Trade is one of the oldest of human institutions, and trading relationships are among the most fundamental of all human relationships. Indeed, we may say that networks of peaceful exchange form the skeleton of all complex human societies. One of the most striking features of trade throughout human history is how it connects people who otherwise would be separated by language, culture and belief, or simply distance. This has a number of consequences that have played a great part in the gradual improvement of the human condition, including cultural and intellectual exchange and hybridization.
Today many people complain the world is moving toward bland uniformity. This is usually blamed on “globalization,” “global capitalism,” or “mass society.” In other words, it is the supposed product of trade between different parts of the world, with technology perhaps playing a part. Some critics identify something called “cultural imperialism,” a process by which one way of life is spread throughout the world, whether by force or seduction. In reality this is usually a coded way of complaining that everywhere is becoming more like the United States, or what the critics imagine the United States is like.
In fact, this picture is almost the exact opposite of the reality, both historically and in the contemporary world. Today many of the most prominent features of popular culture in many parts of the world come not from the United States but elsewhere, in particular Japan. It is the evidence of history, however, that shows how false the picture described actually is and gives us a better idea of what is actually happening.
A visitor to the palace at Tsarskoe Selo in Russia or the Royal Botanical gardens at Kew in England would find himself confronted with buildings in a Chinese style (a pagoda at Kew and an entire village in Tsarskoe Selo). These are instances of Chinoiserie, the deliberate imitation of Chinese models. This was an important part of the cultural history of Europe from the mid-seventeenth century onwards. As trade contacts with Ming and Qing China grew, principally via the Dutch and British East India companies, there was a clear movement of ideas, practices, and styles from China to Europe. This is clearest in the impact of Chinese porcelain on European design and decoration (not to mention ceramics via the many attempts to discover how to make porcelain), but it also affected architecture and furniture. In food there was the introduction of tea (the very word being a derivation of a Chinese original). Something that has not yet had much scholarly attention was the impact of Confucianism on Enlightenment thought, but the evidence suggests that this was considerable.
At the same time, European societies also adopted styles and forms from India and the Ottoman Empire. In Britain this result was the Neo-Mughal style of architecture, as found, for example, at Sezincote House in Gloucestershire or the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Drinking coffee was of course adopted from the Ottomans, and Turkish and Indian textile designs were widely copied and adapted. There was also the transmission of medical techniques, notably that of inoculation, brought back from Turkey by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Another example was the popular phenomenon the “oriental tale,” which combined a fantastical view of the Middle East with much of the actual content and stylistic features of Turkish, Arab, and Indian stories.
Nor was this simply a phenomenon of the eighteenth century. If anything it became even more pronounced after 1800. From the 1830s onwards the so-called Neo-Moorish style of architecture, which drew on classical Arab and Turkish forms, was popular throughout Europe and North America. Jews played a major part in encouraging it, and it became the predominant style for synagogues. After Japan came into closer contact with the rest of the world following the Meiji Revolution of 1868, Japanese techniques and styles became tremendously influential and had a huge influence on movements such as Art Nouveau, Surrealism, and Art Deco. Many of the most important artists of the “belle epoque,” such as Van Gogh, were strongly influenced, to the extent of producing works in the highly technical Japanese style. At the same time there was another wave of fascination with Chinese motifs and ideas. In fact, what is striking is rather the contrast between the period after about 1910 and what had gone before during the previous 300 years. Beginning that year, until roughly 1980 the flow of ideas, motifs, forms, styles, and practices from other parts of the world into Europe and North America suddenly slowed down dramatically.
The kinds of cultural exchange described were brought about by, and were in some sense a part of, the steady increase in interconnection between people from various parts of the world from the fifteenth century onward. It was trade and migration that led to the spread of ideas, forms, and practices. Conversely, the move toward protectionism and economic nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century not only led to war and economic dis-integration, it also hampered cultural borrowings and led to an emphasis on “pure,” particular, and local forms and techniques. The exchanges of course were not one-way. The adoption of Western ways and institutions by Japan, Russia, the Middle East, China, and India are well known. What is overlooked is the flow of influence in the opposite direction and also between other parts of the world outside Europe (for example between India and China).
Muddied by Imperialism
The picture is of course muddied by contemporaneous imperialism. This is commonly seen as driven by economic concerns and as intimately related to the exchange relations. However, the two phenomena—imperialism and what is now called “globalization” (increased economic integration)—are independent. Imperialism is best understood as a political phenomenon, being the effort of the ruling classes of various parts of the world to capture the wealth and social transformations created by trade. The trade and the accompanying cultural transfers would have taken place in the absence of imperialism, and often did.
Linking economic integration to imperialism makes us focus on the movement of institutions and forms out of Europe and North America to the rest of the world and to downplay the impact of the rest of the world on them. Moreover, on examination the various cultural phenomena described were clearly not marked by a sense of superiority on the part of Westerners. In the eighteenth century in particular, the Ottoman Empire and India were seen as being generally on a par with Europe, and China as being more civilized and ‘“advanced.” “Oriental” tales and literary forms were commonly borrowed in order to criticize Western societies by contrasting them unfavorably with others. (The Persian Letters of Montesquieu are the best-known example of this.)
The direct transfer of ideas, conventions, and cultural forms and practices alongside goods and people can have a significant impact on the recipient culture. In other cases it leads to the appearance of cultural hybrids that combine features from widely separate and contrasting cultures. In this way a process of innovation and intellectual and cultural discovery takes place, which leads to the creation of things that are genuinely new. This process has clearly resumed since about 1980, with Japanese popular culture now enormously influential and Indian cinema beginning to have a worldwide impact, while African art, cuisine, and music are having an influence all over the world.
This is something we should welcome unreservedly. All of history suggests that societies and cultures that are open to outside influences are more creative, productive, and inventive.