Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post Modern World

by Patrick Smith

                                                                     
   

This book is essentially a collection of three essays on the future of the world in the 21st century. I initially chose to read it because I wanted to learn more about China but it is broader than that, encompassing large parts of Asia and also a discussion of the development of the West.

The first things that struck me on starting to read the book was that it had the longest introduction of any book I have ever seen. The introduction finishes on page 35. However after reading further it was obvious that it was also a good introduction. I have grown to hate those books that have an introduction that tells you a whole lot of nothing and describes the chapters and how to read the book. This introduction really sets the scene for the essays that follow.

The next thing that struck me was a statement on page 25:

This is NOT a useful book in the way that we ordinarily think of one. We will not evaluate the GDP statistics of China, India, or any other country mentioned. We will not think overmuch about cars, currencies, production platforms or comparative advantage............ The neglect of these topics is altogether by design”

This made me want to read the book more because I think there is plenty written on these things, sometimes from a basis of too little understanding of the broader strategic alignments and pressures that are coming to bear.

The essays are structured to answer three key questions in the author’s mind.

The first question is what does it mean to be modern? The first essay is entitled Calligraphy and Clocks and looks at the effects that the West has had on Asia, particularly over the last 150 years. The basic thrust of the essay is that China, Japan and India have all been deeply affected and while they have dealt with the impact of the West in different ways in many ways they have gone through the same cycles, albeit in different time frames. However the author strongly believes that Asia is now changing from what has largely been a sort of an inferiority complex and is poised to move into the next century in a different way, not replacing the USA in its dominance but significantly reshaping how the world works.

The second question is what did the great encounter with the industrial West do to jar loose so many people from their past? The essay that attempts to answer this question is entitled the Buddhas at Quixa. The Buddhas at this site were defaced in the Cultural Revolution and the author takes this image and looks at the destruction that has long been part of China’s history to look at what has happened. The central thesis is that the key imposition from the West was the creation of an attitude of future-consciousness which destabilised the path and methods of China, in effect destabilised its past. This plus the other changes that occurred destabilised the sense of self of both the individual and the state. The changes wrought by the West also changed the people’s sense of belonging. It is the author’s belief that these changes form the basis of the way Asia has evolved in the face of modernisation and only by understanding how this is happened can we start to think about what might happen in the future.

The third question is can Asia understand itself without reference to the West? Or is Asia evolving an idea of progress that does not solely arise from ours – an idea that might be of use to all of us? The essay that seeks to answer this question is entitled the Skyward Garden. This essay commences with a story about Kitakyshu in Japan which featured in the first essay as a place that slavishly followed the modernisation of the industrial West without critically examining the problems associated with that modernisation and therefore ended up an environmental mess. The area has now fundamentally changed but not in a way that is slavishly following the West again. In fact the central thrust of the essay can be summarised by a quotation early in the essay from Hiro Mizoguchi who is in charge of international cooperation in the city’s environment department:

“We had our ideals and beliefs but we decided to follow the West” “We wanted progress in the Western way, so we forgot our own ways of thinking. Then after a time a certain impatience began to arise within us. And then our original beliefs came back”

If this is true and a new way or progress is being formed then we would eb advised to closely follow what happens.

At the end of reading this book I came to three conclusions:

  1. After one reading I was not in a position to fully critique the book because it required another reading, and some research to be able to critique rather than criticise. However reading it made me want to read it again more carefully and do that work. So I will write another review for our next newsletter because this one is mainly descriptive rather than critical (in the best way) and does not do the book justice.
  2. That while my initial reaction to some of the views and reasoning was that some of it was overblown and overcomplicated it provides a very strong and valid point of view that needs to be thought about and dissected.
  3. That the book is only for those who are really interested and have a vested interest in understanding possible changes in Asia because otherwise it is a bit too dense and hard to comprehend. So if you have those interests I recommend reading it as an alternative point of view. If you don’t have those interests then wait for the next review!

  1. After one reading I was not in a position to fully critique the book because it required another reading, and some research to be able to critique rather than criticise. However reading it made me want to read it again more carefully and do that work. So I will write another review for our next newsletter because this one is mainly descriptive rather than critical (in the best way) and does not do the book justice.
  2. That while my initial reaction to some of the views and reasoning was that some of it was overblown and overcomplicated it provides a very strong and valid point of view that needs to be thought about and dissected.
  3. That the book is only for those who are really interested and have a vested interest in understanding possible changes in Asia because otherwise it is a bit too dense and hard to comprehend. So if you have those interests I recommend reading it as an alternative point of view. If you don’t have those interests then wait for the next review!