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History as a Moral Supplement for Modernization

In the past, the denial of Confucianism is a characteristic of the politics of China’s modernization that depicts various traditional cultures as backward and as impediments to the development of a modern commodity economy. Six aspects of traditional Chinese culture were seen as being problematic: (1) viewing wealth and commercial activity as morally dubious; (2) contentment with merely having sufficient food and clothing, and therefore not being interested in innovation and competition; (3) egalitarian sentiments that encourage the expropriation of wealth, striking fear in those who get rich first; (4) small peasant self-sufficiency that directs surplus income to the sphere of household life and festivities rather than using it to expand production; (5) a clan consciousness that favours nepotism and the hiring of incompetent relatives; and (6) gambling and superstitious belief in deities and ghosts (Xue 1986 cited in Hairong 2003: 498-499). As a result, many scholars who were influenced by Max Weber assumed that China’s values were unfavourable to the advancement of capitalism and Western rationalism (Young 1984: 57). This is also why socialism had considerable appeal as a philosophy of action. According to Hu:

Like Buddhism, another foreign export in China, socialism appealed to both the intelligent and the ignorant. As a coherent and comprehensive world view, Marxism seemed irresistible to the intelligent. It’s devastating criticism of capitalism and its dual emphasis on efficiency and equality promised a modern utopia. (2000: 58)

Ironically, just as discontent with the problems and consequences associated with the rise of modern systems had motivated Europeans to consider other alternatives, the ongoing changes in Europe provided another reverse framework of reference for China in the era of globalization (32).

As in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the West, there began “the reverse process” of “the reconstruction and second coming of the structures of spirituality” (cited in Horujy 2015: 75-76). As Horujy argues:

Modern man essentially neglected practices of the self, and therefore it is only the epochs of the past that could provide the phenomenal base for the study of constitutive practices of man. As a result, the emerging direction acquired a specific doubly oriented structure: it had to identify in history and investigate a certain formation of anthropological practices—with the further aim to develop, on the basis of these practices, a new nonclassical anthropology that would enable us to understand the anthropological situation of the present day ... This bi-directionality (toward past epochs and toward modernity) in virtue of which the ancient practices become a source of new concepts and ideas capable of solving present-day anthropological problems. (166)

As a consequence, people often take the “good old days” as a referential source to solve the problems of the present day (Didi-Huberman 2015: 84). The revival of culture is in fact the partial dissolution of patterns and their recombination with new elements to create a new form that bears a strong resemblance to old forms (Beyer 2013 11). It is, however, not “a return toward the past, retracing our steps, thinking you are going to live once more in the good old days” (Didi-Huberman 2015: 84). It means tackling the most urgent problems of today’s world by using the strategy of reorganizing different discursive sources. As Didi-Huberman argues: “When you do a dig, you are upsetting the ground of the present. Thus, politics is what we do with our memory to produce desire, to produce something of the future, in terms of a possibility in our own practice” (84-87). There is no true or false about the past nor a certain destiny for the future, but only a game of discursive formations in the contemporary that makes practices possible.

Similarly, the discourse of the China Dream is associated with the selective reinvention of traditional Confucian values to meet the recent needs of the Party state, such as building “a harmonious society” (Jones 2014: 129). In the process of modernization, economic growth can be a highly abstract notion for individuals. In the case of China, Chinese people have become increasingly concerned with inequalities, and environmental degradation and its influences on social values and political culture than simply with GDP quotas (Holbig and Gilley 2010: 400). They have also become increasingly concerned with what can be called the “dead weight of modernity,” which in the Chinese (and other developing world) context has also become associated with “corruption” (Chang 2011: 79). Corruption in this context is a consequence of the merging of Chinese tradition and Chinese modernization to create a significant “social” bad. We will discuss the various tensions in the discursive field of corruption in Chaps. 3 and 4.

These problems have greatly troubled the Party’s rule in China in the context of its rapid development (Pei 2012: 31), which has left people with fundamental uncertainties concerning the future (Holbig 2009: 40). As Holbig argues, “for Chinese people, the satisfaction of material needs must be followed by immaterial needs, such as demands for political participation and for pluralized lifestyle, mentalities and beliefs” (43).

a chaotic normative and regulatory pluralism where the degree of adherence to acknowledged norms appeared increasingly lax and moral consensus undermined, where old structures and codes were breaking down, and where strategies of social mobility through education and patronage were failing. The political context was marked by the increasingly predatory use of power on the part of elites, a growing premium on access to the state but a reduction of opportunities of access, the nation-state’s progressive inability to monopolize the moral resources of community and command political loyalty. (Marshall 2009: 8-9)

Thus, although Chinese people benefited largely from economic development, the uncertain road to modernity also generated considerable anxieties among Chinese people (Cong 2013: 908). This led the Chinese people to seek refuge from these anxieties in various sources such as consumerism, and also in religious and traditional practices (Chang 2011: 81).

Moreover, socialist ideology was thrown out of balance when reforms extended beyond the Communist grand tradition (Holbig 2009: 41). Internally, the Chinese people’s direct experience of the Communist Revolution, the discrediting experiences of Maoist campaigns and widespread perceptions in the populace of social inequality, injustice and corruption have all challenged Communist mainstream ideologies (42). In this context, many people started to think that “communism was only a brief interruption in the Chinese historical trajectory that is deeply rooted in Confucianism” (Chih-Yu 2014: 16).

Therefore, although Confucianism was relegated to the museum of Marxism in the past, it has now been “revived” (Dirlik 2002: 21-22). At the same time, the market has framed positive subjective perceptions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Holbig and Gilley 2010: 400). Thus, the revival of traditional culture and market reform are the two means adopted in China for its modernization project. This second, or condensed, modernity in China is fundamentally linked to the nationalist developmental politics that have continued to govern China ever since its entry into modernity (Chang 2010: 322). As many have argued, China’s reform not only staves off political discontent through the material fulfilment of the consumerist desires of the middle classes, but also has delivered, or promises to deliver, the completion of China as a modern nation (Hillman 2010: 40). Modernity, as a component of the China Dream discourse, should be understood as the realization of three dreams: a strong state, a wealthy nation and a prosperous individual—in that order (Yan 2010: 507).

In this context, China overturned the classical view that Confucian culture is incompatible with modernization (Wheeler 2005: 4). It seems Chinese traditional culture can play an important role in national cohesion and creativity, in international power competition and the growing demand by the Chinese public for greater access to a variety of cultural pursuits (Edney 2012: 908). The renewed interpretation of Confucianist values is expected to provide rich supplements to China’s unique modernization project: “first, that some core traditional Confucian values are conducive to modernization; second, that, notwithstanding, Weber,1 Chinese culture did include the kind of tension (as discussed above) with the world that Weber thought necessary for modernization; and third, that China has selectively assimilated ideas from the West” (Wheeler 2005: 14).

It was in the 1980s that the revitalization of Confucian values, norms and responsibilities began to emerge along with China’s reform policies (Holbig 2009: 51). The narratives of modern Chinese history had since shifted from rebellions and revolutions to modernization and reforms (Li 2010b: 337). Dirlik suggests that the processes of colonialism and imperialism have in turn “domesticated” Chinese modernity, the result being that revolution has been replaced from the centre to the margins of history (2002: 27). Many scholars in China believe that economic globalization is a process of subjugating different regions, societies and individuals to a hierarchical and unequal structure of global monopolization (Li 2010a: 9); as Chinese society is experiencing the breaking down of numerous traditions, the China Dream discourse has been developed to serve a political agenda that is neither traditional nor Western (Zhu and Pearson 2013: 1228).

This assertion is both true and false. It is false because, as Marshall argues, if we suppose this revival is merely a passive response to a material or moral crisis, then what sort of criteria may we use to determine the question to which it constitutes an answer (Marshall 2009: 17)? This kind of question would inevitably “express a presupposed ontological link between particular cultures and the propensity for a chaotic spirituality and/or a tendency to interpret the world through the lens of religion” (17). Rather than being neither traditional nor Western, it is more like a remnant of the division of modernization and tradition, that is, the remnant of the modern economic system which attempts to integrate traditional values (Zhu and Pearson 2013: 1219). That is, it is neither the modern nor the traditional, neither universal nor particular, but a remnant of both (Agamben 2005: 51-52).

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