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The Transformation of Chinese Culture since the Launching of Reform: A Historical Perspective

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Author:Yu Keping | Source:


Globalization, characterized by intensified economic relations across the globe, is a worldwide trend of historical significance.1 Although the primary manifestation of globalization is economic integration, economic globalization also exerts deep influence on the totality of human social life, including its political and cultural spheres. Economic globalization not only has greatly changed production, consumption, and commercial exchange patterns; it has also altered modes of thinking and behavior. Above all, it has had a major impact on national cultures.

The influence of globalization on Chinese culture first became apparent following the New Culture movement of the early twentieth century. Since the 1980s deep, multidimensional tensions have reemerged in Chinese culture. These tensions include conflicts over tradition versus modernity, conservatism versus radicalism, nationalism versus globalization, and Sinification versus Westernization. During this period, heated debates emerged among Chinese intellectual circles; these debates came to be known as the culture fever. This chapter will briefly examine several general issues of culture in these debates, starting with the logic of Chinese culture as it unfolds against the backdrop of modernization and globalization, and ending with comments on the current situation of Chinese culture as well as its future development. The chapter argues that cultural transformations that originated during the May Fourth period of the 1910s and 1920s are now coming to an end. As a result, a new kind of Chinese culture is forming that represents neither a simple renaissance of traditional culture nor a carbon copy of one or another Western culture. Instead, it is deeply rooted in Chinese tradition but also absorbs some of the superior aspects of the cultures of other civilizations.

Cultural Modernization

From a historical perspective, the process of reform and opening since 1978 is essentially one of steady and comprehensive embrace of modernization and consequently of thorough-going social transformation. Modernization’s economic dimension requires industrial civilization and a market economy; its political dimension calls for democracy; and its cultural dimension upholds such core values as freedom, equality, and the sovereignty of human subjectivity. On the whole, Chinese traditional culture is usually seen as being incompatible with the political, economic, and cultural dimensions of modernization. As such, the first response of Chinese intellectuals to the reform and opening-up project was to consider how best to revamp traditional values to better fit with the requirements of cultural modernization.

This effort at cultural modernization aims at realizing the transformation of traditional culture, importing advanced modern culture, and making Chinese culture compatible with the processes of political and economic modernization. Some scholars have pointed out that cultural modernization is a basic requirement and organic component of social modernization. As one put it, “modern social life, as well as ‘modern people’ will inevitably accompany modern culture. Cultural modernization means formation of a new culture, which absorbs the merits of other cultures and is compatible with modern society. The modernization of economic and social life, the modernization of ‘people,’ and the modernization of culture are inseparable components of modernization. They are interrelated, interactive, and irreplaceable.”2

Chinese cultural modernization has two basic elements. On one hand, it entails revamping traditional culture, rejecting negative and outdated elements, and critically retaining its rational components. On the other hand, it means absorbing the merits of other advanced civilizations and incorporating them into a new Chinese culture. To most Chinese intellectuals, both of these elements are necessary to the modernization of Chinese culture, and they are equally indispensable. As one scholar has argued, “although it is necessary to learn from Western culture [in order] to construct a modern new culture, it is also crucial (and probably more important) to rediscover and carry forward [themes from our own] national culture [as well as] the essence of the national spirit.”3 Chinese intellectuals have differed, however, over the relative emphases of inheriting tradition or learning from the West, and as a result fierce debates have ensued.

For some intellectuals, the criticism of tradition is the first step toward modernizing culture. Although they do not necessarily deny the existence of reasonable and excellent elements in traditional culture, they nevertheless point out that traditional culture as a whole is incompatible with modernization and argue that it is the biggest obstacle to social modernization. This is particularly true, they say, of China’s autocratic feudal traditions, which strangled human nature, disregarded freedom and equality, stressed agriculture, despised commercial activities, and viewed men as superior to women. Scholars who prioritize abandoning many of the central tenets of traditional culture argue that only with the elimination of such traditions can people’s thinking be liberated and that in the absence of such liberation, social modernization will be impossible. As the prominent historian Li Shu wrote in a 1979 article: “In China, it is extremely difficult to launch an ideological revolution to eliminate feudal influence. It is even harder to make people identify with such a revolution.”4 Therefore, he argued, “completing the antifeudal ideological revolution that originated with the May Fourth movement is an important prerequisite to modernization, as well as [to] the victory of socialism in China.”5 This influential article was the first declaration of the ideological liberation campaign of the late 1970s.

Scholars who stressed the criticism of tradition argued that social modernization must be built on the basis of science and democracy, which were lacking in traditional culture. The May Fourth movement was the first attempt at ideological liberation in modern China and also the first attempt to modernize China’s traditional cultural values. The preeminent demands of the May Fourth movement were for “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy.” Pioneering thinkers of the May Fourth movement, such as Lu Xun, Chen Duxiu, and Hu Shi, were unanimous in arguing that traditional cultural values were incompatible with science and democracy. Based on their analyses, they concluded that in order to replace its traditional culture, China must construct a new culture with democracy and science as its core values.

Such views reemerged after the launching of reform and opening. There were heated debates among Chinese intellectuals in the 1980s over whether Chinese traditional culture contained scientific and democratic elements. Li Shenzhi, an influential and well-known scholar, pointed out emphatically that “neither democracy nor science existed in Chinese traditional culture.” Li intoned with emotion that “the year 1999 is the eightieth anniversary of the May Fourth movement. Recalling the past in the light of the present, we should feel ashamed that we have not lived up to the expectations of the pioneers of the May Fourth movement because we have made little progress in achieving either democracy or science.”6

Since the late 1970s Chinese intellectuals criticizing traditional culture have not only raised the flags of science and democracy but have also advocated the rule of law, which distinguishes them from their predecessors in the May Fourth movement. Chinese traditional culture paid great attention to rule by law, but almost no attention to the rule of law. Although seemingly similar, the two have substantial differences. The emphasis of rule by law is on handling events in accordance with laws made by an absolute monarch, which presupposes that the emperor is above the law. The essence of the rule of law, by contrast, is that no person or group can be above the law. The principle of the rule of law did not exist in traditional Chinese culture and was actually inconsistent with the very logic of traditional culture. As such, modernizing China’s traditional culture requires not only democracy and science, but also the construction of a modern state premised on the rule of law.

Cultural Renaissance

The first high tide of the culture fever in the reform era centered around cultural modernization based on a critique of traditional culture; the second tide ironically centered around the idea of a cultural renaissance. Those who advocated cultural renaissance also called for cultural modernization, but they regarded cultural renaissance, rather than the criticism of tradition, as the best way to achieve that goal. They argued that Chinese traditional culture is not incompatible with modernization. In their view, the reason China has lagged behind the West since the nineteenth century lay not in the backwardness of tradition but in the failure to carry forward the meritorious elements of traditional culture. They argued that it was extremely unreasonable to completely deny the role of traditional culture in the modernization process. In this view, fully implementing traditional culture was an important precondition to modernization. The renaissance of tradition and modernization were two sides of the same coin. These scholars found support for their arguments in empirical examples such as the “four Asian tigers” of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, all of which were heavily influenced by traditional Chinese culture. These societies were successful in their efforts to modernize, and yet they did not completely deny their traditions. Instead, they made every effort to retain the basic values of traditional Chinese culture.

This wave of renaissance for traditional Chinese culture consisted of three parts: a resurgence of interest in Confucianism and the emergence of New Confucianism; a surge of cultural revivalism; and the renaissance of so-called national studies. There are similarities as well as differences among the three strains of cultural renaissance thinking. Each of these social trends takes a conservative attitude toward traditional culture, emphasizing the values of traditional culture in the present and insisting that its basic values should be revamped or reinvigorated while retaining basic core principle values. By so doing, advocates of each argued, traditional culture would become compatible with, and could contribute to, China’s on-going modernization process. At the same time, however, the three parts have different emphases: New Confucianism regards Confucianism as the backbone of Chinese traditional culture and advocates the renaissance of traditional culture through the reinvigorating of Confucianism. Cultural revivalism pays greater attention to the important role Chinese culture once played in the world and hopes that Chinese culture can play a dominant role in the twenty-first century. The national studies approach emphasizes reviving ancient knowledge, which it views as the basis of traditional culture.

New Confucianism aims at reinvigorating the spirit of Confucianism. This approach originated in the 1920s with Liang Shuming, who served as its most influential advocate. New Confucianism flourished in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States after 1949. Since the 1980s, New Confucianism has become increasingly influential in mainland China.7 The New Confucianists not only have insisted on reinvigorating Confucianism but have also attempted to make New Confucianism into the dominant ideology of China’s modernization process. In their view, this is the only way to revive and modernize China.

Jiang Qing, one of the most famous advocates of New Confucianism in contemporary China, argues that since the nineteenth century, China has lost both internal cohesion and international position, largely because of the degeneration of Confucianism. As Jiang argues: “In mainland China today, Marxism and Leninism, both imported alien cultures, have become the dominant ideologies with the help of state authority. However, these alien cultures cannot become the cultural foundation of the Chinese nation to express the national spirit. They mark the climax of a situation, under which the Chinese nation has been culturally rootless for centuries.”8

In Jiang’s view, the biggest obstacle to the modernization of China is nothing other than “the complete denial of Confucian tradition” as well as “the complete Westernization of China.”9 He concluded that reinvigorating Confucianism is the most urgent issue in contemporary China. Confucianism should replace Marxism and Leninism to become (as it once was) the dominant ideology of the Chinese nation. Some extreme New Confucianists have advocated developing Confucianism into a religion. One has even argued that “the government should impose a Confucianism legacy tax as well as other effective measures in order to change Confucianism into a national religion.”10

The second approach, which focuses on cultural revivalism, has two basic theses. First, cultural revivalists assume that a direct correlation exists between the flourishing of Chinese culture and the prosperity of the Chinese nation. Cultural revivalists argue that the fate of Chinese culture is closely tied to the fate of the Chinese nation. The flourishing of Chinese culture always accompanied the prosperity of the Chinese nation. The Chinese nation once enjoyed great prosperity and glory in history, and China was among the strongest nations in ancient times. Chinese culture is one of the world’s great cultures, which was once acknowledged by neighboring countries. Therefore, culture revivalists argue, from a historical perspective, the revival of Chinese culture is a precondition to China’s modernization.

In addition, cultural revivalists argue that Chinese culture enjoys an “intrinsic superiority” over its Western counterparts. The failure to make full use of this intrinsic superiority is the reason why China has lagged behind the West. China has been growing ever more powerful since the implementation of the reform and opening policy. They argue, however, that to become a really great power, China must spread its own culture throughout the world. Only if China pursues this evangelizing mission on behalf of its cultural values can the intrinsic defects of Western culture be amended by the intrinsic superiority of Chinese culture. The cultural revivalists conclude that Western culture has fallen into a cul-de-sac and its dominance in the world will come to an end, while Chinese culture will be reinvigorated and become the mainstream of global civilization.

Liang Qichao and others observed in the late nineteenth century that “on the other side of the globe, there are hundreds of millions of people who are worrying about the bankruptcy of materialism and desperately calling for help! It is time to give them a hand!”11 Similarly, in the beginning of the twenty-first century, Zhang Dainian, Ji Xianlin, and eighty-four other Chinese culture researchers together issued “A Statement of Chinese Cultural Renaissance” (the subtitle of which was “Striving for a Great Renaissance of the Chinese Nation and World Peace and Development in the 21st Century”).12 They announced passionately and proudly to the world: “The twenty-first century is a century for Chinese culture!” In addition, they argued, that in the contemporary world, clashes between different cultures, rampant heresy, religious extremism, environmental degradation, the degeneration of humanity as well as the side-effects of science all pose obstacles to social safety and development. Chinese culture will play an irreplaceable role in the settlement of these clashes and issues . . . . The twenty first century is characterized by cultural confluence between the East and the West, while “dominance of Western culture” will be replaced by “dominance of Eastern culture.” The renaissance of Chinese culture will not engender confrontation with Western culture. It means the creation of a new global culture with Eastern culture’s absorption of its Western counterpart.13

The third school of thought, known as the national studies approach, focuses, generally speaking, on the knowledge system of Chinese traditional culture. In addition to such traditional ideologies as Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, it also pays great attention to Chinese traditional literature, military studies, astrology, drama, painting, mathematics, and other fields. Therefore, the national studies approach actually aims at reinvigorating Chinese traditional culture in a broader sense. Compared with cultural revivalists, advocates of national studies are more practical and down to earth in their quest to reinvigorate Chinese traditional culture, which they go about by systematically sorting out, exploring, and teaching traditional forms of knowledge. One important method they have used is the creation of national studies institutes as well as training programs. A seminal event in the development of this approach was the 2005 establishment of the National Studies Academy at Renmin University, which began recruiting students for its bachelor program. Ji Baocheng, the president of Renmin University, became the first director of the National Studies Academy. Furthermore, a National Studies Club was established by the commercial circles, and Peking University established a Qianyuan National Studies Class, which was nicknamed the Bosses’ Class, because it charged every student 24,000 yuan annually for tuition. Propelled by the “national studies fever” in academia, traditional private schools (si shuyuan) have reemerged.

The cultural renaissance movement has stirred up heated debates among Chinese intellectuals. Some support it, but a greater number have been critical.

Some moderate critics admit that traditional culture has several excellent elements that are still valuable. The modernization of China will benefit greatly from carrying forward these traditional values. Nevertheless, in their view, Chinese traditional culture as a whole is an obstacle to the modernization objective China is pursuing; the hope of reviving the Chinese nation by reviving traditional cultural values is destined to fail. As one critic of New Confucianism pointed out, “Confucianism long circumscribed the ideological freedom of Chinese people. In order to make Confucianism dominate Chinese national culture and national spirit, they [New Confucianists] have decorated Confucianism with the discourse of ‘modernization.’ It is totally absurd! It cannot help us accelerate the modernization process. It will become an obstacle instead.”14

Some radical critics are more straightforward. They have labeled the cultural renaissance movement as cultural conservatism or nationalism and attacked it fiercely. Similar to the enlightenment thinkers of the May Fourth movement, they argue that traditional Chinese culture as represented by Confucianism is incompatible with modernization. The economic miracles of the “four Asian tigers” are not enough to draw the conclusion that Confucianism will propel the modernization process, they argue. The modernization of traditional culture lies neither in reinvigorating traditional culture nor in reviving Confucianism; instead, it hinges on the construction of a new culture by absorbing the meritorious elements of other cultures (particularly Western culture). Some critics argued that it is extremely ironic that cultural revivalists are still dreaming of a Chinese empire; they are “cultural nationalists.” For these critics, to view the twenty-first century as a century for Chinese culture is an illusion.

Cultural Self-Consciousness

The reform and opening-up policy aims at advancing the political, economic, and social modernization of China through the transformation from traditional to modern culture. Against this background, the “modernization of traditional culture” has become a consensus goal among Chinese intellectuals for the first time since the May Fourth movement. But differences nonetheless exist over how best to handle traditional Chinese culture. What are to be the relations between traditional culture and modernization? How should the transformation process of traditional Chinese culture be accelerated? And what does cultural modernization mean in practice? These questions have triggered heated debates among Chinese intellectuals. Since the 1990s China’s political, economic, and social spheres have faced ever greater pressure from globalization, which has completely changed the context of cultural debates. New questions have been raised: What kind of challenges does globalization pose to traditional culture? How does Chinese culture interact with Western culture within the context of globalization? What course will cultural development follow in the future? How should China present its culture in the world against the background of globalization?

In this context, a new cultural discourse has emerged since the 1990s, which has received wide attention and further propelled the spread of culture fever among Chinese intellectuals. The new discourse is often called cultural self-consciousness. It was initiated by the famous sociologist Fei Xiaotong, who first proposed the concept of cultural self-consciousness in 1997 at the Second Advanced Seminar on Sociology and Anthropology held at Peking University. Fei argued that cultural self-consciousness “expresses Chinese intellectuals’ response to economic globalization. It also reflects the anxiety of human beings in general provoked by increased frequency of cultural contact.

Social development leads people to think about such questions as the origins of national culture, its formation, essence, and future.”15 In Fei’s view, the Reform movement of 1898, the May Fourth  ovement of 1919, and every political movement after 1949 all held high the flag of “destroying the old and establishing the new.” They counterposed modernity to tradition and regarded traditional culture as the enemy of modernization. But Fei holds that cultural modernization does not mean simply destroying the old and establishing the new—it also means weeding through the old to bring forth the new as well as learning about the new by returning to a study of the old for insight. Modernization both destroys and incorporates tradition, raising the question of cultural transformation. In his lecture, Fei argued that the concept of “cultural self-consciousness” has profound connotations. It can be applied to every nation across the world as well as to the analysis of the common concerns of human beings. Its power lies in the fact that people know their own national culture very well. They are aware of the history, formation process, [and] characteristics, as well as tendencies of their own national culture. Self-consciousness can enhance the nation’s autonomy in the process of cultural transformation, as the nation will be in a position to adapt to a new environment as well as determine its cultural orientation independently.16

Cultural self-consciousness aims to find a way to preserve Chinese culture against the backdrop of globalization and modernization. Chinese scholars concerned by this challenge have had to ask themselves: What is the essence of cultural self-consciousness? What is its focus? How can one achieve it? Chinese intellectuals have given different responses to these questions. Some, for example, place greater emphasis on culture’s role in social development. Such scholars argue that culture plays a more and more significant role in social modernization in the era of globalization. It is not only a critical impetus to social development but also an important constituent of a nation’s competitiveness. This is particularly true of today’s China. Having already achieved the development of a large-scale economy and a preliminary institutional framework, the key to the successful accomplishment of a modern civilization in China lies with the modernization of culture. In this view, cultural self-consciousness means that China must be conscious of culture’s significance in social development and adjust the nation’s strategy of cultural development consciously based on the needs of social development. These scholars argue that “competition in the era of globalization is essentially competition between cultural forces. Countries with powerful cultural values, science and technology, production standards as well as management models export these to the whole world, which countries with poor cultural appeal have to accept. This is the cultural dilemma facing developing countries in the era of globalization.”17

By contrast, some scholars place the emphasis of cultural self-consciousness on Chinese culture’s significance for world culture. They insist that Chinese culture be looked at from the perspective of world history. Gan Yang, a prominent scholar of Chinese culture, has noted that cultural self-consciousness has at least two meanings. First, Chinese people must realize that the rise of the Chinese economy is an important event not only in the history of the world economy but also for the history of world civilization. This makes it totally different from the economic rise of the four Asian tigers. The West looks at China’s rise as the determining cause of change in a world structure of Western dominance, which has lasted six hundred years. Chinese people must be conscious of China’s position in the contemporary world. They must look at China and its relationship to the rest of the world from the perspective of world civilization and world history. Second, the idea of cultural self-consciousness indicates that Chinese culture does not measure up to China’s current position in the world. From a parochial perspective on culture and history, China’s cultural foundation is pretty narrow. Cultural self-consciousness does not mean cultural egotism. Instead, it aims to construct culture while resisting the appeals of “cultural fickleness” and “cultural showmanship.”18

Other scholars focus on the revival of traditional culture. They argue that cultural self-consciousness means either rediscovering the merits of traditional culture and carrying traditions forward or pushing forward the transformation and innovation of traditional culture through examination of the disparity between the claims and realities of traditional culture. Some equate cultural self-consciousness with “Confucian self-consciousness” and advocate reforming and reviving Confucianism. These scholars argue that “Confucianism still has both theoretical significance and practical significance in the new historical context, and what we should do is to combine the conscience and spirit of Confucianism and modern values. As for the Chinese nation, the first step is to consciously carry forward Confucianism.”19

Some scholars place greater emphasis on the innovation of traditional culture. They argue that cultural self-consciousness calls for looking at traditional culture rationally and for consciously pushing forward cultural innovation and development. In their view, the aim of cultural self-consciousness is

not to return to traditional culture but to innovate and develop it. For example, Yue Daiyun, a researcher at Peking University, notes that “cultural self-consciousness advocates neither the return of traditional culture nor cultural capitulationism. Its essence lies in adjusting national culture according to new historical conditions.”20 In this view, the best way to preserve tradition is to develop it.

Still other scholars understand cultural self-consciousness from the perspective of methodological and theoretical concerns. In their view, cultural self-consciousness implies treating culture as a research subject and making it into an academic discipline that can be studied within a theoretical framework. Tang Yijie, a professor from Peking University, is an advocate of this perspective. He argues that researchers must be conscious of the theories and methodologies they use in their research; this is, after all, a precondition to any mature academic discipline. In Tang’s view, researchers of Chinese culture must look at it as their research subject and carry out their research systematically, creatively, and practically. “Only by so doing can they find both the advantages and disadvantages of Chinese culture and then consciously discover its intrinsic values. Only in this way will it be possible for the Chinese people to absorb the excellent elements of other cultures.”21

If cultural self-consciousness is a strategy of preserving tradition as well as innovating to meet the current demands of Chinese society as it evolves against a backdrop of modernization and globalization, as most Chinese intellectuals argue, then the two opposing forces of cultural globalization a cultural localization must be properly understood and accounted for. I turn first to cultural globalization.

Cultural Globalization

Cultural globalization is such a controversial concept that some scholars oppose its use. Some state directly that, based on economic globalization, cultural globalization is nothing but a synonym for the spread of Western culture.22 Some believe that the notion of cultural globalization itself is a conceptual contradiction. As some scholars observe, “the concept of cultural globalization has met with resistance in the Chinese context,” and many argue that cultural globalization is impossible or an illusion with no real basis.23 Others reject it because they fear the threat it poses to Chinese culture. Whatever the reality may be, despite the aforementioned concerns, the concept of cultural globalization is finding increasing acceptance among Chinese scholars, many of whom are thinking seriously about its implications.

Analysts who adopt the framework of cultural globalization assert that with the acceleration of economic globalization, cultural globalization has become, or will become, a reality as well. What is at issue for these scholars is not a value judgment about the desirability of cultural globalization but the reality of its existence. These analysts make three general observations. First, the free and rapid flow of capital, technology, information, and labor across the globe compels nation-states to conform to “international standards,” and accept “international norms” or “global rules,” which has resulted in the collapse of the political and economic as well as the cultural barriers of nation-states, altering their ideologies, social values, and institutional norms. Second, apart from exporting capital, technology, and production to the developing countries, the developed countries also attempt to impose their values, ideas, literatures, arts, and even lifestyles. Under the assault of Western culture, the national cultures of developing countries are weakened, and many national traditions collapse. Finally, globalization has intensified connections among human beings. Such issues as ecological crises, environmental pollution, terrorism, resource crises, the global population explosion, the spread of communicable diseases, and nuclear proliferation are becoming “globalized.” These global issues threaten the survival of human beings as a whole and call for “global action.” Thus, “global consciousness” and a “global culture” are urgently needed.

Li Shenzhi, a leading advocate of “global culture,” points out that “we are living in a changing world. Not only has the ‘balance of power’ in the world changed, but global forces and issues have emerged. These represent global demands that transcend divisions of East and West, or North and South. To cope with these issues is a challenge for all countries in the world and calls for the emergence of a ‘global culture.’”24 To most of its advocates, cultural globalization is not about the homogenization of national cultures but about the interconnections among different national cultures as well as the increasing consensus about and consciousness of global issues. As one scholar has argued, “cultural globalization is essentially a process of cultural integration. Based on economic globalization and information technology, different national cultures have been updated and integrated through intensified interactions. . . . In this sense, cultural globalization is neither an accomplished reality nor the death knell of disadvantaged nations.”25

Although culture is an overarching concept and its boundaries are hard to define, at its core culture is about human values. Following this logic, some scholars have paid a great deal of attention to universal, or global, values in their studies of cultural globalization. In this view, globalization not only makes people realize that they share a common fate but also helps them identify with such basic values as freedom, equality, justice, security, welfare, and dignity. Pursuit of such basic values is the core principle, as well as the ultimate destination, of cultural globalization. It is incumbent upon nation-states to pursue such values. For example, Li Shenzhi has argued: Global values do exist, [and are enshrined,] in such documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration of Environmental Protection, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, [and other international conventions]. But these values have not yet been observed by nations voluntarily; [indeed, at times] they could even ignite conflicts. As for nations, the biggest glory is to increase their contributions to the formation of global values. The future of globalization is the formation and dominance of global values.26

Cultural interactions in the era of globalization have their own characteristics that distinguish them from exchanges among nations in the past. One scholar has pointed out that cultural globalization has three basic characteristics. First, cultural and economic affairs are becoming increasingly integrated. Economic advantages bring about cultural advantages. Second, cultural exchanges are degenerating into culture exportation. Based on their economic and technical advantages, the developed countries have sought to spread Western culture to the whole world, sparing no effort to erode cultural heterogeneity. Therefore, cultural exchanges between West and East have degenerated into cultural exportation or cultural imposition. Third, the functions of culture are expanding, exerting an ever more comprehensive influence on social life. With the rise of the culture industry, culture is spreading into many new areas besides education, including consumption, aesthetics, economic affairs, and entertainment. Culture not only affects the ideology and value systems of human beings but also exerts a deep influence on their lifestyles, consumption patterns, manufacturing, and social psychology.27

Debates about cultural globalization in China always bring out advocates of cultural localization. These two, seemingly contradictory sides of the debate about culture have been bound together since the launching of the reform and opening-up policy in 1978.

Cultural Localization

The aim of cultural localization is to highlight the characteristics of national culture or to endow national culture with its own characteristics. Cultural localization is a natural response to globalization; they are two sides of the same coin, supplementing each other and constituting a “rational paradox” of

cultural development. Cultural localization is a concept relative to cultural globalization, and it would be misleading to discuss the former without reference to the latter. The localization of Chinese culture once again became a “hot topic” among Chinese intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s. As one scholar pointed out: For some countries or regions, globalization means the demise of local culture. We must realize that globalization is a process through which Western countries spread their culture to the rest of the world. . . . Modernization or globalization has brought about a sense of “homelessness,” which has resulted [for many peoples] in a crisis of cultural identity. . . . [Such an] identity crisis and the sense of frustration that comes with it made people aware of the significance of local culture to national survival. [As a result,] antiglobalization campaigns erupted under the banner of “returning to local culture.”28

Some may ask how feasible cultural localization or cultural nationalization is against the backdrop of globalization. In the views of some Chinese scholars, in the era of globalization national cultures are under pressure from both homogenization and pluralization, as well as showing tendencies toward both universalism and particularism. Cultural globalization does not erase the diversity of national culture; instead, it gives prominence to the value of local or national characteristics. Cultural pluralism develops alongside cultural globalization, which is rooted in the diversity of local or national cultures. Even globalization has a hard time erasing the cultural diversity of human societies. Cultural diversity, just like cultural universalism, is an intrinsic element in the survival and development of nations. Cultural diversity is an important precondition for cultural continuity and human development. Both integration of and conflict between different cultures push forward cultural development of human societies.29

Against the challenges of globalization, the localization of Chinese culture refers to efforts to sustain the values and sanctity of national culture in order to avoid its being subsumed by the process of globalization. To effectively localize Chinese culture, Chinese scholars have put forward a number of suggestions.

First, Chinese people must consciously take care of their national culture, recognizing that Chinese culture is facing serious challenges from Western culture during the era of globalization. Chinese people must recognize this challenge and assume responsibility for the preservation and further development of Chinese culture. The defense of national culture is essential to the existence of a nation. Chinese culture has lasted for more than five thousand years; arguably no other culture can bear comparison with its deep tradition and robust vitality. Therefore, faced with the challenge of globalization, Chinese culture’s vitality should not be overestimated or taken for granted, but instead must be constantly defended and renewed.

Second, Chinese people should actively preserve the Chinese culture. As some advocates of national culture point out, to preserve the nationality of culture does not mean cultural nationalism. Its aim is not to refuse the excellent elements of foreign cultures but to consciously sustain the nationality and independence of Chinese culture and to carry forward its meritorious traditions and values in the process of cultural globalization: “Faced with cultural globalization, we must place top priority on preserving the nationality of Chinese culture and highlight its characteristics. The more national one’s culture is, the more global it will be. To keep the nationality of culture is to push Chinese culture out to the world through absorbing and extending the common values of the whole world.”30

When discussing how to sustain nationality and preserve culture, some scholars have imported discursive constructs from the realms of politics and economics. For example, in Feng Ziyi’s view, Chinese people should pay urgent attention to the protection of cultural sovereignty and security. He argued that cultural security will not make sense without cultural sovereignty, while cultural preservation will be impossible without cultural security.31

Feng has proposed several suggestions for protecting cultural sovereignty: First, one should maintain one’s consciousness of being a cultural subject, that is, one should adopt the principle of “taking myself as the dominant actor” and “making foreign things serve our purposes” in the process of cultural exchanges. Second, one should adopt an appropriate cultural strategy so as to develop one’s national culture and withstand the influence of foreign cultures. Third, the state should protect and develop its culture industry, withstanding the “colonization strategy” of some Western culture industry actors.32

Last, a culture can remain vital only by retaining its merits. This is as true of Chinese culture as it is of any other culture. Therefore, in the localization and nationalization of Chinese culture, the most important task is to construct an advanced culture with Chinese characteristics. Such an advanced culture would include a national spirit, a value system, a knowledge system, literature, and arts that are compatible with China’s socialist market economy and democratic politics, as well as with national conditions.

How can the Chinese people and the Chinese nation best construct an advanced culture with Chinese characteristics? To answer this question, Chinese scholars have put forward many suggestions. These can be divided into four categories. First, China should retain and carry forward the essence of traditional culture. Second, China should persist in its strategy of opening up and engaging actively in cultural globalization. Chinese people must be good at learning and absorbing advanced ideas, values, and knowledge from foreign cultures and must excel at integrating them into Chinese culture. Third, one should accomplish the renovation and transformation of Chinese culture by retaining the essence of traditional culture while absorbing the best elements of Western culture. Finally, one should spread Chinese culture and help it “go out.” This involves integrating the essence of Chinese culture into global culture. By so doing, Chinese culture will become an organic constituent of global culture.

Concluding Thoughts

There have been heated debates about culture among Chinese intellectual circles since the early 1980s. By aiming at the political, economic, and social modernization of China, the reform and opening-up policy China has been in some ways consistent with China’s Westernization movement of the mid-nineteenth century. However, the historical context of modernization in China since the 1980s has changed greatly. The world has entered a new era of globalization. The links between modernization and globalization are crucial to any understanding of the social transformation of China since 1978.

From this perspective, the culture debates China has seen since the early 1980s are actually a response by the Chinese nation to the twin pressures of modernization and globalization, and a logical consequence of the transformation of traditional Chinese culture under these pressures. The aim of these cultural debates has been to accomplish the goals that the May Fourth movement failed to achieve, and in this sense the debates could fairly be regarded as a continuation of that movement. To be sure, they share a similar logic and arguments, focusing on problems such as tradition versus modernity, Sinification versus Westernization, Chinese substance versus Western function, radical versus conservative, advanced versus backward, and other such tropes.33 The culture debates of the 1980s onward have aimed to establish a set of values and a knowledge system compatible with universal human values. On the one hand, some universal values will be absorbed into Chinese culture in this process; on the other hand, some elements of Chinese culture will become components of global culture.

The on-going cultural debates exhibit extreme complexity. Some support the modernization of tradition while others advocate cultural globalization; some make an appeal for cultural localization while others criticize it as cultural nationalism; some focus on the innovation of traditional culture while others seek its revival; some engage in global cultural exchanges while others plead for the preservation of national culture; some worry about the erosion of national identity while others are thrilled by more cosmopolitan values; some decry the backwardness of traditional culture while others proudly announce that the twenty-first century will be the century of Chinese culture.

If one examines these contradictory cultural phenomena more closely, however, it becomes both simple and clear: the Westernization movement of the mid-nineteenth century marked the beginning of the modernization process of China. Since then, two themes have prevailed. One has been the effort to accomplish modernization so as to resolve China’s economic and cultural backwardness; the other trend has been to gain independence and break the “semicolonization” of Western dominance. In other words, modernization and national independence have been the two basic tasks of modern Chinese history.34 Basically speaking, these two themes account for the contradictions between values such as modern versus tradition, progressive versus conservative, and Sinification versus Westernization.

Generally speaking, modern civilization refers to industrial civilization, which originated in the West. Modern industrial machinery, resources, energy, chemistry, medicine, and telecommunications were first established in the West. If modernization is narrowly defined as industrialization, then it will be necessary to learn from the advanced science, technology, manufacturing skills, and management institutions of the West in order to achieve modernization. In this sense, the more contact with and learning from the West China undertakes, the more modern and progressive a society it will be. From this perspective, it is not surprising that many Chinese scholars have equated modernization with Westernization.

This perspective on modernization would also, logically, lead one to conclude that the more unwilling a society is to learn from the West, the more backward it will be. In the particular context of modern China, the West was regarded as the embodiment of advanced culture while Chinese tradition was often seen as the symbol of backwardness. As a result, the conflict between progressive and reactionary forces in China’s modern history often appeared to take shape as a conflict between Westernization and Sinification, between advanced values and backward values, and between modern and traditional worldviews. Reactionary forces were seen to be the representatives of vested interest groups. They strongly objected to China’s reforms and to learning from the West by putting forward arguments about “the degeneracy of Western culture,” “the incompatibility of Western culture with Chinese conditions,” “the excellence of Chinese traditional culture,” and other such notions. These arguments, as the philosopher Ai Siqi once pointed out, are common rhetorical tactics among all conservative and reactionary forces in China’s modern history. Ignoring the universal logic of the human experience, they seek a “closed-door policy.”35

Apart from accomplishing modernization through learning from the West, the other task of China’s modern history has been to achieve national independence. These two tasks are to some extent contradictory. One question that has haunted Chinese intellectuals and politicians for many years has been how to deal with the relationship between Westernization and Sinification, or, more precisely, how to balance the necessity of learning from the West with the imperative of maintaining the independence of the Chinese nation. The semicolonization of modern China was caused by the West. To achieve independence, the Chinese nation had to get out from under the control and influence of the West, even while modernization necessitated learning from the West. This dilemma made Chinese intellectuals and politicians very sensitive about learning from the West and fearful that any attempt to do so might end in China’s total colonization. As a result, Chinese thinkers have sought to emphasize the necessity of “making Chinese” or “nationalizing” those elements of Western culture that they feel compelled to adopt. Although China’s politics, economy, and culture all changed fundamentally between 1949 and the end of the 1970s, China still lagged far behind Western countries. To achieve modernization, China’s leaders realized that they had to swallow their concerns and undertake to learn from the Western capitalist countries in earnest. As such, the Chinese Communist Party, led by Deng Xiaoping, carried out bold and resolute reforms of the traditional socialist planned economy. One of these reforms was to reshape the strategy of modernization. Advocating that “development is the basic principle,” China opened up once more to the West. In so doing, China learned about the most advanced scientific and technological developments and management experiences of the West, absorbed Western investment, and intensified exchanges as well as cooperation with Western countries. With the opening-up policy, concerns about Westernization versus Sinification, tradition versus modernity, and advanced versus backward cultural values reemerged. On one hand, China has had to learn from the West; on the other hand, China has had to strive to maintain its national autonomy. In this context, the long-standing questions of how to preclude foreign control while learning from the West and how to retain independence while embracing elements of Western culture reemerged as well.

Even compared with other Western countries, the United States enjoys superiority in both comprehensive national power as well as the fields of science and technology. It is fair to say that the United States is the leading force in the development of material civilization and spiritual civilization among Western countries and represents the highest development level of modern Western culture. With respect to the developing countries (including China), the United States undoubtedly exerts more influence than any other Western country. It might even be fair to argue that, with respect to any country in the world, the influence of American culture is to some extent irresistible. Not only are the developing countries facing the challenge of Americanization, other Western countries are to some extent suffering from this headache as well. In some sense then, Sinification versus Westernization is essentially a stand-in for Sinification versus Americanization.

The world entered the era of globalization beginning in the 1980s and 1990s. As the leading trend in current world history, globalization is fast becoming an unavoidable reality. As long as a country opens its doors to the outside world, it is drawn into a process of globalization—China is no exception. Although globalization is dominated by Western countries (led by the United States) that determine the rules as well as processes of globalization , no country, not even the United States, can control the process of globalization completely. In the future, the developing countries, represented by China, will definitely come to enjoy more and more weight in the process of globalization. Globalization is a double-edged sword for developed as well as developing countries. Both developed and developing countries benefit from and suffer harm from globalization. The modernization and globalization of Chinese culture proceed hand in hand.36

Globalization is a process characterized by intrinsic contradictions. It organically incorporates integration and fragmentation, universality and diversity, and cosmopolitanism as well as parochialism. The primary driver of globalization is economic integration. Economic globalization inevitably exerts profound influences on political, cultural, and social life as well. Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of China’s modernization strategy, incorporated both domestic reforms and opening up to the outside world into one seamless policy package. In responding to the adoption of this far-sighted strategy, some intellectuals supported cultural globalization while others appealed to cultural localization; some played up cultural uniqueness while others were attracted to cultural diversity; some advocated cultural nationalism while others appealed for cultural universalism; some emphasized national identity while others advocated emphasizing global identity. There are even some who advocate both values at the same time.

Every scholar or politician, as long as he or she cares about the modernization of China, will inevitably encounter—and will have to address directly or indirectly—the challenges outlined above. Some pay more attention to the significance of development and globalization. In their view, economic development as well as universal values are vital to the protection of national dignity, and culture and national identity are basically compatible with globalization. These scholars believe that there are many excellent elements in Western culture that can be shared collectively by humanity as a whole. As such, they place the focus on learning from Western culture and expect Chinese people to enjoy the same modern civilization as Westerners. They prefer to place their emphasis on learning from Western culture and on adapting to globalization, rather than prioritizing the advancement of traditional Chinese culture. Other analysts uphold the importance of independence and nationality. In this view, maintaining the purity and independence of national culture is more essential than even economic development. These scholars fear that China might lose its autonomy in the process of globalization and become subordinate to Western countries. They prefer to carry the banner of Chinese culture rather than adapting to cultural globalization.

It is easy for the two sides to go to extremes, especially when they talk past each other. The former school tends to label the latter as “conservatives” while the latter label the former as “radicals” or “complete Westernizers.” Taking a holistic view of the cultural debates among the Chinese intelligentsia since the 1980s, one can identify several general trends. First, new discursive tropes such as globalization versus localization, cosmopolitanism versus nationalism, and “an identity based on our common humanity versus a national identity” are replacing earlier distinctions such as Sinification versus Westernization. Second, the cultural transformation that originated with the May Fourth movement is now coming to its end. In its place, a new kind of Chinese culture has been forming that represents neither the simple renaissance of traditional culture nor a carbon copy of Western values. This new Chinese culture has its roots in Chinese tradition but absorbs the best elements of other civilizations as well. It combines tradition and modernity while emphasizing both national identity and our common humanity. Third, even as global cultural values are entering into China, Chinese culture is spreading outward into the world. Chinese culture is becoming an important constituent of the mainstream of global culture, while global values such as freedom, equality, and human dignity are being incorporated into Chinese culture. In short, globalization is the abstraction of modern civilization on a global level. From the perspective of globalization, it is irrelevant whether modern civilization originated from the East or from the West. Indeed, just as learning from contemporary Eastern culture does not by necessity constitute “Easternization,” learning from the West does not necessarily entail “Westernization.”


1. The original, Chinese version of this chapter first appeared in Yu Keping, “Xiandaihua yu quanqiuhua shuangchong bianzou xia de Zhongguo wenhua fazhan luoji” [The Developmental Logic of Chinese Culture under Modernization and Globalization], Xueshu Yuekan [Academic Monthly] vol. 38, no. 4 (August 2006): 14–24. A similar version of this article was published in English in Boundary 2, vol. 35, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 157–82.

2. Qi Zhenhai, “Chuantong wenhua yu xiandaihua” [Traditional Culture and Modernization], Zhexue yanjiu [Philosophical Research] no. 6 (1992): 54.

3. Minze, “Guanyu chuantong wenhua xiandaihua” [On the Modernization of Traditional Culture], Zhexue yanjiu no. 4 (1989): 20.

4. Li Shu, “Xiaomie fengjian canyu yingxiang shi Zhongguo xiandaihua de zhongyao tiaojian” [Eliminating the Influence of Feudal Remnants Is an Important Condition of China’s Modernization], Lishi yanjiu [Historical Research] no. 1 (1979): 12.

5. Ibid.

6. Li Shenzhi, “Chinese Traditional Culture: No Democracy, No Science,” in Liberation Anthology (1978–1998), edited by Qiushi (Beijing: Economic Daily Press, 1998), pp.1118–24.

7. Fang Keli, Xiandai xin ruxue yu Zhongguo xiandaihua [Contemporary New Confucianism and China’s Modernization] (Tianjin: Tianjin renmin chuban she, 1986).

8. Jiang Qing, “Zhongguo dalu fuxing ruxue de xianshi yiyi ji qi mianlin de wenti” [The Real Significance of Reviving Confucianism on the Mainland and Its Problems], Ehu [Goose Lake] nos. 170–71 (August-September 1989), quoted in Fang Keli, Contemporary New Confucianism, pp. 424–25.

9. Ibid.

10. Zhu Xueqin, “2005: Zhongguo wenhua zhi xingse” [2005: The Configuration of Chinese Culture], Zhongguo qingnian bao [China Youth Daily] vol. 9, January 4, 2005.

11. Liang Qichao, “Ouzhou xinying lu” [Records of a European Tour], Yinbing shi heji [Collection from an Ice Drinker’s Studio] no. 23 (1936): 40.

12. Zhang Dainian, Ji Xianglin, and others. “Zhonghua wenhua fuxing xuanyan” [Manifesto of Chinese Cultural Renaissance] (http//

13. Ibid.

14. Minze, “On the Modernization of Traditional Culture,” p. 16.

15. Fei Xiaotong, “Guanyu ‘wenhua zijue’ de yixie zibai” [Notes on ‘Cultural Self-Consciousness’], Xueshu yanjiu [Academic Research] no. 7 (2003): 5–7.

16. Ibid.

17. Wang Haiguang, “Xiandaihua yujing xia de wenhua zijue” [Cultural Self-Consciousness in the Context of Modernization], Wenhui bao [Wenhui Daily], September 14, 2004.

18. Gan Yang, “Wenhua zijue yu Zhongguo daxue de renwen jiaoyu” [Cultural Self-Consciousness and Humanities Education in Chinese Universities] (|zYx/XzDGEy9ea2RdlqIycw==|1343204413

19. Zhu Renqiu, “Quanqiuhua Beijing xia de rujia wenhua zijue” [Confucian Self-Consciousness against the Backdrop of Globalization], Fujian shifan daxue xuebao [Journal of Fujian Normal University] no. 5 (2004): 98.

20. Yue Daiyun, “Duoyuan wenhua yu wenhua zijue” [Cultural Pluralism and Cultural Self-Consciousness], speech at the Central Academy of Music, January 17, 2003(

21. Tang Yijie, “Guanyu wenhua wenti de jidian sikao” [Some Thoughts on the Question of Culture], Xueshu Yuekan [Academic Monthly] no. 9 (2002): 39.

22. Wang Heyu, “Wenhua quanqiu zhi yi-jingji quanqiuhua de wenhua sikao” [Doubts about “Cultural Globalization”: Thoughts on the Cultural Effects of Economic Globalization], Xi’an jiaotong daxue xuebao [Journal of Xi’an Communications University] no. 3 (2001): 65–68.

23. Wang Ning, “Quanqiuhua shidai de wenhua lunzheng he wenhua duihua” [Cultural Debates and Cultural Dialogue in the Age of Globalization], in Quanqiuhua: Xifanghua haishi Zhongguohua [Globalization: Westernization or Sinification?], edited by Yu Keping (Beijing: Social Science Compilation Press, 2002), p. 267.

24. Li Shenzhi, “Quanqiuhua yu Zhongguo wenhua” [Globalization and Chinese Culture], excerpted from Liberation Anthology (1978–1998), edited by Qiushi (Beijing: Economic Daily Press, 1998), p. 880.

25. Li Zonggui, “Wenhua quanqiuhua yu dangdai Zhongguo wenhua jianshe” [Cultural Globalization and the Remaking of Chinese Culture], Nankai daxue xuebao [Nankai University Journal] no. 5 (2002): 4.

26. Li Shenzhi, “The Tendencies of Globalization and the Identification of its Values,” in Quanqiuhua de beilun [Antinomies of Globalization], edited by Yu Keping (Beijing: Central Compilation and Translation Press, 1998), p. 16.

27. Feng Ziyi, “Quanqiuhua yu minzu wenhua” [Globalization and National Culture], Zhexue yanjiu [Philosophical Research] no. 3 (2001): 16.

28. Gong Qun, “Quanqiu wenhua yu bentu wenhua” [Global Culture and Indigenous Culture], Nankai daxue xuebao [Nankai University Journal] no. 5 (2002): 8.

29. Fang Shinan, “Quanqiuhua yu wenhua bentuhua de duoyuan bingcun yu shuangxing jiegou” [The Coexistence and Dual Structures of Globalization and Cultural Indigenization], Makesi zhuyi yanjiu [Marxism Research] no. 4 (2001): 64.

30. Lu Zhenhe, “Cultural Globalization and the Strategic Choice of Cultural Development,” Zhongyang dangxiao xiaobao [Journal of the Central Party School] vol. 8, no. 4 (November 2004): 91.

31. Feng Ziyi, “Globalization and the Development of National Culture,” p. 17.

32. Ibid.

33. Yu Keping, ed., Zengliang Minzhu yu Shanzhi [Incremental Democracy and Good Governance] (Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press of China [Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe], 2005), pp. 27–56.

34. Liu Danian, “Zhongguo jindai lishi yundong de zhuti” [Main Themes of Movements in Modern Chinese History], Jindai shi yanjiu [Modern History Research] no. 6 (1996).

35. Ai Siqi, “Lun Zhongguo de teshuxing” [On China’s Particularity], in Cong Xifanghua dao xiandaihua [From Westernization to Modernization], edited by Luo Rongqu (Peking University Press, 1990), pp. 592–93.

36. Yu Keping, “Quanqiuhua: Meiguohua/Xifanghua huo Zhongguohua/xiandaihua? [Globalization: Americanization/Westernization or Sinification/Modernization?], in Yu, Globalization: Westernization or Sinification? pp. 1–27.