The Caliban of Asia


ON no subject do loose thought and loose talk more freely abound than on that of Asia. The yellow peril, we know, was once the Kaiser’s pet. bugbear, and his affection for it used to bring no little ridicule on that august personage. But our nerves had not then been shaken by the war. Nowadays the yellow-cum-brown peril has established itself in the affections of French, English, and American journalists and publicists; they love it for its very ugliness, as the Spanish Hapsburg loved his dwarfs or the eighteenthcentury marquise her black page-boy. This fearful creature, this Caliban, ‘has a name and a face,’ — I am quoting M. Henri Massis, the French observer of world politics, — or rather it has two names and two faces: Bolshevism and Asiaticism. It is not his fault if our flesh does not creep as he displays this awe-inspiring monster, this great evil spirit, trying, in Chesterton’s words, ‘to melt everything in the same crucible.’ On this subject Latin and Anglo-Saxon are equally impressionable.

Dr. Lothrop Stoddard in several volumes has marshaled battalions of facts which darken the horizon, even as that firebrand, Count Okuma, foresees the hordes of Asia black on the rims of the Balkans and the Alps. As we read his picturesque pages we feel that Europe indeed has its back to the wall of the gray Atlantic and that the very hearth and home of our civilization is threatened. Dr. Lothrop Stoddard is more hopeful than many others. ‘The great nations of the West,’ says M. Romain Rolland, ‘are on the eve of ruin,’ and his sensitive intellect seems to take almost a gloomy satisfaction in the reflection that the ‘mad dogs of Europe’ are tearing each other to pieces, that their talk of ‘supremacy’ and ‘revenge’ makes the victory of Asia the more imminent. But let no American take unction to his soul and thank God that He made America differently from Europe. For such political philosophers, however great their disillusionment, will never allow that, the United States does well in remaining out of the cockpit as far as possible; they point out with admirable logic that the ganglion of American culture lies in Europe, and that if European civilization dies its revised American edition will equally perish. ‘ Asiaticism ’ is the common enemy against Europe and America. Asiaticism and Bolshevism,— which is the contribution of Russia, the renegade from the European system, — these are the forces which threaten to overwhelm the West under their spate of destruction. The Soviet Government, having made friends with Japan and galvanized the enormous body of China with the doctrines of militant communism, is at the head of a movement — so runs the argument — which is inimical to the ordered progress, the social activities, even the moral and ethical codes which Europe has evolved at such enormous pains.

The vision is the more horrific from its very vagueness. It is concerned with the profound forces of history, forces that can hardly be separated into their constituent elements. And it is so difficult to preserve one’s intellectual detachment in the presence of Bolshevism! It seems to embody all sorts of fearful compounds; the nihilistic thought of Asia added to the European desire for action, the bitterness of the Jewish race, and the intellectual waste products of industrialism — these are some of its ingredients. To such add the indubitable stirrings of Asia, taking into account the European race-memory which is not unmindful of Attila and others of his kidney, and you have the makings of a very alarming demon, so alarming that, when Mr. Zinoviev talks of the eight hundred million Asiatics who are to lay European society in the dust, you and I and all of us are almost ready to take that pleasant gentleman at his word.

Almost — but not quite. For if we look steadily at the beast which is so anxious to impress us with its length of tooth and claw he undergoes a strange metamorphosis. As in those dreams where one meets a lion but on patting him finds that he is the most amiable of dogs, so our Caliban at a second view is apt to take the likeness of any social reformer. His beard becomes clipped, his teeth display themselves in a smile of zealous enthusiasm, and out of his mouth flows not the breath of slaughter but a stream of statistics. A subject so enormous offers so many facts that one can prove any thesis. It is possible to argue that Tolstoy — who is anathema to the Soviet authorities — is the intellectual parent of the Russian revolt against Western imperialism and capitalism, which in reality are only synonyms for government and the right of the individual to the fruits of his labor. Gandhiism, now an exploded political force, has often been instanced as the protest of India against the spread of our social and industrial ethos. And one can quote numberless examples of the common habits among Oriental politicians of girding at Western ‘materialism.’ But to me Caliban steadily refuses to seem monstrous, and the more I look at the question the more it appears that, far from Europe being in danger of submersion by Asiaticism, there has been no period in the world’s history when the predominance of Europe over Asia in the region of ideas has been more secure.


Before giving facts to support this contention, I may be allowed, since generalizations are the common stock in trade of those who frighten us with the vision of Asia redivivus, to draw one or two of my own. In the first place, therefore, I would point out that the social structure of the West has been built upon a theory of knowledge first regularly formulated by Francis Bacon. Bacon’s object was ‘not to make men perfect, but to make imperfect men comfortable,’and for the last two and a half centuries the ‘new philosophy,’ as it was once called, has been transforming, not only the face of the earth, but the ideas, the minds, and the hearts of the men and women who walk upon it.

Bacon has not thus conquered at first hand. His Novum Organum has never been widely read. He has, however, ‘moved the intellects which have moved the world.’ The English philosophers of the nineteenth century owe him a debt that can hardly be overestimated, and anyone who has come into contact with the intellectual youth of Asia will know how these young men are stirred by the plodding systems of the utilitarians and of Herbert Spencer; their writings, and not the mysticism of a Tagore or the nihilism of a Tolstoy, are the quarry from which contemporary Asia has hewn its ideas. Thus the slogan of progress echoes to-day wherever you travel, from Beirut to Peking, a progress depending on a continued expansion of man’s command over the resources and the power of nature, and demanding as its first essential the technique of Western government. Macaulay, a writer who has had enormous influence in the schools and colleges of the Orient, celebrated the achievements of the Baconian philosophy in a famous passage: ‘It has lengthened life; it has mitigated pain; it has extinguished disease. . . .’ I cannot quote it all. Its naïve materialism sounds quaint to us from the vantage ground of a century which has grown accustomed to the benefits it has conferred. But it is the language which Asiatic statesmen talk to-day. Mustapha Kemal Pasha in Turkey, King Amanullah Khan in Afghanistan, Riza Shah in Persia, King Feisal in Iraq, Mr. Chen in China, speak in accents sufficiently similar to suggest that the rebirth they postulate will produce, not the nameless horrors of a Tamerlane or a Jenghiz Khan, not the monster with ‘a name and a face,’ which publicists, eyeing the eastern horizon, see striding toward us, but an Asia desiring to become as like Europe as possible.

Europe, I write, when I should really say America. For pragmatical America has managed to put the Baconian philosophy on a firmer intellectual basis than it has ever been able to make for itself in Europe. The religion of business, that logical outcome of Baconism, has been established more securely in the United States than even among that nation of shopkeepers whose empire, I suppose, is the finest example of big business the world can show to-day. It resembles other religions in having man and not God as its kernel; but it is man who finds himself able to commune most freely with God, not in the simple life of poverty nor in the solitude of the desert, but in an environment created by a plentiful supply of commodities which can be procured only by modern industrial processes. That religion, that philosophy, that reaction to life, call it what you will, is the motive force of Asia to-day.


It is not easy to grasp the implications of this profound spiritual change among the peoples of Asia, the change from a static to a progressive organization of society. Few are willing to look at the matter with unbiased judgment; the past is too strong for them. Though they all admit that there is a new world, it is for them but the old writ large. They still see East and West divided by the gulf of thought. The very vastness of the subject tends to vagueness, and under their guidance we lose ourselves easily in clouds of conjecture, surmise, and prophecy.

But if we look at the problem piecemeal we shall see everywhere striking confirmation of the tendencies I have outlined. A generation ago Pan-Islamism was a serious anxiety to British statesmen, and the policy both of Great Britain and of France, the two European Powers with the greatest stake in Mohammedan countries, was sensibly influenced by the fears that it aroused. So late as 1919 these two Governments were seriously embroiled over their rivalry in the Islamic world: we saw France aiming at an hegemony by winning over the Turks in Angora, while Great Britain, true to its object of holding the road to India, supported the Arab bloc that was to be a counterpoise to Turkey and from its central position was to dominate Islam. Great Britain, better informed, better served, and more flexible in the details of its policy than France, — the Latin logic is a terribly dangerous instrument for determining high policy, — has managed to accommodate itself to the changing circumstances of these last years with more success than its neighbor across the Channel. How much these circumstances have altered is shown by the fact that in 1915 the British Foreign Office looked forward confidently to the establishment of an Arab caliphate, and that in 1921 the socalled Pan-Islamic movement in India, anti-British and pro-Turk in character, caused serious misgivings in England and among Anglo-Indians regarding the wisdom of Mr. Lloyd George’s policy toward the recalcitrant Turkish Nationalist Government. Once more those who still regarded Islam as a political force prophesied evil from the religious antagonism that was being aroused. It was at about this time that Dr. Lothrop Stoddard published his book, The New World of Islam, which, while it called attention to the Westernizing processes I have mentioned, failed to foresee the changes that were about to take place, changes so radical that to-day one can find no more justification for talking of a world of Islam than of a world of Christendom.

Far from being a vital political force, the politico-religious influence of Islam in its former strongholds has undergone an extraordinary eclipse. True, the Mohammedan East is burgeoning with a new life, but the springs feeding it are in no sense Islamic. The Ottoman caliphate has disappeared, and the attempt of ex-King Hussein to put an Arab caliphate in its place has been defeated by the action of a rival Arab leader. Yet Ibn Saud, in whose followers burns the true flame of religious zeal, and who now rules in Mecca, has little support from his coreligionists and on political grounds is equally distasteful to those of India and Egypt. Turkey, for four centuries the greatest Moslem Power, has become a secular republic. Mustapha Kemal, its president and virtual dictator, is a professed freethinker, and his Government, bent on carrying out its programme of complete Westernization, even to the clothes of its citizens, rides roughshod over prejudices which any European Moslem Power would never have dared to disregard in its own subjects.

More remarkable still, Afghanistan, once the most sternly traditionalist of Moslem countries, where the mere presence of a Christian was an offense, has been started on a career of social and economic development by its energetic young ruler, King Amanullah Khan. He has asserted his independence against the Government of India and he has already come down with a heavy hand upon the fanatical spirit of the wilder and more unruly tribesmen of his remote and mountainous kingdom who wish only to walk in their fathers’ footsteps. It is of course a far cry from Turkey, washed by the Mediterranean and open to European influences, to Afghanistan, hidden in the fastnesses of Asia, yet in both countries the same leaven is at work. Thus in the Allahabad Pioneer of December 2, 1926, there was an article about Afghanistan of which the headings were: ‘Afghan Ambitions; Passion for Military Training; Banning the Purdah; People’s Whole Outlook Changing; Western Ideals.’ There followed two columns about the future development of that country, as foreseen by the newly appointed Afghan ConsulGeneral for India. The making of roads, the fostering of home industries, and the emancipation of women, these were some of his points. Western clothes were becoming universal; Afghan girls were going to school dressed like their European sisters, though their faces were still thinly veiled. Modem Western ideas, he said, were gaining a sure footing. When such things are happening in Afghanistan, which, with the exception of Tibet, used to be the most intransigent state in Asia, it seems hardly necessary for me to carry this point of my argument further.

It would be idle to pretend that Afghanistan, where tho people still hold with tenacity to the traditions of Islam, has as yet been transformed. The process is inevitable, but its issue is for the future. A like change is taking place in Persia, accompanied by an equally acute sense of national independence and by the same tendencies toward remodeling the social fabric on Western lines. There too the emancipation of women is an acute question of the hour, and there too, as in other Mohammedan countries, — though this is not true of Afghanistan, — ‘religion holds a very small place in the thoughts and life of the young men.’ My quotation is a dictum of the present Mutamenul-Mulk, the president of the Persian parliament.

Farther westward, in Iraq, the process of building up a government on Western models is being accomplished amid general enthusiasm, and the religious conservatism of those strongholds of the Shiite sectaries, Kerbela and Nejef, while it complicates the relations between Persia and Iraq, meets with little sympathy in the political clubs of Bagdad. King Feisal, though a scion of the noblest family in Islam, a descendant of the Prophet whose forbears were lords in Mecca before the days of Charlemagne, is thoroughly imbued with the spirit, of the West. His younger brother he has sent to Oxford, his son to Harrow, and his one ambition, as anyone who talks with him realizes, is to see Iraq develop as a progressive, orderly, and scientifically administered state. Iraq a generation ago was a backward province of a backward empire. I can best show, perhaps, how its people have set themselves to master the technique of Western civilization as expressed in parliamentary government by quoting the words of an English observer in the current Round Table: ‘We have tried,’ he writes, ‘deliberately to teach Iraq to run before she had learned to walk. Her stumbles have proved to be fower and her average speed greater than the most ardent exponents of our present policy — Iraq is, of course, under the British Mandate — would have dared to prophesy six years ago. And the reason is that the people have shown themselves more enthusiastic over the experiment, more determined to make it a success, and more capable of making it so, than could have been anticipated.’

It is worth remarking, in passing, that it is in Iraq that the motor car and the aeroplane have won their most signal triumphs. We must never forget that these, with the cinema, are everywhere in Asia potent allies of Western ideology.

Egypt, which, thanks to British administration, is the richest and most advanced economically of the countries of western Asia, — for it belongs only geographically to Africa, — keeps its reputation as the land of paradox by affecting a conservatism in its religious attitude which nearly resulted in the proclamation of King Fuad as the Caliph. Since Cairo, thanks to the great University of El Azhar, has been for centuries the intellectual centre of Islam, it is perhaps as natural that it should be emphatically Mohammedan as that the government of Mussolini in Rome should be Catholic. Nevertheless Egypt, like the rest of the Moslem world, is riddled with the ‘new philosophy,’and its public men are bent on transforming it into the likeness of a modern European state. M. Maurice Pernot, a Frenchman who has lately studied conditions throughout the Mohammedan countries of Asia, testifies to the decline of religious influence. ‘What remains here of Islam?’ asked of him, not without regret, an Egyptian of the old school. ‘Law? It is Europeanized except as regards personal status. Religion properly so called? It loses ground here, as in Turkey. Islam in Egypt will soon be no more than a literature or a philosophy. The national movement here to-day is independent of any religious motive.’ And another declared that the University of El Azhar is to-day ‘ no more than a museum piece.’ Anyone whose political memory carries him back twenty years, to the time when PanIslamism spread its tentacles throughout Egypt and the Egyptian nationalists tried to make their reforms square with the Koran and the Traditions, must agree that the epithet ‘unchanging’ is egregiously out of place when applied to this portion of the East.

It is curious, all the same, that the forces of Mohammedan conservatism should be stronger in Cairo, where British bayonets still occupy the citadel, than in once traditionalist Turkey. Eighteen months ago, for instance, a certain Sheik Ali Abdul Razek published a book upon the caliphate in which he set out to prove that there was nothing in the Koran, or in the Traditions, to show that Mohammed cherished ambitions of earthly kingship, or that the Prophet revealed anything relating to matters other than those connected with religious faith and practice. This attempt, — analogous to those of Christian divines of a past epoch to square science and religion, — which aimed at reconciling Western democratic life and government with Islam, resulted in the author being tried by a council of discipline for heresy and removed from his official posts. The process was supposed to have been instigated by the King, a somewhat vainglorious monarch anxious to revive in his own person the old glories of Islam, and the action of the royal defender of the fait h was so hotly resented that it resulted in a political crisis and the return of the Zaghlulists to power. From this straw one may hazard the guess that, had it not been for Great Britain, Egypt would have followed the example of Turkey, and that the first President of the Egyptian Republic, in itself a thing utterly at variance with Mohammedan ideas, would have been Saad Zaghlul Pasha.

The El Azhar a museum piece! Would any student of affairs venture to say that of the Vatican? Yet it looks as if the Egyptian who coined that startling epigram were not speaking without his book. Not long since, for instance, the students of the School of Cadis organized a protest against the turban and the flowing robes which they were required to wear, and they appeared at the school in the trousers of the West. The Government was firm, and the young men ultimately returned to their picturesque and traditional garb. But when the most conservative class in the country can act thus, — the nearest Western analogy would be if the students at a Catholic seminary insisted on wearing ‘plusfours,’ — one can well believe that Egypt would be ready enough to follow the example of Turkey, were it free to do so.


There, indeed, in Turkey we have the most surprising acknowledgment of the superiority of the West, the most complete break with the past. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Mustapha Kemal has left nothing undone to make the country over which he rules as like Europe as possible. The first things to go under in the welter of reform have been the practices and observances of Islam, which, in the view of the governing class, foster a mentality hostile to progress. The administration has therefore been secularized and the Turkish Government accords no official recognition to Islam. And though there has been no religious persecution, and men may still pray in the mosques or churches at their will, the medressas or religious schools have been closed and the tekias, the houses of the dervish brotherhoods, which played so picturesque a part in the old Turkey, have been disestablished. The process of secularization has been deliberately framed so as to make it difficult, one might say impossible, for an orthodox Mohammedan to live within the frontiers of the Turkish Republic. The plight of such resembles that of the Roman Catholics in England in the later years of Queen Elizabeth. Your Turk to-day, for instance, may not wear the fez with which he was wont to cover his head in obedience to the behest of the Prophet, and his women may no longer preserve their modesty by means of the yashmak, that veil which — as anyone who knew the old Stamboul is aware — was not always turned to modest uses. A graver infringement of Islamic precepts has been the abolition of polygamy, and marriages in Turkey are no longer celebrated by the cadis but by the civil officials. Then a new code of civil law has been introduced, modeled upon that of Switzerland, and a new penal code has been adapted from the Italian. Islam has about as much political influence in Turkey to-day as it has in the United States.

It would, of course, be absurd to claim that Turkey is indistinguishable from a European state, for it is one thing to decree reforms and quite another to make them effective. But it is remarkable that there reforms have, on the whole, the enthusiastic support of the people. One has only to visit Constantinople to observe how joyously the inhabitants have taken to their new life. In the eastern provinces change moves more slowly; nevertheless it moves. The fabric of Catholicism was not swept away nearly so easily by the Tudors in England — and historians instance this as a popular religious revolution—as traditional Mohammedanism has been abolished by Mustapha Kemal in the ancient homelands of the Osmanli sultan-caliphs who for four centuries were the popes and emperors of Islam. Only among the Kurds have these extraordinary changes produced any such feeling as induces men to fight and the rather than submit, and their animosity springs from national rather than religious motives: even the wild Kurds want their own national government and their own state. Nor has the policy of secularization in Turkey aroused any resentment in other Mohammedan countries. Far from any other Moslem Power wishing to play the rôle of Catholic Spain in the sixteenth century vis-à-vis England, we find that the Governments of Persia and Afghanistan are on the friendliest terms with that of Angora, while Egypt has transferred the admiration it felt for the old Turkey to the new, and the secular ‘democratic’ republic is very popular in Cairo, where the PanIslamic policy of Abdul Hamid’s days used to excite a fanatical reverence. Egypt admires the efforts Turkey is making to refurnish its house in the European style; it envies the success with which it has thrown off the Capitulations, those shackles imposed when Occidental and Oriental ideas of administration were radically different; and the Egyptians look to the day when the crumbling façade which hampers the extension of their own ambitions shall have been swept away also in the valley of the Nile.


So much for the way in which the militant religion of Asia has reacted to the solvent of European thought. And if space would allow me to deal with China and India I think that it would not be difficult to show how Asiaticism in those regions is not less a figment of tired brains and shaken nerves. To say that Asia is adopting the technique and the ideas of Europe in order the better to destroy us is surely the most childish of arguments, suitable for a Zinoviev who wishes to inspire an ogreish fear in the bourgeois breast, but not to be taken seriously by sensible men. Bolshevism is a problem apart; it has had nothing to do with the movements I have enumerated, and I am unwilling to draw its red herring across the track of my argument. If one thing about it is certain, it is that its intellectual parentage is European. It reposes on the same Baconian basis as any other theory of industrialism, and indeed it only begins to be possible, as a theory, in such an economic state. Readers of the Atlantic Monthly will remember not long since an article on the opportunities for employing American capital in the exploitation of Russian resources. What more need one say?

Prune Bolshevism of its extravagances, strip it of its claptrap, and it becomes no more than a theory of distribution. One may admit its doctrines, as preached by its leaders, to be noxious; but that does not make them Asiatic. They are, indeed, the very reverse. Their very boldness is European.

The institution of the family, for example, and the respect of children for their parents have a profounder meaning among Oriental peoples than in Europe, — and once again let me emphasize that in talking of Europe I also include America, — where the whole story of social progress and reaction has centred round the position of women, who have hitherto throughout Asia frankly accepted an inferior status. As for Soviet Russia being implicated in China, or in Java, where a so-called communist rising on a serious scale took place last year, or in India, or elsewhere, one must not mistake the groupings of political expediency for anything more sensational. It may suit, the Chinese Nationalists to use Russian aid against their foes, but to suppose that the Nationalists, if successful, will be bound to the Soviet Government by any other ties than self-interest is to allow fear to get the better of sober judgment.

After all, then, our Caliban is not so fearful a monster. Indeed, I shall have failed in my purpose if I have not made him out to be no more than a rather sorry scarecrow. The idea of Asia laying our civilization in ruins is the more absurd because Asiatics in general are far more peace-loving than Europeans. If they have had their warrior kings, as Europe has had in not less number, their philosophic quietism has at any rate refused to surround the adventure of war with that glamour which in spite of 1914-1918 still persists among us. ‘ We are accustomed,’says an acute English writer, ‘to regard Orientals as turbulent and ill-disciplined, whereas the fact is that the majority of them have a far stronger instinct for obedience than the average Westerner.’ With such material the leaders of Old Japan found it possible to change the whole balance of the national life and the future course of their history; and other Asiatic peoples, less finely endowed possibly with the civic virtues than the Japanese, are now doing the same thing. With immense effort, with obvious exaltation, and with an intelligence sometimes naïve but nearly always admirable, Asia is adopting our ideals, our codes, our aspirations; trying to emulate our standards, of which it admits the superiority, both openly and tacitly. And our reply is to raise the cry of ‘Asiaticism’ and to look for another Attila! It would be ungenerous, were it not so silly.

Nor is the economic bogey, which many, including Dean Inge, take a gloomy pleasure in surveying, so very dreadful. A rich Asia would be a more profitable business neighbor for Europe and America than a poor Asia. The markets which meet the demands of eight hundred millions of Asiatics, no longer content to be the camp followers of the progressive white races, but themselves taking their place in the advancing line, would offer illimitable opportunities to our industries. It is at least as reasonable to argue thus as to assert that, once the yellow races establish effective economic competition with the whites, the latter will be driven out of business. Such prophets are determined that Europe shall have its back to the wall somehow — if not in one way, then in another. They are determined that their monster shall have a name, and that if one name does not fit, another shall be found which does. It is, as I have said, a churlish and frightened return on our part to the frank admission of the oldest continent that it has everything to learn from the youngest. It is hardly worthy of our achievements or of our spiritual heritage.

Spiritual heritage — these words are enough to make the prophets of evil intervene once more. They may admit that a Europeanized Asia will not turn and rend Europe, but they lament over the spiritual loss that will accrue to the world from the adoption by Asia of what the American vision has conceived as ‘the lifting of the millions.’ They must do so. The picturesque East as it appealed to a Loti, to a Blunt, and to scores of other Western souls in love with beauty so long as it is not of today and therefore cannot offend their scrupulous taste — that East spoke of decay and death. Such sentimentalities must be left to their tourist natures; they never moved an Oriental. Yet, though Asia has broken from its moorings and has begun to move its vast bulk over the uncharted seas of progress, seas whereon we have no idea where the Promised Land lies, seas that offer no havens and that are lashed with storms which may destroy the stoutest vessel, one cannot imagine that it will follow tamely in our wake. All we can do is to wish it Godspeed in the great adventure of the modern world, the greatest adventure on which humanity has so far been engaged.