted in China and “India became the House of All Sages.” Thus, similar to...