Global breathing

The corona pandemic is changing the way we look at the world. When we observe how individuals or various societies behave in the crisis, astonishing similarities and differences suddenly emerge. Peter van der Veer, Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, has long been studying Asian cultures. In his essay, he compares how people in Asia and in the Western world deal with face masks, toilet paper and the fear of death.

Text: Peter van der Veer

Prof. Dr. Peter van der Veer is director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity.

Breathing techniques have a long history in spiritual practices in India and China, such Yoga and Qi Gong. Hindu, Daoist, and Buddhist traditions regard control over breathing not only as essential for living, but also for spiritual growth. It is an idea that is also shared in some Islamic and Christian traditions. Today, we see the globalization of a virus that attacks our ability to breathe. No spiritual technique is available to keep control over our breathing. One has to trust mechanical devices to take over our breathing while fighting the virus.

The Corona-virus is an attack on the body, both the individual body and the body politic. In the media, most attention is given to the latter. Here I want to draw attention to the individual body and the conceptualization of the body in cultural responses to the virus. One is made aware of how often one touches one’s face, and how seldom one washes one’s hands. The typical urban experience of ‘being in each other’s face’ is also transformed in a ‘being out of each other’s face’. These disciplines of the body and the emotions they produce deserve reflection.

What has struck me most are two puzzling phenomena. The first is the wearing of facemasks. While East- and South-East Asian societies show no reluctance at all in the wearing of facemasks, Western societies show great hesitance. Much of the debate in Western countries is about seemingly rational issues, such as the effectiveness of facemasks, their use by children or people with disabilities, or their availability.

The mask as a sign of collective obedience to outside authority

Behind these rational discussions lurks a hidden discomfort about not showing one’s face, one’s individuality. There is a fear of becoming a face-less mass society. There is also a fear of losing control of one’s body, especially when it is ordered by authorities. The mask becomes a sign of collective obedience to outside authority. Such collective sentiments were already apparent in the enormous antagonism against Muslim veiling and other forms of Islamic modesty. It seems to be an inescapable requirement for participation in Western societies that one shows one’s face.

Such sentiments are not shared in East Asia. Japan is in many ways the leading force in Asian modernity. The facemask came to be widely accepted after the Spanish (in fact, American) flu, and in general, Japanese are very methodical in their hygiene. Regular handwashing and wearing gloves are common practices. They are all part of a civic sense of consideration for others.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are not famous for their hygienic lifestyle. Even recently, hawking on the street was quite common among senior citizens. After SARS 1 and 2 their wet markets have become known to be breeding grounds of dangerous viruses. Nevertheless, facemasks have become the norm in public life, especially with a growing awareness of the high levels of air pollution in China. This is true for large parts of South-East Asia too. It seems that the Western sense of losing face when wearing a facemask does not bother societies that have always been portrayed in terms of ‘having face’ or ‘losing face’.

The toilet is the liminal space between culture and nature

The other bodily response to the viral threat that struck me is the German and Dutch run on toilet paper. Why is toilet paper such an absolute necessity? Anthropologically speaking, the toilet is the liminal space between culture and nature. As long as one has toilet paper, one is dignified and can brave the virus that is such a strong reminder of the fact that we are part of nature. The natural vulnerability of the body in the toilet requires practices that signify a civilized distance from nature.

Again, there are some significant differences with Asian societies. Many Asian societies prefer the use of water; and again the Japanese are the leaders of modern culture with their spectacular toilet systems. In Indian toilets, on the other hand, there is a small pot with water. The left hand is used for toilet activities, and the right hand for food. At the same time higher castes hardly ever clean their toilets, but require the assistance of a special untouchable caste to do this. An important aspect of Gandhian social reform was to promote self-cleaning of toilets. In rural China, toilet paper is rare while in urban China the sewage systems are often not capable of dealing with toilet paper. Only in Hong Kong has there been a run on toilet paper, perhaps to show that Hong Kong is part of Western civilization.

Finally, the most important bodily response to the viral attack is death, the end of the body. Here Asian and Western societies have something in common. In various ways death is denied. It is a topic that is avoided, relegated to hospitals and mortuaries. While death occurs constantly, I have never before seen daily statistics of deaths. In Holland it strikes me how secular the response is to the inevitable mortality of people. There is anxiety, even fear, especially of dying alone without the presence of family and friends, but I have not seen religious responses. Death and mourning for the dead used to be a privileged area of religious concern. Only fieldwork can help us find out how the responses have been in Asia, but fieldwork we cannot do these days.

This essay is an abridged version of the blog post "Global Breathing", published on 24 April 2020 on the website of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity.

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