Modernity and China

The concept of modernity has played a central role in
the shaping of contemporary China.  At the start of
the Republican era China engaged the modern and began
the process of national formation. The subsequent
Communist Revolution and Mao period witnessed a broad
based modernist experiment in social engineering and
communism, which carried China through until the
middle of the 1970s. The following period saw a turn
in China’s project with modernity, as Post-Mao reforms
lead to a socialist guided approach to capitalism.
Within China itself there have been varying
perspectives as to what modernity means to China, and
how China should approach modernity. These varying
perspectives can be seen as different project of
modernity in China.

The projects considered here are the May Fourth
Movement, the Communist Revolution, and the Cultural
Discussion of the 1980s, all of which never translated
into enduring projects. Apart from the Communist
revolution, the projects were limited to intellectual
circles, never impacting on the greater society. One
consistent theme running through these three different
projects of modernity is the theme of
anti-traditionalism. Each project saw tradition as a
barrier to the future, holding China back from
advancing as a modern state. 

The May Fourth Movement sought to bring China into
modernity by supplanting Chinese tradition and culture
with the ideals of the Enlightenment. Their defining
and redefining of individualism is indicative of this.
While treatises on modernity where worked out in May
Fourth intellectual circles a formation of modernity
evolved in the urban coastal regions, which displayed
a blending of the local and the foreign, as well as
the old and the new. The Communist Revolution
implemented an anti-traditional campaign, which lasted
nearly three decades, but after the Post-Mao reforms
where instituted traditional element were to reappear.
The anti-traditionalist agenda of the May Fourth
Movement comes to haunt the Cultural Discussion of the
1980s, as scholars attempt to exorcise the ghost of
the past in a call to adopt the grand narrative of the

Enlightenment. Again, as during the May Fourth
Movement, the scholarly debates ensued as modernity
began to express itself, first in the southern coastal
cities and eventually beyond.

           What is presented below shall argue that
the discourses of modernity as seen in the May Fourth
Movement, the Communist Revolution, and the Cultural
Discussion of the 1980s go too far in embracing binary
oppositions of east and west, as well as traditional
and modern. These different projects fall into a
self-deprecated effort to alter identity by adopting
the grand narrative of western modernity. I hope to
answer the following question: is Chinese tradition
antipathetic to modernity?   
Modernity is historically rooted in the changes that
took place in Europe around the 1500s. The political
and economic forces, which had dominated the Middle
Ages, feudalism and the papacy, began to recede,
giving way to the new dominate formations of
nationalism and mercantilism. It is in this atmosphere
of change that Descarte declared, “cogito ergo sum”
thus beginning an epistemological trend in charge of
uncovering, or discovering of the subject. Habermas
identifies subjectivity as arising from “ …key
historical events… the Reformation, the Enlightenment,
and the French Revolution” (Habermas, 17).  The
presence of subjectivity was a prominent feature
throughout the European events that shaped modernity,
and is one that continues to be contested as well as
ruminated upon in Continental as well as Anglo-
American philosophical discourse.      

One of the earliest notions to be taken up by the New
Culture Movement and the subsequent May Fourth
Movement was that of subjectivity. How did this idea
of subjectivity arrive in China? Neologisms were often
used to translate concepts, or words that were not
readily available or accessible in the Chinese
language at that time. These inventions often came to
China by way of Japan. An example of a neologism is
zong jioa, the Chinese word for religion, which
transmigrated from Japan to China at the turn of the
century. The neologism for individualism is geren
zhuyi.  Lydia H. Siu, in discussing translingual
migration points out that ‘individualism’ once
”introduced into China at the turn of the century…soon
grew to be a chief signpost on the discursive terrain
of the self in modern China”(Barlow, 91). By way of
viewing subjectivity as a metonym in the rubric of
modernity we can understand how May Fourth scholars
engaged modernity.      

  Initially, there were attempts to find parallels of
subjectivity in Chinese thought, finding the idea
close to ancient Chinese concepts of human ontology.
Though, ultimately subjectivity came to be viewed as
an absolute totality, to be derived from western
metaphysics and literature, and applied in attack on
tradition as writers vied for the control to craft
China’s engagement with modernity. In whatever form
the discourse took it was always one, which was
isolated from the platitudes of day-to-day life.

Shortly after the turn of the century Du Yaquan saw
individualism as being a contemporary manifestation of
Confucianism. He conceived of individualism as having
the similar instructional qualities to those found in
Confucian ethics. His concept also sought to establish
socialistic principles by asserting the interests of
common people. His ideas were later to be made passé
by Min Zhi, who viewed individualism as being
bifurcated, leading to a private and a public self. He
put forth the argument that to work for the interests
of the private self would invariably benefit others,
or the public.  Furthermore, Min Zhi saw individualism
as being brought forth by the ineptitude of rulers.
Inclinations towards self-reliance, “becomes a
necessary means of survival in the modern world”(98,
Barlow).  According to Lydia H. Siu it is at this
juncture that the concept of the individual is brought
to an “absolute value”, representing an idea, which
was diametrically opposed to Chinese tradition.  Jia
Yi, writing in 1916 sets forth a view, which later
came to be crystallized in the May Fourth Movement. He
saw the individual as an entity, which strove for
self-actualization. It was the role of social
institutions to support such striving, but
traditionally they had prohibited the individual’s
growth.  Jia Yi as well as the May Fourth            

Movement in general saw the appropriation of the
principles of individualism, based in western
Enlightenment theory, as being the only prerequisite
for China’s survival in the modern world. 

Philosophers diverged greatly in the west on theories
of individualism during the Enlightenment period.
There is a question as to what extent did these early
Chinese theorists consider the divergent elements of
western thought. I shall not venture in this avenue
here, but by considering the manifestation that
individualism took in Chinese literary work of the
time, we may receive some clue as to whether or not
they appropriated subjectivity in a way that fit their
own intended designs.           

As early as 1907 Lu Xun sought an argument that
equated the national demise, since the end of Qing
dynasty, with the repression of the individual. He
than applied this in works of literature. To do so he
had to borrow heavily from the literary craft found in
literature of the west.  Lu Xun produced a number of
texts, which were written in the first person. At the
time such literary constructions were innovations in
China. Fredric Jameson, a leading exponent of
post-structuralist theory, sees that subjectivity is
absent in texts or stories from pre-modern societies.
Allegories of the individual in such societies are
symbolic to reality of the greater community, acting
in a way, which is similar, or the same to myth. By
writing in the first person, Lu Xun, as well as other
writers of the May Fourth Movement could divorce the
character of the story from the fabric the Chinese
social structure, which dominated pre-modern China,
namely kinship and the patriarchal fold. Lu Xun, using
the first person, began a dialogue between the
individual and tradition. This can be exemplified by
Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman.  Lu Xun’s work gives a
clear picture as to how the concept of the individual
was taken up and incorporated by the May Fourth
Movement for political exigencies.  How removed where
these works form the reality of the common folk? 

There were efforts to bridge the gap between the
intellectual work of this period and the reality of
the wider public. Lydia H. Liu points out that Lu Xun,
in the 1920s, discarded his conception of the
individual which was based on May Fourth readings of
Enlightenment theory to investigate a literature
oriented towards the average person, the pingmin. It
is difficult to see how such turns of discourse would
include the average person when the majority of the
population at that time resided in a rural peasant
reality and had little time beyond endeavors of
sustenance.  So, it is not surprising to see that the
concept of the individual was attacked in the waning
years of the May Fourth Movement.

In 1922 Deng Fei huang articulates a critique of
individualism, which cast the individual as bourgeois,
hence signaling the demise of the efforts to place
individualism into a Chinese modernity. Before him
Wang Xinggong drew up an argument, which paved the
ontological foundation for a new view of subjectivity
by denouncing the existence of the individual. In his
argument the individual was an entity determined by
the material world. This placed the importance of
society over that of the individual. Though, in
keeping with the anti-traditionalist tone of the May
Fourth Movement, Wang put much of the blame on ancient
Confucian ideas for fostering an emphasis that
elevated the individual.  Wang was to be followed by
Chen Duxiu’s assault on individualism as a “socially
irresponsible, nihilistic idea”(Barlow, 105) Chen also
maintained an anti- traditionalism as he saw the
ontological ideas of Taoism in Loa Zi and Zhuang Zi to
have been oriented toward the individual.

The ideas presented by Deng, Wang and Chen, preface
the political climate that gives rise to the Communist
Party. As will be seen below, the anti-traditionalism
survives the May Fourth Movement during the communist
period, and is a theme that returns to the fore in the
scholarly enlightenment discussions of the 1980’s.
But before jumping to the recent past we must look at
a formation of the modern that was quite outside of,
but contemporaneous to the scholarly discourse of the
May Fourth Movement.   

Nationalist urban industrial development, east meets
west fashion, and a newly found emphasis on the public
person in urban Shanghai and other cities, enveloped
the time, which saw the May Fourth Movement come and
go. This modern reality emerged vicariously in the
coastal urban remains of the colonial period.  Many of
the modern urban attributes, which had made up
modernity’s image in the west sprung up in Shanghai
and other cities. “…through media like newspapers,
professions like writing, banker, businessman, and
disciplines like urban planning and social criticism,
urban China did help produce a growing consciousness
of being modern and Chinese”(Wen-Hsin Yeh, 99). An
amalgam of east and west was displayed in the
architectural structures that covered the urban
terrain as well as the fashion of dress that clothed
the growing urban populace. A printed culture of
product packaging, advertising, and media accompanied
the increasing emphasis on personal hygiene, which was
to prepare the individual for a new public space. A
new popular culture, which came to be part of this new
public space, was the sight of commodified images of
women, as well as a consumer market for western goods.
The Nationalist government initiated a planned
development of industry and economy, which came to be
an admixture of public enterprises and private
industries. This urban modernity grew to include more
then a cloistered scholarly elite, who debated and
plotted a western idealist modernity for China, which
may have been based on a narrow reading of the grand
narrative of western modernity.

The Communist Revolution was a project of modernity
founded on the Soviet communist model. Focus was
applied to the engineering of society based on science
and industrial technology. It was also the means for
moving beyond China’s feudal past. Early on the
Revolution took a seriously hostile stance towards
tradition, seeing it as an obstacle to modernization.
As the policies of collectivization took hold a storm
of destruction changed the social landscape leaving
little of tradition remaining. It must be said that
there are arguments that state certain traditional
forms were able to find expression in the new
structures created by the Revolution. This I do not
doubt, for much evidence supports the statement. Below
I shall focus on the elements that could not find
expression in the new socialist climate. 

Since the majority of China’s population was rural
based the Communist Revolution moved from the cities
to the countryside. Collectivization and land reform
was implemented altering the traditional structures of
family and community.   The redistribution of land
eliminated the private holdings of lineage property.
Ancestor halls and structures of lineage worship were
converted to schools or other public places. The
dubbing of folk religion as ‘feudal superstition’ made
the practice of worship illegal, hence destroying a
tradition social formation. Temples were
systematically razed.

The reforms implemented in the era after Mao brought
an end to this state sponsored suppression of
tradition. Lineage groups where reestablished to a
significant extent, becoming a featured trait of rural
areas again. This happened as the overseas Chinese
helped finance their revival, and lineage property was
returned to lineage groups.  Folk religion worship was
also revived, especially in the southern coastal
region of Fujian. According to Kenneth Dean who has
done research in the Xinghua region of Fujian
“Beginning in 1979, an extraordinary renaissance of
reinvented traditional form of ritual activity has
transformed China, particularly rural China, still
home to three-quarters of its vast population.”(
Brooks/Frolic, 172).   With the Deng market reforms
there has been a reappearance of many traditional
elements, which had been suppressed during the
Communist Revolution. Traditions supposed incongruous
relation to modernity seems questionable in light of
the fact that the renewed presence of tradition since
the 1980s has not hindered the development of China’s
present modernization.  In spite of the revivals of
tradition during the Deng reforms hostility towards
China’s culture reappeared in the 1980s.

The Cultural Discussion represented a highly contested
discourse, which revisited some of the same issues
concerning tradition and national development that
predominated during the May Fourth Movement.  The
television series Heshang aired to a large viewing
population was to encapsulate the ideas of the
Cultural Discussion. Questions concerning the role of
tradition in

China’s failure to develop, and the role of opening up
to western influence for China’s survival prevailed.
What lead to the reemergence of the May Fourth
Movement’s agenda?  

The Post-Mao reforms were accomplished by the
political maneuvering of Deng Xioa Ping after Mao’s
death. At the Third Plenum of 1978 policies were
adopted to apply western techniques and economic
methodology to boost China’s ailing productive force.
In turn this would bring about the economic advances
in the coastal regions of the designated economic
zones. As standards of living increased, a middle
class would come to help spawn a popular culture,
which would become a very significant part of China’s
modern landscape by the mid 1990s. The Cultural
Discussion grew out of this socio-economic climate,
and came to straddle a period, when, in the late
1980s, the Deng reforms efficacy was questionable.   

The debates grew to engulf the greater of China’s
scholarly population as well as large numbers of
university students by the mid 1980s. In conferences
and at symposiums academics debated and discussed
modernization and culture. An early theme of these
discussions was China’s ancient tradition.  A number
of schools soon emerged, each putting forth different
analysis of China’s tradition, the divergent histories
of east and west, and modernity.  A great number of
books, translated from works in the western human
sciences, flooded China’s academic circles and student
population. Debates grew concerning Confucian
tradition, neo-Confucianism, scientific rationality,
as well as hermeneutics. The energy seemed to spiral
transforming the discussions into an incorporeal
debate, which transcended the social and economic
reality that had initiated them. The debates ebbed and
flowed throughout the 1980s as foreign capital
investment gave fuel to the transformations taking
place at the time,

The television series Heshang may be seen as
encapsulating the major themes, which ran through the
nuances of the Cultural Discussion. But if the
Discussion came to be transfixed by metaphysical
epistemology, and Heshang seemed loaded with
ambiguity, as some have pointed out, it may be quite
difficult to locate a theme.   According to Jing Wang
the Cultural Discussion took to “the incrimination of
culture”(Wang, 55) as a way to sublimate the
disapproval of the socialist authority and its efforts
at reform. Ann Anagnost presence the idea that perhaps
the television series was in fact a critique in crypt
of the socialist system and Party. Recalling
Levi-Strauss and his uncovering the of structural
coding of myth, she presents the possibility that the
series “announces the handiwork of the
bricoleur”(Befu, 66) creating from fragments a
concealed message, which goes unnoticed for a time.
Using tradition, as opposed to the political realm to
muster up support the Communist Party may have left
itself open to an attack such as the one possibly
presented by Heshang.

Leaving speculation aside, we see Heshang, pleated
with a critique of Chinese tradition, images of
western dominance, and an overall anxious sentiment
regarding China’s identity and future. It took to the
air in 1988 with the intent of “bringing intellectual
issues to the general public”(Su, Wang, 63). It called
for a reassessment of the historical status that, such
historical images as the Great Wall carry. The script
reads “…by the middle of the fifteenth century when
the Ming Dynasty reconstructed the Great Wall, it had
become an act altogether of failure and of
retreat”(Su, Wang, 127). The series deconstructed
pervasive symbols of Chinese identity, such as the
dragon, which was only to be reconstructed as a
tempest that represents the authoritative rulers, who
have dominated China’s long history, and have stifled
the development of the individual and in turn Chinese
society. It seems clear enough that the themes running
through the television series is quite consistent with
the themes of the Cultural Discussion, which call for
“blanket condemnation of tradition”(Wang, 55) and the
adoption of western principles to engineer a break
with what Jin Guantao saw as the ‘ultra-stable
structure’, which has resulted from Chinese society’s
ability to “dissolve the subversive forces”(Wang, 58).

The grand narrative of the Enlightenment did not
survive the government’s severe crackdown of the
Tainanmen Square demonstration in 1989, which followed
a year after the broadcast of Heshang. Was this
crackdown another example of the ultra-stable
structure dissolving subversive elements? Perhaps it
could be interpreted as such, but in another light it
may demonstrate how China is creating its own
modernity. Rapid economic growth in China has brought
immense change, most notably a rising middle class in
which demand for liberties, are placated by a newly
emergent consumer market.

If one looks at states, which are culturally Chinese,
such as Taiwan and Singapore, one can see that Chinese
tradition has molded much of the way that these States
have embraced capitalism as well as modernity. In such
States one sees that capital markets are carefully
controlled.  Authoritarian rule allows little room for
democracy. Values of collectivism and duty resemble
Confucian principles rather than Enlightenment
principles. China together with the neighboring
ethnically Chinese states is creating a
reconfiguration of modernity, which is an amalgam of
capitalist qualities and Chinese characteristics.

In this light we see that Chinese modernity is
extended beyond the boundaries of the PRC to include
overseas Chinese. This features importantly in that
Chinese tradition was kept alive in such communities
during the repressive decades before the Deng reforms.
The presence of Confucian principles in the
social-economic structure of Singapore is quite
salient. According to Aihwa Ong, herself part of the
overseas Chinese community, “Singapore has most
thoroughly institutionalized Confucian values and
practices both within and outside the State”(Moore,

In considering the May Fourth Movement, the Communist
Revolution and the Cultural Discussion of the 1980s,
in what way can one view the failure of each to
promote their conceptions of how China should embrace
modernity? Perhaps failure rests in the inimical
posture that these movements took towards all that is
culturally indigenous to China. The binary views of
east and west, communism and capitalism, and of modern
and traditional must be call into question if one is
to understand the central role modernity has had, and
continues to have in shaping contemporary China.


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