Home > Uncategorized > Something I wrote a few years ago about East vs. West in Literature

Something I wrote a few years ago about East vs. West in Literature

“Cultural Contributions to the Literary Dichotomy between Eastern and Western Literature in the 17th and 18th Centuries”

The culture clash between the Eastern and Western worlds can be seen in many different areas, and literature is no exception.  An interesting dynamic in the dichotomy between Eastern and Western literature, as well as their overall cultures, is the gender roles.

“[A] literature professor had informed her that he taught her books in his class while criticizing passages depicting China as ‘backward or unattractive’ or describing ‘spitting, filth, poverty, or superstitions,’ and a male student in line at a book signing had asked her loudly, “Don’t you think you have a responsibility to write about Chinese men as positive role models?’” (Douglas, 102)

Here, in a passage describing exchanges between an Eastern female author and Western male readers, it is evident that the Western perspective of Eastern traditions and customs is often stereotypically focused on the mystic nature and allure of the East.

A very interesting relationship between East and West is that of sexuality.  While it would be easy to think that because of the very specific gender structure which exists in Eastern culture that sexuality would be even more suppressed and taboo, this is often not the case.  For instance, “Life of a Sensuous Woman,” by Ihara Saikuku is a tale of a woman who has traveled a long journey experiencing seemingly infinite sexual pleasures.  The female character says early in the story, “… I had so many experiences that the pure water of my mind turned completely the color of sensuous love, like the water in the Uji River where it turns yellow from all the mountain roses on the banks” (549).

Furthermore, “Love Poems of the Sixth Dalai Lama,” a collection of poems of Tsangyang Gyatso, brings to life numerous poems that evoke sexual imagery and reflection in a reasonably casual manner.

The tone of sexuality in Western literature, however, at often times seems much more restricted.  While rigid gender roles still defined this culture as well, female promiscuity was especially frowned upon.  In two of the works covered in class, Eliza Haywood’s “Fantomina,” and Ihara Saikuku’s “Life of a Sensuous Woman,” we see evidence of cultural differences amongst a somewhat similar theme.

In “Fantomina,” a European female character uses deception to engage in sexual relations with a man, who is unbeknownst to the fact that he is making love to the same women multiple times due to her various disguises.  The ultimate treatment of this material by the author, while admittedly illustrating roots of feminism by portraying the woman semi-positively and sentimentally, is that she must maintain the secrecy of the situation to avoid shame, while the man, Beauplasir, is allowed to philander freely without any shame at all.

Conversely in “Life of a Sensuous Woman,” a woman tells of her thousands of sexual partners and rampant sexual activity, she is able to achieve high status and in turn be viewed as enlightened and full of wisdom.  While it is evident that in this work of Asian literature objectification of women is prevalent, as it is in the West, her ability to be redeemed and attain wisdom through her own experiences is a unique concept of women status.  Furthermore, women seem to attain a sort of magical essence that men are drawn to through means other than those of a purely sexual nature.

Going along with the themes of masculinity and feminism, a distinction between Western and Eastern Literature may also be seen in the West’s view of the East as overly mystic and intellectual (with the latter term conveying a pejorative connotation).  Adrian Hsia speaks of this in “The Zeitgeist and Herder’s Reconstruct of China” by describing the West’s lack of respect toward Eastern lack of military emphasis.  “The non-militancy of the Chinese was emphasized and criticized in nearly all Jesuit relations concerning China, including Matteo Ricci’s.  Military skill was considered a part of masculinity, and Chinese men were perceived as effeminate” (“Crosscurrents,” 55).  This strange concept becomes even more interesting, according to Hsia, through the influence of one of the 17th and 18th centuries’ most influential authors, Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

Rousseau followed the line of an anti-Jesuit perception of China: the British Admiral Anson had depicted the Chinese, in contrast to the “popists,” as false, corrupt, and deceitful, while Montesquieu had “proved” that climate and natural inclination gave the Chinese a permanent slave mentality.  Rousseau’s contribution was to argue that the Chinese were now established as corrupt and decadent, and therefore, weak.  He glorified the noble savage, and the Chinese were, according to him, neither noble nor savages.  When Rousseauism swept over western Europe, his China construct became part and parcel of his doctrine (“Crosscurrents,” 55).

Perhaps one of the most apparent ties we see in the relationship between Eastern and Western literature is this “myth of the noble savage,” or some form of it.  While Rosseau himself may have not categorized the East specifically into this category, the mystique surrounding the continent from a European perspective often led to it.  The following passage is from Shunsuke Kamei’s “Mark Twain in Japan, Reconsidered,” which is anthologized in “Crosscurrents in the Literatures of Asia and the West.”  It illustrates that the noble savage ideal may often be summoned upon by Western readers in an attempt to illuminate their literary experience. “[I]t may be ingrained in our literary instinct to find in foreign literature what we don’t have, enjoy it, and try to absorb it in order to enrich our own literature” (Kamei, 79).

As far as I am concerned, the relationship between East and West as far as influence upon one another was one that is rather cryptic and surreptitious.  While the intellectual writers of the West, as previously stated, may have channeled some of the material from the East as a framework for some of their work, it is not always as apparent as relationships between other cultures’ literary characteristics.  The earlier illustration of Rousseau’s effect on the West’s perception of China and his contributions to the noble savage construct, however, should not be overlooked.  His revolutionary impact of the timeframe was crucial in that his opinion often carried substantial weight amongst literary communities, and therefore would have affected the West’s perception of the East.

In a purely literary sense, however, the East and West did not engage in any type of “battle” or “rivalry,” whether to overcome stereotypes or assert superiority.  The two regions seemed to have, for the most part, been content in their stylistic and thematic elements that made them unique.

Aldridge, Alfred Owen, Masayuki Akiyama, and Yiu-nam Leung. Crosscurrents in the Literatures of Asia and the West: Essays in Honor of A. Owen Aldridge. Newark: University of Delaware, 1997. Print.

Damrosch, David, and David L. Pike. “Fantomina.” The Longman Anthology of World Literature. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2009. Print.

Zhou, Xiaojing, and Samina Najmi. Form and Transformation in Asian American Literature. Seattle: University of Washington, 2005. Print.

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