Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Where did the idea of ‘East vs West’ come from?

  • Most current ideological debates are really predetermined banalities and trivialities pretending to be legitimate political ideas, buried under layers of assumptions and presuppositions we barely know exist

The late French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault wrote an intriguing book called Les mots et les choses. I don’t know why its English publisher decided to retitle it as The Order of Things. Words and things are exactly what Foucault was getting at, that is, how they are constituted as signifiers and signified in highly unstable and morally questionable (even indefensible) systems of “episteme” or “knowledge” that predetermine what and how we think. Since the “system” – or the matrix – underpins our whole global outlook, we can’t see it any more than the eye can turn back to see itself.

Many of our everyday concepts are exactly like that. They think us, rather than we think them. How I think about the West and how you think about China are already tainted by preconceptions and prejudices buried deep in our histories and cultures and socially conditioned personalities. That’s why most of what you and I think about each other and our respective countries are just predetermined banalities and trivialities pretending to be legitimate ideas.

“East vs West” that haunts so much contemporary discourse, from highbrow academia to tabloid journalism and online rants, is one of those morally and intellectually shaky and questionable epistemes. Perhaps those words already contain all the layers of meanings that we now throw at each other while we think we are debating and criticising and denouncing each other in a cognitive void into which we were thrown but completely unaware.

Where did “East and West” come from? More precisely, where did the terms “Asia” and “Europe” come from? In A study of History, Arnold Toynbee claims Herodotus (possibly 484-425BC) was the first writer to come up with the contrast that underpins the way we use those words today. And Herodotus did it before people thought there was something called Asia and Europe.

Most intriguing! Can a man’s imagination conjure up a thing before there is such a thing? Can (meaningful) words precede things or better, create them? That’s what Foucault thinks: words constitute things, thoughts like opinions conjure up our so-called realities.

Before Herodotus, there was already the tragedy Persae or The Persians, written by Aeschylus in 472BC, in which Persia was already identified as “Asia”. What Toynbee specifically meant is that Herodotus came up with East vs West. As with most developments in history, Herodotus’ idea came out of violence and war.

The East-West contrast began as a blood feud between the Persian Achaemenid Empire and Hellenic Greece. It supposedly began with the Hellenes’ sack of Troy, or so Herodotus claims, and culminated with the failed Achaemenid invasions. Henceforth, “East and West” was no longer just geographic terms for mariners but a political, cultural and ideological frame of reference.

“The Herodotean myth is of interest and importance in that it put into circulation the concept of ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ as rival and opposing entities – entities which still survive on our maps,” Toynbee wrote.

“‘The feud between Europe and Asia’ is the dominant and unifying theme of Herodotus’ work, and the masterliness of his workmanship is largely responsible for the subsequent vogue of this fifth-century Hellenic fantasy.”

If for us, as for the moderns, the West stands for enlightenment and progress and the East the opposite, we can trace it all the way back to Herodotus. If you doubt what Toynbee wrote, just consider this line from the swords and sandals hit movie 300: “This day we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny, and usher in a future brighter than anything we can imagine,” a surviving Spartan shouted to rally the troops.

From the movie, countless North American teenagers with no knowledge of history would think the Persian empire (or the East or even Iran today) represented darkness, mysticism and tyranny, while the ancient Greeks represented the height of freedom, enlightenment and democracy. The historical truth is exactly the reverse. The administrative-bureaucratic competence of the Achaemenians would not be matched by the famed Chinese civil service until centuries later, under the Han dynasty. Its multicultural and religious tolerance was unheard of. When they put down the first Ionian Greek revolt, they did so with exceptional mercy and moderation.

After the Greeks kicked out the Persians, the Spartans and the Athenians decided to fight each other. As recounted by Thucydides, democratic Athens wiped out the Melians for trying to remain neutral in what was clearly a genocide. But until recently, most Western authors and intellectuals discussed the Melian Dialogue as the West’s first discourse on political realism – “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” – as if it was the literary precursor to Machiavelli. Talk about Western historical propaganda, just like the history of Western imperialism, slavery and European and American genocides against natives around the world or the contemporary devastations wrought by American militarism and imperium in the name of freedom and democracy.

It’s about time we end the Herodotean myth of West vs East, of the free and enlightened against the tyrannical and the unworthy.