Chinese Historiography - Schools - Modernism

Modernism

This view of Chinese history sees Chinese society as a "traditional" society needing to become "modern", usually with the implicit assumption that Western society is the definition of modern society. Such a view was common among British and French scholars during the 19th and early 20th centuries but is now typically dismissed as eurocentrism or even racism, since such a view permits an implicit justification for breaking the society from its static past and bringing them into the modern world under European direction.

There are a number of other criticisms of this view. One centers on the slippery definition of "traditional society", which can become simply a catch-all for any non-Western society and treats any such society similarly. To use an analogy, animals might be classified into "fish" and "non-fish", but the latter category is not a particularly helpful one.

By the mid-20th century, it was increasingly clear to historians that the notion of "changeless China" was untenable. A new concept, popularized by John Fairbank, was the notion of "change within tradition" which argued that although China did change in the pre-modern period but that this change existed within certain cultural traditions. This notion has also been subject to criticism, that "China has not changed fundamentally" is tautological since it requires that one look for things that have not changed and then defines those as fundamental. This is far too broad, leading to conclusions like "England has not changed in the past thousand years because it has maintained its fundamental traditions of fishing, sheep-rearing, and monarchy".

Nonetheless, studies seeing China's interaction with Europe as the driving force behind its recent history are still common. Such studies, e.g., may consider the First Opium War as the starting point for China's modern period. Examples include the works of H.B. Morse, who wrote chronicles of China's international relations such as Trade and Relations of the Chinese Empire.

In the opposite vein, the Japanese historian Naito Torajiro argued that China reached "modernity" during its mid-Imperial period, centuries before Europe. He believed that the reform of the civil service into a meritocratic system and the disappearance of the ancient Chinese nobility from the bureaucracy constituted a modern society. The problems associated with this approach is the subjective use of "modernity". Chinese nobility had been in decline since the Qin dynasty and, while the exams were largely meritocratic, performance required time and resources that meant examinees were typically from the gentry regardless. Moreover, expertise in the Confucian classics did not guarantee competent meritocrats when it came to managing public works or preparing a budget. Confucian hostility to commerce maintained merchants at the bottom of the four occupations, itself an archaism maintained by devotion to classic texts. The social goal remained to invest in land and enter the gentry, ideas more similar to the physiocrats than that of Adam Smith.

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Famous quotes containing the word modernism:

    By Modernism I mean the positive rejection of the past and the blind belief in the process of change, in novelty for its own sake, in the idea that progress through time equates with cultural progress; in the cult of individuality, originality and self-expression.
    Dan Cruickshank (b. 1949)