Non-Western Views on Western Culture in Literature

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ever wonder how people around the world view Western cultures? We'll take a broad look at that in this lesson, focusing on how Western cultures are depicted in literature.

How the West is Viewed

We can see many examples of how Western culture, by which we mean those derived of European foundations, views the rest of the world. Sometimes this takes the form of orientalist tropes, while other times it can present a more nuanced reflection of the West's impact on other cultures.

But what does this relationship look like from another perspective? How do non-Western literary cultures present and depict Western culture? From the beginning, we need to acknowledge the breadth of this question. The world does not exist in terms of ''the West and the rest.'' When discussing non-Western cultures we are talking about a massive array of cultures, languages, and people. Every culture has its own take on its relationship with the broadly defined West, as will the individual people within each culture.

As a result, this lesson is going to be concerned with very broad trends in non-Western literary depictions of Western culture, things that we can see fairly consistently. This lesson is also going to focus on explicit references to the West, since the implicit influences are often too great to list. For example, many works in southern Africa mention playing soccer, just as cricket is a common theme in Indian memoirs. Japanese literature in the late 19th century focused heavily on industrialism. A huge portion of Indian literature since the mid-19th century has been written in English, just as large portions of literature in Senegal is written in French. All of these reflect European influence, but are not explicit reflections on Western culture because these peoples have reconstituted previously Western things to become symbols of their own nationalism.

Trends in Representations of Western Culture

When we start to look at some of the major trends that have appeared consistently throughout non-Western literature across both time and cultures, we can see two dominant themes. First is the foreignness of Western cultures. This is common in works about people traveling to a Western country, as well as works that reflect on the negative impacts of colonialism or cultural imperialism. The second, and not always opposing, theme is that of the opportunities of the West. In these works, Western ideas are explored in non-Western settings, often as models for reform. Let's work through those themes in a little more detail.

The Foreignness of the West

In much non-Western literature, Western cultures are defined by how different they are from the author's native culture. Moments of cultural shock, culture gap, or contrasting values are common focal points. An early example of this comes from Huang Zunxian (1848-1905), a poet and diplomat from Qing-Dynasty China who spent years in San Francisco serving as the emperor's Consul-General. His poems demonstrate his admiration for the American legal system and other bureaucratic reforms he hoped to implement in China, but many of his poems that reflected on the United States explore the differences in their cultures. He wrote about racism against the Chinese in California, marveled at the presidential election while comparing the presidential seat to China's imperial throne, and on his journey back wrote this:

The whole universe shares the same moon with us

But not all people celebrate our Mid-Autumn Festival.

The Western calendar approaches its two thousandth year;

But Westerners don't reckon time by the phases of the moon.

Officers on the bridge use compasses to navigate,

As our ship glides westward with the Milky Way.

Curly-bearded Westerners sing loudly, with drunken blue eyes,

But their foreign music only increases my longing for home.

Huang Zunxian was far from the only author to use language like this. The Japanese author Nobuo Kohima (1915-2006) examined the impacts of the nuclear bomb and defeat of Japan after World War II, most famously in his short story ''The American School.'' In the story, Americans are presented as smug since they won the war, while the Japanese feel that something must be wrong with their culture since they lost. So, they start directly imitating Americans, without fully understanding American culture. The result is a litany of cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications, reflecting the difficulties of acculturating Western attitudes and the impact of this on Japanese culture.

Kamala Markandaya (1924-2004) similarly spent much of her career as an author examining the impacts of British imperialism in India. Her 1972 novel The Nowhere Man follows an Indian widower who moves to London. Despite making a home there, he continues to experience prejudice and wonders if he will ever be able to truly belong.

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