East and West

by Terence MacNamee

Where does the West end and the East begin? Or where does the East end and the West begin? What constitutes East and West depends, of course, on where you stand. The East is whatever is East of you, and the West is whatever is West of you. Yet we know that there is more to East and West than that. When someone in China talks about the West, they probably are thinking mainly of America, which of course is East of them, not West. So there is a further meaning to the terms East and West – a political, an ideological one.

This political or ideological meaning keeps changing, if one looks at it from a European point of view. Most of us can still remember the definite meaning East and West had in the Cold War: the West was the United States and its allies, what Americans called “the free world”, and the East was the Soviet Union and China and their allies, what Americans called “the Evil Empire” and such things. Since the Cold War ended, we no longer hear of the East, and, although the West is constantly talked of, no-one seems very sure of what the term includes. The Western world can now mean anything you like; it usually means what was the West in the Cold War, and so oddly enough it seems to include Japan.

Looking back further in European history, we see a constant ideological opposition of East and West, although the meanings of the terms keep changing. There is always a threat looming in the East. The story starts with the ancient Greeks, for whom the threat from the East was the Persian Empire. Here we already see recurring elements of the East-West myth: the plucky, democratic Greeks stand up to the vast Oriental despotism of Persia. At a later stage, the Greeks cast the Turks in the role of the Persians; and indeed for the whole of Europe, the threat for more than a millennium was the Moslem East, or the Orient. Indeed, the term Orient usually referred to the Moslem world, what we now call the Middle East. In the 19th century, when the British talked about Orientals, it included Greeks, since they too belonged to the Eastern Mediterranean. When I was a student, “Oriental languages” was a department that studied Hebrew and Arabic. “Oriental” was a catchword for all things in the Bible that were culturally different.

Gradually in the twentieth century, the Orient became the Far East, and “Orientals” came to mean Chinese and Japanese. These were regarded as a threat to Western interests: once the Japanese saw the error of their ways and accepted American occupation, China became the candidate to fill the role of “Oriental despotism”. We are likely to get more of this rhetoric as China asserts its new power in the world.

Meanwhile, there is – at least in Europe – an uneasy awareness of etymology that was never there before. We remember that “Orient” originally means the place where the sun rises, and “Occident” (West) means the place where it goes down. The Germans, who avoid learned Latin words, call the two Morgenland (morning land) and Abendland (evening land). These days we Europeans are having eerie feelings of sunset about the West.