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Sep 09

(Letter) East is East and West is West… will they ever meet? (a famous poem)

Written by Joel on Tuesday, September 9th, 2008 at 1:47 am
Filed under:-mini-posts, culture | Tags:, , , , , , , ,
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Here’s a bit from a famous poem by a famous colonial-era British author. I’ll put the original and then an updated version, since his English is old and a little hard to understand. It’s from “The Ballad of East and West,” by Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936).

(Original)
“OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”

(Edited)
East is East, and West is West, and the two will never meet,
Until Earth and Sky stand together at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, nor country, nor class, nor race,
When two strong men stand face to face, even though they each come from a different place!

What do you think about what this poem might be saying?


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33 Responses to “(Letter) East is East and West is West… will they ever meet? (a famous poem)”

  1. Will Lewis Says:

    Cultural differences are fine excuses for the weak, but great humans battle (in the most allegorical sense) as equals and without excuse.

    The poem is a celebration of individualism, but it is also applicable to groups that Imperial Britain engaged with. The British fought with and against such greats. Of the most notable examples that Kipling would be familiar with: the Sikh soldiers that the British army fielded, and the Afghani fighters who handed the British not much more than defeat.

    Examples involving China would probably be Marco Polo, Genghis and Kublai Khan, and Zheng He. Caveat with Marco Polo, when strong men in trade meet, both sides benefit.

  2. TommyBahamas Says:

    East & West – both human civilisations, both have accomplished greatness and indescripable atrocities.
    China wanted to 同一天下班 for millenia, now the West wants a New World Order.
    It never came to fruition for China, and as Kipling feared — if one of the two or both should attempt
    to usurp what is entirely the god(s) of the interlinked universe, it’ll only hasten the Day of Judgement
    –A Divine intervention, if you will, to stop the madness once and for all.
    Apparently this god that Kipling speaks of will tolerate the endless bloody divide and conquer games mankind plays, or even allow those with great power to play gods in their limited days, but what it takes to bring about the New World Order — the annihilation of 1/3 of every living thing on earth is not something the god(s) will allow.
    Anyway, on the personal scale, east and west have been meeting, marrying, exchanging goods and ideas. It’s the big boys, the strong men who can’t stand each others guts, and it will do us good to not emulate them.

  3. TommyBahamas Says:

    Corrections: China wanted to 同一天下 for millenia, now the West wants a New World Order.
    For 同一天下 it never came to fruition for China, and as Kipling feared — if one of the two or both should attempt to usurp what is entirely the god(s) guardian(s) of the interlinked universe,

    Thanks Will Lewis for your much better interpretation 🙂

  4. Will Lewis Says:

    TommyBahamas,

    It’s the beauty of poetry: the poem means nothing without interpretation by the reader. This is limited, though: one can see meaning in a poem beyond the what was intended by the poet, but the poem itself does not stand for or mean anything beyond what the poet intended. Or so goes the rational limit on post-modern literary interpretation theory.

  5. michelle Says:

    The poem (in full) seems to me to be a positive story about gentlemanly honor with an uncomfortable undercurrent of British imperialist conceit. Very Kipling (who I do, despite ‘cultural differences’, like).

    I think some poetry can be (and should be) interpreted without historical context, as Will Lewis mentions, but I do feel that for the purposes of this discussion, and the fact that Kipling’s poem is a narrative set in a historical context, it is essential.

    IMHO, either the poem is a statement on honor in battle between any two people from any two cultures, or a statement on honor in battle between the British and the Afgans… I don’t really see how we can extrapolate a statement here about what we define today as the “West” and what we define today as the “East”. They are not the same East and West as Kipling was talking about.

  6. michelle Says:

    Just to clarify: As the poem is a narrative set in a particular context, the reader should be familiar with that context in the same way as a reader would probably want to be familiar with Belgians in the Congo before reading Heart of Darkness. Anyway, i’m getting off topic.

    The historical context tells me: Kipling’s baseline (and probably his readers’) is that Afgan chiefs are not honorable / gracious in battle, and this is a story that shows this isn’t necessarily true. A move in the right direction which still smacks of unsavoury notions.

  7. RMBWhat Says:

    British concept of “fair-play”? Yeah right, you mean happy happy on the surface but beneath it’s crazy crazy NWO empire of the city…

    1000pt goes to Tommy, for seeing through the “scientific dictatorship.” *clap clap*

  8. Daniel Says:

    When I saw this I went ahead to read the whole version and some commentary. I think what michelle is saying regarding the context is close to what I read so far.
    In terms of East and West, in Kipling’s time, it was different than what today assumes. I read somewhere that the powers at that time saw China in another more “colorful” perspective, relative to the places outside Europe but different in some sense.

    On a whole, if we really want to interpret this poem to applied in today’s mindset, ok…even though times have change, there are still people who can detached their adversarie’s humanity or potential to be “civilized or well-thoughtful”, a very condescending view perhaps. It is a move in the right direction but there’s something uncomfortable or lack there-of given what others have mentioned; seeing this poem in terms of the poet or reader.

  9. Joel Says:

    Totally agree that if we want to understand the poem’s intended/original/true meaning, it has to be understood and defined within its historical context and in light of authorial intent.

    However, for our purposes here I’ve deliberately ripped it out of context to see how people, especially the Chinese readers, might respond to the surface-level issues it raises. That doesn’t do any justice to the poem or its author, but that’s not my purpose here.

    I’m curious about how people would respond to bastardized meanings provoked by these lines, particularly:

    – Hope or hopelessness in the face of the vast historical/cultural/political/psychological/social divide between “China” and “外国人”? If hope, hope for what?

    – What would it take to produce real cross-cultural understanding, if possible?

    – How (in)significant, ultimately, are these things that divide and define us (culture, country, class, race)?

    – Would we be willing to live in partial opposition to country, culture, or class (and mentally differentiate these things from race) in pursuit of some desired collaborative goal?

  10. michelle Says:

    East is East, and West is West

    Totally removed from context, the main things that come to my mind is that there are always divisions between ‘cultures’, be they east and west, north and south, etc. We may think of the (whatever it means exactly) east / west divide as probably the biggest difference around, or the difference causing the most chaffing at least, and recognise that the divide will never be erased. And nor should it be because it would be erasing what it means to be x or y. However, the gap can be narrowed, and significantly so. (my sure imperfect e.g. – protestants and catholics)

  11. Netizen K Says:

    East is east, West is also east.

    The problem is not that there is east and west. The problem is a Westerner’s mind not being able to accommodate this dissonance. An Easterner can feel perfectly comfortable in both cultures, while a Westerner can’t.

    Maybe this is why Joel, you feel there is problem here. But I don’t. Maybe many Chinese-borns don’t either. It’s non-issue for us. Initially there was a culture shock, then all is fine because we don’t demand black/white, right/wrong or true/false in everything. We have yin/yang in our mindset. We let things settle over time.

    Joel, live culture, don’t analyze it. No fun doing it.

  12. Wukailong Says:

    “The problem is a Westerner’s mind not being able to accommodate this dissonance. An Easterner can feel perfectly comfortable in both cultures, while a Westerner can’t.”

    Er… Heh. I’ll better go back to where I came from, then… Still, I think I have accommodated quite a lot while living in China, and will continue trying. 🙂

  13. Joel Says:

    @Netizen K
    “An Easterner can feel perfectly comfortable in both cultures, while a Westerner can’t.”
    Perhaps that’s because some cultures are more open and accommodating of diversity?
    Perhaps that’s because some cultures draw a thicker line between insider and outsider?

    What’s the difference between you and chorasmian?

    What is it about these kinds of topics that bothers you so much? If I remember, you reacted pretty negatively to my last post, too. What’s the deal?

  14. Netizen K Says:

    Joel,

    I just speak my mind. You put out a post there, I don’t have to say great, excellent. I can be negative. I say what I think. If you can’t handle negativity, I can’t you help there.

  15. Chops Says:

    “What do you think about what this poem might be saying?”

    #1: “Of the most notable examples that Kipling would be familiar with: the Sikh soldiers that the British army fielded, and the Afghani fighters who handed the British not much more than defeat.”

    #5: “I think some poetry can be (and should be) interpreted without historical context, as Will Lewis mentions, but I do feel that for the purposes of this discussion, and the fact that Kipling’s poem is a narrative set in a historical context, it is essential.”

    The author Mr Kipling was born in India and wrote the “Jungle Book” for children, also published this poem in 1894, after he had travelled to London from India, passing through Hong Kong and Japan, by land and sea. Now this was the period before the Wright brothers discovered powered flight in 1903.

    Though Kipling was never a soldier, he also wrote the poem – The Young British Soldier
    “… When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
    And the women come out to cut up what remains,
    Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains …”

    That bit “East is East, and West is West, and the two will never meet” is just the first and last paragraph of a very long poem, about soldiers serving in the Anglo-Indian regiment.

    Kipling’s definition of the East was probably more about India, since he knew very little about China.

  16. TommyBahamas Says:

    #15 The author Mr Kipling was born in India and wrote the “Jungle Book” for children,
    # 11 Netizen K Says: East is east, West is also east. The problem is not that there is east and west. The problem is a Westerner’s mind not being able to accommodate this dissonance.

    C.S. Lewis, an Oxford professor of medieval history was also a famous author of books for children. He loved Beatrix Potter of Peter Rabbit fame, and all her animal books, and decades later J.K. Rowling who is much influenced by C.S. Lewis works rocked the world with her Harry Potter series.

    Anyway, in response to Netizen K #11, I think perhaps you are partly right. It seems that it is very natural in their culture to be critical, even pompous at times, and on top of that, aren’t as afraid as Asians are about being vocal (in public) sometimes about many things, even things rather trivial. I mean, take one of my favourite authors as an example:
    “C.S. Lewis experienced a certain cultural shock upon first arriving in England from his homecountry Ireland. “No Englishman will be able to understand my first impressions of England,” Lewis wrote in one of his books. “The strange English accents with which I was surrounded seemed like the voices of demons. But what was worst was the English landscape … I have made up the quarrel since; but at that moment I conceived a hatred for England which took many years to heal.” After reading this, the saying “文人大话多” came to my mind. Perhaps Chinese scholars are equally as blunt and critical like that too?

  17. Daniel Says:

    文人大话多?

    If I’m reading this correctly, this sort of reminds me of some of the discussions many liberal arts colleges have whenever the students have to read a well-known—influential/thought provoking piece of literature than we debate ferociously regarding the work, the author(s), the times, applications in modern society, etc.

    Oh, are you talking about the Chinese scholars of today or the past?
    There were or are many Chinese “public figures” who are blunt and critical in their own ways. I wouldn’t be surprise if in a private setting or very personal note they would record such writings comparable to C.S. Lewis. Actually, some of the Chinese figures of the past who venture off to other civilizations would record in somewhat similar manner, however, it’s just my opinion but C.S. Lewis means no ill will (or maybe? hmm…) to others, perhaps.

    In some situations and other readers, that saying of his cultural shock might sound a bit rude and misunderstood for something else. Like everyone has done whenver we critique a verse or sentence.

  18. Joel Says:

    @Netizen
    OK. understood. 😉 I just asked because I couldn’t see what you were so negative about.

  19. Wukailong Says:

    “The problem is a Westerner’s mind not being able to accommodate this dissonance. An Easterner can feel perfectly comfortable in both cultures, while a Westerner can’t.”

    That’s not true at all, as some general principle. I’ve heard a lot of complaints from Chinese about the way Americans treat guests, from the Chinese experience, and it is every way as one-sided as anything a “Westerner” might come up with. It’s just that these feelings aren’t widely known.

    The thing about the Chinese 包容性 comes up, but those are just pretty words.

  20. TommyBahamas Says:

    Daniel,

    Thank you for your response. I wasn’t thinking old/new “坏书生” (screwed-up intellectuals?) who could be insufferably blunt and critical, but the general tendency of 文人 given to verbose or artistic license to pomposity. Kinda like, “Flaunt it if you got it,” if you know what I mean?
    My father came from the lower class, my grandfather was a country clergy. They had to get up at 3:30am every morning to cut rubber trees and collect the milky latex sap before sun rise. Then walked an hour to school. My father was always very nice to poor folks and spoke plainly to the uneducated. He was an educated man, but he was no 文人., so his words were few and his friends many and from different nations, tribes, and social ranks. Among his friends were dockyard workers, fishermen, farmers, civil servants, politicains, governors and Chief Ministers.
    Like most, writing or commenting helps me think. Songs & poems are great for discussions and introspections, so, thanks Joel for posting one of Kipling’s best known. I think his contempory Mark Twain is the greater genius though.Where am I going with this? I dunno. This is a great forum. There are so many good minds here, Netizen K, Daniel, Jerry, RMB What, Michelle, Oli, The Trapped, Skylight, FOARP, Wukailong, SKC, Wumin, et al…Indeed,”moving Mountains is beyond human power, but the fools have other others”…brilliant!

  21. Damai Says:

    “The problem is not that there is east and west. The problem is a Westerner’s mind not being able to accommodate this dissonance. An Easterner can feel perfectly comfortable in both cultures, while a Westerner can’t.”

    Oh, so the world *is* black and white after all! /snark off

    Seriously, there are so many more useful angles we can take in looking at this issue other than reverting back to the tired “we good, you bad” statements.

    Looking at this, I think over the years many ‘westerners’ (god I hate that term) have been used to cultures changing for them, rather than necessarily integrating further into local culture. This can lead to laziness, lack of appreciation/understanding for local culture, etc. Not to say that there haven’t been many exceptions to this (hoping to include myself more into this category), but if we look at the *average* expat, there are still quite a few degrees of separation between themselves and local life. This is one of the reasons I’m planning on moving back to the older part of the 东城 district in Beijing, feels more authentic to me. At the same time, to be fair, it’s significantly easier to integrate into western countries *regardless of where you come from* than in China, etc. I can’t speak for all western countries, but a Chinese person can essentially disappear and become American, or Canadian if they so desire. Americans hardly even use the word foreigner when referring to people. Why? Cause when you’re walking down the street you can’t distinguish between foreigners and Americans at first sight, or even necessarily when first speaking to someone.

    So please, if this is to be a meeting of minds, a meeting of East and West, let’s try to make it productive rather than simplifying things down to counter-productive black and white altruisms. We’ve got an important opportunity here so let’s make the best of it.

    /motivationalspeechmode off

  22. RMBWhat Says:

    Yeah it’s very easy to fit in in the west, if you ain’t too anti-social…

    But then I realize *blah blah blah NWO blah blah Matrix blah blah scientific dictatorship*

  23. RMBWhat Says:

    @20,

    I dunno man, I for one am a dumb-azz-ignorant-anti-social-emo-loving-I-hate-everything-kind-guy…But I agree there are very many *smart people here.

    *Ability to write, write, write, write, and write…

  24. Michelle Says:

    “The problem is a Westerner’s mind not being able to accommodate this dissonance. An Easterner can feel perfectly comfortable in both cultures, while a Westerner can’t.”

    When I was in Croatia, I was asked why my Croatian isn’t as good as their English. When I was in Spain, I was asked why my Spanish isn’t as good as their English. When I was in Greece, etc etc. Everywhere I go it seems people can speak my native language better than I can theirs (on average). Is this because my English speaker’s mind is not able to accommodate other languages?

    In many regards, business and academia, the two arenas where we (easterners and westerners) are most likely to come in contact, are ruled by cultures that branched from and are modified from ‘western’ culture. Yes, maybe easterners have an easier time adjusting to western culture than vice versa (though i’ve seen plenty of evidence against this), but this does not mean that we can point a finger to the westerner as responsible for the east west divide.

    It’s like saying that because Americans are generally monoglots (true), this is some kind of proof that they are fundamentally unable to learn new languages (untrue).

  25. Michelle Says:

    Damai said it better than me….

  26. Daniel Says:

    In general, what Damai said is true ,yet even that description of American’s relationship with what is foreign or not mentality is also not that simple either. One of the quite overlook aspects of what makes some societies, the US in particular, “open” is due to a generalized…but borderline reality of the huge space bubble the locals have with each other, even within their own families. One can interpret this as a pro or con and in between ambiguous if need be.
    However, I think everyone is aware of this, and each to his or her own’s opinions regarding that topic.

    Back on moving mountains, anything is possible regarding producing real cross-cultural understanding.
    Although, frankly I think it will require a lot of patience and effort upon the individuals or groups themselves to maintain their interests and hard work towards understanding each other. Some people like to develop a type of system, charter, 10-step approach type of deal…maybe that can help in the beggining but it won’t go far I gurantee. At least not in such a simplistic fashion.

    I think the first question anyone to ask about cross-cultural understanding is why. Why would someone want to do this…for personal interests, economic reasons, relationships, because they have to or they want to, etc. Starting from the why then you can go on to the how.

    For example, very good business oriented people do tend to think alike, with their own unique talents and characteristics. Even if they come from different places, like the opposite ends of the earth, most likely two businessmen can understand each other better than if they were to meet someone of their own group with little interests or background in business. Another example is hobbies. Back in my midwestern hometown, I noticed a lot of friendly interaction between people of different cultures, some that have travel from other places, with their unqiue hobbies like keeping unique pets, playing music or home and graden decoration/remodeling (which apparently a lot of Chinese like to do as well as others).

    Some things are a given, expected. For example, for better understanding, you will have to learn something about the language and history and common traditions…there’s no way around that. One doesn’t have to master it necessary or know it all, but at least get a step at the door. Then we’ll see how far one wants to go.
    FYI, mastering the language or having a lot of travel points doesn’t necessary make one an expert as I have run into a lot of these “fools”, some with good, simple intentions quite knowledgeble, others not so. Although it might help but there’s a lot of issues with them as most people discover in time.

    One interesting note I read about was that food was a common bridge many people use to expand their knowledge of other cultures. We all have to eat, and sometimes certain dishes will appeal to certain people. In some circumstances, this attraction towards those particular dishes will cause more interests in the person to want more and know more. Sometimes in a subliminal manner. This is one of those up for debate type of theories, but in the case of the Chinese who have one of the most richest and diverse culinary traditions on the planet, I think this could help.

  27. TommyBahamas Says:

    Damai,

    Well said.
    This 60s hippie song (I think) comes to mind: ” If you see your brother standing by the road, lend a helping hand instead of doubt. ….Shine your light for everyone to see…and overlook the blindness, on the narrowminded people on these narrow minded streets.” Something like that. 🙂
    motivationalspeechmode off … LOL. 🙂

    RMBWhat #23 Dude, you are anything but dumb..
    As for “anti-social-emo-loving-I-hate-everything-kind-guy” well, that’s within your power to channel that energy to care or to hate. You obviously care — at least enough to be here because you want to warn the world, like a prophet on an urgent mission, of sinister conspiracies at play by the shadow government — and you are definitely not alone in this mission, and indeed some people need to wake the fxxk up! Just keep sowing the seed, man.

    Michelle, I share yours and feel Netizen K’s frustration too. Being Chinese myself, I get discriminated from many cultures too. Some of my fellow Chinese accuse me of “being too westernized” or not Chinese enough, and sometimes getting condescending remarks /attitudes from other Asians, non-Asians, and jerks from both sides of the Pacific. What are you gonna do but sigh “C’est Le Vive or fly off the handle occassionally. What was the song & saying? “Sometimes you gotta fight, to be a man,” and ” By trying to please everyone, one would invarible succeeds only in pleasing no one, or sth like that, no?

  28. TommyBahamas Says:

    Daniel…I knew all that. But why didn’t I think of commenting like you usually do? Analytical, clear and easy to understand. Thanks again.

  29. Daniel Says:

    Tommy…oh I hope it’s clear and easy to understand. I know my grammar strcture and sentence placement is quite elementary but I’m typing as I am with my head. I would get in so much trouble in school.

    Your Welcome either way.

    P.S.
    I look down on Chinese from Asia who are very westernized.——–k/j

  30. TommyBahamas Says:

    Daniel:

    P.S.
    I look down on Chinese from Asia who are very westernized.——–k/j

    LOL… I know you’re kidding, but the truth is, I would not be very westernized to you at all – that’s just what some of my fellow chinese folks don’t get. Compared to ABC, CBC, and BBCs, I am a normal Chinese. To
    some of my Euro-Yanky friends, I am at times very chinese. Yeah…whatever…LOL. 🙂

  31. shellyuan Says:

    I always feel there is a gap between me and foreigners.Even if i have tried my best to understand them,to watch lots of foreign movies,TV operas,I clould still feel the culture difference.Maybe east is east ,west is west,we are different.if you want to learn more about Chinese culture , go to http://www.learnchinese.bj.cn/

  32. Wukailong Says:

    shellyuan: You have done your homework well!

  33. Toko Otomotif Says:

    di Tokootomotif Jual Mata Gerinda dan Jual Mata Bor Set Berbagai Ukuran paling lengkap dan kualitas terbaik dgn Harga Murah

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