E is for East

Yuan dynasty artist Zhao Mengfu, Autumn Colors on the Que and Hua Mountains,
1295, National Museum of Taipei

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet…

Rudyard Kipling

East is a matter of perspective. East is a direction on a two-dimensional map, assuming north is up. To San Francisco, China is to the west and New York is to the east. For New Yorkers, San Francisco is west and China is east. But directions are also concepts, so San Francisco is the Wild West and China is the Far East. China is never the Far West, even though its longitude is exactly opposite that of New York.

Merchants on the Silk Road, from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, met their trading partners among dozens of rendezvous cities along the route. At any point, east and west perspectives might have shifted. Constantinople was to the west of India and China. The Yangtze delta, home of the silkworm industry, was east of Xi’an, capital city of the Tang dynasty during the Early Middle Ages, a heyday for the travelers.

But the “East” is itself an idea to European (and American) scholars that has become linked with views about parts of Asia. It can be hard to separate the simple idea of a compass direction across that vast continent from ideas attached to the cultures on the continent. There have been assumptions made and conclusions drawn that reflect biases we might not even notice unless we think about it.

“Snake Charmer” by Gerome, 1879, Clark Art Institute, photo at Khan Academy.

Orientalism & the Byzantine Zombies

The idea of “Orientalism,” that depiction of the east as exotic and primitive, a place that needs civilizing and subjugation by northwestern European cultures, was described in detail by Edward Said in his pioneering 1978 book. Scholars have dug in deep to debate some of what Said wrote, pointing out that even when he talks about the east, he means the Middle East and Egypt and scarcely mentions the rest of Asia. But the ideas at the core are there:

“European culture [gains] in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient,” distilling Asia down to “Oriental despotism, Oriental splendor, cruelty, sensuality…”

Said pointed out, for example, that British politicians made arguments that western cultures naturally looked toward self-government whereas eastern cultures did not. Arguments in favor of colonization and subjugation were long justified by explaining the value of democracy over despotism. It wasn’t just civilizing the natives but a particular kind of native.

One view of the Byzantines as to the east, photo from Quora.

Or, consider the whole idea of the Byzantine Empire. That empire was localized in Constantinople, the inheritor of the Roman empire after Rome itself was repeatedly attacked by tribes it had been subjugating. As medieval historian Leonora Neville explains, the idea of the “fall of the Roman empire” was created after the Renaissance was over. The term Byzantine was slapped on a culture that lasted centuries and ran “Rome” from Constantinople, a combination of Greek and Roman practices that thrived long after the caesars died off. But the word referred back to the city prior to it becoming Christianized, linking it to an ancient and arguably, dead, past.

Emperor Justinian w/Saint Sampson (Baumgartner ~1750), photo from artvee.com.

Thus, Neville points out, historians characterized the empire as full of scheming women and eunuchs–a city full of Varyses (Game of Thrones). Paintings from the European Enlightenment might show some of the Roman trappings with togas and such, but the men appear effeminate and everyone lays about as if they can’t be bothered to think deep thoughts anymore.

The folks in the Renaissance had to do this because they were claiming a renewal of classicism in 1400, even though the Byzantines had been immersed in classical culture up until the time they were destroyed by their allies, the Venetians, only two centuries earlier-. Neville argues in a brilliant podcast, “If antiquity never fell, you can’t Renaissance it… you have to kill the Roman empire off and that’s where we get the Byzantine un-dead zombies…” with writers like Edward Gibbon claiming that the Byzantines were in perpetual decay… for a thousand years.

Meanwhile, nearly every map of the Silk Road reinforces that Constantinople (Istanbul from 1453 forward) was also to the west, not always the “exotic” east.

Xanadu and Other Savage Places of European Imagination

The British poets doubled down. In his poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats discussed immortality by creating an image of the contrast between being an “aged man… a tattered coat upon a stick” and the everlasting nature of art as “a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/Of hammered gold and gold enamelling…” But the art of Byzantium is for a “drowsy Emperor,” so we are back to Justinian and Constantine in their perpetual state of decay.

When Yeats further writes of the “Second Coming” where the “center cannot hold,” what emerges from the desert is “a shape with lion body and the head of a man,” a beast that will “slouch toward Bethlehem” to be born. Humanity’s days are over, according to Yeats, because the monster will take us out, but it’s a monster coming out of the sands of the desert. All desert from the Irish point of view was those exotic lands to the east (and south, too).

Depiction of poem “Xanadu” according to History of China wordpress blog.

Lastly, if we’re going to think about British poets and their depictions of the east, then Coleridge has to enter the fray.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.

“Coleridge”Xanadu”, 1816

Coleridge calls his conjuring of the palace of Khubilai Khan a vision, as in a dream–because the east has to remain a mythical place. The idea of the palace created by the Mongol emperor of China can’t be combined with the idea of warrior archers who conquered Asia. It has to remain, as Coleridge says, filled with things “measureless to man,” a “savage place” so exotic that the sun has disappeared.

Even the fellow who writes a podcast about Chinese history chose an image of Xanadu with a person dressed in Persian dress (an outlandish outfit at that). Compare that garish painting to the real art of the Yuan dynasty, shown at the top of the post. Khubilai chose non-Chinese scholars, fearing that the educated Chinese bureaucrats would undercut his decisions. This forced a lot of free time on existing scholars like Zhao Mengfu, who then produced art of the period that was both impressionistic and precise. No measureless caverns needed, just the whisper of the trees and the elegant slant of the calligraphy that was as much valued as the shape given to the mountains.

That’s not the “romantic chasm” of British poets, where golden birds sing and rough beasts are slouching around.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem about East and West, whose oft-quoted first line– “never the twain shall meet”–suggests that these cultural chasms can’t be crossed, does suggest an alternate view. As Kipling experts point out, few readers (including myself) don’t get past the first line. The poem tells the story of a British and Indian man who begin at odds with each other but end up swearing blood brotherhood, both humans despite their differing cultures.

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

Kipling, “The Ballad of East and West”

Despite the acknowledgement that people come from different ends of the earth, the Silk Road might be seen as the ultimate place of cultural exchange, the place where east and west become one and the twain do meet.

Depiction of the Silk Road from csstoday.com.

4 Replies to “E is for East”

  1. We have definitely inherited a lot of romantic preconceptions and prejudices and it is a challenge to see beyond them.

    Visiting from A to Z

  2. Thanks for this. I love when people help me explore the false narratives that I never invited into my brain but showed up because of the culture that I live in.

    1. I’m going to steal er borrow that: “the false narratives I never invited but show up because of the culture I live in…” perfection! I suspect you’re going to see that theme repeated in other posts. Thanks for the comment!

    2. It is so hard to tease out the truth, too. It’s been translated by multiple people in multiple languages. It’s like history is a big giant knot of knots and the more you untie, the more there still are! Thanks for the comment!

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