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Modernity: South Asia vs East Asia

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Earlier today, I was listening to a song and it got me thinking about music and what it can tell us about how countries modernize.

I enjoy listening to South Asian (Indian, but also Pakistani, etc.) music. One of the things that I enjoy the most about it is how good Indian music is at fusion. It mixes a number of classical Indian genres with Islamic genres and Western genres and blends them together in an extremely harmonious fashion.  The song above is a good demonstration of this. It is both clearly modern and clearly directly derived from Indian traditional music as well.

Of course, Indian music has been doing this for a while, so it ought to be good at fusion, but Indian culture is not the only Asian culture in the last century that has been significantly impacted by Western music. There are some movements in the West and East Asia that try to do this, but this it not the norm. For music that does a good job of fusing traditional and modern sounds, consider the Japanese group Rin’ and Loreena Mckennit, one of my favorite Western artists.  The point I wish to bring up is the fact that when it comes to East Asian music (Chinese, Korean, Japanese), I’ve notice that the music is either traditional and based on the classical music of those cultures or modern, which is music almost completely copied off of Western pop and rock models without any native influence except for the fact that the language of the lyrics is still Chinese/Korean/Japanese. I generalize of course.

This is indicative of a fact that I and many others have observed about East Asia, though it is a difficult phenomenon to describe because of its complexity and subtlety. The way East Asia has modernized is very different from South Asia’s way. For East Asians, that past is a tradition that is in many ways finished. That ancient era being over, it can lie serene in the past, while a new era was to be built on top of it, based primarily on Western technology. But since the past was shelved, often inevitably, culture was also shelved and Western culture came with Western technology. If you observe a wedding in China or Japan, you will find the brides wearing a Western style white gown getting married in a pseudo-Christian ceremony. This is not to say that Japanese or Chinese culture is no longer distinct from the West. The differences are vast. But the way they adopted to modernity by taking on the entity of the West as a layer that often obscured their original cultures, though their social and family patterns (and food) are still clearly Asian.

But even the most modern Indian or Pakistani couple will wear traditional clothing to their wedding. For South Asians (and also the people of the Middle East if they decide to fully commit to the path of modernity), the past is not a tradition which ended to be followed by a new tradition based on Western modernity. Rather it is a living tradition that has merged with both cultural and technological modernism from the West.

The best way to explain this phenomenon is to understand that East Asians and South Asians have two different conceptions of time.  To borrow terminology used by the magazine, “The Globalist,” the two types of time are:

1. Homogeneous (Sequential)

2. Heterogeneous  

Homogeneous time is associated with East Asian way to modernity.

There was the assumption that time was homogeneous. Either one was modern, or one was what came before. So one doubled: one put on a Western suit and was modern or one wore a kimono and was traditional, but one could not dress in a kimono and be modern.

On the other hand, heterogeneous time can be found in India

A [traditionally dressed man] at a cash machine is entirely a participant, just as he is, in the entity known as modern India. To find cognitive dissonance with an ox-cart on an expressway may do [in the West] but there is nothing dissonant about it to the Indian sensibility.

Of course these attitudes are not etched in stone. There is no doubt that Indians will be seduced by a Western, materialist, consumer economy and give up some of their old attitude while East Asians may bring back some of the older aspects of their culture due to mounting nostalgia.  But for the moment, this is the reason that India has never felt the the angst caused by loss of culture felt by other cultures that modernized. Russian and Japanese literature is full of such angst. How did India manage this feat? The Indian social system has been remarkably persistent in perpetuating itself  spontaneously without any government or cultural body to nudge it because people in India just have a habit of “doing their thing.” This means India is able to have several centuries exist within its boundaries simultaneously. Although, in terms of the arts and people’s existential ability to make sense of the world, this is a good thing, this also means economic and social development proceeds slowly.

So here we have it. Two Asian methods of modernization. Replicating the West and Adapting the West.

So why are their notions of time different anyway? It probably has to do with their traditional conception of time. India’s conception of time is eternal and cyclical where everything happens at once while China’s version of time is more tethered to the events of its dynastic cycle. India’s history is metaphysical while China’s is based on historical events. This topic is worthy of further elaboration at a certain point.


Written by Akhipill

December 18, 2012 at 12:41 AM

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