Modern China Emerged Before Its Encounter with the West

by New Quarterly Perspectives, NQP 27.10.2008

Wang Hui, China’s leading “new left” intellectual and the former editor of the prestigious journal, Dushu, is author of The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, the seminal historical work on the subject. He was interviewed in at his office at Tsinghua University in August by NPQ’s Beijing correspondent Aventurina King. Excerpts follow:

Beijing—Typical Western narratives of China’s modernization argue that the rise of modern China was the result of its encounter with the West—the Opium War in 1840, the May 4th Movement in 1919, industrialization and Western-style attempts at reform. The Kyoto School narrative in the first half of 20th century, on the other hand, which saw an internal tendency to modernize across the region, dates the rise of modern China much earlier—from the 10th century Song Dynasty. The argument is that after the collapse of the aristocratic system of the Tang Dynasty, a civilian state emerged in the 10th century with bureaucracy and high-ranking officials selected through a formalized national examination system rather than through family ties. Their neo-Confucianism was seen as a kind of proto-nationalism.

The collapse of the aristocracy and the emergence of a political system in which the emperor became the leader of national administration together with a prime minister and the bureaucracy made China the most advanced government of its time in the entire world. China engaged in that period in long-distance trade with Africa, Europe and the rest of Asia. At one of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, one performance displayed the replica of a distinctive boat from the Song Dynasty, which had been discovered with a load of porcelain bound for European consumers when it sank along the “maritime silk route.” There was a great deal of trade among states within the Chinese region, using copper coins as domestic money and silver as hard currency.

So, early on in China, there were these emergent traces of a modern nation. This is the view of the Japanese Imperial School, which tried to establish a narrative of East Asian history for its competition with the Western narrative of world history.

However, I depart from the Kyoto School view that the Song Dynasty possessed a tendency toward “nationalism” with Confucianism as an ideology. Confucianism can’t simply be defined as a national idea. 

Rather, in my view, Confucianism became dominant in the Song Dynasty as a conservative reaction to the centralized Junxian system with its imperial examinations and widespread taxation. These were seen by the Song Confucian scholars as a threat to family and feudal values and the spirit of sage kings. Under the feudal order, there had been a division of powers. As the early modern nation—if it can be described as such—emerged with centralization of authority in the emperor, Confucianism was promoted as a critique of that centralized power. Confucianism also offered a critique of the meritocratic examination system, which was seen by conservatives as replacing virtuous education.

Indeed, Confucianism in the Song Dynasty had a double face: It served both to legitimate the new dynasty and to critique the erosion of traditional values.

             In any case, the point is that the new tendency—formalization of a political system, national identity, divison of labor, long-distance trade—was present in China long before the 19th century though there are different views on the periodization of the early modernity in Chinese history.

Of course, history is full of continuities and discontinuities. In the 13th century, when the Mongolian reign was established, it was obviously not a nation state but an expansionist empire. Then there was the Manchu Dynasty and after that the Qing Dynasty, the multi-ethnic state with all its integration and diversity which is the historical base for present-day China.

In the Western narrative, again, the Qing Dynasty was seen as an empire rather than as a nation because its borders and sovereign space were said to be ill defined and filled with diverse peoples. But it had borders with Russia in 1689 and a well-established administrative system. Some scholars saw China as a civilization pretending to be a state, which is a view originating from the Western idea of nations. Just because a system is more flexible and diverse than unified and homogenous, does it make it less modern?

Wei Yuan, a famous Chinese literary figure, once remarked that it was difficult to compare China to a single European nation state because of its scale—greater than all of Europe—and its ethnic diversity. He thought America, though an immigrant country, was more comparable because of its ethnic diversity.

Tibet Should Not Be Seen As Ethnic Conflict | It is in this context of Chinese history that we must view Tibet. In the West, most people know very little about the long history of relations between China and Tibet. That is not to say there are no problems or not a crisis in Tibet. It is only to say that to misunderstand the issue and encourage ethnic conflict will lead to disaster for everyone. If we make the conflict one between Chinese nationalism and a resistant ethnic group, a clash of different cultures, then there is no way out.

The Tibet issue must be placed in the context of social equality amid the great opening up and transformation of China.

First of all, there is inequality between regions in China, between the rapidly prospering coastal regions and the Western regions where many of the ethnic minorities—together with majority people—live, as well as between urban and rural. In many areas, even in small villages, peoples from different backgrounds—including ethnic background—live together peacefully.

This social differentiation has been exacerbated by the process of the marketization of Chinese society. Because of differences in education and language the opportunity of different groups—groups from urban and rural, coast and inland, as well as ethnicities—to access the market is unequal. This can easily lead to social conflicts. 

In the United States, you hear the argument all the time in the Southwest that Mexican immigrants must learn English to access the mainstream. The same is true for Tibetans or other minorities with respect to learning Chinese Mandarin. It is the language of the market just as English is in the US.

Of course, just as in the US, this reduces cultural diversity at the linguistic level. So, on the one hand you want minorities to study their own language and preserve their distinctiveness, but you don’t want that difference to result in even greater social inequality. We must protect minority cultures, but also make sure they have access to the means of upward mobility.

With respect to Tibet, another issue comes into play—free an open migration within the vast space of China. At the beginning of our reforms in the 1980s we still had the registered permanent residence system where labor stayed put. In the socialist period, diversity of national autonomous regions was dealt with by budget allocations from the central government. The Chinese national government invested in the poorer regions to bring them up. More than 90 percent of Tibet’s investment came from Beijing. But there was very little communication and very few transportation links between regions.

Today, China is a country of mass internal migration, stimulated not by the state, but by private business. Now, those in the labor market are free to move anywhere they can find work, including Han Chinese to Tibet, though compared to the scale of migration from the western China region to coastal areas, or from rural area to urban area, the migration to Tibet is much smaller. No doubt, because of their links through language and other connections to broader China, the Han immigrants to Tibet can often have commercial advantages over the natives. So, we have to find a way to balance minority protection and the protection of the right of migration in this new context. Market mobility also raises the issue of protection of the rights of migrants who have moved from one region of China to another.

Though religion is an issue in much of the world, Tibet is different. Its experience is unlike that envisioned by Max Weber, where the advance of the market and secularism erodes societies based on faith. Tibet has remained a religious society. Following the expansion of the market society, there has been an expansion of religious society, with thousands of temples established since the 1980s. So, there is a double process of religionization and secularization. Like many others, I dislike the logic of a “clash of civilizations” and I don’t think that the issue here is one of religious conflicts.

The marketization of China and its integration into the global economy have been celebrated by the West, especially its media. Yet, these kind of upheavals and transitions are part and parcel of that process. They present problems China must deal with, but they are problems every diverse society faces as the market economy can discriminate against some as well as uplift and embrace others. What we need to do is to find a way to build an equal society that, at the same time, remains diversified. This is a big challenge for everyone, not just China, in the era of globalization, marketization and high fluidity among cultures.

The Environment and Democracy | There is much to criticize in China with respect to environmental destruction. I have personally been active in opposing dam construction in some Western regions of China. But this, too, must be put in context.

China is following the logic of market industrialization laid out by Europe and America in the 19th century. We know now that that kind of development model has been disastrous for the whole globe from an ecological perspective. We need to get beyond that logic not only in China, but elsewhere.

But China can’t change this alone. With globalization, China has become the factory of the world. China is consuming a lot of the world’s energy as a result of the global division of labor in which highly environmentally destructive transnational companies have moved their operations here from the West. This is not an excuse to defend China. China is a big country, and it has to try to break from the developmental logic inherited from the West and practiced through its factories in China.

But this can’t be done overnight just as democracy is not going to arrive overnight. Democracy was a long time coming in the long history of Europe. Spain only became democratic in the 1970s, after all. This also is not an excuse. It is simply to say that we are all really in one process. Some arrived sooner, some later. But we are all now linked. When looking at China, the Western media really need to keep this perspective in mind.

Chinese Nationalism: Defensive, Not Aggressive | It is easy to see nationalism on Chinese Web sites. Strong nationalism is destructive for any society. But I would argue that the kind of nationalism seen in China today is usually a defensive action, not an aggressive nationalism. It is a response to something that has happened on the outside. It would be wrong to interpret the acts of Chinese students protecting the Olympic Torch from disruptive protesters on its course around the world as rising nationalism. It was not a Chinese torch, after all, but the Olympic Torch. These students were proud that the world was coming to China and recognizing its success. The Olympics were seen as a chance for the world to understand China. The torch wasn’t an icon of China somehow aggressively asserting itself in the world.

It would be even more wrong to think that these students’ action is the simple result of manipulation by the Chinese government. I don’t know the exact role of the Chinese government in these movements. But, obviously, those Chinese students defending the torch relay felt the government was too soft in defending China’s dignity. There is censorship in China, but there is public opinion in China, too. The term “authoritarianism” is too simple to explain everything.

Ordinary Chinese are warm to foreigners, trying to show them the best side of their society when they visit. The Olympics were a chance to do this on a big scale. I think it hurt the feelings of Chinese students abroad that the Western media were so hostile. Hurt feelings are not aggressive nationalism.

The Western Media and Chinese Openness | One reason the Chinese people, in particular students, felt indirectly threatened is that the Western media’s knowledge of China is very limited. Yet, all of a sudden, China has become a big player on the global scene. It seems that nobody, including the Chinese people themselves, were prepared for this. The Western media must write and report more broadly and fairly, with more perspective, on what is going on in China. The Chinese side is also at fault. We need to be more open and transparent and encourage people to communicate and express themselves.

It is critical that China find its own path in the world, its own way of development that needn’t conflict with others. To find our way we need to encourage different voices being heard in our public space.

Copyright: New Perspectives Quarterly, NPQ

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