Chinese modernization has its cultural mission

BY WU XIAOMING | 06-15-2023
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Over 40 overseas students from 24 countries take part in a 6-day cultural tour in Guizhou Province, from June 2–8, where they interact with Chinese middle and elementary school students, get a taste of traditional Chinese culture, and learn about Chinese intangible cultural heritage. Photo: CFP

On June 2, General Secretary the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping emphasized at a meeting on cultural inheritance and development that China’s fine traditional culture is comprised of many important elements, which have formed the prominent features of Chinese civilization. The fact that Chinese civilization is highly consistent is the fundamental reason why the Chinese nation must follow its own path. If one does not learn about China from the continuity of its long history, there is no way for him or her to understand ancient China, modern China, or China in the future. 

Chinese civilization has a long and continuous history stretching back to antiquity, and said that a comprehensive and profound understanding of that history is essential to promoting the creative transformation and development of fine traditional Chinese culture more effectively, and to developing modern Chinese civilization. Xi’s remarks pointed out the inevitability of the Chinese nation following its own path, and how this relates to the Chinese civilization and our fine traditional Chinese culture.

In modern times

This stage of modernity has opened up “world history” and constructed relationships of domination or subordination so that any nation in the world, if it wants to survive, is drawn into the general process of modernization. However, modernization can only be truly achieved if it is informed by a nation’s specific social conditions and historical environment. 

Therefore, Chinese modernization builds on China’s specific social context and historical realities. It has Chinese characteristics and fits with China’s national conditions. China’s national conditions demand a deeper understanding of the basic nature of Chinese civilization and the overall characteristics of Chinese cultural traditions. China proposes and carries out its modernization tasks on the basis of the Chinese context and its cultural traditions.

Any analysis of contemporary China’s development path must respect such a reality. As an essential part of our unique national conditions and cultural manifest, tradition should be understood as a prerequisite to any study of Chinese modernization. Only on this basis can we discuss China’s unique modernization process, and the effective actions taken on China’s development path. Chinese civilization’s traditions are as strong as its aspiration for modernization. China’s development path is restricted by the mutual tension between these ancient traditions and modernity, but this makes our path unique. From ancient China to modern and future China, Chinese civilization’s continuity shapes China’s path and testifies to its inevitability. 

Only with a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of the history of Chinese civilization can we more effectively promote the creative transformation and innovative development of fine traditional Chinese culture, more effectively construct socialist culture with Chinese characteristics and make solid progress in building a modern Chinese civilization.

In history

Over centuries, China’s history clearly confirms the broad dominance and long-lasting influence of its cultural traditions. In fact, several famous scholars have taken note of this phenomenon. German philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, once lamented the decline of the ancient empires of Assyria, the Media, Persia, Greece, and Rome, and he marveled at the fact that China flowed smoothly like a river that did not know its source. China’s cultural character is uniquely tenacious, scholars continue to note its exceptional nature. After World War II, a leading scholar on modern and contemporary China, John King Fairbank also said that China, despite its constant changes and diverse circumstances, has never deviated from a central cultural and institutional pattern, and the persistence of institutions and cultures which in other settings may produce inertia has instead manifested as momentum and adherence to established policies, rather than immobility.

When we emphasize the importance of Chinese cultural traditions to the course of our history, this doesn’t mean that we can downplay or belittle the task of modernization that China faces today. On the contrary, modernization has been the most important and fundamental task in Chinese history since modern times. Modernization even reshapes the underlying themes and significance of traditional culture. With large scale study, we carry out the practice of modernization in all aspects of our nation’s politics, economy, society, and culture. The significance of this modernization project is so profound that its value cannot be overstated. 

If we agree that the general tasks of modernization must be built on specific social conditions, historical circumstances, and cultural traditions, then we are assured that over the course of the development of Chinese modernization, Chinese civilization’s basic nature and the basic characteristics of traditional Chinese culture will inevitably assert themselves. The cultural orientation of a nation remains essential to this process. Schelling’s writings confirmed that what is at work in China is not a subjective construct, but a strong cultural principle; it is so strong that what is foreign will remain within its own sphere until it is assimilated and subordinated to the power inherent in our culture.

Learning from the West

The task of China’s modernization requires learning from other countries on a large scale, which means foreign cultures will inevitably integrate with China. However, this process will not overshadow the essential characteristics of Chinese civilization, nor can it override Chinese cultural traditions; rather, it marks the beginning of a cultural integration. When Hegel described ancient Greece’s cultural origins, he notes that ancient Greeks had their own traditions, but also, their culture took shape in the midst of other more powerful cultures. It was through the hard test of cultural integration that the Greeks gained a consciousness of self, and this cultural consciousness opened them up to an era of victory and prosperity. 

Similarly, cultural integration has produced greater cultural consciousness and clarity in China. The Sinicization of Buddhism followed this path, along with the Sinicization of Marxism. In the process of cultural integration, inclusivity is key, the ability to accept and incorporate foreign culture helps strengthen our culture. Innovation is also at work, but innovation is layered on top of cultural assertion of self.

As General Secretary Xi’s statement observes, despite their different cultural roots, Marxism and China’s fine traditional culture are highly compatible and consistent. Marxism’s integration with China’s traditional culture will create a new cultural form that fits within Chinese modernization, and it will expand the cultural foundation of the path to socialism with Chinese characteristics. Their integration will provide a broader cultural space for theoretical and institutional innovation, and in the future will strengthen the Chinese people’s cultural subjectivity.

In the future

Our emphasis on cultural traditions does not imply a backward romanticism, which only attempts to revisit distant times. A true cultural tradition is never truly in the past, but represents a past that still lives in the present. Cultural tradition stands out in China’s long historical journey, and it is also something perpetuated by China’s historical practices today, especially those created out of necessity in the process of development. The historical practice of Chinese modernization provides all possible preconditions for the continuation of its cultural traditions. The development required by this practice not only unlocks the treasures inherent in traditions themself, but also sets the basic direction for the future development of this tradition. 

A development path formed in this way must have Chinese characteristics, but Chinese characteristics are not restricted to existing traditions. In a nutshell, traditional Chinese culture can be reactivated, reshaped, and revived in accordance with China’s realistic needs. This process may be called, as Hegel put it, the “rejuvenation of the substantive content.” It is in this sense that Chinese modernization shows its new cultural mission — a mission beyond returning to the past — one that promotes the creative transformation and innovative development of the fine traditional Chinese culture.

As an epoch-making discovery in the study of history, historical materialism should be the theoretical basis and guideline for the study of Chinese cultural traditions. As historical materialism is the “guide” for research, it cannot and should not take the place of specialized research. In one of his late letters, Engels wrote: “Our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian. All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be examined individually before the attempt is made to deduce them from the political, civil law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc., views corresponding to them.” 

As the cultural mission of Chinese modernization, this kind of research needs to strengthen China’s cultural self-confidence and achieve a philosophical independence. However, such independence does not mean isolationism. As General Secretary Xi stressed, “with unwavering cultural confidence, a profound sense of mission and a spirit of relentless endeavor, we must unite our efforts to create a new culture for our times.”

Wu Xiaoming is a professor from the School of Philosophy at Fudan University.

Edited by YANG XUE