The Idea of Literacy in the Asian Century

This invited contribution by Lewis Mayo of the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne, expands The China Story Journal discussion of the Australian government’s Australia in the Asian Century, released on 28 October 2012. See also:

For media responses to and discussions of the White Paper, see The Australia-China Story section of this site.—The Editors


On 19 May 2012, the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere formally opened its embassy in Federation Square in Melbourne. The Sphere’s ambassadors, together with their spiritual guide and mentor Professor Mook Gwa 木瓜教授, led a ritual procession around the square, followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony to inaugurate a week-long public outreach programme including etiquette lessons, classes in flower arranging, tai-chi demonstrations, Nintendo Wii competitions, maths tuition and a Spiritual Workout in which Professor Mook Gwa guided the ambassadors through a variety of hybrid Eastern techniques. The embassy space itself housed the thrones of the ambassadors (formally attired for embassy events in gold suits and Thai chada theatrical crowns) along with a large maneki neko beckoning cat statue, an Indian wedding stage, neon signage and videos of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd speaking in Mandarin.[1]

One of the ambassadors, Abdul Abdullah, states that the Sphere follows in the wake of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere established by Japan in the 1930s, but has been designed to be ‘more inclusive and more convivial’ (the Sphere incorporates not only East Asia but also Australia, the Pacific, South Asia and the Middle East).[2] The Australian Government’s White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century, released slightly more than five months after the inauguration of the Sphere’s Melbourne embassy, also proffers visions of a greater Asia bound together by common prosperity and cultural exchange, an Asia that will be created by a rising middle class whose desires Australia is enjoined to understand in order to satiate them.[3] The innocuous generic ‘Asian’ culture invoked by the Sphere may appear to be primarily intended to satirize the superficial images of Asian societies and cultures that are supplied to students, teachers and business people by embassies, advisors on etiquette and cultural mores, educational service providers and video game manufacturers. But their work also draws attention to how diplomats and other functionaries in the governmental and commercial bureaucracies that promote Asian (and Asian-Pacific) regional co-operation have shaped prevailing representations of Asian culture.

The public outreach programme of the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’s Melbourne embassy brilliantly mocks the depoliticised representations of culture presented by governments and corporations on national days and at opening ceremonies and trade fairs. Far less obvious is the way in which the concerns of economists, public servants and media professionals have come to define the parameters within which Asian societies and cultures are to be represented and understood in Australia and elsewhere. The proclivities and insecurities of political and economic administrative elites can be discerned in the formulation of concepts such as ‘Asia Literacy’.

The idea of literacy carries considerable prestige. Almost all contemporary states want to present themselves as presiding over increases in literacy, and as patrons and protectors of communities of well-read people.[4] The concept of Asia Literacy reflects this desire; the mission of the Australian state in the Asian century, the government’s White Paper suggests, is to create an Australian population which reads regularly and in a relatively sophisticated way about Asia, with Asian language training a critical component of this undertaking.[5] Yet, it is not clear if any of the senior figures associated with the compilation of the White Paper can read an Asian language with any degree of meaningful fluency. This suggests that literacy in Asian languages is not an urgent requirement for Australia’s civil service, business or academic elites.[6] The number of non-Asian Australians prominent in public life who are actively involved with any Asian-language reading culture (even in English translation) appears to be very small. For the most part, the leading figures in the contemporary Australian cultural and intellectual scene owe their authority to their knowledge of either the culture of Australia itself or to those of Europe and North America. (The visual arts and screen culture are perhaps the main exception to this pattern.) Despite more than two decades of Asian Literacy rhetoric and tightening economic and diplomatic links with the region, there is little sign that Australia’s educated population engages in much complex reading about Asian societies and cultures. In fact, the dominant Asia-related non-fiction titles regularly read in Australia are probably cookbooks.

Only a very small fraction of what is written and read in Asian languages is ever translated into English (in contrast to the vast amount of English-language writing of all genres that is translated into various Asian languages). Even this is much less widely consumed by the reading public in Australia than books on Asian societies by English-speaking, non-Asian journalists or travel writers. (The key exception to this is memoir books written in English by writers of Asian background, such as Jung Chang’s best-selling Wild Swans.) Many of the widely available books on Asian societies to be found in Australian bookshops are written by people who do not possess demonstrable reading proficiency in any Asian language and do not appear to have had any formal academic training in Asian Studies. (Jonathan Fenby’s The Penguin History of Modern China and Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World, also published by Penguin, are key contemporary examples of trade non-fiction works that fall into this category.) Given that the overwhelming majority of non-fiction books dealing with the history and culture of societies other than Australia are imported into this country from Britain or the United States, it can be fairly stated that, with the exception of journalistic writing and locally produced fiction, the reading landscape of educated Australians is one created by publishing houses in the Anglophone North Atlantic. The many high-quality works produced by academics in Australian universities who are well acquainted with Asian-language reading cultures appear to have had minimal direct impact on the broader Australian reading public.

It would be tempting to attribute this lack of engagement with what people in Asian countries are reading and writing about to the residual effects of Australia’s older orientation towards the Euro-American world, something which the Australian government’s Asian Literacy strategy is designed to correct. Equally, it might be argued that the priorities of the Anglophone publishing industry – currently dominated by conglomerates based in the North Atlantic and reflecting the interests of editors working there[7] – will shift when the world centre of economic gravity moves to Asia in the course of the next few decades. According to this model, Australian reading habits will follow Australian eating habits; they will slowly re-orient themselves to incorporate more and more elements from the countries to Australia’s north and west. Yet as the recent award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to the Chinese novelist Mo Yan makes clear, the world’s high culture prestige structures are still adjudicated primarily by people from Europe, Britain and North America. Equally, exceptionally rich people from non-European, non-American countries have shown themselves to be extraordinarily willing to spend their money on Euro-American art works.[8] Europe’s financial woes have seen no appreciable diminution in the value of European luxury goods, especially amongst Indian and Chinese consumers.[9] Rather than decreasing the appetite for the products of Euro-American elite culture, economic expansion in Asia seems so far to have increased it.

Under such circumstances, the continued indifference of the non-Asian Australian reading public to what is being written in Asian languages is hardly surprising. Many commentators put this indifference down to the reluctance of Australians to undertake serious study of languages other than English[10] or to the ongoing legacies of the White Australia Policy. What they fail to consider are the profits to be made by Australian elites from continuing to invest in Euro-American high culture markets. Ignoring what is being said by intellectuals in Jakarta is much less costly to Australian cultural elites than ignoring the New York or London literary scenes, not least because connections to the latter promise high culture celebrity status to those able to gain a foothold there. More than this, the current ordering of the Australian book landscape renders most readers oblivious to these forces; Asian reading worlds are simply invisible to most people who frequent Australian bookshops.

The official project of enhanced Asia Literacy for Australia thus contends with a global economy of culture which is oriented towards the North Atlantic. The Asianist project of mid-twentieth century Japanese imperialism which is mockingly invoked by the artists involved in the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere mentioned above was in part motivated by a conservative Orientalist vision in which there would be a more equitable distribution of global cultural prestige between Europe and the rest of the world.[11] The state-sponsored nationalisms of the contemporary People’s Republic of China or of Thailand’s various military governments in the second half of the twentieth century have often invoked similar sentiments in their mobilization of their populations for economic modernization and national strengthening.[12] The visions of national culture constructed by these state planning bureaucracies for domestic consumption have often been transmitted overseas by embassies and other agencies, becoming the foundation of the ‘culture’ in which foreigners are to become literate. These innocuous, officially-sponsored formulations of culture are satirized by the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’s embassy in Melbourne; they are also a version of culture that fits comfortably with the account of the Asian Century produced by the economists, civil servants and business people who authored Australia in the Asian Century.[13] This account envisages a shared regional journey towards common prosperity guided by far-sighted governments and wise investors.[14]

At the heart of the White Paper’s picture of the future – and indeed at the heart of most of the documents of similar character produced by Asia and Pacific region governments over the last few decades – is an account of the world in which all human activity can be related either to some part of a cycle of policy formulation and implementation, or to a transaction between a supplier and a consumer of a good or a service, or else to some exchange between the producer and recipient of a message in a specific mediascape. Japan’s official Asianist vision was formulated in the 1930s and 1940s when government and business planning bureaucracies were obliged to contend both with angry populations of militant peasants and workers and with alienated members of the literate classes associated with the old administrative states that had been challenged by the structures of industrial imperialism, both at home and in Japan’s colonies.[15] The mass literacy campaigns undertaken by Japan, by revolutionary states such as Indonesia, China and Vietnam, and by anti-revolutionary states like Thailand, Singapore and Australia, helped to disseminate the capabilities to read complex texts such as novels and history books to a much wider section of the population than had been the case in pre-Industrial times.[16] While this increased the section of the population which could be controlled through the education system (and who would be susceptible to the cultural prestige economies that create respect for Nobel Prizes and famous oil paintings), it also ultimately paved the way for the lowering of the status of those whose claim to authority was the range, depth and complexity of their reading. By the late 1980s, when the current Asia Literacy rhetoric was beginning to cement itself in the Australian civil service and business elites, the claims to authority and influence of those who were well-versed in complex written works was beginning to give way to those whose claim to power was their purported mastery of the sciences of systems and organizations: economists, public administration experts, media specialists, analysts of international relations, environmental scientists, engineers, architects and urban planners.[17] Scholarly discourse on Asia – previously dominated by those able to read texts in Asian languages – began to be shaped by those strongly connected to the state, to commerce, and to the structures of print and audio-visual capitalism, such as journalists.

The old form of literacy advocated by the humanities – a literacy which in its ideal form was based on the careful and critical scrutiny of complex works (be they elite or popular, spoken or written) – thus seems less likely to receive sponsorship by the architects of the Asian century than a form of literacy organized around the reading and writing practices of the business world, the civil service or of journalism, where the key written genres are the shareholder’s report, the policy brief and the newspaper article. One effect of this is that it becomes harder and harder to conceive of social relationships other than in terms of public policy, economic activity and the transmission of information.

The old Asianist rhetoric of the World War II era sought to draw people away from revolutionary political confrontation, and to mobilize them with visions of Asian societies as organic communities organized around the idea of shared material and spiritual development. By contrast, the Asianist rhetoric of the early twenty-first century invokes the prestige of literacy (perhaps to placate those unhappy with the dominant political and economic order) while promoting a vision of society as the object of public policy, of culture as the object of the media, and of the economy as the entity which links the two. In the age of the great Asian revolutions between the late-nineteenth and late-twentieth centuries, it was often the complexity of elite-sponsored reading cultures that was the object of radical political attack. In the twenty-first century it might well be that elite power is contested precisely because it has diminished the space for complex reading projects while continuing to invoke the prestige they generate.


[1] The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere embassy was a project of the Perth-based artists Abdul Abdullah, Casey Liang-De Ayres and Nathan Beard, developed for the 2012 Next Wave Festival in Melbourne. Details of the project, including a description of the Sphere’s official cultural program and a map of the embassy space, can be found on the Sphere’s official website. In a personal communication, Patrick Jory suggested that the ambassadors’ crowns are similar to those worn by kings from southern countries in Thai theatrical performances. This is an additional layer of satire in the Sphere’s depiction of cultural diplomacy. My thanks to Patrick and to Peter Jackson for their advice on Thai headgear.
[2] These statements are made by Abdul Abdullah in a video on the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere installation. An overview of Japan’s Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere can be found in Peter Duus, ‘The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere – Dream and Reality’, Journal of Northeast Asian History, vol.5, no.1 (June 2008): 143-154. Eri Hotta’s Pan-Asianism and Japan’s War 1931-1945, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, is a well-regarded recent study of the intellectual lineages of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and of Japanese Asianism more broadly.
[3] See Australia in the Asian Century, Canberra: Australia in the Asian Century Taskforce, Australian Government, pp.62-65.
[4] A good example of the global official consensus on this issue is the 2006 UNESCO Education For All Global Monitoring Report Literacy for Life, Paris: UNESCO, 2005.
[5] See Australia in the Asian Century, pp.167-178, for an account of the proposed enhancement of Asian Studies and Asian Language education in Australian schools and tertiary institutions.
[6] Information about the senior figures associated with the production of the White Paper can be found on the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper website.
[7] A good picture of the overall structure of Anglophone trade and academic publishing is given by John B. Thompson. On academic publishing, see his Books in the Digital Age, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007 and on trade publishing, see his Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, 2nd ed., Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. Information about North Atlantic publishing conglomerates is in the second work.
[8] See Sarah Thornton, ‘The Art of Recession Dodging’, The Guardian, 5 February 2012.
[9] This was recently pointed out by the former Australian Ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, who noted the great appetite that Chinese tourists in Europe have for European luxury goods. See Robert Upe, ‘Asian Tourist Numbers Soar’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 2012.
[10] One of the most comprehensive recent accounts of the situation regarding second language acquisition in Australia is Joseph Lo Bianco with Yvette Slaughter, Second Languages and Australian Schooling, Camberwell: ACER Press, 2009. It points to the problems of low levels of participation and retention in courses for the teaching of languages other than English in Australian schools and universities.
[11] Critiques of these inequalities in the evaluation of cultural products arguably underpinned what Eri Hotta has termed the ‘teaist’ school of Japanese writers, exemplified by Okakura Tenshin. See Hotta, Pan-Asianism and Japan’s War, pp.30-37.
[12] Thai official nationalism is analysed in the various essays in the edited volume by Craig J. Reynolds, National Identity and its Defenders: Thailand Today, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2002. Geremie Barmé’s numerous writings on official and unofficial cultural production in contemporary China give a good picture of the culture of nationalism in the present-day People’s Republic.
[13] Almost all of the senior figures associated with the production of the White Paper were economists by training, and most of these were also civil servants.
[14] Noting the continuities between the Japanese Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and late twentieth-century Australian-sponsored ideas of Pacific economic co-operation, the Filipina scholar Valera Quisumbing wrote in 1986 that the Pacific community idea is ‘a baby whose putative parents are Japanese and American and whose midwife is Australian’, quoted in Arif Dirlik, ed., What is in a Rim? Critical Perspectives on the Pacific Region Idea (Second Edition), Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998, pp.7-8.
[15] Louise Young’s Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, is a fine history of the impact of official Asianist ideologies on different sections of Japanese society in Japan itself and in the settler colony of Manchukuo.
[16] The most brilliant commentator on the relationship between politics and education in East and Southeast Asia is the Canadian historian Alexander Woodside. For an early example of his writings on this theme, see his ‘Problems of Education in the Chinese and Vietnamese Revolutions’, Pacific Affairs, vol.49, no.4 (1976-77): 648-666.
[17] We can argue that the current influence of specialists in these system science-related areas in Australia mirrors what is the case across the Asia-Pacific region. Alexander Woodside provides a powerful account of the role of such constituencies in creating the idea of the Asia-Pacific region. See his ‘The Asia Pacific Region as a Mobilization Myth’, in Arif Dirlik, ed., What is in a Rim?, pp.37-52. Woodside discusses the influence of systems theory on the thinking of Chinese government administrators in his Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006, pp.95-102.