“Things Chinese and Japanese”: American Conceptions of Civilization


A review of Material, Mental, and Moral Progress: American Conceptions of Civilization in Late 19th Century Studies on “Things Chinese and Japanese”, by Henna-Riikka Pennanen.

Henna-Riikka Pennanen’s fresh dissertation is a meticulous study of how six Americans with extensive living experiences in China and Japan in the late nineteenth century deploy the master concept of civilization in their copious writings on the two East Asian nations then under fundamental transformation. The three China watchers, Samuel Wells Williams (1812-1884), William Alexander Parsons Martin (1827-1916), and Arthur Henderson Smith (1845-1932), shared their missionary careers in the country before taking different paths. In contrast, William Elliot Griffis (1843-1928), Percival Lawrence Lowell (1855-1916), and Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) all stayed in Japan on secular pursuits, except that Griffis was a very religious man himself. Pennanen’s choice of this group of white men of different ages and diverse background thus lends to a nuanced analysis of the consensus and disagreement in a growing body of knowledge of East Asia in the United States during a pivotal moment of its expansion in the western Pacific. Later history demonstrates that these emerging ideas would have a disproportionate impact on the American engagement with China and Japan in the twentieth century and beyond.

Chapter 1 as the introduction establishes the conceptual, temporal, and methodological foundations of the whole dissertation. Perceptively treating civilization as the “basic/key concept” of the nineteenth century (p. 11), Pennanen chooses to study American perceptions of Chinese and Japanese civilization in the latter half of the century when the two ends of the Pacific were increasingly bound together through political, economic, and cultural ties. To fulfill such a cultural/intellectual/conceptual history (p. 37), Pennanen selects three “intermediary level” writers of China and three similar ones of Japan (p. 14), whose extensive residency in East Asia and popular middlebrow writing make them the ideal subjects for her study. After a brief introduction of six experts, Pennanen situates her work in light of existing historiography. Complementing Michael Adas’s classic study of technology in Western civilizational discourse, she emphasizes “the more immaterial criteria” of civilization. (p. 33) In contrast to most works on national perception, Pennanen does not just study one target country but actively compares two on their distinct paths toward modernity. She also offers an insightful caution against the blanket application of Said’s critique of Orientalism and advocates a “case by case” approach. The six experts often aimed to achieve a genuine understanding of China and Japan, and particularly in the case of Japan they engaged the self-presentation of the Japanese. Pennanen ends the introduction with a discussion of the hermeneutical debates among philosophically-leaning historians on how to interpret texts and opts for an eclectic “contextualism” which allows a flexible bearing of multiple contexts on historical texts. (p. 52)

Chapter 2 covers the etymology of civilization as well as its general use by the six authors. Originating in mid-eighteenth century French, “civilization” became a common concept in English and many other European languages by the nineteenth century. In the process of its increasing popularity, civilization gradually transformed from a descriptor of individual comportment to that of societal and national development with a progressive path based on the European model. It was also closely bound with other master narratives of the nineteenth century such as progress, race, and evolution. Through a careful investigation of the “semantic field” (p. 64), the words associated with civilization, Pennanen demonstrates through their frequent comments on Chinese and Japanese civilizations in light of Eurocentric Civilization that the six authors do not always follow the mainstream interpretations of the these key notions. Quite a few of them, for example, resist the rigid application of Western civilization in judging East Asia, and are ambivalent about the extent to which race determines the achievements of different civilizations. Her attention to such nuance is further born out in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 3 discusses the civilizational status of China and Japan perceived by the American experts, and its political consequences. They hardly use the word “savagery,” and sometimes use “barbarian” in a non-pejorative way to mean simply differences between East Asia and the West. But no matter how much these experts aspire to a sympathetic understanding of China and Japan, particularly Lowell and Hearn, who had no missionary background, Western civilization, the United States being an exceptional representative, is still the implicit “benchmark for others.” (p. 117) China and Japan are, as the title of this chapter suggests, the quintessential stagnant “other” of Civilization. In accounting for this, the experts refrain from a deterministic racial explanation and, similar to Max Weber, point to various cultural factors, such as the lack of individualism, imagination, and Christianity. The rest of the chapter weaves in foreign relations of China and Japan in the nineteenth century to show that such discussions were not a “mere rhetorical exercise,” but deeply affected both countries’ international standing. (p. 103)

Through the painstaking analysis of different verbs associated with civilization, chapter 4 convincingly demonstrates the American experts’ opinions on the propagator and the receiver in the transmission of civilization. Despite minor misgivings about “impressing” Western civilization on the Chinese and Japanese (p. 164), the experts generally agree that Westerners, and Americans in particular, shoulder the moral responsibility of teaching civilization to East Asians, which, if necessary, can be carried out by force. By documenting Chinese and Japanese reactions to the influx of Western civilization, the chapter also provides an apt comparison between China’s failure and Japan’s success as seen by the foreign powers. But such perceptions, as Pennanen warns us, hinge on a deep-seated bias against “superficial” learning from the West by the Japanese (p. 195), and to a less extent the Chinese, however successful it might be. They also betray the underlying fear of the “yellow peril,” which suggests the possibility of former students taking down their teachers.

Chapter 5 moves to religion as “the most contested” topic among the six experts and again reveals their differences. (p. 203) The three China watchers plus Griffis, due to their religious beliefs, unsurprisingly maintain a jaundiced opinion of the syncretic beliefs in China and Japan, many of which, due to their “superstitious” practices, were not considered true religions. For them, Christianity is “the religion par excellence” and thus intimately related to civilization. (p. 203) Despite all the apparent success in selectively adopting Western science and technology, particularly in Japan, they believe that there is “no other choice” for the Chinese and Japanese besides conversion to Christianity. (p. 241) Lowell, although himself nonreligious, criticizes the “impersonality” of East Asian religion and ethics, which makes them inferior to their Christian counterparts. Hearn, because of his later conversion to Buddhism and marriage to a Japanese woman, is only an exception that proves the rule. He not only rejects the close correspondence between religion and civilization, but also believes that secular ethics, which is already on a high plane in Japan, is capable of providing the “moral backbone” for the country’s progress. (p. 255).

When it comes to science and education, the American experts generally find, as chapter 6 indicates, China and Japan wanting and in need of Western tutelage. Whatever the past achievements of the Chinese and Japanese, rigid Confucianism and self-imposed isolation rendered their science and education in the nineteenth century deplorable. Except for occasional praise for China’s civil service exam, traditional Chinese and Japanese science is thought to be “primitive,” “childish,” and “ancient;” their education didactic and stultifying. (p. 306) Even the Chinese and Japanese languages are considered cumbersome and impervious to modern ideas. The torch to guide them out of such abysmal darkness unsurprisingly comes from the West, whether held by Jesuits or the Dutch dating back to the sixteenth century or Anglo-Americans in the nineteenth century. Of particular interest to historians is that most of the American experts agree that despite both countries’ rich traditions in historical writing, those books record “chronology” at best, but not proper history, due to the lack of scientific synthesis. (p. 268) Despite such odds, the majority of the experts, their ambivalence with racial heredity notwithstanding, still believe that the Chinese and Japanese are capable of Western learning. This is a particularly important question for those with missionary backgrounds because a different answer would render their service pointless. In fact, their belief in the Chinese and Japanese capability is such that they are frustrated with the “selectivity” in China and Japan which favors modern science at the cost of Christianity. (p. 295) For the missionary experts, the link between science and Christianity is beyond doubt, and only the latter can provide “moral restraints” on intellectual development. (p. 296) However, as Pennanen’s nuanced analysis demonstrates, the non-Christian Hearn once again is the outlier here because of his questioning of Christianity’s moral relevance to Japan and his advocate for Buddhism’s compatibility with science and ethical values to the fast changing nation.

The last substantive chapter examines the organization of society and government in China and Japan and the place of individuals, particularly women, therein. Skillfully sifting through a myriad of opinions by the six experts, Pennanen provides insightful observations that both complement and complicate her findings from previous chapters. On the one hand, there is the familiar distinction between those with and without missionary backgrounds. The former group, whatever their specific opinions regarding the status of society, government, and women in China and Japan, tend to advocate Christianity as “the next step” for the two countries’ progress to true civilization. (p. 351) Hearn is the unsurprising contrast, as he refrains from giving a singular value judgment on issues such as the relevance of Christianity and female morality in Japan. On the other hand, however, most of the experts often mesh together China and Japan as one unified “Asiatic” (p. 369) civilization that, in sharp contrast to its Western counterpart, locks individuals into rigid social hierarchies and deprives their “individualism.” (p. 374) Hearn once again defies the general trend and expresses concerns about the potential damages to social cohesion by unfettered individual competition.

In the conclusion, Pennanen reiterates the predominantly dichotomous view of Western civilization versus Chinese and Japanese civilizations held by experts covered in previous chapters. However, such a dichotomy should not obscure alternative observations of the relationship between different civilizations. In addition to Hearn, Pennanen correctly reminds us that the Chinese and Japanese themselves were also actively appropriating civilizational discourse for purposes quite different from and even subversive of the Western notions of civilization. Her dissertation ends roughly at the turn of the twentieth century, but the discursive struggles over civilization were far from over.

Pennanen’s dissertation covers a critical period when not only concerned Chinese and Japanese, but also influential stakeholders from without, such as the six American experts, were actively debating and negotiating the meaning of Chinese and Japanese civilization. Due to the novelty of this body of knowledge in the United States, the experts often crossed the boundaries between missionary, diplomat, educator, and scholar. As the burgeoning study on the history of collecting among art historians demonstrates (Jason Steuber and Guolong Lai, eds., Collectors, Collections & Collecting the Art of China: Histories & Challenges. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014), similar discussions were also fueling the solidification of “Chinese art” as an up and coming category in the minds of collectors, dealers, curators, and scholars, identities not mutually exclusive of each other. Her work thus enriches the specific literature on nation-building in China and Japan and charts a transnational direction in studying nation-building in general.

Yanqiu Zheng
Department of History
Northwestern University

Primary Sources
Samuel Wells Williams, The Middle Kingdom (1882)
William Alexander Parsons Martin, A Cycle of Cathay (1896)
Arthur Henderson Smith, Chinese Characteristics (1890)
William Elliot Griffis, The Mikado’s Empire (1876)
Percival Lawrence Lowell, The Soul of the Far East (1888)
Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894)

Dissertation Information
University of Jyväskylä. 2015. 432pp. Primary Advisor: Satu Matikainen.
Image: Lafcadio Hearn’s residence in Matsue. Photo taken by the author.

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