Defining terms: China, The West, civilization, and modernity

In the journal First Things, David Gress reviews the new book What is the West? by French philosopher, Phillippe Nemo. In answering his own question, Nemo suggests, perhaps unsurprisingly, that we must first look to Greece:

The story begins with the Greeks, who invented scientific speculation and the ideal of the city, in which “individual lives are no longer submerged in a vast sea of humanity. . . . Each person now has individuality and character.” To this-a point of capital importance-the Romans added their “invention of private law,” whereby they “invented the individual human person.”

The next stage, of course, is Christianity or, rather, the impact of biblical religion and spirituality on ancient culture, an impact that was crucial in transforming that culture into what we call medieval. Biblical religion introduced an ethical and an eschatological revolution, “cherishing the individual, morally responsible human being, by emphasizing human individuality as desired and created by God for all eternity.” But, Nemo adds, that ethical revolution “might never have bestowed such theological significance on the individual person had these beliefs not taken root in a society that had already granted importance to the human ego.” Without Christianity, there is no civilization of human rights, but without the Greek city, Greek science, and Roman law, there is no Christendom.

I’m assuming Nemo has never heard of Mencius. Gress then suggests that Nemo uncovers a “fundamental logic of western civilization,” and here I think a comparison to China is worth mentioning. Gress writes:

The West is a civilization of borrowings and mixtures, whose result, never fixed and never self-satisfied, is more than a mere function of those borrowings.

Well, I suppose that is true. But isn’t it true of many places, including China? Certainly in what is today China there have been many groups and ideas coming and going, both changing and being changed by what was there before. The idea of static, unchanging, unyielding CHINA absorbing all who come into her borders doesn’t seem to work when compared to the historical record.

But then Gress cites Remi Brague, who I think makes a point that distinguishes at least how China and Europe interpreted their respective historical legacies:

The West, Remi Brague has written, is by definition a “secondary” culture, a culture of followers who know they are followers. Neither Greek poeitical philosophy nor Christianity were western inventions, yet their confluence created the West.

A culture of followers who knew they were followers. In one way, we could argue that this fits in China. Confucius called himself a “transmitter” of an ancient way. But I think the extent to which “China looks only backwards” has been quite overstated (beginning but sadly not ending with Weber.) It is the second line that I think gives some distinction between China and Europe: China never defined itself as a “secondary culture” to anyone. To anyone that is, until the intellectuals of the late-Qing and the New Culture Era started casting their nets wide for new ideas on how to reform old institutions in, using the words of Yan Fu, the search for wealth and power. Even then, reformers such as Yan, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Chen Duxiu, or even Mao Zedong would probably have explicitly rejected the idea that Chinese civilization was “secondary” to any other. It is a kind of lasting cultural confidence that I think goes a long way to explaining why China has managed to remain (more or less and with definite gaps in the record) unified for so long. Of course, defining what we mean by “China” or “Chinese civilization” (as we saw in the recent post on “5000 years of history”), is almost as tricky as trying to define some vague notion of “The West.”

Much more controversially, Nemo’s book suggests:

Holding democracy to be a result of how Christianity evolved in the West, Nemo is equally firm in holding that modern totalitarianism was not the evil essence of the West. The West, in this semi-Marxist view, is characterized by power and exploitation, democracy being merely a sham. Totalitarianism was simply the West without the mask. Any decent political philosophy that rejects totalitarianism must, in this widespread interpretation, also reject much of the West. In both elite ideology and much popular common wisdom, modern totalitarianism and Christianity are lumped together as bad, authoritarian, inhuman ideologies of unnatural constraint that must be rejected, and, since they were western, the rejection takes the form of multiculturalism and liberal guilt.

The final stage of Nemo’s historical analysis is to ask whether western culture is universal now and, if so, what that means. “Does modernization require westernization?” asks the Indian-born economist Deepak Lal. Nemo remains agnostic but suggests that we need not wait for the final answer, if any, to the question of what the West is today and what it should do to survive.

I’m not sure I like the way Nemo, after such a provocative argument, ducks Professor Lal’s question. I’m also, frankly, not enough of a Europeanist to give Nemo’s ideas the thorough workout they deserve. But I’ll put the questions here: “Does modernization require westernization?” What does it mean to be “modern”? What does it mean to be “Western” or “Chinese”? How do we define and use these terms?
via Arts & Letters Daily


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 72 Comments

About the Marshall Plan: in 4 years the total aids were $13 billion (1945 dollar), about 5% of the annual American GDP then. It certainly helped, but IMHO it wasn’t the deciding factor if Western Europeans weren’t already highly educated and well trained.

February 25, 2007 @ 11:35 pm | Comment

Richard, out of respect to you, I will never bring Nazi up again, and I shall sign off from this thread. I sincerely hope you understand my point.

February 25, 2007 @ 11:56 pm | Comment

Tuskegee Experiment, not Experience. I happen to know a black woman who has a family connection back to an experiment subject, trust me on that “angle”. What the world sometimes needs, is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


February 26, 2007 @ 12:23 am | Comment

those who hire snakeheads do it for economic reasons, but political repression is still a major (the major?) aspect of the story. If the government allowed these people entry and exit privileges, there would be no need for snakeheads, who can only exist when their customers live under a government that represses their fundamental freedoms.

richard, where was the last time Chinese political refuges got accepted anywhere in the world? Getting a Chinese passport costs about RMB 400 these days and any Chinese citizen can get it. The restriction you referred to has been abandoned a couple years ago. Getting individual Visa to any developed country is the problem.

Since you are talking about Fujian, there is an interesting article Villa Envy
about Fuqing, Fujian about the latest reason for illegal immigrations. It’s not about poverty or political. It’s about getting bigger villa then the neighbors.

I wonder what you base your claim on sneakhead getting illegal Chinese passport for their clients? Or people are fleeing China for political reason?

February 26, 2007 @ 12:24 am | Comment

I never said people were fleeing China for political reasons. Never. And I know all about the wealth in Fujian, and the contrasting poverty. Did you read about the cockle pickeror s killed in the waters off of England last year (two years ago?) They had nothing, while their neighbors had villas. They paid snakeheads to get them passports and slip them into places where they could do work. I have not followed the snakehead stories since then, I admit. If now the government is handing out passports to all Chinese citizens who request them, no questions asked, I am delighted. For now I am a bit skeptical, based on a personal friend’s experience here, but it may well be true. If so, it’s good to see the government becoming more reasonable.

As I said a few comments up, this thread needs to get back to the subject. Thanks.

February 26, 2007 @ 8:22 am | Comment

To JXier, the Tuskegee experiment was another vile aberration, exposed by a free media and taught in our schools as an example of the abuse of power and the dangers of racism. Just like the Cultural Revolution is taught in Chinese schools as an example of — oh, wait….

February 26, 2007 @ 8:26 am | Comment

Excellent point Richard.

Educators in the US and Europe often seem to go out of our way to make sure that our students never forget the bad things. It is not history in service of the state, it is instead history in the service of the nation. (Differentiation between the two not being a strong feature contemporary Chinese politics) As Nausicaa quoted in a brilliant comment on past thread, “Criticism is more than a right; it is the highest act of patriotism.”

One of the differences between education in China and the United States/Europe is that we go out of our way to criticize our own history. Most of the academic monographs and articles published in the US in one way or another attack our national mythologies. Perhaps it is because our culture is a “secondary” one, we feel free to look at it objectively. Perhaps it is because one of the signs of being a true Great Power (Da Guo) is having the confidence in yourself sufficient to be able to view one’s own history and problems objectively, without the histrionics of hyper-nationalism and “face” masquerading grotesquely as “patriotism.”

February 26, 2007 @ 8:47 am | Comment

I don’t know about you, but it was up to me to look into the full scale of Native American genocide by biological warfare, the extent of the death tolls from the African Slave trade (starting from Africa, not from Europe which was as far as the curriculum took us), female servitude, child labor, economic/social ramifications of anti-black racism, etc.

All that is lip-service though, as god knows Europe hasn’t repatriated the billions they stole. Just hollow words.

February 26, 2007 @ 9:57 am | Comment


I have sat in the lower-division US history surveys at my university (large, west coast, state) and those subjects are covered. Can’t speak for all universities obviously. But I think a key point is that you WERE able to do fill the lacunae. The books were available in the library. Online journals discussing the topics were not blocked. Seminars and conferences on issues of reparations are freely attended without interference from local authorities. Researchers are not subject to arrest for exposing the incredible crimes and horrors perpetrated against the Native Americans and in the African slave trade. (They can however be arrested for jaywalking–see the recent incident at the AHA meeting in Atlanta).

The free discussion of ideas–what a spectacular concept. I think it says too little of the Chinese people to argue that they are “not ready for it” or “not able to handle it” as some commenters on this board seem to imply. Could somebody please explain to me, the ignorant laowai, just what is the danger in free ideas? Surely, China as an emerging Great Power should have the political and cultural confidence to accept debate within society. Or is this a culturally-specific value?

February 26, 2007 @ 10:17 am | Comment

Just like the Cultural Revolution is taught in Chinese schools as an example of — oh, wait….

I am curious about this one. How exactly is Cultural Revolution is taught in the schools? I also wonder how Civil War was taught in the South 30 years after?

Educators in the US and Europe often seem to go out of our way to make sure that our students never forget the bad things.

How long did it take for US and Europe to archive that confidence after the current regimes were established? And how long did it take for the academics to archive the kind of independency from the state?

being a true Great Power (Da Guo) is having the confidence in yourself sufficient to be able to view one’s own history and problems objectively

The question would be is China (PRC) a Great Power yet? By all counts, it’s still a developing country and a very young regime.

I am not arguing for China here. just want to put a perspective in term of timing. Western societies had centuries to archive its advanced but often expect others to do them with in one or two generations. PRC is barely 50 years old and the move from a agriculture to a industrial society just started 25 years ago and is still in progress.

I see a parallel between Chinese’s clinging to glorious historical account and Intelligence Design movement in the US. Both are trying to hold down to faiths that will eventually lose to reason and progress of the societies. This issues will be emotional because people are taking those beliefs on faith in the face of evidences.

Jeremiah, taken from your blog, There are three authorities in the land: Heaven, the sovereign, and the historiographer (shiguan). So, in that order, PRC is at the stage of the sovereign. Given time (probably soon after 2008 after Olympic), historiographer will take priority.

February 26, 2007 @ 10:22 am | Comment

It is curious to me that in matters of cultural pride, 5000 years is trotted onto the stage but when it comes time to defend the indefensible there is a hasty retreat to a more reasonable number–50 years? 60 years? Hence my statement about both political AND cultural confidence.

2008? David, I hope you are right. I really, really do. And we have seen so much progress. The GPCR is acceptable, for the most part, as a subject for historical discussion. It is my belief that in 10-15 years time (when all the key figures finally pass on, and so removing issues of face from the equation), scholars will be able to reexamine June 4 as well. But for all the progress being made, there is so much yet to be done and it hurts China’s status as an ’emerging Great Power’ to be so insecure about its own past.

And you are correct in noting that the US educators has only gradually–and often with considerable gritting of teeth from different interests–been successful in getting the darker chapters of the American experience included in the curricula. That said, as I mentioned in my earlier comment, the ability to debate these ideas freely was instrumental in this endeavor.

Finally, thanks for the attribution, but I can’t take credit. If you read my post, you will no doubt have seen that the quote was from Su Che, the brother of the famous Song dynasty writer Su Shi (Su Dongpo).

February 26, 2007 @ 10:32 am | Comment


Your complain about “5000 civilization” or “claim on Tibet’ is really much ado about nothing. You are confused about the sound bite with academic teaching.

The difference between “5000 civilization claim” and your view all hinges on the definition of civilization. If you actually read chinese text book, when 5000 is referred, it usually referring to events mentioned historical document, 有文字记载的历史。 If I understand you correctly, you would like to see real artifacts to prove the existence. I really do not see that is a big deal.

As to chinese claim on Tibet, I do not think CCP fabricated history. However, China does stress, the exchange of cultural between Tibet and Han can be traced back to a long time ago.

There is a difference between telling a lie and not telling the whole story. This is also typical of US media. For example, when Chinese products are mentioned, forced labor and slavery labor will always be mentioned. How many percentage of chinese products are actually having anything to do those outrageous claims?

I am sure you are proud of history teaching in US. Just a story. During a dinner with a US citizen and a Canadian citizen, I asked about how 1812 war was taught in Canada. The Canadian guy said that was the last time US tried to invade Canada. Well, for US, that was a courageous fight with Briton.

February 26, 2007 @ 11:51 am | Comment

Thanks Steve. I agree with you about the 5000 year claim (you may want to review the discussion on the ealier post on the topic.)

As for Tibet and the misleading claims of the media, I am also in agreement. Just this past week a story has been floating around that a “Chinese historian disputes China’s claim to Tibet.” I posted a long piece on my own blog, along with a translation of the original article, that showed that the quote was taken out of context and furthermore that the larger article contained a number of worthy points not mentioned in the Western blogger/press accounts.

These are both complicated issues and there is no black and white here. That is my larger point.

By the way, that is a great 1812 anecdote and, with your permission, I’d love to crib it for a class. It’s a good example of the tricks in historical memory.

February 26, 2007 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

Steve: For example, when Chinese products are mentioned, forced labor and slavery labor will always be mentioned.

This is simply false, and an excellent example of casually dropping outrageous falsehoods into arguments and putting them forward as self-evident truths. It is SO absurd and SO erroneous that it should instantly make it clear that Steve cannot be trusted to egage is serious arguments. Simply do a search of any news aggregator for stories on Chinese business news, then see how many of the stories mention in any way slavery or slave labor or forced labor. Go ahead, check for yourself. You may be able to find a couple – maybe. But “always”?? I wonder if you were the president of your college’s debate club.

February 26, 2007 @ 12:46 pm | Comment

“Hence my statement about both political AND cultural confidence.”

PRC is a young regime even tho it rules a land of very old culture. It seems that you’d like to see China to behave and hold responsible as a Great Power as it once was. But that China was in the past and probably as much a myth as the 5000 years history. We have to examine the reality of China today being a young regime and a developing country. It does shoulder quite a big legacy. Not many regime has the luck of US to basically start all from scratch to define itself culturally, socially, and diplomatically.

It wasn’t smooth sailing for America in the early days either. British pretty saw Americans as low wage labors. Dicken complained a lot about his works got pirated in US and he was bashed by Americans to be ungrateful because that pirating made him famous in the US. Does the theme sound familiar?

Take the statement by Su Shi “There are three authorities in the land: Heaven, the sovereign, and the historiographer (shiguan)” and examine the US history. The Declaration of Independence is your Mandate of Heaven. For sovereign, you guys fought one of the bloodiest civil war in human history. And when did your historiographers get to look at all these objectively?

2008? David, I hope you are right. I really, really do. And we have seen so much progress.

Anyone want to bet? I said 2008 because Olympic will be the symbolic event for Chinese to archive enough confidence to deal with the mismatch of legacy and reality.

it hurts China’s status as an ’emerging Great Power’ to be so insecure about its own past.

Reality check here. Is China an “emerging Great Power” a media spin, arguably by the US medias or a reality? China’s GDP is $2.225 trillion last year and one company Wal-Mart alone probably responsible for 2% of it. France and Britain is at $2 trillion and Japan at $4 trillions. France, Britain, and Japan all have military budgets twice to three times of China. What index does qualify China as “emerging Great Power?” The 5000 years history?

As a political entity, PRC has every reason to be insecure: it’s young and poor and it rules over 1 billion people with a legacy of 5000 years everyone is holding them against to.

February 26, 2007 @ 12:52 pm | Comment

D.L. it’s young and poor and it rules over 1 billion people with a legacy of 5000 years everyone is holding them against to.

Would you say it’s the rest of the world, and not China itself, which has advocated the “legacy of 5000 years”? As far as I can tell here, this is something the Chinese are very proud of (not without justification) and very quick to put forward.

Similarly, the concept of “China emerging” is one put forth, again, by China’s media as much as the global media. You hear it all the time on CCTV, and to say it’s a “spin” of Western media is not accurate. I am working with Chinese companies now, and they constantly refer to China’s rise. Are they all brainwashed by the NY Times?

February 26, 2007 @ 1:06 pm | Comment

“Are they all brainwashed by the NY Times?”

I think Kim Jong IL is also singing the “Emerging of Great DPRK” but I don’t see NY Times dance to that tune.

What do you expect Chinese government to say in it’s official line? It has always been “China Emerging” since 1949 in PRC. ROC’s official line had been “Taking back the mainland” since the same time until a couple years ago. Every government spin. “Mission Accomplished!” 😉

However, it’s more curious to look at why respected journalists like NY Times, Washington Post and others (except Fox News) to follow the tune. Let’s not fight like five years olds and arguing about who said what first. My point is that every government spin its own stories; the curious matter is why China Emerging got so much traction and attention?

Yes, the 10% growth for 20 years is impressive but Japan had done more then that. And for all evidences we have today, China still far from what Japan had archived. Look where Japan is today. The success is not guaranteed. Super Power? Far from it!

February 26, 2007 @ 2:22 pm | Comment

David, take a goofd look at your argument. I am not saying China should not be saying these things. All I said was:

As far as I can tell here, this is something the Chinese are very proud of (not without justification) and very quick to put forward

This was in response to your amusing claim that it’s the West that is holding up this legacy! Take a deep breath and come back to earth. Repeat: I am not blaming China for saying this. I am criticizing you for amusingly arguing that this legacy is something that was generated over in the West. Sigh….

Also, I have never said China is a superpower, and am not sure who you are now arguing with.

February 26, 2007 @ 3:01 pm | Comment


I am not arguing the West medias are holding up the 5000 years legacy. Just the “Emerging China” thing and really has blown the story out of proportion. This is what I said.

Reality check here. Is China an “emerging Great Power” a media spin, arguably by the US medias or a reality?

I was talking about “Emerging China” so widely discussed in West medias has made China seems so much bigger then it really is.

Anyway, try not to go too far from the subject here. I think we will leave the legacy to somewhere. I think we may not agree whether it’s 5000 or 3000 verifiable history but the 5000 legacy does play an important role in shaping the Chinese culture and the society. I sometime wonder if the 5000 history account didn’t start with a mortal who won a war but someone who parted Yellow sea or did some magic trick turning sand into rice, it would make it easier for Westerners to accept that it’s just part of Chinese faith as much as the 2000 years old fantasy novel still have tremendous impact on the West.

I don’t think Chinese could be defined without that legacy. It’s just part of the culture and faith.

February 26, 2007 @ 4:20 pm | Comment

First of all I’d just like to say that for the past couple of weeks TPD has really been compulsive reading, and the comments have been fantastic.
Ok back to the topic and Jeremiah’s original question:

I think one could take a look at Singapore or Hong Kong (which I’m pretty sure we can all agree on as being modern places in most senses of the word) and ask are they “Chinese with Western characteristics” or “Western with Chinese characteristics”?
When considering either case it shows that the terms “Western” and “Chinese” are both problematic – not to mention the strong Indian influence in both places (do we consider India to be modern? Western? Chinese?) Cast the net wider and you could drag in Saudi Arabi, in many ways quite modern but in many others not at all. Or South Africa, both western and African.
My point (and i think Jeremiah’s too) is that it’s all to easy to bandy such terms about but how often do we actually try to define them? It seems the more we try the harder it becomes but it is only by questioning them that we can free ourselves from the narrow confines of thought that are all too often used against us.

February 26, 2007 @ 6:20 pm | Comment

“it’s all to easy to bandy such terms about but how often do we actually try to define them?”

My point exactly. Thank you, Andy.

February 26, 2007 @ 7:38 pm | Comment

“westernization” in a sense of it’s exclusive concepts, at least in terms of development, has a clear historical meaning.

February 27, 2007 @ 12:00 pm | Comment

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