“How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding” by Nile Green

How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding, Nile Green (Yale, January 2023) How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding, Nile Green (Yale, January 2023)

In the early decades of the 20th century, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore toured China, Japan and the Dutch East Indies to spread his message of Asian solidarity. Tagore’s Asianist vision was rife with anticolonial sentiment but unapologetically Indocentric: it projected India as the cultural and religious fount of Eastern civilization and the spiritual motor of a revitalized Asia.

In this ambitious book, the historian Nile Green sidelines the “easy claims of Asianism” propounded by prominent personalities such as Tagore and the Japanese art historian Okakura. Instead, he probes the scope of intercultural understanding, and the conditions that made it possible, by zooming in on a lesser-known group of “intercultural explorers” from India, Burma, China, Japan, Afghanistan, Iran and the Ottoman Empire. These “unsung interpreters” traveled across Asia as missionaries, students, soldiers, journalists, traders and teachers. Upon their return, they published key texts in local languages that introduced knowledge of Asia’s bewildering variety of cultural and religious traditions to readers who could not, due to lack of access or language skills, tap into the rich and voluminous body of European Orientalist scholarship.


How Asia Found Herself features protagonists such as ‘Abd al-Khaliq Muwahid, a North Indian Muslim missionary in Burma who published a pioneering study in Urdu on the religion and history of the Burmese people, and the Iranian merchant Ibrahim Sahhafbashi, who penned an account of his trade mission to Yokohama. Green also devotes many a page to the observations of Muhammad Fazli, an Indian teacher employed at the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages. His fifteen-month residence inspired two lengthy tomes in Urdu that comprised “perhaps the most thorough investigation of Japan that was published in the Middle East or India during the connecting Age of Empire.” Other characters crisscrossed the continent from east to west. Following more than a decade of studies in India, the Buddhist scholar Ekai Kawaguchi became the first Japanese to enter Nepal and Tibet when he embarked on a series of voyages to collect ancient manuscripts in the Himalayas. Another fascinating figure, “a precocious youth from Yunnan” called Ma Jian, moved to Cairo to devote himself to Arabic studies. His lessons paid off and Ma Jian published, among other studies, the first direct Arabic translation of the Analects of Confucius, thus making “a major contribution to the Middle Eastern comprehension of China”.

These biographical stories and discussions of texts provide helpful anchor-points in six dense chapters that each highlight a particular aspect of the gradual emergence of intercultural and interreligious understanding in Asia, ranging from the Muslim discovery of Buddhism, the Indian intellectual engagement with ancient China, and the widespread Japanophilia across Asia following the Meiji reforms and Japan’s well-publicized victory over Tsarist forces in 1905. As Green shows, the Russo-Japanese War marked a pivotal moment and inspired a


multilingual corpus of pioneering texts about Japan, from panegyric poems to heroic plays, history books, and first-person travelogues published in languages ranging from Arabic, Persian, and Turkish to Malay, Gujarati, Bengali, and Urdu.


How Asia Found Herself reconstructs Asia’s piecemeal self-discovery, but also pays careful attention to the factors and conditions that enabled the production and dissemination of knowledge about other cultures and religions. We learn how new print technologies introduced by Christian missionaries to bolster evangelical schemes, facilitated the emergence of a maritime public sphere. Port cities such as Rangoon, Singapore and Shanghai, but in particular the Indian ports of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta, played a pivotal role as “printing and distribution hubs for books, magazines, and newspapers in an increasing variety of vernacular languages.”  Calcutta in particular transformed into a crucial informational hub and became, as Green puts it, “the epicenter of an Asian communications revolution”. Tellingly, the first newspapers ever published in Persian did not appear in Iran but in faraway Bengal. While Christian missionaries diligently churned out versions of the Gospel in every possible vernacular (the Baptist Mission Press alone apparently issued works in nearly fifty languages, many never previously printed), Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Baha’i and Buddhist communities soon used these new technologies for very similar polemical purposes and conversion campaigns. India, by virtue of its central geographical position, access to European information and technologies, relatively liberal public sphere, and cheap and polyglot publishing industries, remained in the 19th and early 20h century “the leading multilingual producer of printed books—and interreligious polemics”. Due to India’s centrality in Asia’s informational networks, Urdu became, according to Green, “the flagship language of Asia’s self-discovery”.


Drawing on an impressive and wide-ranging array of pioneering texts printed in Asian languages, Green highlights crucial breakthroughs in translation but also reveals the asymmetrical exchange of intercultural knowledge as well as the linguistic constraints that continued to hamper efforts to comprehend other cultures and religions. In the absence of printed dictionaries of, for example, Pali to Arabic or Sanskrit to Persian, European Orientalist scholarship, and especially works published in English and French, often remained a crucial source of information. Thus, when the first books on Buddhism in Indian and Middle Eastern languages appeared around 1900, “they were largely translations or digests of European studies”. For similar reasons, it appears that even by the turn of the 20th century the core Confucian or Daoist canons had not yet been translated into Indian or Middle Eastern languages. Perhaps ironically, the first complete Chinese Qur’an, published in 1927, was based on a Japanese translation which itself was based on a British rendering penned by a Christian missionary, for the simple reason that its translator, Li Tiezheng, was unable to read Arabic.

As Green convincingly illustrates with many examples, linguistic and orthographic barriers were not the only major obstacles: the authors we encounter in this book often struggled to find appropriate concepts to render alien cosmological or religious terms intelligible to their readers. For example, when the travelogue of the famed Buddhist monk Xuanzang appeared in Urdu, the translator resorted to Sufi vocabulary to introduce the by then still largely unfamiliar Buddhist terminology. As Green points out, the emergence of a corpus of texts in various vernacular languages on Asia’s different regions, religions and cultures relied primarily on individual initiative. Barring a few notable exceptions in India and Japan, such as the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages and Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University, there appear have been few successful and lasting initiatives to pursue the study of Asia’s multifarious past, languages and cultural traditions on a more systematic, institutionalized basis.


Green takes “Asia” to be an imported European term adopted by Asianist ideologues in the early 20th century, and shows at length that “Asia’s communications revolution was no purveyor of unity”.

When interest in Asia’s past peaked among nationalist elites in the 1920s and 30s, historical and cultural knowledge was typically mobilized to project visions of civilizational grandeur on the larger canvas of Asia’s geography. Visions of a Greater India and Greater Afghanistan, Japanese Asianism and the “Turkish History Thesis”, ultimately all signified projections of the self rather than a serious scholarly engagement with, and appreciation of, local cultural traditions.

As Green points out, the contemporary infatuation with the ancient Silk Roads, and its concomitant trope of inter-Asian connectivity, “tells us more about our own times than earlier eras” while it “diverts attention from the maritime routes of Asia’s modern self-discovery.” Yet even if the Silk Roads emerged only recently as an aspirational idea and did not feature prominently in the texts central to this study, there seems to be no compelling reason why we should think of one template at the exclusion of the other. At the very same time when some of the protagonists of this book sailed from port to port and published texts that opened small windows on unfamiliar aspects of Asia’s past and present, archaeological expeditions along the ancient Silk Roads brought to light one of the most bewildering experiments in cultural and religious cross-fertilization ever witnessed in world history. As early as the 1920s, intellectuals on either side of the Himalayas, and India in particular, recognized that these expeditions held important historical lessons about the deep past of intercultural understanding and the pathways of civilizational diffusion and exchange.

Although the book is concerned with Asia’s self-discovery, readers interested in what Cambodian, Thai, Vietnamese, Malay, Indonesian or Filipino interlocutors had to say about other regions of Asia—or Indian, Persian or Japanese travelers and writers on Southeast Asia—will have to look elsewhere. This omission notwithstanding, How Asia Found Herself is a compelling and refreshingly original study of dizzying scope that, drawing on a vast corpus of mostly untapped source materials in Asian languages, brushes aside easy assumptions of Asian interconnectivity.

Green reconstructs in fascinating detail how often little-known travelers and translators from different corners of Asia overcame seemingly insurmountable interpretive barriers to open up new vistas on Asia’s bewilderingly diverse regions, cultures and religions. Far from being discursive prisoners of Orientalism, these “unsung interpreters” deployed, as Green aptly puts it, “the resources of empire toward their own divergent ends” and their pioneering studies and travelogues offered readers of Urdu, Persian, Burmese or Japanese first glimpses of the Asian other.

Yorim Spoelder is a Dutch historian based at the Free University Berlin, and the author of Visions of Greater India: Transimperial Knowledge and Anti-Colonial Nationalism, ca 1800-1960.