Discussion of W.I. Thomas, "The Significance of the Orient for the Occident"


The argument of Professor Thomas' paper seems to be that the Orient is able to give the Occident certain stimuli which will enlarge and enrich the latter's consciousness, and thereby aid the "progress of socialization." As a student of history, I do not feel called upon to comment on so broad a hypothesis. I am mainly interested in the specific stimuli that the Occident

(750) might receive from the Orient, upon which alone the soundness of the writer's argument must rest, and confess that I fail to find them clearly stated in the paper. It seems evident, in the first place, that Professor Thomas' "Orient" does not include either India or all the subtle but profound influences which Indian and religion have exercised upon the the social life of central and eastern Asiatic nations. I am led to suppose that he confines his attention to the two countries with which America is in the most active relation, namely, China and Japan. My endeavor to infer from the writer's occasional remarks on these two countries the stimuli which they might afford has not been very successful.

Taking China first, I infer that little wholesome stimulus may be expected from the form of her government. Reference is also made to the feelings which China must have received from the treatment she has suffered at the hands of occidental powers. Here it is China, not the Occident, which has felt the stimuli, unless, indeed, the Occident's own reflection upon China's distress may be called a stimulus. Although the industrial habit and the cheap labor of the Chinese and Japanese receive attention, it is not clear how important the writer regards the stimulus of this kind. Perhaps the most important reference to China made in the paper is the idea that her social organization is largely tribal, and her social consciousness is comparatively simple and uniform. I have tried in vain, on these important points. to gather what is meant by "tribal," what sort of uniformity there is in Chinese society, and what stimuli these supposed facts may give to the Occident to its benefit.

In regard to Japan, Professor Thomas admits freely that she is different from China in being more open to social changes. He seeks a partial explanation of this difference in the fact that Japan is a colony from Asia, all colonies being, according to him, more ready to change than the mother country. Nearly all the more civilized nations on earth, including China and India, not being originally native to their present habitats, one is inclined to ask the writer when a nation ceases to be a colony and becomes a mother-country.

Although Professor Thomas thus admits the existence of some difference between Japan and China, they are both different, he seems to think, from the Occident in several important ways. In the first place, their ["Japan's before her awakening" and China's] social organization is defined as "tribal." Does he use the term in a figurative sense, as he seems to do in connection with the present racial feeling of the Occident? Or, in case of Japan, has he perhaps been misled by the extremely objectionable term "clan" used by many writers in describing the territorial feudal division before 1868? Japan's social organization has seldom been tribal, in the sense of being based upon the blood tie of the whole group or of the larger groups of the nation, except before 645 A.D.


Then Professor Thomas asserts that Japan "before her awakening" possessed, like China, a "relatively uniform and simple consciousness." Aside from the question of simplicity, which is a flexible term, I am embarrassed by the statement, for its literal acceptance would result in confusing a short period with the entire historic age of Japan. The period between 1639 and 1853, during which foreign intercourse was vigorously excluded by the feudal authorities, and in which the elements of foreign culture introduced in previous ages were assimilated into national life, was in many respects an abnormal period. Circumstances had forced her to close her doors, against her will and contrary to her historic habit. In all other periods, the elements of "dissent, skepticism, and change" were never "absent," and have at three different times brought about as thorough changes of the entire social organism as are known in human history.

Professor Thomas also declares: "The white nations are also all well advanced toward democratic freedom," a statement which is perplexing, especially when it is taken in the implied contrast with the oriental governments. With such elements of democracy as were common to "all the white nations" at the time of Japan's "awakening" may favorably be compared the democracy of letters that has prevailed in China for centuries, and the democracy of arms in the Japan of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as well as the village self-government in the latter country under the Tokugawa and in China.

Again, we are told that the Occident lacks at present "adequate social ideals." Does or did the Orient possess them? What are they, and how may they stimulate the Occident?

I seriously suspect that, although the writer admits some difference between China and Japan, he has not completely freed himself from the dogma that the Orient is a unit, and from the consequent inclination to conceive the Occident and the Orient always in a broad contrast to each other. I hope my suspicion is unfounded I suppose he went farther than he would, when be said: "The western nations have the habit of change," and, also: "The oriental world is large enough to overwhelm us and smite us with a sword which we have put into its hands." The large Orient is not united, and could not more readily be united than the western powers. Anyone who claims that the East is one should clearly show wherein its nations, in spite of their enormous differences, are the same.

When Professor Thomas referred to the "scientific observation and experiment" of the Occident, I rejoiced to see him approach one of the great things that differentiate Occidental civilization from any of the Oriental civilizations, and hoped he would enlighten us upon the mysterious origin of this momentous factor. He, however, dismisses this superb subject by lightly saying that the scientific method is "a trick which we caught from the Greeks, who perhaps themselves caught it from Asia, and bettered the instruction."

To sum up: I am sorely disappointed that I have not succeeded in finding many specific contents in this otherwise instructive paper. The writer declines to foretell the how the the reaction of the Orient upon the Occident, and he has said little more of the what. His paper is another example of the difficulty of making general remarks upon historic nations, when one has not time enough to refer to their historic training. On the other hand, a consideration of the more important features of the social evolution of China, and more particularly of Japan, might have greatly helped us to surmise the probable effects upon the Occident of its active relation with the Oriental nations. I conclude by saying that, although I am unable to judge the value of Professor Thomas' main contention, I do hope that he will make another attempt to substantiate it by a specific discussion. He has a magnificent field before him.


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