Sun Ge

A professor at the Institute of Literature in the Chinese Academy of Social Science, Sun Ge asks whether ‘Asia’ could be defined beyond geographical terms, and what such definitions would mean for ‘Asian’ art

By Aimee Lin

Photo: Tamako Sado Eric Baudelaire, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu , Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Image (still), 2011, Super 8 and hd video, 66 min. Courtesy the artist Victor Levasseur, Atlas Universel Illustré Asia, 1856, painted copper engraving, 435 × 288 cm. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Yinchuan Polit-Sheer-Form-Office, Tofu, Kungfu, Polit-Sheer-Form, 2009, video, 3 min 5 sec. Courtesy the artists

Born in 1955 in Changchun, Jilin, China, Sun Ge studied Chinese literature at Jilin University and is a professor at the Institute of Literature in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Interested in the issue of East Asia from early on, she has conducted comparative research on the literatures and philosophies of China and Japan across the boundaries of academic disciplines and departments. Her fields of interest include modern Chinese literature, the history of modern Japanese thought and comparative cultural studies. Her major works include How Does Asia Mean? (2001), Space of Pervasive Subjectivities: The Dilemma of Discursive Asia (2002), The Paradox of Takeuchi Yoshimi (2005), The Literary Position: Masao Maruyama’s Dilemma (2009), Why Shall We Talk About East Asia: Politics and History in Situation (2011).

I. What does Asia mean?

ARTREVIEW ASIA What does Asia mean? Does it possess meaning beyond its geographical connotations?

SUN GE Of course. Asia is more than a spatial concept, which is to say, it is more than a geographical concept, and it is also more than a political-historical-geographical concept. In academia, there is now a field called political historical geography in which various political, cultural and historical questions are discussed in the context of where they happened. Asia is indeed a compound concept of politics, history and geography, but in addition to that, I believe it has an important alternative function, one that is often overlooked: its spiritual fūdo character.

ARA What is fūdo?

SG Fūdo refers to the natural geographical characteristics possessed by a given region or geographical space. The combination of these characteristics with the particular spiritual life of people via social activities is called fūdo. [Fūdo, or Fengtu, is a term used by Japanese philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji (1889–1960) in Fūdo: ningen-gakuteki kōsatsu (1935), translated in English as Climate and Culture (1961). The term signifies ‘wind and earth… the natural environment of a given land’.] So the concept of Asia is at the very least a particular natural geographical space that bears the weight of political, historical and spiritual culture produced by human activity within it. The various spiritual products of society and the humanities are discussed within the context of a particular space.

ARA ‘Asia’ was originally a name that outsiders used for a specific geographical space. Does Asia, or the concept of Asia, mean something to the people who live within this space?

SG Prior to modern times, ‘Asia’ did not have any connotations of subjective identification, but in the twentieth century that changed. From the Crusades, when the term referred only to Asia Minor (Anatolia), until the turn of the twentieth century, as Europe gradually subjected the world to colonialism, the Asia discourse of the West was consistently one in which Asia served as Europe’s ‘other’. During the powerful classical period of the Islamic world, this ‘other’ was a formidable foe. In modern times, this ‘other’ has become a source of comparison – evidence against the predominance of European culture. Until the end of the Second World War, European ideology did not acknowledge that Asia could be an equal counterpart with which mutual understanding was possible. Even then, such a relationship was merely a possibility. And to this day, this possibility remains relatively marginal in Europe.

As for Asia, it was not until the end of the Second World War that a relatively widespread trend emerged in which the meaning of ‘Asia’ was reversed in order to connote a subjectively identified political symbol. At that point, one could no longer say that Asia was merely a concept created by the West. This change in the symbol was marked by the Bandung Conference of 1955 [the meeting of African and Asian states that anticipated the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement of countries]. Of course, that was just one phase of its evolution. In terms of major historical trends, the general development of the Asia discourse began in the twentieth century as ‘Asia’ was transformed into a symbol of self-identification in some societies in the Asia region. Japan was the first place where this self-identification occurred. The growth of Asianism in Japan reached its peak with Japan’s victory in the 1904–5 Japanese–Russian War. The Japanese saw this war as a war between races: a victory of the yellow race over the white race. In his speech on the ‘Three Principles of the People’ [1905], [Chinese revolutionary] Sun Yat-sen recounted how, on his boat trip on the Suez Canal, an Arab asked him if he was Japanese. At that time, Arabs rarely expressed their sense of solidarity with East Asia, but the Japanese–Russian War had contributed to Arabian identification with Asia as part of the yellow race. The unfortunate thing is that Japanese Asianism accompanied war, and their methods of war were imitations of European colonial methods. So Japan’s path was not one of genuine Asianism; it was a path of Europeanism. This Europeanism was most typically exemplified by the Second World War and Japan’s invasion of East and Southeast Asia. Japan’s colonialism, along with its methods of advancing the war, was completely in the mould of early European colonialism.

Therefore, if it can be said that Asianism exists in Asia, then this Asianism has many faces, and tension exists between them. But we can say without value judgement that in the late nineteenth century a trend emerged in which several different parts of Asia, in many different forms, began to cast off the cultural symbols of the Western ‘other’ and adopt subjective symbols of self-identification. It was a historical trend, and so the earlier period of history in which ‘Asia’ was named by the West cannot be used to explain the use of the nomenclature of Asia by Asian people after the turn of the twentieth century.

ARA Then what changes have occurred in the meaning of this idea of Asia since the end of the Second World War?

SG After the Second World War, this idea of Asia was used at the Bandung Conference in the context of Afro-Asia – ie, Africa and Asia – and the national independence movements of the two continents. At that point, a core aspect of Asian identity was the national independence movements at the state level. During the process of Asia’s rise during the 1950s, the principle significance of Asia as a political unit was political subjectivity. Other than Japan, the vast majority of Asian regions had experienced either direct or indirect colonisation. In this context of being discriminated against and feeling humiliated, Asia experienced a sharp surge in solidarity in the 1950s. Asia is not like Europe in that it cannot be roughly integrated on the basis of a single religion. There are at least three major civilisations in Asia, and more than three main religions that cannot be easily integrated. However, the Bandung Conference symbolised a period of integration during the 1950s in which the concept of Asia was spread vigorously through virtually the entire region. As these states gained independence and sovereignty, so the situation changed.

ARA Roughly when did that happen?

SG I would say it happened as the Cold War structure began to disintegrate. Asia began to split up during the 1970s, because at the time the entire continent was facing a developmental problem: how to achieve modernisation. The result was all sorts of dialogue, exchange and cooperation between Asia and the West. Thus, after the 1970s, a new round of colonialism began, but this time in an invisible form. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in the early 1990s, Asia was faced with the question of forming new alliances. So new coalitions, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the BRICS countries, are in fact symbols of Asia’s reorganisation of international relations. In these circumstances we discover that Asia is already incapable of acting, in terms of geography, as an independent unit in order to emphasise its identity. For example, the Six Party Talks in Northeast Asia are a major thing for Asia, but nobody raises an eyebrow at the participation of two non-Asian states (Russia and the United States). By means of the Second World War, the United States had already completed its internalisation in Asia, and especially in East Asia. These circumstances have led some people to say that Asia has not been established as a reality. From a geographical perspective, Asia does indeed seem unable to cast off the countless claims of other regions. The solidarity of the 1950s symbolised by the Bandung Conference has indeed disintegrated.

II. Asia as Principle

ARA So the integration of Asia as a geographical space was not achieved.

SG That’s right. But if we recall our initial discussion, we said that Asia is more than a geographical concept. It is also an amalgamation of political, historical and spiritual culture. It symbolises people’s spiritual activities, and the fūdo character of social and artistic activities. In this sense, I believe that today we have reached a stage in with we can reorganise and rephrase the discussion by treating Asia as a set of principles.

ARA You have previously written about the question ‘how does Asia mean?’ But it sounds quite new when you mention ‘Asia as principle’.

SG I reached this step quite recently. In my opinion, the present Asia discourse is still off the mark. If Asia does not have its own principles, then it truly is no more than field material within the framework of Western discourse. To date, that is how Asia has been treated in Western and Chinese scholarship, but I believe that we should now produce Asian principles. However, producing Asian principles is not only for the benefit of Asian people. I think it is a historical responsibility for the benefit of humankind. Asian principles are simply principles that are relative to European, African and Latin American principles. The discussion of them is not an intellectual activity intended to resist or replace the West.

ARA Before we start discussing Asia as principle, I want to ask you: do art or culture play a role of shaping the identity of Asia or the idea of Asia?

SG Art and culture give form to spiritual energy. The spiritual activities of humans must have form before they can present themselves to us. Art utilises the form of direct observation to communicate this spiritual information. I can say that, to date, the art I have been exposed to, such as the fine arts, theatre and film from East Asia, are Westernised in the mainstream. Their Asian-ness is insufficient.

ARA Are you saying that the reasoning behind it lacks that awareness of so-called Asian subjectivity, and it unconsciously uses Western methods or Western perspectives?

SG Yes, it uses Western perspectives. The most typical example is Zhang Yimou: all of the expressions of Chinese-ness in his films are intended to cater to the requirements of Hollywood. Of course, there are other ambitious artists who are not as superficial as Zhang Yimou. They are more inclined to seek an Asian element, but these artists, including art curators, have an essentially Western field of vision. For example, one deeply rooted idea in the minds of contemporary artists and curators is modernity. If you do not let them talk about modernity, they basically cannot function. This is a trend that exists today, and I do not believe that it should be negated, because in a certain sense it expresses the consequences of Western infiltration of all of Asia, from politics and economics to culture. But in fact, there are fringe cultural and artistic activities in which comparatively Asian elements are developing. This development requires nourishment, but I believe that Asian intellectuals seem to have not yet reached this point. It requires a process.

ARA Can you give an example of the cultural activities you mentioned?

SG One example is the Japanese playwright Sakurai Daizo. His Tent Theatre is extremely Japanese. The performances draw on the lives of ordinary, lower-class Japanese people. It is a very special artform. Sakurai is very imaginative, but the number of intellectuals who can appreciate his Tent Theatre is limited. Yet Sakurai has received acclaim throughout East Asia. Young intellectuals are especially fond of his plays because his methods are very fresh. But the Asian element that he contains must evolve. Another example is the printmaking activities in the Korean city of Gwangju. There are also some artistic activities in Okinawa, such as photography. That area retains its original religion, which resembles shamanism. There is a photographer who photographs a sacrificial ritual that takes place every February in the Miyako Islands [the largest archipelago in Okinawa Prefecture]. But this kind of genuinely indigenous artistic or literary activity that does not utilise Western concepts and hermeneutics is to date very difficult to circulate and share widely. This is a basic fact, but this wellspring possesses powerful vitality. It will not disappear.

ARA Perhaps the explanation lies in the mechanisms of acknowledgment and circulation in contemporary art. After all, the people within these mechanisms have no ability to see and understand this kind of art.

SG I think this is a matter that requires a bit more time, and moreover, it is not just a matter for Asian people to resolve. The status and function of the Western intelligentsia, or one could even say the entire Western world, changes. The Western intelligentsia’s conception of Asia is also changing. I think that ambitious intellectuals, whether they are Asian or Western, will not be satisfied solely with questions of so-called modernity and postmodernity when the reality of our lives is so diverse and abundant. The day will come when everybody’s experience will be fresher and more abundant. In this sense, art and culture can play an extremely important role, but to this point, they have really not done much.

ARA There are some Westerners who believe that the language barrier is the reason that Western people define Asian identity through culture. They can only mechanically imagine other cultures. What do you think of this opinion?

SG I think it is definitely one factor, but it does not tell the whole story. The lack of understanding of Asia in the West is in a certain sense due to the excessive autonomy of the West, which has only just begun to change. When Westerners begin asking this kind of question, it demonstrates that they have begun to recognise the problem. Yet to this day, the majority of Western European and North American intellectuals lack genuine curiosity about Asia, and the reason for this is certainly not the language barrier.

ARA Is it a kind of insularity in their own cultures?

SG That goes together with the historical trends in politics and economics of recent times: the West going forth to conquer the whole world from an advantageous position. Culture cannot be separated from politics and economics, even though they each have their own characteristics. Cultural people in the West with a genuine awareness of Asia are definitely on the fringes.

ARA There are very few.

SG But I believe there are some. When I discuss the China question with Western European and North American intellectuals, they first trot out a few frameworks, such as modernity, postmodernity, rationality, individual rights, scientism and evolution. All of these frameworks in fact constitute the quite mature cultural structure of modern Europe, and Western intellectuals have been instructed within this cultural system to see them as normal. But the question is, what do they do when they are faced with the East, which does not share these traditions but only imports parts of those elements (from those frameworks)? It seems that every Western intellectual I encounter always tries hard to take whatever unfamiliar experience he or she witnesses and hesitantly cram it into these frameworks, and use them to interpret it.

ARA When you put it that way, the necessity of Asia as principle becomes apparent, because to them as well this is a huge challenge, a very difficult task.

SG Yes. ‘Asia as principle’ is not an empty phrase. It means that we must redefine what is universal. We must start from this perspective: any intellectual or spiritual activity is endemic, ie, governed by fūdo. This means that you cannot take your European or North American partial experience to other regions and treat it as a global experience shared by all humankind. This kind of approach should be negated right from the start. This is the demand that Asia as principle makes of humanity. At present, if you view Asia from the perspective of European principles, then you will use an allegedly universal imagination to view Asia. So you will search for modernity in Asia, and search for scientific rationality. It is not just Westerners who do this. Asian people also do this.

ARA That is because in our minds we have already become like them due to our education and academic training. But our lives, and our physical and sensory experiences, go beyond that mental aspect.

SG Everybody with this kind of educational background has trouble interpreting the change that is occurring in the various Asian societies. For example, how should we interpret the present high degree of mobility, or more specifically, the massive phenomenon of migrant labour in Chinese society? The point is not to give a basis of legitimacy to the existence of every society. This is a kind of intellectual work, so it is not about affirming or negating. What we want to do is to understand. I do not make art, but from the perspective of intellectual history, this issue is extremely pressing. This is what compels us to discuss Asian principles. I think Asian principles in their most simplified form are a universalism based on the premise of the coexistence of a diverse plurality of physical phenomena.

ARA When you say physical phenomena, is that the fūdo you mentioned?

SG That’s right.

III. The Prerequisite for Asian Art

ARA From your perspective as a scholar, is there such a thing that can be called Asian art, and if so, what constitutes the so-called Asian-ness of this art?

SG This is truly a big question. First of all, I think the existence of Asian art is not only possible but necessary. However, the existence of Asian art is definitely a diverse existence. So when we talk about Asian art, the prerequisite is that it does not have representatives. We cannot say that Western art has definite representatives – in fact it is very easy to name several different schools of Western contemporary art. I believe that Asian art is the same. But there is also a way in which it differs from Western art, in that there is no ‘primariness’ that encompasses Asian art.

ARA It has no unifying characteristic.

SG That’s right. Over at least the last one or two centuries of forceful moulding by the West, we have become accustomed when discussing a given field to identify a representative and talk about their primariness. What we should do now is discuss the plurality of a field, but people have not yet formed this habit. This is the prerequisite for discussing Asian art. The reason we need this prerequisite is because Asian art cannot be unified. It is varied and plural. The Chinese philosopher Chen Jiaying has proposed the terminology of ‘the particular’, which emphasises the combination of the individual and the characteristic. I think Asian art comprises countless particulars, but what we want to talk about is not a buffet. If it is a buffet, then Asian art does not exist, because it is too dispersed. There are relations between the particulars, and we must use Asian principles to interpret these relations. What is the meaning of these relations? Well, the various particulars are absolutely not the same, and the ways in which they coincide with each other are also not uniform. In establishing these relations between particulars, there is no good and bad. This idea does not comport with European principles. Asian art takes form when we have the goal of establishing relations between the particulars through mutual understanding, through self-liberation and through the individual’s transcendence. This is related to the need for us to change our practice of appreciating Asian art on the basis of European modernity and postmodernity. Our current custom of appreciation is to first translate our culture into English, and then use it to enter other cultures.

ARA Are there some aspects of this idea of Asia that contradict or oppose the Western world and its theories?

SG Yes, but I think that point is not so important. Opposing the methods of the West has been necessary thus far, but as soon as you oppose something, you become subject to the limitations of your opposition.

ARA You are ‘countered’.

SG Yes, which means that this part of the production of knowledge is transitionary, and not particularly constructive. For example, postmodernity is restricted by modernity, so it cannot be free. Asia is restricted by the West: an unavoidable historical fact. If you want to work towards genuine self-liberation from this state of being restricted by the West, I think criticism is ineffective. You must relativise the West, not negate it. The crucial thing is to build our own framework of understanding and organisation that includes the effects of the Western infiltration of Asia. Negating and opposing the West has no constructive function. The establishment of Asian thought and culture requires structural construction. At present, two relatively familiar methods of Eastern intellectuals are those of critiquing the West and reforming the West. These two modes are both significant, and they are both closely linked to the West itself. But I believe that they are transitionary. They form the foundation on which we must engage in our own construction, unrestricted by the West and not predicated on opposition to the West. We must imagine more freely and build more autonomously.

ARA Is this idea of Asia driven by competition and opposition, or by cooperation?

SG A little bit of each. If we’re talking about the economy, then it is definitely competition, and cooperation, which serves the needs of competition, is always provisional. Politics is similar. But I think competition and cooperation are a difficult terminology to use to understand the realm of culture, and particularly the creation of spiritual products. In fact, I think the creation of spiritual products in Asia is intermediary.

ARA What do you mean by intermediary?

SG I mean that I treat my counterpart as a medium, and draw on their work and their spiritual production to fuel my own imagination and creative motivation. Intermediary means that my work is not entirely their work, and their work cannot interpret my work, but if we did not understand each other, then my work would not be the way it is. For example, the spiritual production between China and Japan has to date been imagined in an extremely material form, which is a low-level way of thinking. The truth is that we should take the next step, into a field of greater quality. The relationship between China and Japan should be intermediary, or reciprocal, which is neither competition nor cooperation.

ARA This year is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Historical factors have created an extremely powerful state of psychological tension between, for example, South Korea and Japan, and China and Japan as well, which has still not dissipated. Can art or culture, through certain means, dissipate this tension?

SG There are several ways to look at this. Ideally, culture will transcend borders, and in this way it can dispel the imagined opposition between different societies created by national tension – for in fact this opposition exists only in the imagination. But the truth is not that simple. When cultural workers do their thinking and creating, it is their mother tongue that determines their identity. The vast majority of cultural people rarely reflect on this self-identification. If culture is to transcend the tense mentality between nations, then cultural people must first reflect on the very presupposition of their self-identification, and then form an identity for themselves that is greater than their national unit. I believe that people who cannot transcend this specific unit cannot create truly world-class spiritual products. This is not to say that if you transcend your national unit then you have no nationality. No, what I want to emphasise is that of one’s fixed cultural characteristics, one’s mother tongue, is certainly a fundamental source of one’s creative practice, but one need not treat one’s nationality as an absolute presupposition. I believe that there are various levels of depths in cultural identity. If a cultural identity reaches the depth of human spirit, it will reflect it [human spirit] by means of nationality, while resisting an abstract, general expression.

ARA I am reminded of certain artists and curators who live abroad. They can freely travel to the most distant parts of the world, but their spirituality seems somewhat lacking. Once a person completely ceases to believe in nationality or their original culture, they may be able to depart a place, but they ultimately never arrive at a new place.

SG Yes, I think that is very accurate. Artists with no roots have no prospects.

IV. Contemporary Art as the Production Platform of Asia Discourses

ARA Recently, new cultural and art organisations or institutions have been established in Hong Kong, Gwangju, Shanghai, Singapore and the oil-exporting states in the Middle East. They all proclaim the intention of establishing their position on a regional scale. Together, they appear to present the formation of a regional field of vision. What effect does this trend have on our Asian-ness or our self-identification as Asian people?

SG This is a very encouraging phenomenon, because when the Bandung Conference was convened in 1955, the only people talking about Asia were politicians. Today, the biggest change is that our politicians are still talking about Asia, but Asia is no longer a presupposition for them. But to people in the worlds of art and culture, this trend you mention is a symbolic change that represents the imagination of Asia and the formation of its subjectivity, guided by the cultural world at different levels of society – although I use that word reluctantly. Some people who do academic research are still content to treat Asia as either a field for the West or a big buffet. As for China, it is treated by some intellectuals as a representative of Asia, just like Japan was previously. So when the artworld invites me to talk about Asia, I recognise that contemporary art has already become an important platform for the production of Asian principles. It also symbolises the transition from the politics-driven period of the Bandung Conference, where the subject was Asian independence movements at the state level, to a culture-driven period in which we search for principles.

The various biennials in the region may take place in Asia, but the content of the exhibitions are basically a big buffet of their own region. In a lot of places, when they say Asia, they are really talking about themselves. Sometimes they switch to talking about Asia, so what is the difference between the two? It lies in whether or not you are able to deeply explore the principles of your own culture, and if you are, whether or not you are able to use open, principled, relativised methods to transcend yourself. The ability to transcend the self is one of the most important characteristics of Asian-ness. When you discuss a local culture, you can take the approach of Asian principles. This culture of yours can possess Asian-ness, and you can use the approach of Asian principles to address your local issues, which are otherwise merely a particular situation. So I don’t think the question of being a particular region is that important. The crucial thing is how you do it. Conversely, we see many events with ‘Asia’ in their title that assemble large quantities of Asian things to exhibit, but the Asian-ness of these events is in fact quite shallow. But regardless, I think it is an important phenomenon that Asia is now obtaining attention.

ARA On the subject of the Third World, you once said that each state’s understanding of the centre of the Third World is different. When we discuss Asia, we face the impulse of different states to establish a world or an Asia in which they are at the centre. In these circumstances, there are many blind spots in how states within Asia relate to and acknowledge each other. Each of us inhabits a specific reality and culture, and we require an operational solution to overcoming these blind spots in our fields of vision. If we can do that, then we can see and understand the regional situations within Asia.

SG To elaborate on that point, I would say that the problem can be identified. In what circumstances should we seek to understand ‘the other’? For example, though I am a Chinese person, I have the desire to understand the Middle East. The blind spot is a problem of motivation, not a problem of knowledge. Where does this motivation come from? We can see that most intellectuals in the Third World today, particularly in the mainstream, have quite complete repositories of European and American knowledge. Even if they do not speak English, they read the European classics in translation, and quote them authoritatively in discussions. But they have no interest in Africa, no motivation. They think it is a place that does not produce ideas or principles. This kind of blind spot is the result of the prevailing Western-centric power structure of knowledge and reality. Moreover, whenever a new nation-state is formed, it reproduces this paradigm. So you cannot locate this problem solely in the West. All of the societies of Asia are like this. They put themselves at the centre and actively respond to the demands of the dominant culture. To an extent, this situation will be resolved by history. This is not something that we can rely on artists to guide us through by emphasising certain ideas – that is useless. We must pay attention to the limitation of the effectiveness. Artists can do some work, for example urging people to resolve certain problems in Chinese society. But the solutions to these problems are not easy to identify. Accessing the resources of other regions of Asia can be very helpful if they can be transformed into the intermediary of reflection, and will naturally lead to new ideas.

ARA I have recently been observing artistic exchanges between China, Japan and South Korea (not including art programmes sponsored by government cultural or diplomatic initiatives). As an observer, I sense that China is the state that least cares about other Asian states. How do you view this issue?

SG I think there is some truth to your observation, which is related to the anxiety that has afflicted the entire state since it was established in 1949. In 1958, the national slogan was chao ying gan mei: ‘Surpass England and Catch Up with the United States’. This was because our enemies came from the West, which was also the source of our modernised imagination. Once the state had been established and society began to develop, that is to say, during the reform period that followed the Cultural Revolution, the political modes inherited by the intellectual class were transformed into cultural modes. So you see our leading intellectuals are those who studied in Europe and the United States. Their discourse is essentially an English-based discourse. Their only contribution is either to critique or to reform Europe and the United States. Given this framework, our imagination of international relations in the cultural field essentially runs on a Western track. As a consequence of these circumstances, the present effort to develop an Asian imagination is a nascent one. This fact influences the fine-arts world as well as other fields that overlap with the intellectual world. There is a certain historical logic to our neglect of other Asian states, of our neighbours, but that is not a justification. Now, things are beginning to change. In recent years, curators are always dragging me out to talk about Asia, which has led me to recognise what I just mentioned: cultural people have moved to the front. The artworld has moved to the front.

Interview by Aimee Lin, translated from Chinese by Daniel Nieh. This article was first published in the Autumn 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia.