Studies of Life

Learning by doing.

Chinese modernity and its idiosyncracies

25 October 2016 by Jim

As Martin Jacques suggests in his book When China rules the World, further development will not lead to China becoming like the West. Instead, Chinese modernity carries its own cultural idiosyncrasies, as Japanese modernity does: even though Japan is at least as developed as Europe and Northern America, it is very different in even the most basic features of its society, including its social relationships and the role of its institutions.

This in itself is a lesson in humility. China will develop in its own interesting way, so we do not have a blueprint for how things work out. Indeed, it might be suggested that instead of all countries converging on Western liberal market democracy as the ultimate form of the state, developing countries might well get inspiration from other, well-functioning and fast-growing countries like China, which enjoy a lot of social peace despite not having the same kinds of freedoms as the West does.

This is one particularity of China’s historical past. Despite its huge diversity, no single sub-identity in China ever became strong enough to seriously threaten Chinese unity. The common Chinese identity is what keeps the country together, and after historical examples of conflict like the bloodbath that was the Warring States period, Confucianist China emphasises harmony and peace above all, and a strong government might be more conducive to that than an entirely free society.

Another particularity is the way that time is perceived in China, which is very different from Europe’s view. Having undergone many changes at increasing speed, the past, present and future are layered and coexist in China. This is in part also true of the US. People feel things changing, they perceive time, and thus past and future are closer to the past. In Europe, however, the slow historical changes have made the past seem remote, and thus also the future, as discrete dimensions that remain to be connected with through symbols. Therefore, Europe is more intent on conservation of the past and maintaining a particular image, because it always feels as though it might be loosing its connection to it. The fast-growing Asian tigers, however, including China and Japan, have no such view of the past and gleefully jump into the future.

That is a short (albeit crude) overview of some of the ideas in the book as I remember them. What do you think? It’s definitely worth a read!

Leave a comment | Categories: Philosophy, Reading | Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply