Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Asia

Guest Writer: Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Cultural anthropologist Gerald Zhang-Schmidt argues that the modern terra incognita is found in the mysteries of culture rather than the frontiers of space.

Blank Spots on the Modern Map

Exploration seems a thing of the past. All that’s left is the frontier of space, but “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is the domain of science fiction (at least so far). Nowadays, if you want to become known through adventure, you have to run up mountains or be the first to traverse all of a continent running. Yet these are physical feats, not feats that serve the purpose of discovering something new. The blank spots on Earth, the “here be dragons” have been visited. The adventurous traveler must content himself with other perils: the local who serves him dog to eat. There are no more dragons. In fact, nowadays, there may be tourists there, and an internet café just around the corner.

Local Market in Xiangtan, Hunan

Only too often, though, the familiarity hides other kinds of blank spots. In this age of tourists and adventurers, cultural anthropologists are a case of people in-between. Traditionally, they were quite close to explorers. Cultural anthropologists, of course, have sought out exotic peoples rather than peculiar geographies; reaching an uninhabited North Pole has no use when you seek to understand human cultures, after all. They also have different methods: it is standard practice to conduct long-term fieldwork with one group of people, not range far and wide. Anthropologists’ acceptance of “cultural relativism” has also, at times, separated them from explorers: one needs to understand a cultural phenomenon from within the logic of the society it belongs to, not interpret and judge it from the perspective of one’s own cultural background.

Still, cultural anthropologists were oftentimes quite public figures, rather like explorers, becoming well known for bringing back news of “the other” and their exotic ways. The whole fascination of the discipline, after all, came from the stories of persons who went out to live among other – maybe “primitive,” maybe just different – peoples and regaled us with stories of how diverse and wondrous human diversity is. Even when Japan experienced its economic boom of the 1980’s, a large part of the fascination was their different ways of thinking and acting (expressed even in popular culture, e.g. the James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice,” or Michael Crichton’s novel – and the movie adaptation of it – “Rising Sun”). Recently, China has taken over the role of the powerful, yet mysterious, Asian rival that is increasingly close, yet strangely different.

Here we come full circle to how today is different: one can no longer go out to many places where no tourist has tread before. In fact, because of globalization, the traveler feels as if she has seen the world already, and while many places are still fun to visit (if exotic enough), there is nothing truly new.

Yet, even as the formerly exotic “Other” has come increasingly close – with economic globalization, with international migration – it is all the more unknown. It is even rejected for being too close for comfort, if it does not meet our terms of engagement. You find “Chinese” food virtually everywhere, but adapted to the local palate rather than how it is in China (and not just by omitting dog from the menu); you find “American culture,” but it’s really just Hollywood and McDonald’s, blue jeans and pizza.

It may not be possible to go out and find something new that will make one known as the first person to have seen it. However, the exploration of blank spots of our own personal knowledge, hidden by the superficial familiarity gained from TV and internet, has become all the more important, and worthwhile – and it is a whole treasure trove of possible experiences: about other peoples, about this planet’s ecology, and often beginning with our own cities and neighborhoods. How well do you know the people and paths in your community or the species that dwell in your own backyard?

Zhang-Schmidt in Hong Kong

Gerald Zhang-Schmidt is a cultural anthropologist and ecologist from Austria, specialized on East Asia. For the last two and a half years he has been living in China, working as German lecturer while researching and writing on what it means to be “at
home… in China”
. He is also working on the ecology of happiness and has an enduring fascination with chili peppers and their cultural-culinary significance.

Polar Hoaxes and Lost Worlds

cook and peary

A century ago this week Robert Peary and Frederick Cook locked horns in the  “The North Pole Controversy,” an epic media battle that dominated news on both sides of the Atlantic for months.  For readers it became a scandalous and impossibly compelling story, a post-Victorian Jon vs. Kate with furs and dogs.

John Tierney

John Tierney

John Tierney took up the story in the New York Times yesterday morning. To Tierney’s credit, he avoids the temptation to spend his entire column regaling the reader with evidence of Peary or Cook’s rightful attainment of the Pole. (He does take a position: neither man made it).

Instead he takes an interesting behavioral, rather than historical, approach to the question: why do the supporters of both explorers defend their man against all reasonable arguments? The answer, he argues, is that they become psychologically (perhaps neurochemically) committed to their candidate in a manner that is hard to alter. The use of the word “candidate” here is intentional since Tierney reports that this phenomenon is well measured in people supporting politicians and political parties.

Map of the "lost world" of Mount Bosavi

Map of the "lost world" of Mount Bosavi

Also reported yesterday was the discovery of a “lost world” in Papau New Guinea. A team of scientists (big discoveries always follow sentences that begin with ”A team of scientists…”) discovered a unique, pristine ecosystem in the crater of Mount Bosavi. The team found more than forty new species, including the world’s smallest parrot, the world’s largest rat, and a herd of grazing brontosauruses. (I’m making up the rat part).

The use of ‘Lost World’ is an interesting way to  describe this ecosystem  not simply because it conjures images of Jurassic Park, Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name, and a whole genre of early twentieth-century adventure books, but because it’s not an obvious (and therefore not an unconscious) description of Mount Bosavi.

Accounts of the volcano, its geographical and biogeographical riches, have been appearing for forty years in academic journal (see for example Records of the South Australian Museum 15 (1965): 695-6;  Mammals of New Guinea (1990): 236) and even further back in popular literature. Jack Hides and other Australians were writing about the Mount Bosavi in the 1930s.

Bosavi Woolly Rat, photo credit: Jonny Keeling

Bosavi Woolly Rat, photo credit: Jonny Keeling

But “Lost World” sounds better than “Relatively Unknown Ecosystem” especially if it’s timed to coincide with a 3-part BBC Special on the expedition (titled “Lost Land of the Volcano”). Perhaps these are the necessary evils of science reporting in the digital age, a realm in which writers have two or three seconds to convey meaning and produce interest. Maybe these are the white lies required to raise the profile of meaningful and interesting projects. “Lost Land of the Volcano” pulled in 4.1 million viewers last night, an 18% share. Maybe the title of this post should be “Cow-Sized Rat Kills Cannibal, Saves Scientist.”


Asia on Top

Zheng He's Fleet sailing the Western (Indian) Ocean, 1405-1433. 20th century, artist unknown

Zheng He's fleet sailing the Western (Indian) Ocean, 1405-1433. 20th century painting, artist unknown.

Exploration seems an inclusive concept, a big-tent activity that admits anyone with a geographical goal and a good pair of shoes. But like most terms, exploration has hidden meanings and rules, ones that restrict certain places, people, and activities.

For example, Americans have made a national mythology out of exploration, creating a genealogy of pioneers and explorers that extends from Lewis and Clark in 1804 to Neil Armstrong in 1969. Were extraterrestrials listening in to the speeches of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, they would be forgiven for thinking that Americans single-handedly discovered the world. (For more on exploration talk at the DNC, read this)

Yet even the most blinkered American manifest-destinorians would have to extend the “spirit of exploration” to Europeans. Otherwise they would have to exclude the Renaissance all-stars of exploration, Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan, from their ranks.

Protestant Americans wrestled with exactly this issue in the 19th century, ultimately deciding to embrace southern European explorers as a part of their own cultural heritage. In their favor, Columbus and his successors were white Christians, even if they suffered from being papists, speaking Spanish and Italian, and drinking wine on Sundays.

Columbian Exposition Commemorative Half Dollar, 1892

Columbian Exposition Commemorative Half Dollar, 1892

But this is about as inclusive as Americans have been willing to get.  Expeditionary activities of African and Asian nations are duly reported of course. Western press agencies keep us apprised of the South African National Antartic Programme (SANAP) and the Chinese Shenzhou Space Program. But one detects in western press coverage a view that these accomplishments are adaptations to a Western philosophy of discovery, a mimetic activity rather than something which expresses core features of Asian or African culture.

Put differently, exploration has become the symbolic equivalent of baseball, an activity played all over the world, but still seen in the U.S.  — now and forever more — as an archetypally American game (debts to cricket aside).

Were we to sit down with early European navigators in the 15th century, I think they would be astonished by all of this Euro-American strutting and preening. After all, exploration took off in Europe because Europeans felt they were being pushed off the stage of world events.

Despite the pageantry of statues and paintings, the European Age of Discovery was less about curiosity than fear and admiration, an appreciation for non-European powers, particularly in Asia, that held the keys to European collapse or prosperity.

For medieval Europeans, the Orient was the center of the world.  It was the font of Judeo-Christian religious history, the site of the Holy Land. It was the center of global commerce and trade, particularly luxury items. While Frankish farmers ate mutton and plowed their fields in scratchy woolens, Marco Polo enchanted readers with stories of  silks, teas, and concubines  from Cathay.

Travels of Marco Polo, manuscript page, 1298

Travels of Marco Polo, manuscript page, 1298

Meanwhile Crusaders brought back cinnamon and clove from the Spice Islands and cottons from India. As for geopolitical power, any Pole, Serb, or Castilian from the late Medieval period would have stories to tell about the powerful pagans of the East. One forgets that before the centuries of European hegemony, European border kingdoms were continually reacting to events from empires East:  Mongols, Persians, and Ottomans.

Evidence for this comes from many sources. The importance of the East is pounded into the English language of geography. For example, the word for Eastern lands “Orient” (Chaucer, 1375 CE) soon begot words of directionality such as “orientality” (Browne, 1647 CE) and “to orient” (Chambers, 1728 CE).

Moreover, European cartography expressed a Eastern-centric vision of the world. European T-O maps produced in late medieval Europe usually faced East and centered on Jerusalem. It was common for such maps to also overlay important religious symbols such as the body of Christ or the sons of Noah on the world’s continents.

T-O map from the Etymologiae of Isidorus, 1472

T-O map from the Etymologiae of Isidorus, 1472. Asia is on top, Europe is bottom left, Africa is bottom right. The names of Noah's sons are placed under each continent.

Mappa Mundi showing Noah's ark and three sons on three continents in La Fleur des Histoires, Valenciennes, 1459-63

Mappa Mundi showing Noah's ark and three sons on three continents in La Fleur des Histoires, Valenciennes, 1459-63

European conquests in Asia and America in the early 16th century did much to boost European self confidence.  (See for example, Abraham Ortelius’s frontispiece for his 1580 Atlas in my post on cannibalism)

There is much more to be said about Asia in the history of exploration, particularly 19th century conceptions of the East and Edward Said’s influential work Orientalism. All of that will have to wait for another post though. For now, here are a few links on history, travel, and exploration in Asia:

The Silkroad Foundation “The Bridge Between Eastern and Western Cultures”

The Athena Review Journal of Archeology, History, and Exploration

Astene Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East

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