An Incurable Romantic

by Kenneth Champeon, Aug 14, 2004 | Destinations: China / Beijing

Several centuries ago Western natural philosophers made a remarkable discovery. It is called the scientific method. Basically it says that hypotheses must be tested against experience to determine their truth. A simple but powerful idea. And despite the many Chinese and Indian contributions to the sum of knowledge, the scientific method eluded them for some reason. This is partly why countless Asians continue to believe that the future can be predicted using the stars, stones, charred bones, and even (as was recently the case in Thailand) the skin of iguanas, even though such predictions are wrong much, if not most of the time.

A fortune-teller told Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani that he should not fly during the year 1993. Terzani followed the advice, and as it happens the helicopter carrying his replacement crashed that year in Cambodia. This led him to reconsider his disbelief in fortune-telling, and he spent his earthbound year visiting assorted clairvoyants all over Asia. And not surprisingly, he learned that they are wrong much, if not most of the time. Yet he continues to insist that humanity is somehow diminished by the disappearance of these faulty guides, and his book A Fortune-Teller Told Me is one long, muddle-headed elegy to the old Asian ways.

Terzani confuses two big ideas: Westernization and modernization. In his lexicon they are virtually synonymous, so to him the modernization of Asia is something foisted upon it by the West, not something that Asia has chosen on its own. And while this is true up to a point, Terzani gives Asians very little credit, and he doesn't bother to explain what an "Eastern" form of modernization might look like. Yes, there is something rather pathetic or comical about an Asian wearing a suit and tie, driving a Mercedes, and praying to Jesus. But how different is this from an Italian wearing a kurta, riding around in rickshas, and lighting incense to the Buddha? The mindless aping of alien practices, in other words, is not something of which Asians alone are guilty. Nor is it fair to say that materialism is a Western invention. As late as the 15th century, China was the most materially advanced civilization on earth. That the tables might turn once more in China's favor is not surprising, not tragic, and not the West's fault.

As travel writing Fortune-Teller is excellent. Terzani's resolve to avoid airplanes means that he sees an Asia that most travelers miss. He is dismayed to learn that travel by ship has become nearly obsolete, but eventually he books passage on a liner that follows the traditional itinerary to the East, through the Suez Canal. Along with journalist Bertil Lintner, he travels overland to Burma and hangs out with famed drug lord Khun Sa. He traverses Russia by train, shares a coach with Mongolian traders, and -- on an earlier journey -- nearly gets murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Like many foreign correspondents, his bravery often borders on insanity, but his adventures make for engaging reading.

Yet for someone who has lived in Asia for twenty-five years, Terzani can be incredibly wrongheaded about it, and indeed about many other things. The cause is usually his romantic doubts about the success of industrial society; and by "romantic" I mean that, as Naipaul once wrote, the doubts "contain no wish to undo that success or to lose the fruits of that success." Probably for aesthetic reasons, Terzani seems to want Asia to stay poor and backward, but he himself would never tolerate the banal misery that such poverty and backwardness implies. (I think it was Orwell, in Down and Out in Paris and London, who said that the chief and most painful symptom of poverty is boredom.) Terzani's explanation for industrial disasters like Bhopal is that "nature is taking revenge on those who fail to respect her, and who, out of pure greed, destroy every kind of harmony." He does not consider whether famine or plague or earthquake can be explained in the same way; and even the idea that nature demands respect or contemplates revenge is troglodytic. It is simply irresponsible to claim that thousands of Indians at Bhopal were sacrificed to appease Mother Earth in her fury. It was just an accident.

Terzani's appraisal of late Burmese dictator Ne Win is shockingly neutral. In Ne Win's "Burmese Way to Socialism" (not "Buddhist way to Socialism", as Terzani calls it) he sees a viable alternative to the breakneck development of Thailand, by which the latter was "traumatized". Traumatized is a strong word, and to imply that the Burmese have not been traumatized by their underdevelopment is cruel. Kicking back in the Shan States, and contemplating their imminent development, Terzani finds it "tragic to see this continent [Asia] so gaily committing suicide. But nobody talks about it, nobody protests -- least of all the Asians."

At this very moment there are people starving in Burma. In such a context, how on earth could the desire to develop your economy be construed as "committing suicide", as something to protest? Terzani asks, "Would Aung San Suu Kyi and her democratic followers be any different? Probably not. Probably they too wish only for 'development'." In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi has said that she is less interested in economic development than in political liberalization. That is why she has consistently favored economic sanctions against Burma so long as the military regime is in place, even though they may hurt the Burmese in the short term.

Some of Terzani's flights of fancy are simply jaw-dropping. "With nothing left to believe in," he writes, "the Chinese now dream only of becoming Americans." In surveys I've seen, the foreign country the Chinese respect the most is France; and I am sure that whenever America bombs one of China's embassies, they are probably not dreaming of becoming Americans. Of course what Terzani really means is that the Chinese dream of becoming rich. Well, who doesn't? And who can blame them, after experiencing the famines of the Great Leap Forward, during which some of them resorted to eating each other to stave off hunger?

Terzani is on firmer ground in his criticisms of the Chinese, who among other things are "destroying Bangkok", and are determined throughout Asia to "cover everything in cement". He also blames the rise of Islam in Malaysia on the Chinese, his argument being that the Malays "slavishly follow Islam" as a bulwark against Chinese economic power. Contradicting what he had said earlier about Chinese emulation of America, he proposes that the rich, Orwellian Singapore is "China's new model." And he encounters two Chinese who predict, typically you might say, that China is rushing headlong toward a major crisis, either fascism or civil war.

But rather like the fortune-tellers he consults, Terzani often misses the mark. He writes that the "kingdom of smiles" (he means the "land of smiles", i.e. Thailand) "smiles no more", presumably because they have been saddened by all their money. Well, take my word for it: there are still plenty of smiles in this land, and a lot of them arise from the lack of care that wealth can imply. There are not so many smiles in Bangkok, but as Terzani reminds us, Bangkok is a near colony of China anyway. He writes that the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of "a third of the population" of Cambodia, when a fourth or less is closer to the truth. Lazily he says that mai ping rai is the Thai phrase for "never mind", when mai bpen rai is standard. He proposes that in Asia hotels have replaced "cathedrals or mosques" as gathering places. Does he mean malls? And then there are the many passages in which he suggests that commerce and the division of labor were invented yesterday:

"It really is a strange animal, the economic system which nowadays is expected to save the world! No one makes anything with their own hands anymore, no one works out how to make a cooking pot or a flute or a cart; the best thing they can think of is to go another part of the world and buy something to resell elsewhere, at a profit."

If no one makes anything with their own hands anymore, it is partly because doing so can be not only tedious but debilitating (I am thinking in particular of the Indian women disfigured by their jobs as manual rollers of cigarettes.) We do not design pots or flutes or carts; instead we design spaceships, software, travel books. As for trading for a profit, it's as old as history. Older.

As you might expect, a man so at odds with the modern world finds himself being pulled toward India, and it is there that he lived at the time of the book's publication. Why India? "I want to see," writes Terzani, "if India, with its spirituality and its madness, can resist the disheartening wave of materialism which is sweeping the world." But because Terzani was then an employee of the rather spiritually deficient German news magazine Der Spiegel, he had to live in Delhi, which is second only to Bombay in its "materialism". When I was there in 1997 it reminded me of what London must have been like at the height of the Industrial Revolution -- ugly, overcrowded, noisy, polluted -- and when I returned the following year I constantly felt like I was being ripped off. As for India's "madness", it wears you down after a while, and that is why so few Westerners remain for very long. I wish Terzani luck.

So while in many ways Fortune-Teller is entertaining and informative, its main premise is romantic, hypocritical, and easily dismissed. The premise is that the modernization of Asia is destroying Asian culture. But if anything, modernization is giving Asian culture, for so long dormant and obscure, new life and new forms of expression, whether they be Bollywood films, Japanese fashion, or Thai pop. Asia is stronger than Terzani thinks it is. To suggest that the West is going to sweep away millennia-old civilizations is just more of the old Western arrogance in a new guise. For what else but the strength and persistence of these civilizations could explain their hold on the mind of an otherwise rational man from Florence?

- The End -

Review of Tiziano Terzani's A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East, Flamingo, 1998.

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Tiziano Terzani died July 28, 2004 at his home near Florence. He was 65. Born in Florence in 1938, he studied law at the University of Pisa, international law at Leeds University and Chinese at Stamford and Columbia universities. In 1971, he was appointed Asia correspondent by the German magazine Der Spiegel, a position he kept for three decades, reporting from Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo, Bangkok and Delhi.

His first book, Pelle di Leopardo (1973) covered the war in Vietnam. This was followed by Giai Phong! (1975), about the fall of Vietnam, and Holocaust in Kambodscha (1981).

In 1984, after being expelled from China for "counter-revolutionary activities", Terzani published Behind the Forbidden Door: Travels in China. Goodnight, Mister Lenin, on the fall of the Soviet empire came out in 1992, then A Fortune Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East in 1995 followed by In Asia in 1998. Earlier this year, he published Another turn of the merry-go-round (Un altro giro di giostra) where he discussed his fight against cancer.

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