McDonalds in ChinaFlickr: Jeremy Keith

Located in the centre of Shanghai, Jing’an Temple is one of the enduring symbols of the wealth and power of the Song Dynasty. Its imposing walls house the largest sitting Jade Buddha in the country and the famous Jing’an Pagoda. Peer over the Mahavira Hall and Shanghai’s financial district looms in the distance, the World Financial Centre and Pearl Tower dominating the cityscape. It epitomises Eastern China today: a rich five thousand-year history, in harmony with a dynamic modernity. Or, as the American couple next to me exclaimed, Starbucks Frappuccino and Wall Street Journal in hand: “gawd, it’s so old but so Western!”

In many ways, the couple are right. They articulated a view which many visitors to modern Asia, including myself, initially expressed. From the Opium Wars to Microsoft, Hollywood to basketball, McDonald’s to H&M, the West has been imposing ideas and products upon Asia for centuries, and it is clear that this has had an indelible impact on Asian culture. To take one example, there are around 200 million English speakers in China today, and this figure is growing, with celebrity teachers such as Li Yang leading huge English classes of over 20,000 people in stadiums across China. Similarly, the infiltration of Western fast food into Asia is often taken as proof of its ‘westernisation’: in 2008 McDonald’s had opened nearly 1,000 outlets in China, while KFC had reached nearly 2,200.

“The equating of ‘modernity’ with ‘democracy’ and Western values is not always correct or responsible”

However, to view Asia’s economic take-off as simply a path towards its westernisation is an indictment of Western subconscious prejudice, a prejudice that constantly colours and influences our experience of foreign cultures. Such a preconception implies that Westerners can only perceive one version of modernity – our own. A recent survey by PwC supports this notion. 5,200 people were asked to rank cities based on criteria such as affluence, innovation, and happiness. The top three were – perhaps unsurprisingly – London, Paris, and New York. Hollywood is clearly aware of this fact and adopts the settings of major blockbusters accordingly, with films shot in South-East Asia consistently emphasising the antiquated elements of their locations: the slums of Manila (The Bourne Legacy), the old town in Bangkok (The Hangover Part II), and the temples of Cambodia (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider). It is almost as if Western culture is scared to acknowledge the growing power and influence of places like Asia, preferring instead to hide within its bubble of Eurocentrism. It is thus crucial that we challenge the misrepresentation of the non-Western in all aspects of our culture.

Furthermore, an insular view of ‘modernity’ suggests a distilled version of world history that ignores the vast periods of time in which Asian countries, particularly China and Japan, far outstretched the West in cultural, economic, and technological advances. For example, from 1AD until 1820, China held consistent command of a third of world GDP, while Europe and North America were economically irrelevant. This superiority can be seen more materially in the inventions China gifted westwards. The West has China to thank for such important innovations as silk, tea, medicine, porcelain, gunpowder, and printing. To therefore essentialise Asian modernity as pseudo-Western is as ridiculously patronising as sticking your nose up at a copy of The Guardian, exclaiming “how far Manchester has come, how very sophisticated, how very Asian!”

However, prejudice against Asian modernity extends beyond economics or history. A major criticism of modern China is its authoritarian approach to government, which seems to fly in the face of our ‘Western democratic ideals’. Indeed, a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre shows that 78% of Americans and 75% of Brits believe that the Chinese government acts irresponsibly in not respecting the personal liberties of its citizens. While elements of the Chinese government’s treatment of its citizens are reprehensible, to hold China to the same political ‘ideals’ as Western countries fundamentally misunderstands East Asian political culture. It is easy to over generalise, but, put simply, government has a much more paternalistic role in East Asian societies, and the wellbeing of the group comes above that of the individual. This has its roots in the philosophy of Confucius, and should not be seen as simply a result of communism. Of course, this is not to say that endemic human rights violations in China, Cambodia, Mongolia and others are acceptable. I rather argue that it is often inappropriate to impose our politics on areas of the world where the relationship between state and subject is completely different. In short, the equating of ‘modernity’ with ‘democracy’ and Western values is not always correct or responsible.

“As Martin Jacques explains in his When China rules the World, ‘the taproots of modernisation are native rather than foreign’”

What, therefore does non-Western modernity look like? And how can Western holidaymakers avoid falling into the trap of patronising and essentialising other countries? The answer is simple: education and respect. As Martin Jacques explains in his When China rules the World, “the taproots of modernization are native rather than foreign.” As visitors to other areas of the globe, we should respect and value these native cultures not as ‘nearly-Western’ but as advanced in their own right. And so I urge you, the next time summer comes around when we jet off to the far-reaches of the globe, learn some of the native language, absorb the culture, and, please, I beg you, don’t go to Starbucks

Sponsored links