About Pet Sins Webzine
Skip navigation and go to main content
Pet Sins May 2005

West Asian perceptions of East Asians

I had some conversations with an Arab friend about race, colonialism and the curent power imbalance in the world. At length, I found that he believed that the European and Arab civilizations are equally-matched "rivals" and "competitors" in terms of political influence and technology. Things may not be equal between the Arab world and the Western world today, but in the past, Arabs were more advanced than Europe, in both sciences, mathematics, the arts, and statecraft. In contrast, he believed that the East Asians were always less powerful and less developed than Europe (and by deduction, less developed than the Arab world since my associate believes that Europe and the Arab World are equally matched.)

His opinion reflects a lack of familiarity with East Asian history, and in fact, with the history of East Asian-West Asian relations. The Chinese Tang empire and the Arab Abbassid empire were both cultural and economic superpowers who controlled vast territories. Both were ahead of Western Europe in terms of living standards at that time, and in fact, the Abbassids and the Tang were rivals who battled for control of the Silk Road through diplomacy and war. Later Chinese dynasties continued to maintain a technological lead over Europe.

I think a problem with most non-Europeans today, is they learn about Europe, and about their own country, but they have little opportunity to be exposed to other countries outside the Western world, either through the educational system or the media. As a result, it is only too easy to buy into the Eurocentric media messages, and believe that the distribution of wealth, education and opportunity in the world today is how it has always been. We project what we see today onto the past, limiting our own ability to imagine the possibility that other non-Europeans are not only equal in potential for future development but are also inheritors of a proud past.

I suspect that Arabs didn't always hold the opinions about East Asians being 'backward' or 'inferior'. Ibn Battuta, the 14th century Arab world traveller, praised the wealth, stability and low crime rate of China. I am of the opinion that this change of perception is due to European colonialism, which has done so much to damage relations between people of color.