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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 27, No. 7. 1964.

Oriental Culture — Need To Digest Willow Pattern

page 4

Oriental Culture

Need To Digest Willow Pattern

To most people "Oriental Culture" means vague recognition of the names Confucius and Omar Khayyam, the Taj Mahal on a mouldy postcard, and the gradual emergence of the "Willow Pattern" lurking beneath the mutton and peas.

Even those who so enthusiastically urge us to "understand" the Orient and its peoples, themselves rarely understand or place much emphasis on the cultural expression of the region. And too often those Westerners who have studied Oriental culture have done so condescendingly, exhibiting the same mystified wonder as archeologists unearthing an ancient tomb, watched bv canine locals.

Europeans are about to undergo a slightly painful awakening similar to that experienced by the Chinese about a century ago. The Chinese were suddenly forced to acknowledge that their country was not the centre of the world, and their culture not the great daddy of all cultures. It was a shock to the Chinese, a shock which, some say is still vibrating neurotically in modern China.

Political and cultural trends indicate that the cultural insularity of today's Europe and America is bound to receive a rude blow from the East in the not too distant future. Unless it turns itself outwards and takes the initiative in investigating and absorbing Oriental culture. West will find itself confronting East over an all too clearly marked border of mis-understanding.

Of course, this border exists to some extent already; Kipling was not merely seeking a felicitous combination of words when he said "East is East . . .," etc. But it is at present largely a border formed by ignorance, by lack of awareness. It is only when cultural insularity brings about indifference or a refusal to be aware that a really dangerous state of misunderstanding will arise.

The ideal of a widespread appreciation of Oriental culture is not just another good cause, of a type worthy of subsidy from the Golden Kiwi. It is virtually a matter of necessity; as much for the health of Western culture as for the cultural, social and political integration of the world's peoples.

This is not to say that we poor Westerners have a weary academic task ahead of us. Even a brief glance at the great sweep of Oriental culture is enough to convince one that it is the equal of that of Europe. In all fields of expression there are artists and works which are in no way inferior to the greatest produced by the West. They are different certainly, very different, but of sufficient stature to make the experience of them pleasant and satisfying for its own sake, rather than as a duty.

The cultural heritage of the Orient belongs as much to us as it does to the people of the East, though, of course, it is unlikely that Westerners would get as much out of it as Orientals. We should try to approach it as something strictly equal to our own heritage. We should look forward to the day when the names of Shakespeare and Kalidasa can be nonchalently mentioned in the same breath, or Wordsworth and Tao Yuan-ming, or Mme de La Fayette and Murasaki Shikibu and so on.

The above is by way of introduction to a number of articles which will appear in coming issues of Salient, each in the form of a brief portrait of the life and work of a recognised "great" among Oriental artists. The first will deal with the Chinese poet of the T'ang dynasty, Tu Fu (712-770 AD).