The State Formation of Modern China – Modernity

We need to first clarify what modernity is? Who defines modernity?
September 15, 2023
Associate researcher at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica (Taipei)
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China’s traditional politics is an open system while western Europe’s traditional politics is composed of each of their own closed systems.

First of all, I was comparing traditional politics in China and Western Europe last time, while modern political systems will be the topic today. But I will use traditional politics to approach this topic. Secondly, Chinese audiences, in general, are more likely to have a simplified impression of European history. According to my personal experience, diving into European history is very helpful for us to review the history of China. And I want to share this perspective with you. Today, let’s talk about the second topic of the State Formation of modern China: Modernity.

In fact, before the 21st century, all academic discussions about modernity, in fact carried the characteristics, the connotation of which is centered on Western rationality. The institution, organization, culture, and order of modern Western civilization, originated at the end of the Middle Ages, developed in the modern history of Europe, and spread globally with the expansion of Western European power.

Therefore, the global modernity that the intelligentsia talks about is still in the context of Western modernity. Along with the establishment of Western dominance within the world’s political economy, Western modernity has highly developed around the world, creating a vast set of orders and systems. There is a facade of the system, which probably also resembles what Blinken called a rules-based international order.

According to this mindset, based on this set of order and system, the process of forming the modern world is modernization. Globalization is also part of modernization that the majority of countries or regions, either voluntarily or by force, are integrated into this modern world order. This process of integration is also the process of modernization of individual countries and regions. And the modern world emerged from the process is basically a world order in which the Western powers act and dominate.

Modernity, as described above, is defined by the West and traces the relationship between the Western and non-Western countries, which has also largely shaped the fate of the non-Western world. The social and economic development of China in the 21st century offers an unprecedented opportunity to examine the definition of this concept of modernity from a historical perspective for us to rethink the grand topic of modernity. This of course does not mean that China has rewritten the definition of modernity, nor that it has rewritten the history of modernization in the centuries that preceded it. Instead, China’s distinctive model and history of modernization has given us the opportunity to extend the period of and the enterprise of historical attention. Instead, it provided with us another perspective to understand the formation of the modern China. There is no doubt that the unique development of capitalist society in Western Europe and their global dominance have led many historians and futurists to believe that the Western European-North American model will be the end of the history.

Many scholars and insightful individuals agreed in common that although China was roughly in sync with Western Europe, many modern phenomena appeared in China around the 15th century. But in terms of social structure, political system and historical evolution, there are fundamental differences. This claim is based on the premise that the Western European model defines the political, economic, scientific and cultural modernity of modern society besides the Western Europe.

It is the prototype and comparison table for all other parts of the earth. When we put this premise aside and look at the specific elements of modernity that the world has identified, including secularization of political participation, individualization, marketization, industrialization, urbanization, and a high degree of division of labor, and so on, and examine them in front of our eyes, we will find that the performance of China in the 21st century in terms of these indicators is to a large extent not a copy of the Western European model but a continuation of Chinese history itself.

Before the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, the class mobility, cultural diversity in traditional Chinese society, which is the “open and closed” topic we talked about last time, and the degree of social and political participation secularization, marketization, and even individualization of ordinary Chinese people was much higher than those of Europe at the same time.

Combined traditional Chinese Confucianism and legalism, the China’s political system and management system based on reason instead of kinship, were admired and envied by Western European missionaries. Even through Taoism and Chinese Buddhism, two rather postmodern cultural systems, the Chinese society plays a restraining and balancing role in Confucian and legal societies and all of this comes together in “the people”. The tradition of people-based politics and people-based society is the core of China’s modern inheritance.

So if we look beyond the antagonistic writing in textbooks history, we will find that Wang Fuzhi and Huang Zongxi, Danyi Juezhu, as well as the Three Principles of the People and Chinese Marxism share many common values, and we will find a thread of continuity between them.


Associate researcher at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica (Taipei)
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