What the Japanese are saying

T.H. Barrett

  • Central Asia in World History by S.A.M. Adshead
    Macmillan, 291 pp, £42.50, February 1993, ISBN 0 333 57827 9
  • Japan’s Orient: Rendering Pasts into History by Stefan Tanaka
    California, 331 pp, £30.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 520 07731 8

Christchurch, New Zealand looks rather a long way away on most maps – somewhere in the bottom right-hand corner, usually – but one can tell, even from London, that the intellectual atmosphere at the University of Canterbury must be something very special, at least in historical studies. Somehow, whether because it perceives itself to be perched on the far edge of European expansion, or perhaps thanks to the comparative lack of distraction from archives in the immediate vicinity, its history department seems always to have encouraged a certain breadth of vision rare in other centres: one thinks, for example, of J.J. Saunders and his writings on the Mongol Empire and its place in world history. This intellectual legacy has been taken up with a vengeance by S.A.M. Adshead, by origin a historian of late imperial China, in recent works such as China in World History and Salt and Civilisation. His latest offering, on Central Asia, wastes no time on its opening page sorting out just what world history is for his purposes – namely, something which came into being circa 1200, the date of ‘what Joseph Fletcher (1934-84), the greatest modern Central Asianist, called the “interlocking of histories”’. This all looks very promising: Joseph Fletcher certainly was the greatest. But since early death robbed him of the chance of ever producing a book of his own, his ideas live on mainly as refracted through other people’s perceptions of what he had to say in his widely scattered writings. The next mention of Fletcher a few pages later suggests that all is not well with this particular attempt to build on the master’s legacy. Here, and throughout Adshead’s book, he is credited with the ‘theory of blood tanistry (from the Celtic word meaning “succession”)’, but what Fletcher wrote was ‘bloody tanistry’, to signify not simply consanguinity (already implied by the word ‘tanistry’) but also the succession of the fittest, which in the harsh conditions of the steppes, and even in some states with nomad origins like the early Ottoman Empire, meant specifically the succession of the most bloody, bold and resolute. This was usually achieved by the Central Asian tanist wiping out all his brothers, and possibly a few other male kinsmen as well, though occasionally a kind-hearted parent (such as Selim, father of Suleiman the Magnificent) would anticipate matters by murdering all his male offspring but one.

Of course ‘blood tanistry’ may be due to no more than a squeamish copy editor, but even minor errors in a book which has to be convincing in its handling of a large range of disparate information, or else succumb to suspicion as to its accuracy at every point, at once put the reader on the qui vive, and Adshead has not only his Introduction but also a preliminary chapter on ‘temporary world institutions’ spanning the entire history of Central Asia up to 1200 to get through before he reaches ‘interlocking’ history. Yet where most authors would be content to skate as smoothly and rapidly as possible over this thin ice – the Indo-European expansion, the Zoroastrian revelation, the Buddhist ecumene and so forth – this one cannot resist the temptation to add something of the flavour of true scholarship on these topics by larding his prose with bits of parenthetical philology. Thus on Ferghana, known in Chinese as Ta Yuan, we get ‘Yavan, Yonakas, Ionians, Greeks’, a string of equivalences which when decoded yield only a World War One-vintage etymology already abandoned by the Fifties. Worse still, some of these parentheses seem to be all his own work: ‘Fa-tsang (Dharmapitaka)’ apparently reflects the knowledge easily gleaned from secondary sources that Buddhist Chinese fa usually reflects Sanskrit dharma, Chinese tsang usually reflects Sanskrit pitaka. Any worthwhile dictionary of East Asian Buddhism soon reveals that the two Chinese syllables in combination may stand for a number of different Sanskrit words, but not the one that Adshead has put together.

This is a pity, because the breezy style provides a far more agreeable initiation than most into the mysteries of Central Asian history (though a map – any map – would have made things even more painless) and the organising ideas which are put forward from Chapter Three onward deserve serious consideration. One does not wish, therefore, to feel obliged to keep a nervous eye on the footnotes (or lack of them). Chapter Three is to be particularly recommended for stressing that the Mongol Empire was no mere storm from the East, contributing nothing but an excess of blood and thunder to the story of mankind, but the means whereby a ‘Basic Information Circuit’ concerning the true extent of human civilisation came into being, especially through Marco Polo’s Description of the World: ‘In effect, it hypothesised Australasia,’ we learn. Of course we are on shakier ground when dealing with imagination in history than when dealing with plagues and peoples (the ‘Microbian Common Market’ of Chapter Four) or a nascent world economy (Chapter Eight): Chapter Seven’s attempt at lumping together Naqshbandi Sufis, dGe-lugs-pa and Jesuits, for example, contains the unfortunate implication that the Dalai Lama was not a Tantrist – was St Ignatius Catholic? But a world history which includes discussion of cultural history such as the contemporary ‘Anglophone overlay’ (i.e. the prevalence of English as a second language) is at least trying seriously to live up to its name.

There is no denying that Adshead’s approach marks a sort of advance. The historical profession (hereabouts, I mean) is stuck in a pre-Copernican, flat-earth view of the world which divides it up into British, European and (in the brutally utilitarian terminology of London University, at least) Extra-European; other universities solve the problem of non-Western history more elegantly by never mentioning it, except in some form of subordination to other categories: ‘Expansion of Europe’; ‘The West and the Third World’. Any book which demonstrates the inanition of such profoundly antiquated ideas achieves something. But once culture and consciousness are admitted to any role in the interlocking of histories, there is a great deal more to look at than simply the period since 1200, because consciousness of history before that point (in the Islamic world, back to 622, for example) has played a vital part in subsequent interaction on a global scale.

This may look like little more than a debating point, but another study very different from Central Asia in World History suggests that we ignore it at our peril. Stefan Tanaka’s book is a revision of a doctoral dissertation, and it shows. Instead of enjoying a dizzying overview of vast tracts of Asian history, we find ourselves stumbling wearily through what at first sight seems rather unpromising terrain. Tanaka’s doctorate was based on an examination of China as it appeared in the work of the Japanese historian Shiratori Kurakichi (1865-1942), though his book has been recast in order to give more prominence to the Japanese-language equivalent of the Orient, an entity made infamous by Edward Said, even if Tanaka’s own influences stem more from Bakhtin than from Said himself. There is still a great deal about China in this book, and especially about the pre-war Japanese term for China, ‘Shina’, originally a Buddhist term used even by Chinese Buddhists themselves when they wished to avoid the implication in the customary self-designation ‘Middle Kingdom’ that the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment was not actually the centre of the universe, but in Japanese parlance clearly opprobrious: the derived word shinajin has some of the overtones of ‘Chinaman’ or even ‘Chinee’. It is alarming to read that even the cosmopolitan and erudite Enoki Kazuo, who died only a couple of years ago, advocated retaining ‘Shina’ as the Japanese name for China. We don’t always use the names foreign countries use for themselves, but Enoki’s proposal comes close to advocating the official use of a term like ‘Krautland’ or worse. Much of Enoki’s teacher Shiratori’s work, as described by Tanaka, went into the construction of elaborate theories attempting to show, for example, that the entire Eurasian landmass wavered unsteadily between Northern, barbarously warlike, and Southern, dangerously effete influences, except for the two fixed points at either end – this was the era of the Anglo-Japanese alliance – where such influences were harmoniously combined. Ominously, these theories tended to justify a Japanese mission to sort things out on the mainland.

Some have found Tanaka’s description of a circle of Japanese intellectuals obsessed with China (Shiratori was highly influential as a teacher of other historians if not as a public figure) somewhat surprising in a Japan which they assume was primarily concerned with emulation of the West, but Tanaka draws on a body of existing research which confirms that China did loom large in late 19th and early 20th-century Japanese thinking, because it was very large, and very close, and very unstable, and linked to Japan by cultural ties going back way beyond 1200. It is even possible to argue that Tanaka does not do justice to Shiratori’s concern for Asia beyond China, however apparently remote that may seem to have been from immediate Japanese interests. Of the five volumes published under his name, three were on Inner Asia, one on Europe and one on Japan; none was on China: why? No Japanese ventured into Inner Asia before the late 19th century, but the Buddhist view of the world depicted the heart of Asia as the way from the East to the holy places of India, and this view was enshrined in maps circulated among Japanese Buddhists until Early Modern times – by contrast, Japan itself was lost over the outer edge of the Buddhist world. No wonder that intrepid explorers like Kawaguchi Ekai and Count Otani were inspired by Buddhism to seek their Asian roots, and that Shiratori, who inclined towards the somewhat unpleasant mix of Shinto and nationalist ideas which came to dominate pre-war thought, spent much of his time constructing an Asia independent of the Buddhist scholarship which, try as it would, could never make the Buddha himself into a Japanese.

What emerges very clearly from Tanaka’s account is Shiratori’s disappointment at the failure of any European historians to engage in dialogue with him. This may partly be because he was responding initially to a very dated phase of European historiography on Asia: the work of Klaproth mentioned by Tanaka was first published in 1826, though admittedly no later work of synthesis was available in Europe when Shiratori visited in 1901-3. It may also have been because the only European scholar with the same range of concerns as Shiratori, the remarkable Paul Pelliot (1878-1945), could read most of the languages of Inner and East Asia but not Japanese. Perhaps because the fashion had already been set by contemporary European scholars like Pelliot, Shiratori was willing to publish a vast range of empirical research in exquisitely wrought articles written in English and German for academic journals, but addressed most of his larger ideas solely to a Japanese audience. Whatever the reason for the failure of communication (and it is worth mentioning that during Shiratori’s time there was no professional historian in this country who commanded a knowledge even of both Japanese and Chinese, the most basic requirement for the study of East Asian history), it is clear that the view of Japanese historiography revealed in hindsight by Tanaka would have furnished outside observers with unmistakable clues as to the direction of Japanese thinking about Asia.

Never again, one trusts, will Japan take that particular road. Tanaka is perhaps a little too hard on post-war Japanese historians of Asia. The periodical Toho shukyo, for instance, was not (as he would have it) a continuation of a pre-war title, but a new creation which took the lead in showing that medieval Chinese Taoism, dismissed as superstition by most early 20th-century Chinese intellectuals, was actually a treasure trove of forgotten knowledge, rich in spiritual symbolism and protoscientific lore. Many Japanese historians also displayed a keen sense of remorse for earlier attitudes towards Asia, long before the appearance of Edward Said, and redoubled their efforts at communicating their ideas to the English-speaking world through such journals as the immensely helpful Acta Asiatica. But this and other periodicals simply communicate the findings of academics; surely we should also be paying attention to the recent evolution of Asian history in the Japanese media, beyond the confines of the academic press. The most obvious foible of popular historiography in Japan has been a pandering to what the excellent new Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan terms ‘the seductive ideas of Japanese exclusivity’, the complex of arguments vaunting the uniqueness of the Japanese subsumed under the general term Nihonjinron.[*] But a Japan which can no longer just congratulate itself on being Number One, but must also take steps to act internationally in that role, is not entirely well served by a conviction of its total separateness from the rest of the world community, so for the past decade or so a new popular Asian history stressing the international and cosmopolitan nature of Japan’s heritage has emerged alongside the dominant Nihonjinron model.

This new approach takes many forms, but inevitably emphasises in the first instance a more Asian Japan, albeit a Japan which is part of an Asia exerting far more influence over Europe than we have cared to imagine: the Japanese version of a joint NHK/BBC production on the Mongols, for example, plays down the Storm from the East theme entirely, concentrating on much less bloody images of East-West interaction, such as the Mongol figure standing mutely in a 14th-century Siena fresco. Far more influential, however, has been the recent Japanese interest (enthusiastically abetted by travel agents as well as by writers of historical fiction) in the so-called Silk Road. The term was first used by F. von Richthoven, a German geographer who was one of Shiratori’s hosts on his visit to Europe. He originally validated European interest in the vast tracts of empty land and was the first to survey them systematically by linking them with Europe’s Greco-Roman heritage. Today, in the many works crowding the Silk Road sections in Japan’s major bookstores, those lands are no longer as imagined by fervent medieval Japanese would-be pilgrims as the path to India, nor as reimagined by Shiratori as a chaos on which order might have to be imposed, but are perceived as the route whence Japan derived its ancient heritage of Western, Middle Eastern, Central and East Asian culture. Japan’s apparently peripheral position on the map is thus turned to new advantage: only Japan can count itself heir to the entire span of Old World civilisation, from China westwards; Japan is not simply unique, but in a privileged position to lead the rest of the world.

We shall see. As yet, this cosmopolitan history seems largely for domestic consumption. Japanese money, poured into the promotion of Japanese studies here and elsewhere, is firmly wedded to demonstrating the excellence of what is typically Japanese, whether it be sumo wrestling or car manufacture. There is no money in trying to discern what Japan actually thinks of the rest of the world, so the same Western ignorance which Shiratori found so depressing is unlikely to change very soon. Books like these by Adshead and Tanaka will continue to be reviewed politely, but most British historians will consider extending our knowledge of the Tudors and Stuarts the more urgent priority. Japanese will be left to the Japanologists, and much of the rest of the world beyond Europe to historians only capable of reading English, for whom uttering pieties about the ‘Other’ will remain a smarter career move than attempting to understand the viewpoint of historians using non-European languages. Nothing awful is likely to happen as a result, it is true: only that the pre-modern history of Central Asia will continue to look very long ago and far away from Britain, even as it becomes very much part of the here and now of a much more successful nation.

[*] The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan (edited by Richard Bowring and Peter Kornicki, 408 pp., £29.95, 27 May 1993, 0521 40352 9), it must be said, puts its companion volumes such as the recently revised Encyclopedia of China to shame, both in terms of coverage and of presentation – the appearance of the volume (printed, one notes, in Italy) is almost up to Japanese standards. Pictures such as the Japanese macaques relaxing in midwinter in a hot spring might justify the cost of the volume to a good many readers, even were the scholarship of the contributors not as accomplished (and readable) as it undoubtedly is.