Review: Cosmos and Hearth, a Cosmopolite’s Viewpoint by Yi-Fu Tuan (1996) Assessment 10 out of 10

A work of reflection, in which the Chinese-American master, Yi-Fu Tuan, looks back on his life. He considers how ideas in, and the idea of, China and the United States have affected territory and landscape.

In China there was both cosmos and hearth. Chinese élites looked down on the peasantry who were attached to their localities. Courtyard houses looked inwards. Confucian magistrates tried to wean the people from belief in local spirits. The Chinese had talent for hearth; small scale intimacies, local food and ancestor worship.

 Cosmos was rooted in harmony and Confucian humanism, which viewed  space as organised in a grid of cardinal points, to the east sunrise & spring, south noon & summer, west sunset & autumn and north night & winter. The year was divided at the solstices between the warm seasons of yang and life, when executions were forbidden, and the dark seasons of yin and dormancy, when executions occurred. Cities were built on a grid, as was cultivated land. Agriculture, which changed with the seasons, was included in the Cosmic world view.  Trade & industry was not and permitted, only by exception, in separate quarters of Chinese cities.

He writes that Taoism elevated home and hearth, Confucianism the primacy of family and kin. It was Buddhism, a foreign universal religion, which introduced into China hospitals, almshouses and distributions to the poor.

The Emperor was the Son of Heaven. When dynasties were overthrown, they no longer enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven. China was the Middle Kingdom, viewing itself in pre-modern times, after 4,000 years of continuous history, as superior to surrounding peoples. That was why the impact of Western culture and economies destabilising this belief was so unsettling.

America was the “New World, “the “City on a Hill”, with its “Manifest Destiny” guided by a meta-narrative of expansion and optimism, the land of opportunity. 

Under the US Constitution, new States were admitted by simple majority vote. Despite significant differences in population, resources and levels of development, States, framed to be alike in government procedures and institutions, were considered of equal standing.  A core dominating its “colonies” was avoided.

States admitted in turn to the Union were more or less rectangular, their artificial shape taken for granted. Geometric order was imposed in the landscape by the townships of the US land survey, a pattern experienced when driving along country roads, making repeated right-angled turns. Order is again apparent in the grid planned cities, which are strikingly similar across the continental United States, with little of the regional variety in landscape and townscape, so obvious in Europe or South Asia.

Tuan describes successive America Frontiers:

 < the agricultural frontier of settlement advancing into the supposedly empty “wilderness”,

< the urban-manufacturing frontier beginning in the Northeast, which moved to & stayed in the Midwest,

< the metropolitan frontier, spreading with the car into ever more distant & thinly built suburbs, what Tuan has called elsewhere the middle landscape,

< finally, the rurban/cybernetic frontier, starting again in the North East, but appearing in growth poles in California and the Pacific North West.

Tuan goes beyond China and the United States to consider the meaning of cosmos, hearth, community and conversation. He sympathises with critics of modernism but describes post-modernism, denying the value of progress and the Enlightenment, as creating a patchwork, where every group & every culture is given similar value.

 Tuan argues for highmodernism, avoiding the hubris of modernism, and learning to appreciate intelligently local culture and landscape. Travelling ultimately is to return home where heart and hearth are, better understanding it in its wider setting.



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