Wednesday, 13 May 2015

An Anti-Modern Modernity (With Chinese Characteristics), by Matthew Cooper

One of the single most insightful scholars and most penetrating critics of modern China I have encountered so far is Wang Hui (汪暉), the professor of literature at Tsinghua University.

Having read his book The End of the Revolution when working for PlaNet Finance in 2011, I was at once stricken by his unique, daoistic propensity for showing how two nominally-opposed intellectual, scholarly or cultural tendencies in fact share the same underlying principles and ontological orientations. (This is a technique I have myself tried somewhat clumsily, on occasion, to adopt as my own.)

He is often cast, with strenuous reluctance on his part, into the role of the intellectual leading light of the Chinese New Left, but I have noted before certain strains running through his work which we might consider classically-conservative.

Dr. Wang would certainly not call himself that either, but he does have a particular knack for retrieving, elucidating with unvarnished sympathy, and finding a place in considerations of contemporary questions for overlooked historical narratives, concepts and literary ways of being.

Wang Hui’s conservative streak comes readily to the fore in his excellent work China: from Empire to Nation-State, which is at bottom a critique of modernity and the assumptions by which the category of ‘modern’ is applied to China.

He doesn’t question that China is a modern state, but he has very grave doubts about the entire narrative construct of modernisation by which China has come to be understood: both in terms of its normative character, and in terms of its analytical appropriateness.

Instead, he argues that China’s modernity has been uniquely and indelibly shaped by certain key pre-modern, or even anti-modern political and moral concepts.

Wang demonstrates very deftly that ‘modernisation’ as it was theorised by Machiavelli, Smith, Montesquieu, Mill, Hegel, Marx and others depended upon positing a mythical primordial Asia, an ‘Oriental despotism’ characterised by rural-agrarian life, mystical obscurantism and a dialectic of tyranny and servility, out of which the modern, urban-bourgeois, scientific and republican European nation-state could emerge.

The reflection of this mythical ‘modernisation’ construct through colonialism back upon Asia is therefore fraught with internal contradictions – these he explores, interestingly enough, by way of comparison with Russia.

In discussing Lenin’s ‘Democracy and Narodnism in China’, he argues that both the Westerniser and the Slavophil tendencies share a concept of the empire/nation-state binary (which had then become also an East/West binary), and take different directions in reacting to, deflecting or appropriating the Western view of Russia.

As Wang sees them, both the reigning models of Chinese modernisation – the Marx-Fairbank model which posits Chinese modernisation as a reaction against European colonialism and the Opium Wars, culminating in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution; and the Kyōtō School model which seeks ‘sprouts of capitalism’ and evidences of a nation-state sensibility arising out of the Northern Song Dynasty – are overly simplistic, and both implicitly rely on a Whiggish locus of ideas about the substance of modernity.

Instead, he argues, reformist political dialogues within China located the ideal society in the distant past, and focused their attention on the rupture between rites-and-music on the one hand, and institutions on the other.

To do this, reformers within China referred to the ritual moral substance of political forms of Chinese antiquity – such as the well-field system and the patriarchal clan system – when advocating egalitarian measures.

They made use of a front-loaded Confucian philosophical and political vocabulary that doesn’t neatly map onto the universalising ideologies of the Enlightenment, but rather draws upon a long tradition of reformist neo-Confucian thought based upon a naturalistic, contextual ‘heavenly principle’ (tianli 天理).

‘Song Confucians,’ Wang argues, ‘would find the way modern people link social change with a teleological view of time to be quite foreign: their criterion for evaluating change was not time, but rather an internal criterion—“the propensity of principle” (lishi 理事).’

His argument becomes really interesting when he argues that this internal Confucian political dialogue shaped the realities of the emergence of ‘modern’ Asian nation-states in ways which a Whiggish narrative of modernity cannot explain.

How did it happen, he asks, that Tibet, Xinjiang, Dongbei and Inner Mongolia became part of ‘China’ when they do not share cultural and print-linguistic ties with the Han people?

And how did it happen that some nations which have shared cultural and print-linguistic ties with the Han – Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Burma – did not join in the nation-building project of ‘China’?

The standard explanations of how nations form, he argues, are not enough – nor are explanations which refer to colonial relationships within ‘China’, though those certainly existed.

Instead, he argues, in some ways echoing the intriguing cultural conservatism of Jiang Qing, the flexibility of ‘Chineseness’ which shaped its modern national experience was inherited directly from the morally-legitimating categories laid down by a political Confucian orthodoxy.

Ethnically non-Chinese (Turkic, Mongolian, Manchu) claimants could and often did appropriate the moral-political Confucian resource of ‘Chineseness’ as a tool to maintain dynastic legitimacy.

But that sword cut both ways: the ethnically-Han people they ruled could then appeal to their monarchs’ claims to ‘Chineseness’ in their appeals for social justice and equitable distribution of goods.

This positive aspect of ‘Chineseness’ was supplemented by a negative, defensive idea of ‘China’ that emerged from the long Qing engagement with modernising colonial powers, and from the piecemeal but fully-conscious adoption of certain centralising facets of the nation-state by Qing reformers, precisely to prevent further fragmentation and colonial exploitation.

The picture that emerges from Wang Hui’s lengthy interrogation of the various cultural, political, legal and philosophical strands surrounding and penetrating a ‘modern China’ or a ‘modernising China’ is a subtle and complex one.

The good professor uses his humane literary intellect to tease out the tangle of deadweight puppet strings that both hold up and hold back this ‘modern China’, and attempts to cut it loose from its false self-understandings.

A ‘free’ China, for him, is emphatically not ‘free’ in a bourgeois capitalist sense, nor even ‘liberated’ in a Marxist sense.

It’s fascinating to see an intellectual, reckoned a ‘leftist’ in Chinese discourse, defend certain non-teleological and anti-modern Confucian political ideas and understandings as necessary for China’s continued ‘modern’ reform and development.

Dr. Wang himself is likely quite aware of the irony; the reason he eschews the term ‘left’ to describe himself, after all, is because he feels a terminology imported from a Western revolutionary context has very limited traction in a Chinese one.


China – and indeed, the non-Western world at large, as Pankaj Mishra might say – is a very interesting place at this moment in history on account of theorists like Wang Hui.

Bright minds, that is, who aren’t afraid to take up the cultural and intellectual tools which some might deride as outdated, old-fashioned or backward, and use them to reconstruct paths which resist or run counter to the current neoliberal global order.

Russia’s rediscovery of its own humane, personalistic, selectively-liberal and post-liberal philosophical tradition (Solovyov, Berdyaev and Il’in particularly) lies along this same trajectory.

Dr. Wang’s brief but subtle interaction with the antecedents of that tradition shows that these two projects are needfully intertwined.

My own interest in China stems from the fact that an immensely long body of civilised tradition – a body which goes back, with few interruptions, for 3200 years – is brought into a constant, disruptive and disorienting contact with the most frantic, brutal and unvarnished forms of modernity.

And unlike in other nations – like Japan or Korea – no serious attempt is made to paper over or downplay or explain away these violent juxtapositions. No soothing political noises are made to the effect that one can have a society grounded in Confucian values that is at the same time fully integrated into a value-demolishing global economy.

Tradition has not yet been reduced to an ersatz of itself in the service of modern ideologies.

This state-of-affairs provides Chinese scholars of China from various intellectual strains – people like Wang Hui, Gan Yang, Zhang Xudong, Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang – a unique and uniquely-interesting set of vantage points.

These vantage points will of course be valuable to subsequent Chinese policy-makers and intellectuals going forward.

But in a way, scholars like Wang Hui speak also to a modern world where contact with tradition has already, to a significant extent, been lost.

We in the West need to be startled out of some of our assumptions, about our own loss of historical perpective and agency within a cloud of universalistic developmental myth-making, and about how we’ve gotten to where we are (and whether we are better for it).

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