Since Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism, postcolonial critique has focused on how the West constructed itself as “subject” – the actor, doer, free agent – and fabricated the Other of “Oriental” societies as “object” – to be influenced, exploited, and conquered.
While Said’s study will always remain a must-read, Wang Mingming is right when he suggests that even Said’s insight did not fully allow the “Oriental” perspective to be heard. The Orient must, by definition, remain an object. The Chinese scholar restores perspective to the discussion in his excellent book, The West as the Other: A Genealogy of Chinese Occidentalism (2014). This is, as of this year, the most updated and groundbreaking volume on Chinese anthropology and other related disciplines.
Wang re-subjectivizes the Chinese viewpoint. He reframes the direction from which the narrative flows: from West to East, to East to West. The result is groundbreaking. In this brilliant book Wang proves that the ancient Chinese already had complex and elaborate ideas of the West. His astoundingly eloquent analysis of Chinese geo-cosmologies and worldscapes takes us on journeys from China to the outer realms that lay “west”, not only literally but also in the imagination. These journeys are not fabricated. They live on in the memories that survived the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046 – 256 BCE), the classical, pre-imperial era that shaped the Chinese sense of civilization. Second only in significance was the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 AD), which defined the Chinese consciousness of empire.
…A borderline fetishization of the very direction of the cardinal west…
The most evocative image of the West that haunts the Zhou imagination is the figure of Xi Wangmu (西王母), the Queen Mother of the West. A borderline fetishization of the very direction of the cardinal west, Xi Wangmu is celebrated in the fantasy romance of the Biography of King Mu. Here, the King of Zhou, King Mu (周穆王), journeys ten thousand miles across the west to visit her. The real location of her wild kingdom, filled with tigers, leopards, and birds, is uncertain. The Kunlun Mountains? Assyria? The Elburz Peak of the Caucasus Mountains? The plains where Warsaw now stands? These have all been suggested (Wang, 2014: 49), but whichever is right does not truly matter. What is far more important is the exchange of gifts and songs between Xi Wangmu and King Mu. The latter presents himself as “an inferior”, enjoying a banquet and drinks with her (Wang, 2014: 43). This faraway goddess was said to be pleased by the king’s white and black jade, along with the silk and brocade that he brought for her.
Critically, when King Mu departs from Xi Wangmu, he leaves her “untamed” wonderland intact. After exchanging gifts and romantic songs with her, he climbs up a mountain called Yan and carves the words “Mountain of Xi Wangmu” on a tree. This is a very clear territorial claim, but one made on behalf of the western queen. Are there lessons about the Other to be learned here? Exclusion from Chinese colonization, it seems, is the best way of inclusion (Wang, 2014: 47).
…How can we ultimately move beyond both Orientalism and Occidentalism…
Later in Daoist mythology, Xi Wangmu is elevated to one of the Eight Immortals, a divinity who still enjoys worship in Chinese communities today. But her more ancient image as the literal Queen of the West seems a more powerful one. She later bestows her loving favors on a different individual, a different Wu: Emperor Wu, ruler of a united China in the Han Dynasty (Lewis, 2009: 214). But was the Zhou imagination of Xi Wangmu much different to the Victorian dream of an enlightened “Oriental” Shambhala, where mystics unchained by industrialization could save the world? How can we ultimately move beyond both Orientalism and Occidentalism (because they are still erroneous constructs of the Other)? Perhaps an answer lies somewhere in the melancholy affection and respect between the Queen Mother and the King of Zhou:
Xi Wangmu – You traveled here through the mountains and across the rivers from far away. / May you live a long life, and we will have a chance to meet again.
King Mu – I have to go back to my eastern land, / Because I am responsible for the harmony and order in the East. / After all my people are able to lead a peaceful life with love and equality, / I will come see you again… (Guo, 2006: 220).