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Defining terms: China, The West, civilization, and modernity

I’m still busy with Spring Festival matters so I’m taking the lazy way out and cross-posting between The Granite Studio and The Peking Duck. In a week, I’ll be back in Beijing and on a more normal schedule.

In the journal First Things, David Gress reviews the new book What is the West? by French philosopher, Phillippe Nemo. In his book Nemo argues, perhaps unsurprisingly, that we must first look to Greece:

The story begins with the Greeks, who invented scientific speculation and the ideal of the city, in which “individual lives are no longer submerged in a vast sea of humanity. . . . Each person now has individuality and character.” To this-a point of capital importance-the Romans added their “invention of private law,” whereby they “invented the individual human person.”

The next stage, of course, is Christianity or, rather, the impact of biblical religion and spirituality on ancient culture, an impact that was crucial in transforming that culture into what we call medieval. Biblical religion introduced an ethical and an eschatological revolution, “cherishing the individual, morally responsible human being, by emphasizing human individuality as desired and created by God for all eternity.” But, Nemo adds, that ethical revolution “might never have bestowed such theological significance on the individual person had these beliefs not taken root in a society that had already granted importance to the human ego.” Without Christianity, there is no civilization of human rights, but without the Greek city, Greek science, and Roman law, there is no Christendom.

I’m assuming Nemo has never heard of Mencius. Gress then suggests that Nemo uncovers a “fundamental logic of western civilization,” and here I think a comparison to China is worth mentioning. Gress writes:

The West is a civilization of borrowings and mixtures, whose result, never fixed and never self-satisfied, is more than a mere function of those borrowings.

Well, I suppose that is true. But isn’t it true of many places, including China? Certainly in what is today China there have been many groups and ideas coming and going, both changing and being changed by what was there before. The idea of static, unchanging, unyielding CHINA absorbing all who come into her borders doesn’t seem to work when compared to the historical record. But then Gress cites Remi Brague who I think makes a point that distinguishes at least how China and Europe interpreted their respective historical legacies:

The West, Remi Brague has written, is by definition a “secondary” culture, a culture of followers who know they are followers. Neither Greek poeitical philosophy nor Christianity were western inventions, yet their confluence created the West.

A culture of followers who knew they were followers. In one way, we could argue that this fits in China. Confucius called himself a “transmitter” of an ancient way. But I think the extent to which “China looks only backwards” has been quite overstated (beginning but sadly not ending with Weber.) It is the second line that I think gives some distinction between China and Europe: China never defined itself as a “secondary culture” to anyone. To anyone that is, until the intellectuals of the late-Qing and the New Culture Era started casting their nets wide for new ideas on how to reform old institutions in, using the words of Yan Fu, the search for wealth and power. Even then, reformers such as Yan, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Chen Duxiu, or even Mao Zedong would probably have explicitly rejected the idea that Chinese civilization was “secondary” to any other. It is a kind of cultural confidence that I think goes a long way to explaining why China has managed to remain (more or less and with definite gaps in the record) unified for so long. Of course, defining what we mean by “China” or “Chinese civilization” (as we saw in the recent post at the PekingDuck on “5000 years of history?”) is almost as tricky as trying to define some vague notion of “The West.”

Much more controversially, Nemo’s book suggests:

Holding democracy to be a result of how Christianity evolved in the West, Nemo is equally firm in holding that modern totalitarianism was not the evil essence of the West. The West, in this semi-Marxist view, is characterized by power and exploitation, democracy being merely a sham. Totalitarianism was simply the West without the mask. Any decent political philosophy that rejects totalitarianism must, in this widespread interpretation, also reject much of the West. In both elite ideology and much popular common wisdom, modern totalitarianism and Christianity are lumped together as bad, authoritarian, inhuman ideologies of unnatural constraint that must be rejected, and, since they were western, the rejection takes the form of multiculturalism and liberal guilt.

The final stage of Nemo’s historical analysis is to ask whether western culture is universal now and, if so, what that means. “Does modernization require westernization?” asks the Indian-born economist Deepak Lal. Nemo remains agnostic but suggests that we need not wait for the final answer, if any, to the question of what the West is today and what it should do to survive.

I’m not sure I like the way Nemo, after such a provocative argument, ducks Professor Lal’s question. I’m also, frankly, not enough of a Europeanist to give Nemo’s ideas the thorough workout they deserve. “Does modernization require westernization?” What does it mean to be “modern”? What does it mean to be “Western” or “Chinese”? How do we define and use these terms? I wish I knew the answers to these questions…probably make a helluva conference paper to say the least.
Via Arts & Letters Daily
Cross-posted at The Peking Duck