The Mind of Asia


To the Western mind Asia has always been a source of fascination and perplexity. Disraeli was wont to speak of the ‘Asian Mystery’; but now, after more than a century of effective contact, the features on the face of Asia are becoming clearer to us. Our sense of the unknown still remains, but our knowledge has grown, and with knowledge has come the beginning of understanding.

The tide of Western influence first began to rise on Eastern shores in the eighteenth century, though the first waves broke long before that. But even after so long a period the essence of Asia is still intact, especially in culture and religion, these being the most important aspects of life throughout the whole of the East. In politics, of course, the conquest and political control of India by Great Britain, of IndoChina by France, of an Eastern Insular Empire by Holland, and of the Philippine Islands first by Spain and then by America, have set in motion a process of change; and the special régime known as extraterritoriality in China presents another set of political results. It is obvious, too, that the social structure of the Orient has been affected; that the way of life — the importance of the individual, the status of women, the position of the family — has been influenced by the impact of the West. In any effective review of the Eastern scene these things cannot be separated; but my present purpose is to attempt to make a picture of the Asiatic mind in its reaction and attitude to our influence, and to do so by deserting the political field altogether and giving a visual image of ‘Asia,’ a kind of dramatization in incident and personal relationship, which otherwise might remain an impersonal generalization without form or life.

It may be suggested at the outset that we are in danger of making a false measurement by applying our standards to the life of Asia, which normally does not conform to them. This is true in an absolute sense, and no Western mind can really understand the Orient unless it approaches the task in an attitude of imaginative detachment from its own preconceptions. None the less, the application of our standards is not wholly inapt, because there are many things in which the East is endeavoring to follow the West, and the success of this experiment must in the end depend on the desire and on the capacity of the East to develop at least some of the qualities by which the West has achieved its best results.


The East has been both attracted and repelled by the West, and the repulsion has found its most characteristic expression in the attitude known as antiforeignism. This phenomenon is clearly something more than that represented by the distance and difference which exist between nations in Europe. It is derived more from race than from language or nationality. It involves color, caste, religion; and it has its origin in the contrast between widely separated criteria of life. Being a racial and instinctive thing, it may be described as the resistance of a normally healthy creature to the intrusion of an essentially alien body. Mixed marriages are perhaps the supreme test; and in the Orient, as in the West, there can be observed a strong distaste for such marriages. Though Mr. George E. Sokolsky has recently endeavored to show, and in his own case has proved, that mixed marriages can succeed, it is none the less true that they are not viewed with favor either in Hindu India or in Confucian China.

Apart from the personal question involved in such marriages, the phenomenon of antiforeignism may be described as an expression of frustration. Now the experience of frustration is common to all human life. Man forever strives after the unattainable and throughout the world is always conscious of the unending struggle between his own personal power and the great forces of the world and of nature around him. But in Asia frustration is a sharper experience than in the Western world. The Asiatic, awakening to new opportunities presented by the West, found himself in chains of two kinds: first of all, those of his own forging; second, those of foreign domination. Thus, when the peoples of Asia began to see before them the possibilities of a new life, they found themselves checked and controlled by their own heritage from the past, and sometimes actually oppressed by foreign powers.

This sense of frustration has gone through several stages of development. It is first a state of feeling, wholly instinctive, too vague to be ascribed to one cause; and thus it resembles the onset of a fever in which the limbs ache and the body trembles but there is no definite pain. It then passes to a more acute stage of overmastering emotion in which the victim seems to suffer from a mental and spiritual claustrophobia, marked by a passionate resistance and a fierce desire for release. Then comes a groping for the cause of it, in which the mind is still overclouded and misdirected by the strength of emotional feeling, and the attempt is made to rationalize revolt — the revolt itself being still entirely instinctive.

This groping for causes, reasons, and cures can be seen in both Sun Yat Sen and Gandhi, whose political justification of their national movements always seems to leave something unexplained.

Gandhi is perhaps the more illuminating of the two. He is the embodiment and the voice of the racial instinct of the Hindus raised to so high a power that he becomes a Mahatma, the nearest to a god. Education and long practice in debate have taught him to build for his impulses, his reactions, and his beliefs a structure of alien material in which reason, casuistry, ingenuity, and contradiction jostle one another often to the complete confusion of the listener. His mind is magnetic and does not work by conscious, logical processes, though he has shown himself at times a master of subtle argument. What really speaks in him is the continuous racial memory that has lived on in his people for thousands of years, deeper than any doctrine, for it is rather a posture of mind, a poise of the mental muscles, than a verbal tradition. It speaks in his acts and his gestures more clearly than in his writings.

Every Indian understood him when he stripped himself to his loin cloth lest he should seem to go better clad than the least of the untouchables. Everyone understood him when he revived the ancient practice of non-coöperation. He might build a metaphysical superstructure around it; he might embarrass himself by trying to derive the boycott of Lancashire cotton from the law of love. What really mattered was that his ‘ dæmon, ’ his subconscious, his racial memory, had broken at last through the uncomfortable foreign clothes of Western education and democratic rationalism and had rediscovered the natural tactics of a race whose slight muscles do not readily strike out from the shoulder, yet stiffen to immobility in a trial of endurance.

So it is with his ordeal by starvation. From time immemorial a subject whom a rajah had wronged, a creditor whom a powerful debtor had forgotten, would lie down at the great man’s door and starve himself to death. This method of spiritual coercion is occasionally practised even in modern India, and often it succeeds, for few will take the risk of being haunted by a ghost that has acquired spiritual power by this final austerity. Mr. Gandhi’s conscious mind is by many centuries removed from this primitive world of belief, but who can doubt that it lives on in his subconscious, and inspires his actions, if not his words?

Here again we find frustration, because the temporal power, in the British raj, often refuses to act according to plan, and the Indian sense of infuriation deepens with the failure of the ancient racial method to produce the required result. In the contact between East and West, India is a crucial test, one might almost say a cruel test; for here a proud, sensitive, and cultured race is in close and daily contact with the powerful and comparatively insensitive English. Meredith Townsend once remarked, ‘Each has a contempt for the other; but as the European never has to obey, his contempt is kindly; as the Asiatic always has to yield, his contempt is often vitriolic.’ Each believes in his own superiority, and equality is difficult to establish. The well-known Presbyterian missionary, the Reverend Nicol Macnicol, said, ‘There is no fact that India’s rulers need more to keep in mind than that no people is so sensitive to insult, real or imaginary, as a proud nation fallen to a condition of dependence.’

India is a proud nation and is still convinced of her own superiority, as indeed all Asiatic peoples are when they think of the West; for, whether it be Mr. Jinarajadasa to-day claiming that ‘India has a dominating temperament, stronger because more subtle than the British,’ or the Emperor Chien Lung declaring to Lord Macartney that his ‘ dynasty’s majestic virtue had penetrated into every country under heaven,’ the belief that theirs is a better way of life than ours lies deep in the Oriental mind.

Here we discover the real reason why the revolt against Western domination is so intense. It is the rebellion of races who consider themselves superior against an inexplicable domination by those whom they regard as barbarians. It is strange to us that we should be judged as barbarians. We conceive our civilization to be the creation of as much spiritual inspiration and as great an intellectual effort as anything in the East. And so it is, in origin and in its essential character. But the East has usually seen it in material form and therefore judges it to be of a lower order. Our control of the forces of nature has given us the instruments of material power, and we know that those instruments could never have been created by a mind that was purely material. This truth has been concealed from the Orient by our imposing display of military strength and commercial organization; and thus, even yet, educated minds in the East can misjudge the essential character of Western civilization.

The war provoked Rabindranath Tagore to say, in a lecture delivered in Japan, that ‘the power by which the West thrives is an evil power.’ He saw ‘the bloodhounds of Satan bred in the kennels of Europe’ and heard ‘the voice of Western civilization coming to him through the din of war, the shrieks of hatred, the churning up of the unspeakable filth which has been accumulating for ages in the bottom of this civilization.’ Little wonder that he turns away to seek salvation once more in the ancient Oriental ideal of calm and contemplation. But the answer to him is that human error is universal; and, if the error of Europe was written in blood by the war, India’s error is not condoned or cured thereby. Indeed, when one considers the degradation which lies at the bottom of India’s civilization, millions thrust apart, ‘women and Sundras born of sin,’ and those more contemptible still, the untouchables, can it be said that the killing in Europe was as evil as such a slaying of the soul? But in this address Tagore was stating an extreme case; and we must look at our way of life, not in this extravagant denunciation, but as seen by the eye of Asia in cooler moments.


We measure life, events, and achievements in terms of activity. The active will of man, not the decrees of the invisible powers, is in practice our guiding principle. Thus we judge by results, and our conception of progress demands from us conscious and welldirected effort. The Asiatic as he watches us is divided between admiration for our personal worth and contempt for our delusions, the greatest of which in his eyes is the delusion of progress. Our character may be something on which he can rely in times of trouble, but our activity, and especially our mentality, can only be explained in terms of some affliction of the mind visited upon us by the unseen gods. He finds in our behavior an absence of repose and a lack of dignity. In a word, the whole of our activity is to him a useless protest against the conditions of a world which he knows can never change.

Rudyard Kipling described the conflict between Western restlessness and Eastern immobility in the well-known lines: —

For the Christian riles and the Aryan smiles and
he weareth the Christian down;
And the end of the fight is a tombstone white
with the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: ‘A fool lies here who
tried to hustle the East.5

Closely related to this contrast in behavior are the contrasted attitudes of East and West toward such conceptions as truth, candor, honesty, loyalty, accuracy, time, definition, and responsibility. Let us take, first, truth in personal relationship: the claim of candor versus courtesy. Readers of the Atlantic Monthly do not need to be reminded of the distinction drawn in the well-known story between the Lady and the Diplomat; but in recalling it they will have in their minds a yardstick by which to measure the difference in the same matter between East and West.

If one were to put in straight English the Japanese judgment (or, for that matter, the Chinese or the Hindu) of what we call honesty, sincerity, and candor, one would find it approximate to the saying, ‘One can be truthful only with one’s equals; with those who have not his whole respect the wise man is merely polite.’

And in this sense how many real equals does a man find in the world? In any controversy, particularly of a personal nature, we are in the habit of saying: ‘Let’s go and have it out with him; that will clear the air and then we can get down to business.’ But this rough-and-ready method of candid exchange finds little or no place in the habits of Asia. One might elaborate the Japanese judgment suggested above as follows: —

‘Sir, you have no right to ask me that question so baldly, for you ought to know (or you are no gentleman) that I do not wish to be compelled to say what I really think about that, nor do I think it right or necessary to say it to you. You ought to be skillful enough and urbane enough to find a way of guessing my thought without making me undress my mind before you. Moreover, if I change my mind, am I to be judged a two-faced person if I do not immediately say that I now think differently from my thoughts of yesterday ? ’

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it is a social crime in Japan to give, in answer to a question, any reply (however true) which may displease, or to ask for any favor which will make necessary a blunt refusal. Among certain peoples the messenger of evil was rewarded with death; in Japan, unless he conveys his message with suitable circumlocutions, he is likely to be ostracized as a barbarian. Blunt negatives and direct refusals are, in fact, unknown to the code of the Japanese, and in order to convey such notions one must speak circuitously, casting hints of one’s meaning here and there, half indicating one thing while ostensibly affirming the opposite. Thus the conversation of two Japanese must not be taken at its face value, for each is engaged in suggesting, not deliberately stating his meaning, and in trying to discover the implications of a string of conventional phrases and vague suggestions. Japan is no place for those who pride themselves on ‘speaking their mind.’

Nor, for precisely the same reason, is China; and no one, be he merchant or missionary or diplomat, can hope to perform his function in the East, whatever it is, unless he appreciates this conception of form which is the corner stone of Confucian culture. This form, which is only another word for a highly elaborate social courtesy, implying a mutual self-respect between two persons, bears in some degree a resemblance to the unwritten code of the English gentleman; but in China it has an all-pervading influence. It is allimportant in social relations, and its proper observance is not unrelated to the matter of face. Face, and the loss of it, are things vital to Chinese experience. It is, of course, impossible accurately to describe what face involves; and perhaps the only way to appreciate what it is lies in the obvious conclusion that you are acutely aware of what it is only when you have lost it. Not until the Western resident in China comes into close and daily contact with the real Chinese does he begin to appreciate the subtle yet profound difference between his own conceptions of behavior and those of the East. And he soon learns to reject the sweeping generalizations he had often made regarding the attitude of the Asiatic to truth and honesty.


There is an obliqueness in the personal touch described above which seems dishonest, and many Europeans habitually call the Asiatic both untruthful and unreliable. But truth and the lie are just as well known throughout the East as they are anywhere else. Whence, then, does the profound misunderstanding arise? Meredith Townsend asks the question, ‘Why does the Hindu or the Chinese always fancy that he can lie to a European without detection, and that if force is eliminated from the struggle he will not only win, but win almost without an effort ? ’

I believe the answer to be that Asiatics look upon us as we look upon children, and treat us accordingly. From their point of view we lack knowledge of the art of life; we are simple and immature; and, just as we too often evade the truth in our relations with children, so the Asiatic evades the truth with us. But when we come to consider those qualities, such as loyalty, which are closely associated with truth we find that they are just as deeply rooted in the Asiatic mind as they are in our own. The Indian servant and the Chinese merchant are loyal and scrupulous in their discharge of contract. China pays its debts at the New Year with a punctuality as great as our own; and the domestic trade of India was operated for centuries before European methods were introduced on the basis of the hoondee system, which implied that buyer and seller alike would honestly discharge their commercial obligations.

In the circumstances of to-day, and particularly in the political field, this question of loyalty assumes a new importance. Family loyalty is the strongest motive both in India and in China. In public life the influence of the family claim leads to nepotism and to corruption. The rice bowl dominates Chinese politics, and the claim of a relative takes precedence over the claim of the public service. A citizen from a distant province once came to Confucius and told him that in his part of the country morality had risen so high that if a father were arrested for stealing sheep his son would bear witness against him. ‘Ah,’ said the Sage, ‘that is not morality, for where the son bears witness against his father the family is destroyed and society will perish.’

Confucius here illustrates the central problem both in India and in China. There is, as we have seen, a proved capacity for loyalty and a genuine sense of allegiance. But loyalty centres upon the family unit, and until it is transformed and enlarged into a genuine sense of patriotism and citizenship there can be no stable government. The sense of public obligation, which is so large a part of true citizenship, is the mainstay of government by popular sovereignty; and since the peoples of the East have shown some disposition to create new governments based upon popular sovereignty it is clear that their loyalties must undergo a great transfiguration into genuine citizenship before they can succeed. Nationalism, with all its vices and its adolescent faults, is the first step in this growth; and the awakening due to the spread of nationalism, though it is still confined to the politically conscious minority in the East, may perhaps produce the required result.


Let us turn, however, to another facet of the same problem. The attitude toward responsibility, both individual and collective, is again sharply contrasted to our own. To appreciate this contrast we must first of all recall our definition of the Western attitude in terms of activity, in which the will of the individual is directed toward a definite aim. Action is designed to produce results for which the actor assumes, claims, and admits responsibility; and where responsibility is to be determined, as in a court-martial or in a criminal trial, it is done by proof of intention, action, and result. We do things, we make things happen, we achieve results; and our whole judgment of character is inspired by our conviction that the worth of an individual lies in this capacity for fruitful action.

But in the East, on the whole, and despite the evidence of the great men of action such as Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Muhammad, Akbar, the ruling motive is acceptance of what is, because what is must be — a passivity in which the general judgment seeks to know only what has happened. There is a desire to forestall or evade responsibility by preventing things happening, or when they do happen, when results cannot be prevented, and a settlement of accounts becomes inevitable, the middleman is brought in to dissolve the responsibility of the two parties, lest either should be left to bear the consequences of decision.

Therefore, if possible, the Asiatic remains passive and neutral. When some matter must be dealt with, he thinks of the problem as one of adjustment, not of clear-cut responsibility in action. Action is too disturbing; the claims of urbanity and moderation must be observed, and compromise is the highest achievement. Mr. Owen Lattimore has reminded us that ‘officials are expected in China to manipulate a difficult situation, not to execute policy in cold-blooded impersonal administrative fashion.’ And so, if one were to choose the symbol for this process, it would be the Chinese cup of tea, for many a thorny problem throughout the ages has been rendered harmless in China by skillful, interminable, amicable, and allusive talk over innumerable cups of the best tea in the world. Read Mr. Okakura’s Book of Tea and you will see why the tea ceremony in Japan became the very epitome of a refined civilization.

Now if this be the racial attitude rooted in the mind of Orientals from generations back, with what prospect of success do they confront the problem of the future? Their lives and customs have already been disturbed by the impact of the West, and they seem to be driven to the creation of institutions which imply greater activity and a more definite sense of responsibility than they have hitherto been accustomed to employ. In the political field it is hardly too much to say that they have undertaken to create for themselves some alternative to autocracy.

In such an alternative a responsible public opinion is one of the operating factors, if not the major factor. Hence we must assume the possibility that what we call a sense of responsibility, which is a new thing to them, can germinate in their minds, if the opportunity for it is given and the necessity for it is driven home to them. The alternative is obviously the failure of political revolution in the East and the return to the congenial forms of government by authority and not by consent.

This is one of the great questions raised by our impact upon the Eastern world. To it there can be no confident answer. No doubt revolution has produced men in every country from Angora to Nanking who have not feared responsibility. Are they to be regarded only as the traditional autocrats in a new form? Perhaps; but revolution has also created a new class of politically awakened people. They are in themselves a novel phenomenon which is the direct result of Western teaching. And if they are determined enough they can make any mere restoration of personal rule well-nigh impossible, or at least secure from their rulers concessions in the direction of legality, if not in democracy.

Now the truth is that, despite their tendency to imitate us in many things, the peoples of the East have not made up their minds. Deeply attached to their own way of life, they are perplexed by the problem of borrowing from us what is good and yet retaining their own essential nature. In a word, they have not defined their purpose.

Recent events in the war and the economic depression have seriously shaken the prestige of the West, and throughout the Far East the most evident tendency to-day is to turn the back on Western culture and seek salvation once more in the true Oriental tradition. Whether this is a passing phase or not, the Oriental world can never resume its ancient seclusion, and therefore it is impossible to believe that Asia can return to her old path unchanged.

When the Gurkha troops from Nepal were first transported overseas to fight on the battlefields of Europe in 1914, their British Commanding Officer asked a grizzled old veteran how he liked the voyage and what he thought of the ocean, which he had seen for the first time.

‘Sahib,’ said the warrior, pointing to the wake of the ship behind, ‘we can see the road by which we have come’; and then, pointing to the wide expanse of heaving water in front of the ship, he said, ‘But where is the road before us?’

The old man’s words reveal the dilemma of Asia to-day.