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“East meets West”

By Rev. Dr. Robert McTeigue

Some statements are conversation-stoppers.  For example:  “The building is on fire—RUN!”  People hear that, stop talking, and start running.  Some statements are conversation-starters.  For example:  “I know where the buried treasure is!”  People hear that, stop what they’re doing and say, “Tell me more.”

What if the statement were:  “You know what we need to make progress in conversations about Eurasian perspectives?  We need an American!”  Would people stop what they’re doing, listen expectantly, or would they shake their heads, chuckle, and get back to business?

At the invitation of editor-in-chief, David Parry, I’m going to contribute an American voice to the ongoing conversations here at Eurasian Perspectives.  I will do so as an American academic who has travelled and taught in Southeast Asia, who has studied Asian philosophy, religion and culture; I will also do so as an academic who has lived in London, who has travelled about Europe, who has studied European philosophy, religion and culture.  And I will do so as a member of the Society of Jesus, a Catholic religious community known for producing missionaries and educators—a community with a long history of life and work across Asia for almost 500 years.

It is a commonplace among academics, to engage, at least occasionally, on the topic of “East meets West”, discussing how misunderstandings might be overcome, points of agreement may be found, new discoveries made, etc.  That approach may be congenial to academics, and one can make a nice career out of publishing obscure papers on points of cultural minutiae.  But what of the more typical person, who may be just as intelligent and curious as professional scholars, who don’t have the time or interest to become a specialist in a narrow area of research?  Is there any way for the question of “East meets West” to be made accessible, interesting, even useful?

I believe there is.  My research and travels lead me to conclude that we here at Eurasian Perspectives can begin a valuable cross-cultural conversation using the common experience of board games as a point of departure.  This is not an entirely new suggestion.  Decades ago, William Pinckard published an essay now recognized as a classic in the field:  “Go and the ‘Three Games’.”  There he discussed why the game of Go (“Igo” in Japanese; “Weiqi” in Chinese; “Baduk” in Korean) was revered in Asia—especially Japan; why chess (now called “international chess” worldwide) was revered in Medieval Europe; why backgammon was revered in the Near and Middle East.  His principal thesis was that these games both formed and disclosed the cultures in which they enjoyed popularity.

I want to build upon Pinckard’s insight, making use not only of board games but also of martial arts, to gain an understanding of how cultures are formed and disclosed by these practices.  In our interconnected world, these board games are played across the globe, just as Asian martial arts have taken root outside of their native soil.  What I have in mind here is to start a conversation that will allow us to see how cultures develop, blend and endure over time.   I would also like to take note where there are areas of cultural overlap and complementarity, as well as points of differences not easily (perhaps not ever) reconciled.

Xiangqi – Chinese chess

Preparing to work in Asia for the first time, I studied a variety of Asian board games, including Go, Shogi, Xiangqi, Mahjong and Paigow.  I added to this a very modest study of Asian martial arts, along with many conversations with martial arts practitioners.  Returning to the United States, I had many happy memories, a few more answers, and many more questions.  I share these reflections with you all here, in the hopes that we can begin a conversation about human nature and the common and disparate features of various cultures.  My hope is that our readers will want to add to the foundation that I lay down here.

I became very interested in the status of Weiqi and Xiangqi in China, as a way of understanding how board games may form and disclose cultures. In the United States, international chess is being promoted in many schools. There’s a body of research indicating that students improve greatly academically when they study and play chess. Is Weiqi or Xiangqi or both promoted in Chinese schools?  Is there research supporting a decision to include one or both in schools?

What is the status of Weiqi relative to Xiangqi in Chinese culture? In the West, generally speaking, international chess is considered an “intellectual” pursuit and its players are considered highly intelligent.   There’s not much money in it if you play in the United States (I hear it’s better in Europe), but it is a respectable game.

What I have in mind is to draw an analogy with Chinese internal martial arts (Neijia).  I’ve been told  that one can develop a Tai Chi body and state of mind, or a Hsing-I body and state of mind or a Bagua body and state of mind.  Do Weiqi, Xiangqi and international chess, by analogy, develop states or habits of mind and cultures that are unique to them?

If I were to force the analogy, I’d say that Weiqi is like Tai Chi, emphasizing patience and fluid movements.  International chess is like Hsing-I with its direct lines of attack and its emphasis on control of the center.  Xiangqi is like Bagua with its emphasis on maneuver, while guarding a fixed point.  So understood, what effects to the play of board games and martial arts have upon individuals, communities, regions and cultures?

Xiangqi appears to be a game for the “masses.” For example, Sam Sloan, in “Chinese Chess for Beginners” says:   “In fact, there is simply no such thing as a Chinese man who does not know how to play Chinese chess.  It is embedded in the Chinese culture.  Chinese children learn how to play it at the same age when children in other cultures are learning how to play tic-tac-toe.”(Sloan, page 2)

In contrast, in “Games Ancient and Oriental and How to Play Them”, Edward Falkener suggests that Weiqi in Chinese culture is considered a game for the “elite.” A person who seriously plays Weiqi would be expected to be a person of achievement and refinement in China.  He writes of a Mr. Giles, who was a British Consul in China in the late 1800s and was a Weiqi player, who asserted:  “None but the educated play at Wei-ch’i.  A  knowledge of this difficult game stamps a man in China as somewhat more than an ordinary person.  Its subtleties are beyond the reach of the lazy; its triumphs too refined for the man of gross material tastes.  Skill in Wei-ch’i implies the astuteness and versatility so prized among the Chinese.  They could hardly believe a man to play Wei-ch’i well, and yet be possessed of only indifferent abilities as a practical man of the world.  It would amount to a contradiction of terms.  All the more so, as nearly all those who enter upon a literary career make a point of attempting to learn the game; but many faint by the way.  To a beginner a mere knowledge of the rules for a long time seems hopeless:  and subsequent application of them more hopeless still.  The persevering ones play on day by day, until at last—suddenly as it were—the great scheme of Wei-ch’I dawns upon them in all its fullness and beauty; and from that day they are ardent enthusiasts in support of its unquestionable merits.”  (Falkener, page 249)

It has been suggested to me that in China Weiqiis considered more difficult and more in tune with the Confucian ideal of the cultivated man.   A cultivated man would practice the “Four Accomplishments”, namely, painting, music, calligraphy and Weiqi.  Is there anything analogous to Xiangqi in Chinese classical literature?

Also, it has been suggested to me that Weiqi is more a Mandarin-speakers’ game, while Xiangqi is associated more with Cantonese speakers.  Is that true?  If so, what bearing does that fact have on their respective cultures?

A quick search online shows Xiangqi sets made of plastic or wood with paper boards are quite inexpensive and emphasize functionality.  Weiqi equipment available online, I have found, can be both quite beautiful and quite expensive.  Can this difference between the two games be taken as a sign of differing social status?

We can apply similar questions to international chess, which has enjoyed popularity in the West for centuries.  More stimulating questions can be raised if we consider what happens when a game is transplanted to another culture.  For example, in recent years, international chess has been played at the highest levels in China, which has produced several grandmasters, and Chinese players have dominated the Women’s World Champion Chess Championship.  Can we speak of a distinctively Chinese way of playing/understanding international chess?

To a lesser degree, there have been efforts to popularize Go in the West, with America producing professionally-ranked Go players.  Is there a distinctively Western way of playing/understanding Go?

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By Neil Pit

The diagram I have chosen for this article (above) shows the KondratievWave Principle. It shows how breakthroughs in technology have created successive periods of economic/technological history. Each watershed discovery is followed by a period of economic growth created by the use we have found for the products we can make out of it. Then, a period of recession, as the market becomes saturated with them and they no longer generate the same level of economic growth.This is then followed by a period of depression before a new breakthrough emerges to move the situation forwardagain.

This is the cycle which the global economy has followed since before the Industrial Revolution. However, concern for most people is really the society we can make out of the technology we possess. That is, politics aside, the difference each breakthrough makes to each of our lives. The current point we are at in the wave cycle is Information Technology, so how is this changing the world? What improvements can we expect to see and what are we going to be able to do differently?People are able to communicate for free and send documents anywhere in the world, mobile phone technology has made it easier to co-ordinate businesses and personal lives.

But, where is it all going? It seems that automation would be the next logical step. Yet, it seems less threatening than the industrial revolution itself, which brought two world wars in its wake. For a start, it seems that progress is a case of the way previous technologies have combined to produce something new. It could even be said that the age of I.T. has been heading into decline since the early 2000s, as the practical use we have been able to find for its products has diminished in relation to the change they are creating. While, at the start, everybody wanted to be able to surf the Internet on a mobile device, not many people really know the difference between an iPhone 6 and 7. It just seems to be another version of exactly the same thing. So, the question is, “what change do we want to occur next?”Driverless cars could now be added to paperless offices, perhaps? Could we imagine whole automated cities, with no need for a large workforce, though? They would still need workers for factories, steelworks, building sites, all the things the public still needs. But, in the city centres, we could see a world which simply works automatically for the super-rich. A world which everyone else aspires to get into.

However, if you have worked hard building a company, you need a break. The world works fast and every tiny inconvenience can seem like a huge mountain to climb. Everything needs to be functioning exactly on time, the taste of the coffee just right.So, what change people want is for things to happen faster, so we make progress quicker, but this fact is actually driving up the cost of management, because to organise this becomes more difficult.The problem is really the speed at which things are happening at already, to co-ordinate this takes some time and effort. But, it also creates a world where bosses can set their own prices for their own labour. Not everyone can actually run a company, they don’t know the paperwork, many people could not even estimate what the job might involve. However, you can work your way up there, the only problem with that is you must be the person who is continually getting a promotion. Running your own business makes you even less likely to give someone else a break when you reach a point you can retire at.

Changing technology, though, changes the business environment in terms of where companies can expand into. The relationship between Europe and Asia is now more economic than political. More about the activities of people in everyday life than the great plans of the leaders. So, what about the future of society? Things look destined now to keep going the way that they are. The super-rich are happy with all the money. Most people are just trying to make a living. The political system is powerful enough to be able to find a million people to nod and say, yes – they like things the way they are. But, under the surface, we are heading into depression. What comes out of it would appear to depend on the direction of long term trends in technology.

So, once again, people would like to see a way out of it, into the future. But, once again, we have to wait for the ‘big man’ in charge, to announce what the plans are. It will, however, this time depend on accountable methods, ones which are carefully deduced from economic forecasts and cash flows. The influence of Trump grows in terms of our philosophy and pragmatism seems set to govern our attitude towards the next period of history, which is spread out across such a wide range of corporations as to make it feel as if there is no real plan. Or, was that the plan and we are now living in the world they created for us. Nobody complains and nothing will go wrong. Everybody has the incentive to work so what can be the problem? Everything is painted gold around the leaders so they cannot see that something might be wrong somewhere and, definitely, they will be so full of optimism and that nothing will shake the confidence of everyone around them. Self-reflection may be lacking in some areas, but not the ones which concern them – the important thing is that whatever they are overseeing continues to be successful.

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By Neil Pitts

Being the author of ‘Origins of the New World Order’, I always find myself looking at the way the world works. To a certain extent, I feel responsible for commenting on the way it has emerged from previous periods, but also that I must be careful to acknowledge what can be changed and what cannot. In other words, at one point, none of the countries were even created which exist today. Now, we regard certain political doctrines as being set in stone. Capitalism and Communism, for example, are two ideas which go unquestioned depending on where you are. Christianity and Islam are another two, but at the bottom of it all lies the divide between East and West. This divide has become so fundamental to the way people conceive of the world that they do not even question where it comes from.

So, how was it created? In the beginning, modern humans evolved out of Africa. Egypt united first, then Mesopotamia and thus began the periods of the super-sized empires. First Assyria-Babylonia in Mesopotamia, then Persia took it over from the East. The Greek Empire then conquered Persia from the West, but then itself collapsed, so by the time of Rome, lessons were learned. Neither East nor West conquered the other after that.

By the end of the Ancient world, the Roman Empire came to occupy an area equal to Han China, with the Kushan and Parthian empires in-between, thus the balance of power had begun between East and West, which was to continue all the way through the Middle Ages and Modern periods, into the world we have today. Hence a new world order emerged, in one sense creating solutions to the problems of the world which had existed before, but in another, each period generated a new set of problems. As Europe converted to Christianity, Islam appeared in the East to surround it and prevented any further Western expansion. However, due to the westward facing nature of the Islamic Empire, this left the Far East open to the Mongols who created the next super-sized empire, then Europe took over the Americas, creating Capitalism in the West. The world had moved on again: this time creating a new divide between Capitalism and Communism. Now, we are finally addressing the issue of this divide, but it is still causing problems as it is too fundamental to be discussed in terms of politics.

Because, ever since the time of Ancient Greece, the way arguments have been won in political debates has used the techniques of Dialectics: like in chess, people take turns to attack and defend, until the opponent’s argument is reduced to agreement. But, what if there are fundamentally unresolvable conjunctions of arguments relating to the way the world moves forwards? Then we get the arguments for and against conflict involving other countries. Of course, with modern political processes, countries do not simply go to war with each other now over basic necessities like food and water, they all have the ability to generate wealth in abundance. Now, it is far more complex than that. One group wants mass immigration to boost the economy, another one does not. One wants to make an alliance with a neighbouring country, another wants to be on a different side. As such, unresolvable arguments appear within world politics. The point we are at means that we can all agree on the basic issue of what it means to be human, but different groups have different views of the direction events should be going in. As such, we all try to find a direction in a general sense, nobody able to set the direction of the whole and the U.N. can only act as a mediator.

As the saying goes, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Yet, they now are meeting in ways which would have seemed impossible fifty years ago. Resolving the divide eventually became a necessary part of the nuclear arms talks which emerged out of the Cold War period but, while politicians have been  concerned with creating progress in one direction, this has pushed the problem over to the other side of the world. Like a convection current, as the warm air rises, it draws in cool air to to feed the process. With the Superpowers (as they were after WWII), creating progress in the Northern Hemisphere, this has drawn in the South, in a way which does not appear to be entirely of their choosing. Now the whole world has been drawn into the situation – in the form of the problems in the Middle East, both the problem and the solution manifesting as the Islamic Revolution.

Yet, how has this global picture been so overlooked on a national level? It seems people have not been so informed about the way events are occurring and this has affected the quality of life most people have experienced. While governments have seen the need to perpetuate the way things are going (lest the peace process breaks down into World War III), social systems have become the target for personal ambition, more than being the happy, healthy communities they should be. Positions of power have been used as stepping-stones to the top and jobs have not been done properly. Facts have been hidden, money has been lost, which represents millions of hours of workers’ time. Governments have not been accountable and, living in luxury while people starve, they have broken the rules of national law on the grounds that they are somehow saving the world from the fate which would otherwise befall it.

In other words, the problem of the world order is one which has been addressed on an international level and a whole new level of government has appeared as a result of it. This is the ‘New World Order’ which the modern conspiracy theorists are talking about and, we can see that people on a national level are desperately trying to work out what is really happening. Here we have the new divide, between the rich and poor. So, obviously, what needs addressing nowis governments need to get more education to people about the way events are actually occurring in terms of the bigger picture. But, they do not seem able to see the (Bretton) wood for the trees. The problem, they say, is terrorism represents the problem with the way those nations function. Not how the world works. Therefore, they are creating more of the conspiracy theorists dream as they believe the solution is to create a greater sense of urgency and organisation in terms of solving the problems we already have. Never mind the problems we are creating while we are doing it. Thus, the situation continues to be a mystery for most people and the world continues like ever other period of history ever has done.

What we need to look at is re-organising the way we are doing things, replacing dysfunctional methods with new functional ones, elevating the opposite, refining the distortions. This is how a great team plays (there is no coincidence between the time this article was written and the 2018 FIFA World Cup, by the way!) But, look at how a bad team plays, they are lazy and disorganised, they wait for a problem to occur and blame each other, rather than get on with solving it. They do not work together, they compete with each other in petty, selfish ways. The idea that things have to be this way is now becoming set in stone as the situation rolls on past the point where governments can account for the losses people are suffering, which have become a fundamental part of the way progress is created.

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Eastern Roots, Western Fruits: Transplanting an Asian Treasure in America

By Robert McTeigue

American author Mark Twain noted that, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”  With that high standard in mind, I ask:  How would you distinguish between these two terms—“cultural appropriation” and “trans-cultural diffusion”?

In brief, the connotations of “cultural appropriation” might be better expressed by “cultural mis-appropriation.”  That is, a significant and treasured feature of a given culture is yanked from its original context and placed into an alien context in which its history and meaning are distorted.  Honorable people may disagree about what constitutes “cultural appropriation” even while they agree that cultural mis-appropriation is lamentable.

“Trans-cultural diffusion” on the other hand, is the spreading out of cultural features beyond the place of origin, and finding new life  in other contexts.  Forms of art, law, music and religion, for example have both given and received new life by various cultural transplantations.

One function of “Eurasian Perspectives” is to identify, reflect upon and discuss the cultural interactions between (generically speaking) East and West.  Of particular interest to me in this context is the exchange of board games between cultures and across centuries.  In this article, I will look at the game of Go (derived from the Japanese, and the most common name of the game in the West), known as Wei-Qi in Chinese and Baduk in Korean.  Originating in China, Go migrated to Japan, which became the dominant force in the game for centuries.  In the latter part of the 20th century, Korea began to play a significant role in the Go world, producing some of the mostsuccesful players.  In recent years, China has been seeking ascendancy in the Go world.  Taken together, China, Japan and Korea are known as “the Three Kingdoms of Go.”  What about the status of Go in the West, in particular, the United States?

Although I’ve been an avid player of board games all my life, I was only vaguely aware of Go until I stumbled upon the Manga/Anime series, “Hikaru no Go”, a classic coming-of-age/hero’s journey narrative about a feckless boy who discovers a passion and talent for Go, which changes his life.  The popularity of the Hikaru series revitalized the popularity of Go in Japan and brought Go to the attention of many Westerners, myself included.  The Hikaru series has become an instrument of the American Go Foundation to promote Go in American schools and libraries.   The long-term effects of these efforts remain to be seen.

The clearest evidence ofGo taking hold in American soil is the successful efforts of the American Go Association to develop a professional ranking system of Go players, similar to the ranks of professionals in China, Japan and Korea.  (There have already been American-born Go players who have become ranked professionals in Asian nations.  Michael Redmond ranked in the Japanese system, and Janice Kim ranked in the Korean system, are perhaps the most well known.) The culmination of those efforts was realized in the production of the first two “homegrown” professionals certified by the American Go Association in 2012, Andy Liu and Gansheng Shi.  As of this date, the AGA has certified five professional players.

The history of the slow and uncertain growth of Go in the United States since the founding of the AGA in the 1930s, and the more recent drama leading up to the first American-grown professional players, have been detailed in a recent and well-acclaimed documentary “The Surrounding Game.”The movie oscillates between past and present, East and West, as it follows the fortunes of a group of young American friends striving to become the first AGA-certified Go professionals.  The movie itself merits multiple viewings, and may aptly be described as beautiful, inspiring, poignant and even humorous.  My purpose here is to consider the documentary in light of our present discussion regarding trans-cultural diffusion.  What will become of Go, a game laden with Asian history, images and terminology, once it sinks deep roots into American soil?  How will it look, feel, sound, be spoken of, should it over time become fully translated into an American idiom?  The former U.S. Chess League morphed into the PRO Chess League a few years ago, joined by teams from around the world.  One can see that by design, this new worldwide chess league looks and sounds like an American sports phenomenon.  Could something like that happen to the game of Go in America?  And would that be to the game’s benefit, or to its detriment?

Americans, it is said, tend not to have the grasp of history and tradition that Europeans and Asians reputedly have. I remember pointing out Georgetown University to a friend visiting from Belgium, proudly noting that it is the oldest Catholic university in America—dating all the way back to 1789!  She paused, smiled, and finally said, “Well, that is somewhat old…”  Will Americans, can Americans approach the game of Go with the sense of appreciation, awe and even reverence that is so well documented in Asian cultures?  “The Surrounding Game” shows Americans speaking of Go with wonder, while playing and studying the game with great passion and determination.  But will there be a distinctively American style of Go?

When discussing board games and the differences between Eastern and Western cultures, a comparison of chess and Go is often made.  (See for example, “A Comparison of Chess and Go” by the British Go Association.)  William Pinckard’s classic, “Go and the Three Games” offers an account of why Go flourished in Asian cultures, chess in Western cultures, and backgammon in Near and Middle Eastern cultures.  A much longer and more scholarly account can be found in Peter Shotwell’s “Why the West Plays Chess and the East Plays Go.”  For our purposes, we can take a simpler approach.  In considering “Eastern Roots/Western Fruits” in relation to trans-cultural diffusion and the game of Go, I think it may be easier to consider the role of computers and the internet on the game of Go, rather than speculate on the long-term question of whether there will be a distinctively American contribution to the game.

Computer programmers have been studying chess and artificial intelligence for decades.  The computer program “Deep Blue” defeating chess world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 was a major milestone in chess history.  Nowadays, it is impossible to become a serious player, much less a successful professional chess player, without computer tools and assistance.

It was taken for granted that computers could not play Go at a serious level because the board was so much bigger (19×19) than the board of chess (8×8).  A different approach was taken, and in 2016, “AlphaGo” defeated world champion Lee Sedol.  The full import of passing that milestone has not yet been discerned.

In both the world of Go and the world of chess, the globe-spanning connectedness of the internet may be of greater significance for trans-cultural diffusion than, say, the development of a professional ranking system of Go in the United States.  While the internet has had a depressing effect on local chess clubs, it has had an explosive effect for those who want to play chess or Go 24/7.  One doesn’t have to wait for a local club meeting to play a game, or recalling that bygone era when people without access to local clubs played games by mail; now one can play games, observe tournaments, receive instruction, and immerse oneself in the culture of the game of choice at any time, from almost anywhere in the world.  The more urgent question, then, concerns the effects of a worldwide trans-cultural diffusion of Go via the internet, rather than, say, the development of a professional system in one Western nation.

For example, American chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, one of the strongest players in the world, is known to have developed an “unconventional” approach to the game because he grew up playing countless games online, rather than following the more traditional path of studying the history and literature of chess play.  Likewise, first U.S.-certified professional Go player Andy Liu, as described in “The Surrounding Game”, also developed an unconventional approach to Go after playing countless games online.  These two illustrations raise a challenging point:  What happens to a game like Go, steeped in history and tradition, when the trans-cultural diffusion transplants it into a rootless and unstable culture that exists only in cyberspace?  At what point will the computer be no longer a tool of the game, but a “game-changer”?


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