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‘In Asia you are first and foremost Chinese or Indian’

‘There is often a strong emphasis on the differences with Asia when actually there are so many similarities on all sorts of levels. Parents in Asia deliberate just as much about which school they should send their child to,’ says Frank Pieke, Professor of Modern China Studies. The opening conference of the Leiden multidisciplinary research profile of Asian Modernities and Traditions takes place on 9 September.

Asian traditions as a foundation

Parents everywhere in the world deliberate about which school they should send their children to.
Parents everywhere in the world deliberate about which school they should send their children to.

The keynote speaker at the conference is Professor Parsenjit Duara, Director of the Asia Research Institute of Singapore National University. The intriguing title of his lecture is Sustainability and the Crisis of Transcendence: The View from Asia. According to Pieke, ‘Duara’s lecture is about the lack of religiosity and its consequences for how we interact with each other in the world. He will argue that the Asian tradition forms a foundation upon which we can build for living together on this planet in a responsible and more meaningful way.’

Contributions from six disciplines

‘Asian Modernities and Traditions’ is one of Leiden University’s research profile areas. Six disciplines are contributing, ranging from Law to History and from Anthropology to Political Science. That is nothing new, of course, given the Leiden tradition in Eastern languages, religions and legal systems. In the last two years, the emphasis has come to lie more on the Asia of now, and consequently a huge investment has been made there.

Asia has to become more mainstream

Asia Studies has to become more mainstream in Europe, as it is in the US, says Professor Frank Pieke.
Asia Studies has to become more mainstream in Europe, as it is in the US, says Professor Frank Pieke.

‘Asia has to become more commonplace in universities,’ says Pieke. ‘In the USA and England the study of Asia is much more mainstream than in the Netherlands and other countries on the European mainland.’ With a record number of appointments in one year in the field of modern South, Southeast and East Asia at the Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS) that should not prove to be a problem. Alongside the appointment of Pieke as Professor of Modern China, Peter Ho has been appointed Professor of Chinese Economy and Development, and David Henley as Professor of Modern Indonesia. Nira Wickramasinghe has been appointed to the Modern South Asian Studies chair and Remco Breuker has been appointed Professor of Korea Studies.

It's always about major economic powers

Asia is in the news a lot but it is almost always about the major emerging economies, China and India, which seem to fill the West with dread. This is also because they are demanding the accompanying power. Pieke says, ‘Is this unfair or unjustified? I don’t think so. But more importantly: does it really matter? Will the West be worse off if China and India are doing better? Actually, maybe not; maybe we, too, will be better off then. The idea that we would lose some of our liberties is, in my view, just rhetoric.’

Old fear of advancing hordes

Why is there so much fear of emerging economies such as China and India?
Why is there so much fear of emerging economies such as China and India?

‘It’s true that the Chinese authorities aren’t particularly bothered about liberal values. But I think that the basis of our fear is more an age-old, ingrained fear of advancing hordes of Turks at the time of the Ottoman Empire and, before that, Mongols. It's fear of the unknown. There is often an emphasis on the differences with the Orient when there are actually so many similarities on all sorts of levels. Parents in Asia deliberate just as much about which school they should send their child to. The issues surounding increasing unemployment are the same, as are those concerning immigration. If we could just focus on what we do have in common, it would give us hope for the future.'

Stronger national consciousness

‘What is tricky is that the concept of nations took root in Asia, too, after decolonisation but that it is much stronger there than in the West. In Asia it is extremely important that you are first and foremost Chinese or Indian. And nations are first and foremost competitors: that notion is also more strongly developed in Asia than in the West. We have similar feelings but maybe to a somewhat less extreme extent.’

Hope

India: a democratic and tolerant country with a diverse population.
India: a democratic and tolerant country with a diverse population.

‘Incidentally, there is an enormous difference between China and India. After its peaceful decolonisation, India became a democratic and tolerant country. There is great cultural diversity there, which is a good example of how this combination does not have to lead to conflicts. That you don’t get on doesn’t have to mean that you reject each other or want to annihilate one another.’

‘In China the nationalist and communist resistance to the warlords finally led to a repressive regime under the Communist Mao Zedong. Since the 1970s, market liberalisation has led to a dramatic increase in prosperity, and in recent years the population has also been granted somewhat more freedom.’

The secret of India

 

‘A well-kept secret, for which there is little interest outside India, is that there is a situation on 20 to 25% of the Indian territory that is comparable with that in China in the first quarter of the previous century. There is still a high level of repression by landlords in the Indian countryside. There is resistance to this on the part of local Communists, who have often entered into a pact with local bandits. Incidentally, such a situation doesn't necessarily have to turn out negatively for the local population. But the governing bodies are on the sidelines. There is a lot of discussion about the problem in New Delhi but nobody knows how to solve it. An interesting question is why the course of history has been so different in India from in China, where socialist/Communist resistance to the landlords spread unchecked. That could have happened in India. This is a whole new field of research.'

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