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Tea Leaves

Misunderstood and misquoted, Kipling bridges East-West divide

Early 'poet of empire' should not be used to justify fear of dialogue and negotiation

Then-British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visits Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon in January 2017.   © Reuters

The quintessentially British imperialist writer Rudyard Kipling, best known in Myanmar for his poem "Mandalay," is perhaps most quoted, and most misunderstood, in his line "Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet..." ("The Ballad of East and West," 1892).

Much as the hero of the 1958 novel "The Ugly American," by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, is a decent, sensitive man rather than an inconsiderate lout, so Kipling's famous line is constantly misinterpreted, with potentially dire results. Few seem to have read the ballad in its entirety; most seem to accept that line as the poem's meme. In fact, it is the opposite.

Quoting Kipling requires judicious understanding of place, time, meaning and implications. In January 2017, Britain's ambassador to Myanmar interrupted then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as he quoted a line from "Mandalay" at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, one of Southeast Asia's most revered Buddhist shrines. Johnson was unwise to quote "Mandalay" in Myanmar, once the British colony of Burma. Yet the widespread view of the poem as a defense of colonialism is wrong; it is an evocation of the impact of imperialism on the colonizers.

The misunderstanding of Kipling reflects the concept that Asian and Western societies are on a collision course because they lack common attributes and cannot reach amicable relationships. But this is simplistic: a means to avoid consultations and dialogue. If there is no common ground, the logical extension is to dismiss any proposal or negotiation, and conflicts -- economic, social or military -- are inevitable. This hypothesis reached its apogee in Samuel P. Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations," published in 1996, which warned of the extreme consequences of such disconnects.

There are important social and cultural differences between Asian societies, and between some of those societies and core Western European values. This became apparent a generation ago when discussions about Asian and Western values revolved around human rights. Some prominent Asian leaders, including Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, asserted in the late 1990s -- in part justifying their regimes -- that Western values were too highly individualistic, and thus selfish. "Asian values," it was said, were more communal, whether at family, clan, ethnicity, or state levels. In East Asia, this was based in part on traditional Confucian influences.

In this view, submerging individual rights was understandable, even sometimes desirable, in pursuit of broader communal benefits. Such social cohesion is important, but the "Asian values" argument neglects many factors, such as the long-term implications of social control and authoritarian rule. True, Western individualism may become socially ruthless, but it does breed initiative, while communalism may stifle inventiveness. Extremes are nearly always both unappealing and inaccurate.

The term "Asian values" also erroneously presupposes a continuity and commonality of Asian cultures -- a mistake not made by Kipling, who distinguished between the social and cultural traditions of different Asian countries. Kipling is rightly associated with the imperialism and discrimination of 19th century Europe, but his views were nuanced.

He wrote that Gunga Din, the lowest indigenous member of his (Din's) British regiment, was a better man than he was. And in the East-West ballad, the two young antagonists, one British and one from the Pakistan tribal frontier area, find common attributes that overcome their social and political antipathies. Kipling knew that enemies sometimes have shared values; and his most famous poem indicates some of them, if we read it correctly.

Today, the West has laid aside Kipling's concept of the "The White Man's Burden" -- an 1899 poem that encouraged the U.S. to colonize the Philippines in the interests of Filipinos -- and seems largely thankful that the era of imperialism is over, even if historical reverberations remain relevant in East-West divisions, such as China's perception of its century of humiliation.

Furthermore, the interpenetration of commerce, cultures, and technologies today has made the concept of irreconcilable East-West differences meaningless, or at least less relevant to our lives and national policies.

Nevertheless, an anticipated lack of understanding -- a fear of the twain not meeting -- continues to drive social attitudes in situations ranging from wars to trade disputes, fueling the growth of nationalist attitudes and inspiring fears of immigration, refugees and any perceived destabilizations of societal norms.

None of this is foretold in Kipling's poems, which by no means justify an aversion to dialogue and negotiation. So if you want to quote the poet, read him properly first. It is time to overcome mistaken reminiscences.

David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus, Georgetown University.

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