In the forthcoming issue of Middle East Report, “China in the Middle East,” I write about the often forgotten history of political, intellectual and cultural ties between East Asia and West Asia (or the Middle East) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
These bonds of affection were formed largely because of mutual resentment of Western imperial hegemony and the globalization of travel and communication. Middle Easterners under various degrees of Western domination felt solidarity with China after its “humiliation” in the Opium Wars and subsequently. They also greatly admired the meteoric rise of Meiji Japan as a non-Western model of economic development and transition to modernity. Many East Asians, for their part, considered Middle Easterners part of a hemispheric alliance of non-white peoples that could resist the West. Japanese and other East Asian travelers, for example, stopped in Ceylon to call on Col. Ahmad ‘Urabi in exile after his failed revolt against the Egyptian khedive and his European creditors.
It is an irony of history that these pan-Asian links of anti-Western sentiment were forged in part by the infrastructures created by Western empire itself, particularly the British Empire, such as steamship, railway and telegraph networks. Pan-Asian ideas, furthermore, bore a curious resemblance to racial, civilizational and regional notions born of the Western imperial imagination.
The two maps below are highly revealing.
In 1902, American naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan published the first map in The National Review (London). It shows the importance of the Indian Ocean basin for the imagination of the “Muslim world” and the Middle East. Indeed, Mahan is credited by Roderic Davison and other scholars with popularizing the term “Middle East” to refer to the region between the “Near East” of the Levant and the “Far East” of East Asia. The area marked by Mahan as the Middle East is largely composed of the Asian territories of the British Empire. British steamships and mails in turn allowed new Muslim and pan-Asian networks of transportation, mobility and communication to prosper. The map also shows the close links among the imagined Middle East, the birthplace of Islam, and South and Southeast Asia, where the majority of Muslims were living at that time.
A further irony: Mahan is remembered primarily as a theorist of sea power. As Davison notes, the bearded captain wrote The National Review article to encourage Britain to bolster its navy in order to police this “indeterminate area guarding a part of the sea route from Suez to Singapore.” He was a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt for his advocacy of a strong US Navy. Today, Mahan’s writings are enjoying a resurgence of popularity in China, where the regime is likewise intrigued by the potential of sea power.
The second map appears in The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy (1920), by the white supremacist historian and popular writer Lothrop Stoddard. Stoddard shows East Asia in yellow and, interestingly, depicts the region inhabited by Hindus and Muslims, from India to North Africa, in a uniform brown. In his imagination, the “Muhammadan masses” living between China and Europe were an undifferentiated racial category. There is no separate color for Hindus. Before the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi came to lead the Indian nationalist movement in the 1920s, India was often included in maps of the “Muslim world” without much discussion of the population balance in South Asia. An alliance between the “yellow race” in East Asia and the “brown race” of the Muslim world became a frightful scenario for white supremacists. The racial thinking represented by this simplistic map was dominant in world public opinion and formed part of the background for visions of solidarity among Muslims and East Asians from the 1880s to the 1930s.