During the past few decades China has gone through an extraordinary process of modernization. Due to economic development, urbanization and exchanges with the outside world, people in China today lead lives that are strikingly similar to the lives of people in the Western world. At the same time, there has been a return to the indigenous cultural tradition. Confucius is back at the centre of Chinese culture, now even becoming an ideological pillar of the state – what would Chairman Mao have said? Indeed, we are now observing an amazing renaissance for traditional culture in the areas of literature, philosophy and painting but to name a few.
The move West
We are led to believe that Chinese civilization is at least as glorious, if not even a bit more glorious than Western civilization and that there is no reason to reject Confucius and traditional culture as Chinese radicals so often have done since the early twentieth-century.
This is a paradox, but a paradox with a logic that we can understand. The collapse of the “all-under-Heaven” empire was a result of China’s incapacity to stand up against foreign powers beginning with the Opium War (1839-1842). According to the official ideology, these powers represented the barbaric world, in contrast to the civilized Celestial Empire, and now they deemed Chinese culture as backward and out of touch with the needs of modernity. This made people in China begin to re-evaluate their indigenous tradition. Soon after the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, radicals began to argue that in order to save China it was necessary to reject Confucius and much of the indigenous cultural tradition and instead westernize. Ever since then and until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 much of the tradition of Chinese high culture, and especially Confucianism, was described by the official Maoist ideology as reactionary and an impediment to “building socialism”.
The rejection of traditional Chinese culture was painful for many people in China, even for its radical proponents, who were themselves deeply rooted in this tradition. One of the most interesting intellectuals in early twentieth-century China, Wang Guowei (1877-1927), once said, “That which I love I cannot believe, and that which I believe I cannot love”. This statement captures, I believe, how many people felt about Chinese and Western culture. They had been used to defining their Chinese identity in cultural terms, so how could they remain Chinese if Chinese culture was rejected? What would they become in a westernized China – second-class Westerners?
The rejection of traditional Chinese culture was perceived as a necessary sacrifice in order to save China from foreign threats and build a new, wealthy and strong China that would enjoy the respect of the outside world.
Today these goals have been achieved. It is therefore not surprising that many people believe that the rejection of the Chinese cultural tradition is no longer necessary and are eager to embrace this tradition to anchor their Chinese identity.
Traditional Chinese culture is indeed a rich part of the global cultural heritage. It belongs to all mankind and should of course be preserved for the benefit of people all over the world. Therefore, the renewed interest in traditional Chinese culture is welcome. But it is not unproblematic.
As part of the rehabilitation, as it were, of the tradition, the specific features of Chinese culture are often exaggerated: Chinese thought becomes conceived as essentially different from Western thought, the Chinese language becomes seen as essentially different from other languages. This is misleading. Of course there are cultural differences and these differences are important aspects of the richness of human civilization. But the differences may largely be seen as variations on common themes.
In today’s globalized world, cross-cultural communication and understanding are vitally important, and this makes it crucial to pay attention not only to the differences between cultures but also to their underlying commonalities.
Furthermore, it seems that the rehabilitation of traditional culture involves a swing of the pendulum from one extreme to another. While the previous wholesale rejection of Confucianism and other parts of the cultural heritage as largely “reactionary” was mistaken, there is today the opposite danger: that the rehabilitation of traditional culture leads to narrow-minded cultural nationalism, which not only juxtaposes Chinese and Western culture but also uses the “specific characteristics” of Chinese culture to legitimize the prevailing political order. This is unfortunate.
Cultural nationalism tends to nourish its opposite, a demonized view of Chinese culture as essentially oppressive, incompatible with freedom, democracy and human rights. It underpins a rigid conception of culture that prevents us from seeing the rich Chinese cultural tradition in its diversity and richness, with both positive and negative elements.
Professor Torbjörn Lodén is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at ISDP