That “Europe” is a cultural unity is the theme of the euro bank notes issued by the European Union. Thus, 5 euro has a representation of a Roman arch; 10 euro a Romanesque church door with its characteristic series of receding arches decorated with carvings; 20 euro, a traceried pointed arch from a Gothic church; 50 euro, a Renaissance rounded arch topped with a triangular pediment; 100 euro, a theatrical Baroque doorway guarded by caryatids; 200 euro, windows and a hallway, both arched and of metal, that were popular in 19th century pavilions; and finally, 500 euro, a Contemporary high-rise of glass and metal. If the East Asian Union does become a political and cultural reality and were to issue bank notes for a common currency, could it easily replicate this coherent and encompassing representation? I do not think so. The stages in the development of Imperial Chinese art – Han, the Three Kingdoms, Sui, Tang, the Five Dynasties, Song, Yuan, Ming, and the Qing might resonate among the Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese, but not in the rest of what is termed “Asia”. 1 In contrast “Europe” means more than a geographic area. It refers to many states, which despite violent conflicts with each other, share a common heritage. As is well known, this heritage is founded on Hellenic philosophy, Roman jurisprudence and Judaeo-Christianity. Thus while Gothic cathedrals were rising in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, Scholastic philosophy was maturing in universities, such as Paris, which attracted students and teachers from all over Western Christendom. Scholasticism was born out of the desire to re-interpret Christian doctrines using Aristotelian categories. To take another example, while the Baroque was in bloom during the 17th century, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton were introducing a new knowledge that became known as “science”. Initially this was inspired by Hellenic and Roman empiricism, but eventually became totally distinct because of its emphasis on mathematical reasoning. Trans-country exchanges like this would be found in particular cultural clusters in Asia. Consider, for instance, the admiration for things Chinese expressed by pre-20th century Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese. This involved the study and emulation of Chinese texts in art, technology, governance, and in other fields. During the Nara and Heian periods (8th-12th centuries CE), the Japanese court sent missions regularly to China to learn from the Chinese. Down to the 19th century, every year the Vietnamese court would do the same, despite its insistence on political independence (Woodside 1975). But all of these would have been meaningful only to Chinese-influenced societies, not to the rest of Asians, not to Hindus, Theravada Buddhists, or to Moslems. In the workshop on cultural commonalities that I coordinated for the this conference on the East Asian Union on December 14-15, 2007, the participants from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Thailand pointed out the difficulties of looking for common icons and values. The more significant commonalities that they singled out were the following: 1) rice, 2) Chinatowns, and 3) Western influence such as Christmas. Mention of Western influence did not surprise me. In my own writings, I have pointed out that English, together with Western science and technology, has created a common discourse for Asians (Zialcita 2005: 247, 252). But what was significant was that, in the workshop, this insight came from them spontaneously rather than from me. Despite these constraints, it matters still that we look for common icons and values that foster a sense of community in the proposed East Asian Union. But we should be realistic. While historical and cultural research is needed, we should be prepared to admit that we are doing so for pragmatic, that is political and economic, ends. Moreover, we should be careful about making a priori exclusions in the name of an idealized Asia. I say this because I come from a country, the Philippines, that is a priori excluded in many overviews of traditional “Asian” art because it is seen as Westernized and therefore “non-Asian”. Outside the Islamic areas, stone architecture, monumental sculpture, paintings and books only begin in Philippines in the 1600s –and under Spanish auspices. Hence the invisibility of Philippine achievements in many discussions of “Asian” arts, 2 for these seem “Spanish” or “Spanish American.” But in fact much of what seems “Spanish” in Filipino culture has been either transformed or fused with the indigenous resulting in an original style that even visiting Spanish and Mexican scholars recognize as different from theirs, being Filipino (Zialcita 2005: 190, 234). It is important to distinguish different ways cultures can relate together.
Zialcita, F. (2007). In Search of Common Icons for an East Asian Union. In Y. Kikuchi (Ed). Towards an East Asia Community: Beyond Cross-Cultural Diversity. Symposium organized by The Japan Foundation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Waseda University Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, Tokyo, December 10-18, 2007. Tokyo: The Japan Foundation.