Reading Austen in Asia


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Westerners tend to be pretty baffled by the whole idea of “guanxi,” or relationships, in China (where I live now). In Indonesia, where I lived last year, unraveling exactly how anyone was related to anyone else (by blood or otherwise) was hard to grasp. Coming from America, we see this as an alien and strange way to go about life.

That is stupid of us. We are barely a hundred years removed from the Victorians, and only two hundred from Jane Austen. Our grandparents’ grandparents were only born in the mid 1800s–PRE Victorian. And anyone reading literature from the 1800s comes to realize that that time period was saturated with the question of relationship and reputation. Our own culture is merely an outgrowth of a culture that bore much in common with the web of relationships that hold so much sway in Asia today.

That’s not to suggest that Asian cultures are just running “behind” Western culture. In fact, many of the things that we tend to idolize in our own past are alive and well in Asian culture to day. Respect for family, knowledge of obligation to one another, circumspection in conversation–these are often mourned absences in America, but are a part of everyday life in Asia.

Reading Jane Austen from China, so much that was previously alien to me has been illuminated, my own goofiness revealed. There was a time when the behavior of each member of a family effected the entire family’s success in the world. When everyone talked around the topics. When the timing of marriage was the most important question of just about everyone’s life. When everyone kept track of who they were friends with, evaluated their level of acquaintance and corresponding obligation, and followed their friends’ lives closely. When the world was veiled in words. That time is now. It’s just not in pastoral England anymore.


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