John Timothy Wixted on being an Orientalist

At first glance, Wixted’s Reverse Orientalism feels dated; his counter-arguments to Said’s critique of Orientalism by now sounds like uninteresting truisms (e.g. that Asian countries have themselves resorted to orientalist rhetoric, or that they deliberately helped build their own Orientalist images when convenient, or that they constructed Occidentalist images of the U.S. &c.). But reading further I came upon what I find to be fascinating personal (and sour) testimony on what was like to be 20c orientalist. Wixted can paint with a broad brush, so I’m kind of reluctant about quoting him at length; but I have to confess these experiences feel too familiar.

A fundamental view, with certain variations and
corollaries, seems to be: “Only we can understand us.” Namely, only
Chinese can truly understand Chinese, Chinese culture, and the Chinese
people. Only Japanese can truly understand Japanese, etc. In other
words, only Chinese can speak with any real knowledge about China, or
some extension of the formulation: Only in a very limited sense can
any non-Chinese hope to or presume to say anything worthwhile or
significant about China. And, if a non-Chinese does speak with
knowledge, it still does not have the same authority. Authority
includes being Chinese.

[…] Since Westerners can have little if anything valuable to say about
our culture, we Chinese can ignore whatever they might have to say
about it. […] Chinese ignorance of and ignoring of Western-language
scholarship on China are unfortunate enough, but Chinese ignorance of
and ignoring of Japanese scholarship on China are even more striking.
Japan, with its long traditions of scholarship on China, has produced
in this century alone a galaxy of outstanding China scholars⁶. There
is virtually no area in Chinese studies in which one can afford to
overlook relevant Japanese scholarship. […] It is all so circular and

[…] By way of contrast, let us now turn to the Japanese case. The
set of assumptions many Japanese have toward Western scholars of and
scholarship on Japan takes on its own special configuration. A
fundamental element to this is what I call the
have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too syndrome, which I think has broad
implications for Japanese dealings with the outside world. The basic
formulation of this is simple. We Japanese can read, understand, and
appreciate Shakespeare or Goethe or Tu FU, but no non-Japanese, no
outsider, can truly understand or appreciate Bashō or Genji or
basically anything about Japan. Why? Because we’re special. The
have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too image comes from having it both ways:
being universalist, all-encompassing Japanese, and being particularist
and, above all, insular Japanese. […] All too many Japanese are
flattered by outsiders’ interest in their culture, humored by and
admiring of outsiders’ struggles to achieve a measure of control of
their language, and yet increasingly uncomfortable or even
exclusionist when faced with real achievement, though ultimately many
are willing to give credit where it is due.

[…] These attitudes also affect the views Japan have of their cultural
indebtedness to China. Of course, it is true that in most cases
Japanese transformed Chinese cultural influences in truly creative
ways. But all too many Japanese scholars get caught up in asserting
their uniqueness and in defensively trying to determine when cultural
influences were Japanized. When viewed from the Chinese side,
however, Sino-Japanese cultural relations fare even worse. Widespread
Chinese ignorance of Japanese cultural history reinforces a different
set of widely held views: that Japanese culture does not exist: that
it is an inferior, degraded version of Chinese culture: or that, to
the extent that it does exist, it was taken wholesale from China. And,
only recently has either side recognized that, more often than not,
the cultural transmission was mediated by Korea.

[…] What I find disconcerting is any situation where the sole focus, or
most of the focus, is on the cultural identity of the speaker and not
on what is being said. In my experience, many Chinese simply cannot get
beyond identifying some literary interpretation, for example, as being
that of a Westerner or a Japanese, and thereby largely or completely
avoid coming to grips with the merits or demerits of what is being
said. And in Japanese, the clear labeling of a view as being that of a
Western outsider is inscribed in the very katakana orthography used,
which identifies the source as being alien. [cf. gaijinspeak in
manga or videogames—L.B.]

[…] As noted earlier, the expectation on the part of many Chinese is
that work on China by non-Chinese is no good. If, however, it is clear
that the work is good, then the reaction, which on occasion I have
witnessed, can be this: I, as a Chinese, am ashamed, am humiliated,
that this work was not done by a Chinese. I have heard Chinese say
this (and mean it) about the Takigawa Kametarô 滝川亀太郎
edition of the Shih-chi [shǐjì] 史记 and certain other Japanese scholarship, about
Kalgren’s work on Chinese phonology, and even about a volume of my own
work. [Recent
]. This self-inflicted psychological pain tells us
something, I believe, about an aspect of Chinese reverse Orientalism:
many Chinese, in a possessive, exclusionist, self-contained way,
consider the study of China their bailiwick and theirs alone; and the
inwardcenteredness of this Chinese cultural world prevents such
Chinese from taking active pleasure either in the scholarship itself,
in the fact that others are doing work that can redound to the benefit
of Chinese and non-Chinese Sinologists alike, or in the fact that such
work might increase appreciation of the richness of Chinese culture
among non-Chinese. Those of us who happen not to have been born
Chinese, however, are in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t

I find Wixted’s notion of “triangulation” particularly

[…] ethnic Chinese contributors to the volume generally not only
sounded ignorant of other parts of Asia; they also made the
all-too-common mistake of many Asians—that of making their limited
corner of it, as they understood it, typical of the whole, huge,
varied mass. Western writers in the volume were no better; they, too,
mistakenly generalized about Asians from experience with the one area
of Asia they knew something about, China. All of this touches on the
enormous problem involved when one tries to make cultural
dichotomies. For meaningful contrasts between large cultural groups to
be made, my own view is that there is a need for “triangulation.” It
is not enough to contrast, say, just Japan and the United states. Many
of the contrasts that seem unique or special to one or the other
society lose their uniqueness with the awareness that a third culture
has a still different cultural configuration, and that all three
overlap in certain ways. They are all unique. Each is special in its
individual mosaic (which at the same time normally includes internally
contradictory elements); only rarely is a specific constitutive
element that contributes to a general cultural configuration
unique. To make any definitive contrasts between the Western and
non-Western worlds, one would have to be both anthropologist and
cultural historian for the entire world. To make the distinction
between Asians or “Orientals” on the one hand, and Westerners on the
other, one would have to have a knowledge of the vastly different,
major cultural traditions of Asia, plus considerable learning of the
great Western tradition; to my knowledge no one has even approached
having such a background. Even contrasts within East Asia are
extremely hard to make, China, Japan, and Korea being just too much to

[…using triangulation,] the discovery should
take place that one’s own Culture A shares differing similarities with
cultures B and C, while having still different sets of contrasts with
these two other cultures. Not only are the complex richnesses of both
cultures B and C highlighted, that of one’s own culture A is thrown
into varying relief.

7 thoughts on “John Timothy Wixted on being an Orientalist

  1. I’ve first met Wixted through his most interesting paper about Chinese models and influences on the Kokinshū prefaces (which many hold to be paragons of pure Japaneseness). Wixted has also called for better kanbun scholarship.

  2. I’m sorry that I haven’t checked back at this blog for so long.

    I haven’t read anything by Wixted, but I agree with his observations about the Chinese and Japanese mindsets. I’ve come across them many times, in many different contexts.

    I also find resonance in Wixted’s observations on Chinese neglect of Japanese scholarship. I touch on this my blog entry on “Blind Spots in Chinese Lexicography” (qv). This just happens to be related to the page on orioles and warblers that I linked to at my comment on the “List of official Japanese simplified kanji”. Sorry if I seem to beating my own drum, but I find it very interesting that this single example should be relevant to two separate entries on this blog.

  3. No, I am to blame for the infrequent updates. I find I have difficulty in keeping a blog focused in a single theme… And dude your drum is hefty & cool & you should totally beat it more.

    …ok that sounded weird. I appreciate your work, is what I’m saying.

  4. Revisiting Wixted’s post after a year, I feel a great deal of sympathy for what he says.

    Said’s critique of Orientalism is still too fresh in my mind to sound like “uninteresting truisms” (e.g. that Asian countries have themselves resorted to orientalist rhetoric, or that they deliberately helped build their own Orientalist images when convenient, or that they constructed Occidentalist images of the U.S. &c.)

    At any rate, as I briefly mentioned last year, I’ve run into all these attitudes amongst the Chinese and Japanese. The ‘we can understand you but you can’t understand us’ attitude. The idea that as a Chinese you can speak for all of East Asia (they seem to forget that there are other countries in East Asia). The idea of being the sole possessor of the culture. Etc. etc.

    I was recently at an improv show when a Chinese girl I was sitting beside said it must be very hard to understand the cultural nuances. I agreed. She came out with two examples, one that was spoken on stage, plus another that she said was a very important concept in Chinese. Both were martial arts terms. I showed them to the Chinese girl sitting on the other side of me, and she said, ‘I’ve never heard of them. You don’t need to learn these expressions’. I later checked both of them, and found that one of them was an invention by a modern novelist! So much for ‘You can’t understand my culture!’

    I agree that understanding the nuances of a foreign language can be difficult, but it’s often not the ‘obvious culture things’ that are hard. It’s the little expressions that have their own particular nuances in everyday speech, not expressions (like wabi and sabi) that people like to make a big deal out of. There is just so much bullshit here that it’s almost vexatious to think about it.

  5. Heh, a rather mixed up semi-rant I posted last night! I think my point was how popular conceptions or misconceptions are easily turned into a kind of national mythology, but this is a little away from what Wixted was saying.

    I do, however, heartily agree with the need for triangulation. This is not necessarily geographical triangulation, either. I have a book (not here with me) by an Englishman that consists of quotes from books about Meiji Japan by nineteenth century Western observers. Many things are so totally at odds with what we take from granted among the Japanese of today that it’s almost like a different country! Too much of what we learn as ‘knowledge’, ‘generalisations’, or ‘explanations’ are nothing of the sort, and this applies as much to members of that culture as it does to outsiders.

  6. Haha don’t worry, I entirely sympathize with the sentiments of your rant.

    Ok, after a year, I agree “uninteresting truisms” was a bit of harsh wording. What I meant was that these caveats, while being pretty necessary in 1989, are now kind of standard in discussions of Said and Orientalism (well, at least in the kind of discussion I’ve met)—“Occidentalism” is even a Thing. So my interest in the article began more out of historical curiosity, and then I was surprised when it veered for common attitudes of Chinese and Japanese people towards foreign scholars (like you, it hit a bit too close to home).

    As for misconceptions and national mythology, I’m growing ever more inclined to agree with Barthes and Wilde that the Japan I love is a fictional construct. And I say this with much respect for the few real-life Japanese people (and foreigners) who erect this construct—e.g. the tea ceremony community. But, as far as I can see, the “exquisite fancy of art” that is the tea-world (or the zen-world or the martial arts–world) is as far removed from the actual life of the Japanese individual—the NEET loafing around in a Metallica t-shirt watching Cartoon Network or whatever—as, say, frevo dancing is removed from me as a Brazilian. Traditions are a kind of theatre that must be opted-in and performed deliberately. If the goal is to understand the anthropology of the really-existing society, one has to set aside all the theoretical discussions of Taoism and tatemae and actually look at them—whenever I try to bring up the topic of Zhuangzi or Dogen to a random Chinese or Japanese person, I only get blank stares…

    It has been said that Zen is “gaijin’s Buddhism”; similarly haiku is gaijin’s poetry, sushi is gaijin’s food, wabi-sabi is gaijin’s æsthetics… The Japanese themselves are gaijin as far as those things are concerned; wafuu, “japaneseness”, is _a style_ among many for Japanese people to choose, just like the typical Tokyoite changes freely between Japanese cuisine, Chinese, “Western”, “Ethnic”, Makudonarudo…

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