Studying modern Asian intellectual history in a world-historical perspective

“Asia” and its problems
While often taken for granted, “Asia” is actually a space subject to ceaseless ideological and power struggle. From ancient times the Europeans had been aware of the great and mysterious Asian civilizations. Throughout history the East or Asia posed various degrees of threat to the European identity and even existence, but since the so-called “rise of the West” from around the sixteenth century Asia gradually fell prey to Western domination in nearly all respects, and it was not until recent decades that Asia started to regain influence. My research mainly focuses on the period from the middle of the nineteenth century to the end of World War II, a time when Western imperialism reached a climax but the other parts of the world, particularly Asian countries, also used what they had learned from the modern West combined with what they thought to have inherited from tradition to assert themselves. My interest also extends to the postwar world as, despite drastic changes in the global power structure, many claims about cultures and civilizations voiced then and even today can find their initial shapes in the preceding period.

Rabindranath Tagore as a nexus and starting point
The Indian poet-thinker Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) serves as an illuminating example in my research. Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, Tagore became the best known Asian figure in his time, and he was then able to embark on world lecture tours, criticizing Western materialism (embodied in nationalism and imperialism according to him) and proposing so-called Eastern spiritual civilization. However, for some Asian peoples who were struggling to modernize or Westernize their countries, Tagore’s message appeared more unrealistic than encouraging and thus aroused fierce debate. While often emotional and even ideological, the debate around Tagore occurring in those countries, especially India, China, and Japan, allows us an extraordinary channel to compare and connect different contexts pressed by the problem of modernization in the early twentieth century. Furthermore, Tagore’s own perception of the ideas of modernity, Asia, the nation, and even world history also provides us with an alternative to the prevalent Western views. My way of dealing with Tagore goes beyond the limits of “case study” and delves into comparative intellectual history, which, nevertheless, also requires careful methodological consideration.

Perspective and methodology
As mentioned above, India, China, and Japan constitute the triple focuses in my research. During the period from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, India was a British colony, China was nominally independent but controlled or “partitioned” by numerous powers, and Japan was generally an autonomous country. It can be said that they represent the three types of Asian countries under Western imperialism, hence justifying comparative studies on the very topic of mutual interaction and understanding between East and West. However, the methodological problem of comparability asks for a more solid foundation, and I am also engaged in intellectual issues concerning both national and transnational contexts, such as pan-Asianism and its variations, the influence of Confucianism on China’s and Japan’s modernization, China discourse in transdisciplinary perspective in the age witnessing “the rise of China,” and so forth. To sum up, Asia is not merely a geographical designation but also an intellectual complication that deserves exploration for better understanding world history.

(Yu-Ting Lee Graduate Institute of National Development, National Taiwan University)