Friday, December 02, 2005

Social Darwinism in 19th Century Asia

Concurrent to the high period of European imperialism was the rise of Darwinism with its theories of evolution and natural selection. The dominance Europe had on most of the rest of the world at that time meant of course that people of many different races came under their flags and banners. It was almost inevitable, therefore, that theories of evolution and natural selection would be adapted (perverted, really) by triumphalist Westerners (on both sides of the Atlantic) to account for the dominance of the West over the rest of the world (even though that 19th century moment when they were on top was but a speck in the Sea of Time). Theorists like Herbert Spencer and others were popular throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period, these theories of natural selection were expanded upon and misapplied as gross, static generalizations that were made about races and cultures, with their late 19th century weakness relative to Europe attributable to genetics and cultural determinism.

I go back to the Austrian gentleman I quoted before, Karl Ritter von Scherzer, on a mid-19th century voyage in Asia. There, he speaks of Chinese and Indians and their different capabilities. It is shocking to our current sensibilities, but it is important to remember that such observations and views were commonplace just fifty years ago (and in fact can still be heard today):
We find Chinese scattered throughout Eastern Asia, in Australia, in California, in Peru, in Brazil, in the West Indies, and what is very astonishing they thrive and prosper at most places they visit, despite the not very humane treatment they receive, and the wretched, desolate state in which they leave their homes. This enormous emigration of the sons of the Flowery Land seems destined to be of immense importance, and to be fraught with momentous influence upon the future of the other Asiatic populations, whom the Chinese greatly excel in capacity for work, mechanical dexterity and dogged perseverance. [Here it begins - Ed.] Even the religious movement gives the Chinese certain advantages over all other nations of the Asiatic type of civilization. The Hindoo, like the Catholic, has numbers of festivals, which greatly diminish the number of his actual working days; the daily ceremonies prescribed by Brahminism further curtail the most precious hours of labour; his exclusively vegetarian food not alone prevents the proper development of his muscular power, but also by its ostentatiously morbid delicacy, brings him constantly into collision with the social order of a Christian household. The Chinese, on the other hand, keeps but one holiday-time, the beginning of the new year, which he celebrates for fourteen days without intermission. But the remaining 11 1/2 months of the year are for him but one long day of work. Moreover, the Chinese has no fastidious notions about his food. He eats pork, and drinks wine, and prefers fat meat to meagre fruit diet, thoroughly unrestrained by any considerations as to whether such a mode of life accords with the institutes of Brahma and Menu, or the teaching of Confucius. Their sobriety, their capacity, their industry, their frugal mode of life, and their numbers, all seem to indicate the Chinese as destined to play an important part, not alone in the development of the Oriental nations, but also in the history of mankind. They are, as a German philosopher has profoundly remarked, the Greeks and Romans of Eastern Asia, and they will if once hurried onwards by the great tide of Christian civilization, perform such feats as to fill even the nations of the old world with wonder and amazement.
What have we learnt from this passage, other than the fact that Herr von Scherzer did not like writing in small paragraphs? We find a willingness to generalize about race. It may be useful to a point to do so, especially when speaking to an audience even more ignorant than oneself; but as we can see, it has so many dangers and pitfalls that it is no longer profitable to do so in the present age. Most of all, it not only defines 'the Other' but takes the opportunity to be an individual away from them, both Chinese and Indians.

But Chinese, and also Indians that may take offense at such statements today, should examine their own racial beliefs. I know less about the Indian situation except from interlocutors with whom I am acquainted, but have found strong evidence of Social Darwinist thinking in many strands of public discourse, in both China and in Hong Kong. It may seem like just harmless points of debate, but it must have seemed so also to the Austrians and Caucasians of every nationality in the 19th century that held those views. But such beliefs about racial and ethnic natural selection, already stretching the edge of accuracy or civility, mutated into a far more potent and deadly strain, expounded by another Austrian - Adolf Hitler. It is my hope that in the 21st century, some Asian countries that seem not to have taken on board the lessons about Social Darwinism from World War II, will do so and understand how making generalizations about race in our global society does little except make strangers of us all.

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