ARTICLE | On China’s Cultural Transformation

By Jon Eugene von Kowallis

This is a follow-up paper for the 2016 SDN Encounter with Yu Keping.

Professor Yu has remarked in “The Logic of Chinese Cultural Development in a Variable World of Modernization and Globalization”, the first chapter of his book On China’s Cultural Transformation (2012) that “the onslaught of globalization on Chinese culture began prominently in the early nineteenth century until the New Culture movement of the early twentieth century, and internal conflicts have intensified yet again since the 1980s and 1990s.” He continues:

Modernization is an overall process of social transformation. Economically, modernity seeks an industrialized market economy; politically, it seeks to realize a democratic political system; culturally, it pioneers the core values of freedom, equality, and the individual agency. Overall, these political, economic, and cultural elements of modernity are incompatible with Chinese traditional culture. Hence, transforming Chinese traditional culture and creating a modern culture was the first response of Chinese intellectuals to opening and reform (pp. 1-2).

In my view, there are many elements of traditional Chinese culture that lend themselves to what I would call (in English) the transition to modernity, rather than the “transformation,” a rather John K. Fairbank-sounding term. “Chinese tradition,” if we view it in terms of pre-Qin philosophy and Confucianism in particular, as Professor Yu seems to do, was not weighed down by the heavy burden of religious power and authority, which still figures heavily in American politics, as well as in the politics of the Middle East, and much of South, Central, and Southeast Asia. In addition to embracing the notion of a secular state, which then spread to the United States from Jesuitical writings about China, which stoked the flames of the European Enlightenment, Chinese tradition endorsed the idea of rule not by a hereditary aristocracy, or by a theocratic or spiritual elite, but rather by learned bureaucrats chosen through the keju (科举) civil service examination system, what we might call in today’s jargon rule by “technocrats” schooled in the humanist tradition. For this reason, I dispute the idea that “Chinese tradition” per se was in need of dire transformation. I would also dispute the idea that somehow the current government of China is an outgrowth of tradition. It is not. It is rather the end result of a revolutionary process that was sidelined and, we might say, betrayed.

Of course one must bear in mind that Chinese tradition, unlike the divine right of kings in Europe, sanctions the people to revolt against tyranny. It supposes that rulers who abuse their power forfeit the mandate of heaven and, thus, loses their right to rule ( 孟子曰:三代得天下也,以仁。其失天下以不仁). The ancient Confucian philosopher Mencius (c.372-c.289 BCE) said: “The Three [former] Dynasties [Xia 夏, Shang商and Zhou周] gained all-under-heaven through humane [government]. They lost all-under-heaven through inhumane [government]” (Mencius 4a.3; my translation).

Professor Yu quotes Li Shu’s influential 1979 article “Eliminating the Vestiges of Feudalism Is the Most Important Condition for China’s Modernization”. Here Li Shu is said to have examined “the long social, historical, and intellectual roots of feudal forces that opposed modernization.” Although “the intellectual revolution in China that attempted to change feudal ways of production overnight was something easily accepted by the people,” Li Shu wrote, “in reality it was more difficult than climbing to the sky” (p. 3). He emphasized that “completing the intellectual revolution that opposed feudalism begun by the May Fourth movement is an important condition if we wish to succeed in creating a modern socialist system in China.” (p. 3).

It is important to try to understand what the term “feudal” (fengjian 封建) refers to in contemporary usage. This is a term borrowed from Marxism, in which it referred to a stage in European social and political development that never really existed in China. I would argue that when the Chinese today speak of feudal rule, they mean arbitrary or (perhaps more to the point) self-interested decision-making on the part of their rulers, which does not permit open questioning. The antidote to this is not simply law or rule by law (fa zhi 法制), but the impartial enforcement of law, and that is possible in a large, centralized bureaucratic state only with a system of checks and balances.  What the Communist Party leaders need to realize is that for their own system to survive, a governmental system of checks and balances needs to be instituted sooner rather than later. Democracy can wait, I’m sorry to say, but checks and balances are crucial now.


Lu Xun 鲁迅, taken in September 1930, Shanghai.

Somehow it seems in modern China that politics and culture are inexorably linked. Professor Yu tells us that there are a number of intellectual spokespersons today who propose various ways of preserving Chinese culture, by which term they mean tradition. I remember that on the eve of the May Fourth Movement, the modern writer Lu Xun 鲁迅 , in his Random Thoughts #35 (1918), satirized the slogan of the conservatives: baocun guocui 保存国粹 (preserve the national essence). In fact, even the term for “national essence” — guocui — is imported into Chinese from Japan; it derives from the Meiji neologism kokusui. So what is going on here? Again, I would argue that tradition and in many ways the term “Chinese culture” itself are reinventions that function periodically as rhetorical sticks to beat others with.  As Lu Xun concluded his satiric piece:

I have a friend who put this well: “If we are charged with preserving the national essence, we need to know if the national essence can preserve us.” Self-preservation is certainly the first consideration. We only need ask if a thing has the strength to preserve us, not whether it is part of the national essence.

Actually, what Lu Xun is questioning in the essay is the validity of the assertion that there is such a thing as the “national essence.” He made caustic comments about various aspects of Chinese tradition but, when he did so, he usually commented on how elements of that tradition were being used in a self-serving way by latter-day rulers, or their apologists. So it was not really Chinese tradition that Lu Xun opposed. It was the use of that tradition as a cloak for various machinations and nefarious purposes. One example that comes to mind is the way Yuan Shikai 袁世凯 (1859-1916) attempted to institute Confucianism as a national religion (which it had never been) in order to justify his attempt to further betray the Republic by making himself emperor.  This was a disgrace to Confucianism, as was Lee Kwan-yew’s (1923-2015) attempt to use a revival of Confucianism to justify his own authoritarian rule (which now seems to be turning into a dynasty). And the misappropriation of Chinese culture continues in the “globalized” West, first with the Asian Values debate, in which it again was used as an excuse for authoritarianism in Singapore and elsewhere, and then with the Tiger Moms phenomenon in the United States, which was in effect a cloaked attack on liberal values in child-rearing.

In fact, for some time China has been in the process of developing a genuinely modern culture, as Yu Keping notes:

…since the cultural changes begun by the May Fourth movement, it has nearly succeeded in forming a new mainstream Chinese culture. This mainstream culture is not a revival of traditional Chinese culture, nor is it a transplant of Western culture. It is deeply rooted in Chinese tradition while also assimilating other civilizations. It is both traditional and modern, uniting both the national and the global (27).

This is a culture which has both absorbed themes from abroad and actively participated in globalization since at least the early decades of the twentieth century. This culture continues to challenge authoritarianism and the misuse of tradition. In the end, there are no Asian Values, or Western Values. There are only human values, as Lu Xun and the May Fourth generation saw. China can forget this heritage only at its own peril.

IMAGE: Confucius Sculpture, Nanjing