The West’s Skewed Vision of Buddhism

In 1893, Japanese delegates presented Buddhism to the West at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.[1] They presented what they viewed to be the superior branch of Buddhism, a type that would attract the West since it shared similarities with Western philosophy. Existing Buddhist scholarship written in the West contained orientalist visions of what Buddhism was that often compared it to Christianity. These pre-conceived notions of Buddhism stemmed from a few factors – arguably, it was mostly due to Western scholars looking at Buddhism through a Christian lens. Judith Snodgrass explains that ‘Buddhism was informed by Christian presuppositions from the time of the pioneering work of missionaries who described Asian religious practice by seeking answers to questions formed within their own belief systems’.[2] This can be seen even with the term ‘Buddhism’ itself, a name that implies a similar dependence to Buddha that Christianity has to Christ. Overall, the West’s vision of Buddhism was a double-edged sword as it meant Buddhism was accepted more, but a lot of the true meaning of Buddhism was lost.

Problems with translation were at the root of the West’s skewed vision of Buddhism. When faced with Buddhist teachings and customs that they were unaccustomed to, Christian scholars tended to look to their own religion to find suitable comparisons. This can be seen with the term “nirvana”; this Buddhist ideology was so outside the realm of Christian understanding that there was great difficulty relaying it to a Western audience.[3] In the end it was likened to Heaven, but this lost the true essence of what nirvana was. Heaven is a place of the highest holiest order that one reaches after death, whereas nirvana is a state of being, a complete liberation of oneself. Overall translating Buddhism into English was an impossible task, one that was likened to, ‘attempting to scratch one’s foot with one’s shoe on’.[4] It led to the lines being blurred between Christianity and Buddhism, by equating the Buddha to God, for example. The distinct features of each religion were lost but due to the predominance of Christianity in the West, it was Buddhism that was at the disadvantage, losing its own identity and becoming an ‘other’ Christianity.

As mentioned, the figure of Buddha was widely debated by Western scholars during the nineteenth century, a debate that led to unjust comparisons to Christianity’s version of God and Christ. The French philosopher J. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire spoke of the Buddha with the highest praise, placing him only second to Christ.[5] A big problem Christian scholars had with the figure of Buddha was his lack of divine intervention. Viewing the Buddha as a simple human meant to teach and guide people and not as a divine figure caused Buddhism to be viewed as atheistic. This also led to other charges against Buddhism – Christian missionary Robert Spence Hardy viewed Buddhism as idolatrous as he saw the Buddha as a ‘uninspired mortal’ whose teaching was ‘not divinely inspired but was formed by a man or men’.[6] Not only was this dismissive of Buddhist belief and teachings, but by branding it atheistic and idolatrous, Western Christian intervention in the way of missionary work and political action was then warranted in their eyes.

In the end, Japanese delegates used this Western misinterpretation of Buddhism to their advantage to boost their own version of Japanese Buddhism that claimed to speak for all of Buddhism. Buddhism was interpreted to be beneath, on the same level, or even above Christianity depending on who was writing on the topic, but the delegates chose to focus on pre-existing admiration of Buddhism. Buddhism shared a lot of the same morals with Christianity such as ‘sincerity, purity, meekness and truth’ and the lives of the Buddha and Christ also shared similarities.[7] However, the Japanese delegates wished to elevate Japan above the West and gain prestige beyond that of being viewed as equal, so they also focused on what their Buddhism had that Christianity lacked, though this was something Christian scholars had already picked up on and were writing about. T.W. Rhys David believed that Buddhism was more optimistic than Christianity, as it offered salvation for its followers in this world instead of just in Heaven.[8] So in this way, the West’s orientalist interpretation of Buddhism could be seen as a positive. By highlighting where Buddhism prospered while Christianity lacked, the delegates were able to present what they viewed as ‘Japan’s gift to the world’.[9]

[1] Judith Snodgrass, Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p.1

[2] Ibid. p.4

[3] Ibid. p.93

[4] Ibid. p.93

[5] Ibid. p.103

[6] Ibid. p.98

[7] Ibid. p.105

[8] Ibid. p.109

[9] Ibid. p.181

The Chinese suffragists’ violent methods and their role within the family 

During the early twentieth century, Chinese suffragists notably – Tang Qunying campaigned for woman’s suffrage. These revolutionary women used violent methods to garner the attention of their male counterparts. The decision to use such aggressive tactics came at cost; these woman’s roles within the family changed. Whether they wished for this or not, their actions removed them from the domestic sphere and forcibly placed them in the same political realm as men. A quote from David Strand accurately represents this change, ‘The shift from the individual as a social self-embedded in family or family-like networks to the individual as a social self who is an integral part of an organisation like a political party.’[1] This article will consider this idea and how it links to what was lost and what was gained from the use of violent methods by early Chinese suffragists. It is important to note that though Chinese men may have viewed Chinese woman differently due to their acts, fundamentally their role as caretaker did not change for years to come. Universal suffrage was only granted in 1949.

 The likes of Tang Qunying being skilled in bomb-making and battlefield tactics, and the violence that broke out during suffragist protests leads to the question of why these groups chose such destructive methods. Chinese women in society at the time were viewed as objects that were to be stared at. This perception angered the suffragist movement and so they used it to their advantage by being hostile and emulating male behaviour. They would smoke cigarettes, wield weapons, and even physically assault men.[2] Though their actions were greatly looked down upon by men and women, ultimately it would prove effective to their cause. As it forced male politicians to acknowledge the suffrage movement. President Sun Yat-sen pleaded that they be patient as universal suffrage would eventually come.[3] This was met with more backlash as it was seen as a passive, easy way out for politicians who did not want to directly go against the forceful suffrage movements.

Their decision to use violent tactics was simultaneously influenced by their role within the family, while eventually changing how these roles were viewed. A Chinese woman’s role in the domestic sphere was so great that the suffrage movement believed they deserved responsibility beyond the confines of the home. Their citizenship had to exist in the public realm as well if they were going to do so much as caretakers. However,since men believed that if women gained more rights they would abandon their domestic duties, a role they believed to be the ‘foundation of the nation’, they continuously refused to grant them the vote.[4]Therefore, because of the mere wish of being viewed as a citizen outside the home was too much of a request for men to grant, the women in some suffrage movements believed using violent, ‘manly’ tactics was the way forward. They had to directly confront society’s notions of gender roles by clashing with them.

Unfortunately, this affected their roles within the home as the women that chose to act this way were viewed as having ‘unrestricted private morality’ and said to support ‘anti-husbandism’.[5] This meant they lost a lot of respect and power that already existed for them in the domestic sphere. This was not their aim; they did not wish to forget about their roles in the home, they just wanted to be acknowledged by wider society in political terms. By choosing to use such aggressive means to gain this acknowledgment, these suffragists were advocating that, ‘natural rights trumps social stability.’[6] In the end, they truly believed the right to vote was something every human being should have and so were willing to do anything to gain this – even if it meant losing the social status they had within the home.

[1] David Strand, An Unfinished Republic: Leading by Word and Deed in Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), p.22

[2] Ibid. p.18

[3] Ibid. p.18

[4] Ibid. p.19

[5] Ibid. p.19

[6] Ibid. p.19


Was the Anarchist dream ever possible in China?

In its simplest terms, anarchism is the belief in the abolition of all government, and that society should be run on a voluntary basis void of any coercion. Such a utopian ideal seems highly unrealistic and impossible to implement as it would drastically alter the way in which a society works.

However, in the early twentieth century a group of Chinese anarchists named the Tokyo Anarchists believed China was more likely than any other nation to achieve an anarchist state. Their leader, Lie Shipei, argued, ‘advocacy by the major ideologies of China, Confucianism and Daoism, of laissez-fair government had helped curtail government intervention in society’.[1] Therefore, he was claiming that strong tradition and loyalty within the family structure meant the population had less ties and involvement with politics. This fit in nicely with anarchists’ anti-despotic views.

The problem lay with Confucianism. On the whole, anarchists were quite anti-Confucian as it was not just government they were against – they were against any system that jeopardised an individual’s free will. At the heart of Confucianism lay loyalty to the family, which involved people putting their family members above all else, including themselves. So, Shipei supposed, ‘that if only Chinese could be purged of their habits of obedience, anarchism could be achieved in China in the very near future’.[2]

Was this possible? It would involve a complete cultural revolution in China to re-educate the masses on centuries worth of tradition. This was the main objective of many anarchist groups across China, not just the Tokyo Anarchists.  Such a feat would not be easy, but most anarchists were not naïve. What Shipei meant by ‘near future’ was likely centuries away, as it would take this long for a cultural shift to take effect. Arif Dirlik explains in his book, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution, that anarchists believed ‘revolutionary society could only be as good as revolutionary process that produced it’. [3] Followers that really wished for an ideal anarchist society would have to be patient if they ever wished to achieve such a radicalised culture from the norm.

In the end, to the answer the question, was the anarchist dream ever possible in China? The answer is probably not. The sheer scale of cultural revolution needed to change the population’s mindset seemed unlikely due to the dispersion of Chinese anarchists across the country. This anti-centralisation of the anarchists worked against their goals as they went without a larger organisational structure.[4] They soon lost out to the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s, as they advocated for social revolution just as much as the anarchists but had the advantage of being a defined political organisation. Eventually the CCP would attempt their own cultural revolution that lasted ten years, from 1966-1976. Yet their brutal methods of coercion during this time were far from what the anarchists had ever dreamed of.

[1] Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1991), p.77

[2] Ibid. p.77

[3] Ibid. p.133

[4] Ibid. p.171

Were the Ilchinhoe justified in their support of the Japanese, 1909-1910? A look at collaboration in a colonial setting

In December 1909, the Korean organisation the Ilchinhoe proposed a Japanese-Korean ‘merger’ that they believed would instil new life in Korea as a nation with Japan as its saviour.[1] Instead, the merger is attributed to starting the chain of events that led to Korea’s brutal annexation by the Japanese that lasted thirty-five years.

Yumi Moon’s article ‘Immoral Rights: Korean Populist Collaborators and the Japanese Colonisation of Korea, 1904-1910’ explores the idea that the Ilchinhoe, who are remembered in Korean history as ‘notorious collaborators’, need to be considered in a colonial context so that their actions may be explained.[2] This blog post will consider if Moon’s article provides justification to the Ilchinhoe’s support of the Japanese in the lead to up the annexation of Korea in 1910.

To understand why the Ilchinhoe collaborated with the Japanese, Moon urges historians to avoid contemporary moral views as it becomes a ‘major hindrance’.[3] Historians need to consider the setting and conditions of those who are being colonialised so they can grasp why certain groups chose to work with those who are doing the oppressing.

 So, for the context of Korea and the Ilchinhoe, Moon places a great emphasis on the point that the Ilchinhoe movement was populist. She quotes Margaret Canovan, writing, ‘Populists claim legitimacy on the grounds that they speak for the people: that is to say, they claim to represent the democratic sovereign’.[4] Therefore, the Ilchinhoe were doing what they believed was best for the Korean people. They viewed Korea as a ‘backwards’ nation while Japan was a “civilising’ empire’ that could protect Korea’s prosperity.[5]

Looking at the Ilchinhoe’s view with a contemporary mindset will result in a negative judgement of the group. However, using Moon’s argument that the colonial context must be considered allows for one to see that the Ilchinhoe genuinely believed they were doing what was best for Korea. Their logic was ‘Independence through dependence’, and that Korea needed to understand what it was and wasn’t capable of so that Japan could guide them as a ‘friendly ally’.[6] The Ilchinhoe always advocated for the rights of Korean people and did not wish for Korea to lose its independence; what they wanted was for Japan to revitalise their government.

In the end, the Japanese used this to their advantage and were able to annex Korea with ‘relatively little bloodshed’ thanks to the Ilchinhoe’s collaboration efforts.[7] Moon’s final argument urges an understanding that the Ilchinhoe, the colonised, had no agency or control over how the Japanese, the colonisers, acted. Ultimately, the Ilchinhoe may have had good intentions that they believed represented what the Korean population wanted but were misguided in trusting the Japanese. Japan ended up ignoring what was proposed in the merger and used it as proof that Korea was not able to be independent at all which led to the annexation.  So did Moon’s article justify the Ilchinhoe’s actions and shed a more positive light on their organisation? That depends on how naïve one would believe the Ilchinhoe were in thinking the Japanese wouldn’t take complete control over Korea. However, Moon does provide substantial evidence that suggests their collaboration was in the Korean people’s best interest.

[1]Carl Young, ‘Eastern Learning Divided: The Split in the Tonghak Religion and the Japanese Annexation of Korea, 1904-1910’ in Belief and Practice in Imperial Japan and Colonial Korea ed. Emily Anderson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p.93

[2] Yumi Moon, ‘Immoral Rights: Korean Populist Collaborators and the Japanese Colonisation of Korea, 1904-1910‘, The American Historical Review 113:1 (2013), p.20

[3] Ibid. p.22

[4] Ibid. p.27

[5] Ibid. p.33

[6] Ibid. p.32

[7] Ibid. p.42