A Wider View

Organized by Angelika Malinar and Simone Müller, the topical lecture series “‘Asia and Europe:’ Actors, Concepts, Narratives” (fall semester 2015) aimed to illustrate the long and complex history of exchanges between Asia and Europe. Thematically, the individual lectures dealt with philosophy, literature, law, social practices, and material culture.

Roman Benz

The individual lectures were held by participating professors, postdocs, and alumni (whose current affiliation is indicated in parentheses) of the URPP Asia and Europe, offering a broad overview of its research activities.

In the first lecture, Mareile Flitsch and Norman Backhaus talked about street food vendors and the importance of their skills in Malaysia and in Switzerland. With the example of a small town in the northern Malay Peninsula, Backhaus showed the great importance that street food has in many Asian countries. From early morning until late night, vendors provide the town’s inhabitants with affordable food and drinks. By this practice, they produce and reproduce space using formal and informal rules and regulations. For instance, although there is no legal claim of ownership with regard to the places the street vendors occupy, newcomers usually pay a fee or rent to the established vendors. The authorities tolerate the vendors at many in-official places, as long as they do not obstruct the traffic or cause hygienic problems. In Zurich, on the other hand, selling street food is highly regulated, as Flitsch pointed out. For example, only about 20 public places are available for running one of the popular roasted chestnut stands. However, these formal rules are interpreted and followed with individual variations. Moreover, Flitsch showed how important skills are for the production of traditional dishes on the streets, as well as for interacting with customers. After the lecture, the public was invited to have a snack in front of the building at Rämistrasse 59, where Asian street food was served.

Ducklings in preparation for the snack offered after the first lecture of the topical lecture series.

“Occidental daughters of mother India”

In her lecture, Angelika Malinar focused on the careers of European women in colonial India against the background of Victorian notions of the roles of women and so-called “heretical” circles in Britain in which eastern religions, female rights etc. were propagated and Western colonialism and materialism criticized. Impressed by the teachings of the Hindu monk and scholar Vivekananda, the teacher Margaret Noble (1867–1911) moved to Kolkata in 1902, in order to open a girls’ school. She was given the name Sister Nivedita by Vivekananda and she committed herself to the liberation of India from the British hegemony. In the same way, Annie Besant (1847–1933) strived for Indian self-determination and for a merging of “Eastern” and “Western” values under the umbrella of Theosophy. In England, Besant had already been a famous left-wing activist and feminist. After meeting theosophist Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), she turned to spiritual questions and took on a leading role in the Theosophical Society. She moved to India and became in 1907 president of the Theosophical Society, whose headquarters were—and still are—located in Adyar, a neighborhood of Chennai in South India. Besant became an important figure in the Indian National Congress (INC) and its struggle for Indian independence. In 1917 she was interned by the colonial government because of her political commitment. At the peak of her political influence, she was the president of the annual congress of the INC in 1917. While being largely forgotten in Europe, Margaret Noble and Annie Besant are viewed in India as “occidental daughters of mother India.”

Bettina Dennerlein and Aymon Kreil dealt with marriage in the Arab world. They approached the topic with a focus on family law, on the one hand, and with a focus on discourses on the tension between arranged marriage and love marriage, on the other. Dennerlein pointed out that in its contemporary shape, Islamic family law is a recent phenomenon. In traditional Islamic law, marriage was defined in purely private contractual terms. At the same time, the strictly hierarchical order between men and women (as well as between religions) was upheld. Upon marriage, the husband acquired an “ownership-like right over the marriage” (arab. milk an-nikāḥ). Accordingly, the union could be dissolved through repudiation by the husband’s unilateral will. In contrast to traditional Islamic law, modern Islamic family law, which has gradually emerged since the late colonial era and has enjoyed support by religious reformers as well as liberal intellectuals and nationalists, has re-defined marriage and the family as the core institutions of state and society. Marriage and the family were considered the realm of national authenticity as well as of private intimacy. This redefinition significantly enhanced the appreciation of the women’s role as a wife and mother, without questioning the husband’s position as the head of the family. Kreil reported on his anthropological fieldwork in Cairo, where he studied the interactions between unmarried men and women. A telling example of current habits is the emergence of Valentine’s Day. Especially in the upper class, it has become quite popular for lovers to give each other presents on this occasion. Some conservative circles, however, consider Valentine’s Day as a threat because it is an imported celebration and they consider it to lead to sexual excesses. However, the need for love and sexuality is most often recognized. Nevertheless, many parents try to convince their children who are in love—sometimes with the help of psychological consultations—to postpone their current needs for physical proximity until their wedding day.

Sandra Hotz (Universities of Fribourg and Zurich) compared the evolution of relationship and family forms in Japan and Switzerland. While the equality of husband and wife is constitutionally guaranteed in both countries, love marriage is less common in Japan than in Switzerland. Often, economic benefits are the most important reason for getting married in Japan, but the number of married people is decreasing, much like in Western Europe. In 1950, only about 1% of all Japanese under the age of 50 were unmarried (Switzerland: approx. 20%), but today, 20% of male and nearly 10% of female Japanese have no husband or wife (in Switzerland about 40% of the population under the age of 50). The life as a wife and mother is increasingly unattractive to well-educated Japanese women, as the work relationships are not compatible with the combination of parenthood and employment, and there are no governmental efforts towards an alternative family policy. The rise of celibacy is a demographic problem for Japan, because children are born almost exclusively to married women. In Switzerland, 20% of all children are born out of wedlock, but only 1% in Japan.

Hans Bjarne Thomsen dealt with East Asian art objects in Swiss collections, such as the Museum zu Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen, the Ethnographic Museum in Burgdorf and the Museum der Kulturen in Basel. Thomsen stressed the connections between East and West that were (and still are) inherent in these objects. Acquired by Swiss merchants, engineers, and diplomats, numerous art objects made their way to Europe since the opening of Japan to the West, but knowledge of their precise origin was often lost over the years. Today, art history has a great interest to reconstruct the patterns of trade, the active agents, their histories, and motivations. For example, a group of students at the University of Zurich’s department of East Asian art history are currently carrying out a survey of the archives and collection of Wilhelm Kuprecht (1868–1955), one of the early Swiss visitors to Japan. He traveled there in 1902–1909 to work with a textile company located in Kyoto and he assembled many Japanese art objects, including hundreds of woodblock prints. Scholars from Japan provide scientific support in several areas of expertise.

Francine Giese demonstrated the considerable influence that the Alhambra in Granada exerted on the European architecture of the 19th century. The medieval castle complex served as a model for Owen Jones’s (1809–1874) Alhambra Court in the London Crystal Palace (finished in 1851) or for the summer palace “Wilhelma” of the Württemberg Kings in Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, built between 1842 and 1864 by the court architect Ludwig von Zanth (1796–1857) and his successors. In the park of the Sanssouci palace in Potsdam, even the Dampfmaschinenhaus (“steam engine house”) took up the so-called Moorish style of the Alhambra. Constructed between 1841 and 1843 by Ludwig Persius (1803–1845), the building supplied the energy needed to operate the park’s large fountain.

Genuine Hindu art

In her lecture, Elisa Ganser dealt with the question of how the idea of “Indian art” changed in the course of time. The European interest in artifacts from India increased since the mid-19th century. To promote professionalism in the field of art, the colonial government established art and design schools in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta in the 1850s. At first, Indian art was considered as applied art, which was fed by centuries-old traditions and fell short of the individual creativity attributed to European fine arts. But within only a few years, artists such as Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906) managed to catch up to contemporary European painting. Around 1900, many Indian artists turned away from European art. Under the influence of Indian nationalists, they went in search of genuine Hindu art, which they believed to have found in the Indian middle ages.

Andrea Riemenschnitter depicted the fragility of national identities by the example of Chinese settlement movements to South East Asia. Several millions of ethnic Chinese live in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand—often in distance to the local population and exposed to occasional pogroms. Many of them feel a tension between their Chinese descent and their local rootedness, a feeling that can be found in the rain forest novels by the Malaysian-Chinese writer Zhang Guixing (*1956). Born in Borneo and now living as an English teacher in Taiwan, his novels deal with (spiritual) commuting between the country of the ancestors (a mythic China) and new homelands. In “My South Seas Sleeping Beauty” (2001), the young protagonist flees from Borneo to Taiwan, after his girlfriend slips into a coma upon falling from a tree house. He studies European literature in Taipei, but when he realizes that he is in love with the twin sister of his injured former girlfriend he terminates his relationship with a fellow student and returns to Borneo. In Riemenschnitter’s opinion, Zhang’s work can be read as an inquiry into alternative, postcolonial cosmopolitanisms for lack of other paths to escape the essentialism of ethnicity- or tradition-based national identities.

From anarcho-syndicalism to Bolshevism

Raji C. Steineck and Elena Lange focused on the reception of Marxist theories in Japan. As Lange pointed out, the early criticism of the consequences of industrialization such as the increasing inequality between the rich and the poor was not yet formulated in the context of socialist thinking. So, the Social Policy Association (1898–1924) admired Bismarck’s welfare programs and advocated a restrained capitalism. With the Social Democratic Party, the first left-wing party in Japan was formed in 1901. Their members’ claims were clearly socialist: for example, the claim for public ownership of land and capital. Around 1920, anarcho-syndicalist currents of thought were influential in Japan, but the Bolshevik-oriented Japanese Communist Party (JCP), founded in 1922, marginalized them. After the Second World War, the JCP stood for a Soviet-style Marxism-Leninism, while the economist Kōzō Uno (1897–1977) elaborated an independent interpretation of Marx’s “Capital” and critically dealt with “dialectical materialism.” Since the 1970s, a decline of Marxian theory can be noticed in Japan. Steineck presented the theorists Hiromatsu Wataru (1933–1994) and Maki Yūsuke (*1937). They used Marx’s writings as a starting point for their reflections on the concepts of nature (Hiromatsu) and time (Maki). Steineck demonstrated how Hiromatsu was led by his reception of Marx to understand “nature” as the result of a process of object formation with essential links to the capitalist mode of production. This basic understanding was elaborated in some detail by Maki with respect to the notion of time. Maki was able to show how the concept of time as a quantified, measurable and homogeneous system of coordination becomes “naturalized” in capitalist societies. Capitalist social practices such as loans, wage labor, pension plans and the like make quantified homogeneous time a reality to reckon with in everyday life and one that takes precedence over other conceptions of time. Both Hiromatsu and Maki thus stand out for their original development of Marxian thought.

Ulrich Rudolph and Roman Seidel (Freie Universität Berlin) dicussed different types of the Argument for God’s Existence elucidating how it constitutes a shared philosophical problem in the entangled intellectual history between Europe and the Islamic World. They showed how both rational Islamic Theology (kalām) and Islamic philosophers such as Avicenna drawing on Aristotle appropriated various forms of the argument, and how they were further modified and adopted by Medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas or the Hebrew Polymath Maimonides. Beyond that Rudolph and Seidel turned to the 20th century and demonstrated, for instance, that Middle Eastern thinkers re-evaluated Kant’s fundamental critique of classical philosophical arguments (the ontological, the cosmological and the teleological) for God’s existence. Highlighting a discussion of the contemporary Iranian scholar Mojtahed Shabestari, they gave an example of a modern philosophical account of the concept of God as an instance of practical rather than theoretical philosophy. They further showed that an argument from creation brought forward by the Islamic Theologian and critic of the peripatetic tradition al-Ghazāli (d.1111) has been adopted by a strand of modern western philosophers labelling their own version “The Kalām-cosmological Argument.” Accordingly, Rudolph and Seidel finally argued for a re-consideration of current Eurocentric narratives in the history of philosophy.

World Bank’s fear of a damaged reputation

Matthäus Rest’s (University of California, Los Angeles) talk was on the Arun 3 project in north-eastern Nepal. Although the planning was quite advanced and initial construction works were done, the World Bank withdrew from financing the hydropower plant in 1995, thus causing the end of the project. This withdrawal was provoked by protests of international NGOs, but also by concerns formulated by the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, which was established in 1993. The Panel feared a breach of the World Bank’s own environmental and social standards and thus a loss of reputation. The interests of the local inhabitants who hoped for an enhancement of their standard of living due to the Arun 3 project were not taken into account. Since 2014, an Indian construction company continues the project in a public-private-partnership with the Nepalese government. After the construction works are finished, the company will be allowed to export nearly 80% of the generated electricity for a period of 25 years, before the power plant will pass into the possession of the Nepalese government. In Rest’s opinion, the uncertainty remains as to whether the power plant will still work properly after so many years of use.

Tractors on the access road to the Arun 3 hydropower plant near Num, Nepal. (Picture by Dr. Matthäus Rest)

Peter Finke looked back on 25 years of post-socialist transformation in Central Asia. By the example of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia, he outlined different paths out of the socialist planned economy system. While Kazakhstan and—to a lesser extent—Mongolia have experienced a certain economic boom in recent years thanks to the extraction of mineral resources, Uzbekistan remains caught in post-socialist structures. The rural population’s standard of living thus continues to decline. All three countries have in common that there was no economic plan for the transition. Not surprisingly, the transformation process has led to great social differences and distrust of public institutions is omnipresent.

In his presentation, Wolfgang Behr dealt with what was for a short time an influential thesis about Chinese civilization’s origins in Western Asia. The French orientalist Albert É. J. B. Terrien de Lacouperie (1844–1894) held that Babylonian immigrants, the so-called “Hundred Families,” had arrived in China about 2300 BCE, introducing fortified settlements, agriculture, calendar and writing systems, the Assyro-Babylonian mythology, and metallurgy. Although Terrien de Lacouperie was largely contradicted by contemporary scholars in Chinese studies, his thesis spread after 1900 in Japan and especially in China. Due to the postulated West Asian origins of the Chinese Empire, republican circles felt confirmed that the ruling Qing dynasty (1644–1911), which was of Central Asian descent, had usurped power in China. The philologist and politician Zhang Taiyan (1868–1936) expanded the thesis of West Asian origins into an encompassing founding myth of a Chinese multi-ethnic state, which was to serve as a model for the formation of the modern nation-state. Since the 1910s, the findings of Neolithic and bronze age archaeology have contradicted the theory of Chinese civilization’s having originated in Western Asia, effectively ending this debate.

Multiple Christianities

One of the main intellectual benefits of URPP Asia and Europe is confronting “Western” assumptions and prejudices with alternative perspectives. In the closing talk of the lecture series, Christoph Uehlinger asked why we usually speak of Christianity in the singular and not in the plural. A look to China past and present shows that the putative unity of Christianity is questionable. The Christian teaching first came to China in the 7th century CE, mediated by the Assyrian Church of the East, as demonstrated, e.g., by the so-called Nestorian stele from Xi’an. Erected in 781, it documents 150 years of early Christianity in China. The “brilliant teaching” on the stele differs considerably from contemporary views of Christianity both in Europe and Western Asia. Turning to modern classification, it is interesting to note that the People’s Republic of China officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism (“the teaching of the heavenly lord”) and Christianity (“the teaching of Jesus,” which stands for Protestantism). Two forms of (historically Western) Christianity are thus considered as separate religions. This distinction is not grounded in doctrinal differences, which are of little concern for the Chinese state, but reflect practical and administrative considerations: the two denominations differ in their rites and have produced distinct material and visual culture; they maintain strictly independent organizations and relate to very different transnational networks; and they pursue, after all, rather few common concerns in contemporary Chinese society. Whether to speak of Christian unity or of multiple Christianities is clearly a matter of perspective and interest.

The topical lecture series presented to the audience a wide range of issues dealt with by members of the URPP Asia and Europe. To preserve their talks in an easily accessible way, a publication is in preparation for 2017.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 5/2016, pp. 21–24)