Sunday, May 01, 2011

Eric Li on "Modernism" and "Modernization"

Mapping West and East
(Image from Wikipedia)

I found this New York Times article by Eric Li, "Where the East Parts From the West" (April 27, 2011), to offer an interesting contrast between Western and Chinese concepts of the two related terms "modernism" and "modernization." Here's Li on the Western concept:
The product of the Enlightenment, modernism -- centered as it is on individualism, rights and science -- was a unique Western cultural experience.

To be sure, modernism had its illustrious intellectual ancestry. Platonism began the West's pursuit of abstract truth from the times of ancient Greece. The first division of Christianity and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire more than 1,500 years ago put the West on the road of separated political and religious authorities. The consolidation of power by the landed aristocracy, legalized by the Magna Carta, made balance of power a unique characteristic within Western political structure and philosophy.

The second division of Christianity, the Protestant Reformation, unintentionally contributed to making the individual the sovereign and basic unit of society. All of these historic and cultural developments culminated during the Enlightenment and created the unstoppable meta-narrative -- modernism. Modernism facilitated the development of science and the industrial revolution and led to the greatest advancement of material power in the history of man: modernization.

The individual, conceived as rational and endowed with God-given rights, sits at the center of the value system of modernism. These individuals, combined with the cultural traditions of their homelands, created the nation-state. Balance of power and electoral democracy became the defining political characteristics of these nation-states. The ownership of private property formed their social and economic foundation -- what we now call capitalism.
Note that Li is not simply offering a potted history of the Western terms "modernism" and "modernization." He's also binding these two concepts to their unique Western cultural heritage, with the implication that they possess their particular meanings only in the West and only for Westerners. By contrast, "here's what Li says concerning the Chinese words that the Chinese have turned to for translating the two Western terms:
No doubt China's modernization received enormous Western influence. Yet its essence is not and can not be modernism.

In today's China, the individual remains part of the collective and by no means the independent and basic unit of society. Political power is not divided and balanced but centralized under a single political authority.

A market economy adapted from the West is delivering efficient allocation of resources and high rates of growth and has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Yet, it is pointedly not capitalism. Ordinary Chinese people enjoy as wide a range of personal liberties as those anywhere in the Western world. But those with political aspirations contrary to the collective objectives of the state and society are severely constrained, even repressed.

Language is life. Words contextualize our world and lend it meaning. The word "modern" is translated into Chinese as Xiandai -- which simply means "the current generation." Xiandai does not and can not carry the rich meaning inherent to the word "modern." And Xiandaihua -- modernization -- carries only material meaning. Xiandaihua has been the overwhelming objective of the Chinese nation.

One of the founding fathers of the People's Republic, Premier Zhou Enlai, announced to the Chinese people at the end of the tragic Cultural Revolution that the four modernizations (Xiandaihua ) were China's national aspirations: modernizations of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. These by no means add up to modernism.
As noted, I found these differences interesting, even useful for my endeavor to understand cultural and civilizational differences. But I can think of two problems with Li's analysis, for it stops short in two ways.

First, nothing prevents a term in Chinese from expanding in meaning -- just as the terms "modernism" and "modernization" expanded in meaning over time -- such that Xiandai and Xiandaihua, respectively, could also take on the Western meanings of modernism and modernization.

Second, the implicit assumption is that China, by virtue of its historical difference, is a civilization with its own unique cultural traditions and that it does not need individualism, human rights, democracy, the rule of law, division of powers, and so on. A culture or civilization that rejects these as alien to its unique 'essence,' however, leaves itself open to decadence. These aren't merely concepts. These are also practical developments that have been proven to work. One cannot simply argue that China's government needs no division of powers among its executive, legislative, and judicial branches simply because a Confucian ethic of virtuous obligation on the part of a ruler for those over whom one rules will guide Chinese leaders to right action in governance -- assuming that this were to be an argument that Li might offer -- for the self-interest of a ruler will often override any ethic of virtuous obligation and lead to corrupt rule and the abuse of power.

I could go down the list, but I won't belabor the obvious and thereby insult the intelligence of my astute, erudite readers, who undoubtedly know these things already.

Okay, that's not the real reason. Going down the list would be useful for me, but I'm just too lazy this morning . . .

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