China and its Discontents

Modernity and the Chinese Experience


This is a piece I wrote that was just published in this month’s SAIS Observer, but it hasn’t been put online yet.

I am one of two international students in my “Modernity and World Social Thought” class at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center; the other twenty or so are all Chinese students. Every week we talk about questions of modernity and modernization: whether a country can become technologically “modernized” without being culturally and psychologically “modern”; whether modernity is a universal value or a particular value for particular people; what part, if any, of the past should persist into the era of the nation-state.

I listen when my Chinese classmates debate the influence of Confucianism in the current Chinese socio-political environment, and whether the modernizing reformers of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 have been heeded to the present day. Most interesting to me is whether the project of modernity should have a “purpose,” whether modernity is a project or just an aimless process. Some writers, like Patrick Smith in “Somebody Else’s Century,” say none is needed. Other nationalists, like Jawaharlal Nehru, say that purpose lies in each country’s destiny. And many more say modernity’s purpose is derived from individual human fulfillment.

This question bites directly into the seminar and indeed many of my Chinese peers’ experiences. A century ago, China grappled over whether it could preserve its unique cultural ti (fundamental principles) while grafting onto it Western yong (practical application). Yong is the means, ti is the end. China is still dealing with this rift between ti and yong today. This separation is reflected in a number of common questions, like: what makes our state legitimate? What are our national values? Are we permanently stuck in a culture of material consumption, or is there a way forward?

Mao Zedong said at the outset of the People’s Republic, “Our new China is like a blank piece of paper on which we can write the most elegant characters and paint the most beautiful pictures.” In modern China, the question is not so much how to preserve the Confucian ti, but rather how to come up with a new ti after it has been thoroughly scarred from being scooped out and replaced, over and over again.

But then I focus on the reality of class discussion. I realize that, more than anything else, this small seminar, existing in a tiny bubble within China, is through its own way living out the project of modernity.  We are living out modernity through discussion; the classroom dialectic is perhaps the only way to move forward past confusion and post-modernism. Values are not objects for individuals. They are decided in common. And if we can do our small part in tackling such immense problems, especially in a place like China, then I will be happy.

Written by Will

October 31st, 2012 at 8:36 am

  • Dan C RI

    Nice reflection. The question of modernity having purpose reminds me of the notion of “progress” in the modern era (say 1800s-1960?) of the West (think American expansion, Vienna, Belle-Epoque, Marx, Hegel etc). In this sense, I think modernity’s purpose would be just that: progress, which is imperially imposed as universal and which, necessarily, eclipses other histories or “development tracks”, in a similar fashion that nationalism can construct a single origin story or sense of heritage. …Not sure if this is already a given in your discussions of the “traditional” Western modernity and concepts of development narratives, but might be worth looking into in terms of identifying the dual properties (imperial and relativistic) of such a core concept to certain modernity(/ies).

  • Will Yale

    Thanks for the comment, Dan!

    Yes, there is an arc of progress, moral and otherwise, throughout history. But an impersonal force of progress is not necessarily what I’m talking about here. I hint in the final paragraph that “purposes” are decided by reasoning together about the common good. That’s how progress moves forward (little by little). I think good policy outcomes are almost axiomatically the result of grassroots democratic participation on an equal basis (this of course has policy implications for campaign financing, among many other things).