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East Asia"overcoming Modernity" (1940s–1950s)

Intellectual reactions against modernity started early in East Asia, and were not confined to traditionalists. Alarm at the "madness" or "lost soul" of modern industrialism and militarism was soon expressed by enlightenment intellectuals in both China and Japan. Touring Europe after World War I, Liang Qichao (1873–1929) was shocked by what he found:

Countless total strangers live together, sharing the same market or factory, with absolutely no links of affection to each other, merely relations of material interest. Most people own no property, depend on wages only, and lack any roots for survival, like a withering lotus. Social complexity exceeds anyone's capacity for orderly responses to it, over-stimulating and exhausting the nervous system. After work, there is need for play, but abruptly it is time to work again; day and night there is no rest. Desires multiply constantly, the price of goods rises uninterruptedly, life becomes harder and harder, competition fiercer and fiercer. (Ou you xin ying lu, 1920, Impressions from my European journey)

Yet he believed China, as a latecomer to modernity, still had a chance to draw its own critical lessons from European development; he had converted to the May Fourth conviction of science and democracy as the prerequisite of entry into the modern world.

At virtually the same time, the philosopher and reformer Liang Shuming (1893–1988) set out a severe critique of contemporary Western societies in his book Dongxi wenhua jiqi zhexue (1921; The cultures of East and West and their philosophies), attacking their separation of man and nature, individual and society. After the catastrophe of World War I, the world had arrived at a point where it had to alter direction. In Liang Shuming's view, this meant shifting from the agonistic reason, guided by intuition, of the "cultural will" of the West, to the intuition guided by reason of the Chinese cultural will—this was where the world was now heading—and eventually to the valuation of faith and devaluation of desire that was Indian cultural will. The modern society that had emerged in the West was a necessary step in this long-run development, and the spirit of democracy and science it had brought was precious. But a better civilization was possible beyond it.

The challenge to uncritical images of modernity issued by the two Liangs led to a series of controversies in China in the 1920s, in which the resources of traditional Chinese learning in a time dominated by Western configurations of human knowledge and the potential for an alternative path of modern development for China were hotly debated. Although Liang Shuming was subsequently considered a precursor of neo-Confucianism in late-twentieth-century China, at the time he was true to the May Fourth generation, becoming an active proponent and organizer of agrarian cooperatives, and like Liang Qichao in the same period advocating a variant of socialism as a remedy for China's ills.


In Japan, probing of the dilemmas and paradoxes of modernity began already in the Meiji period, and has lasted to this day. In the 1890s, the Christian thinker Uchimura Kanzō (1861–1930) questioned the purpose of his country's headlong drive to join the ranks of the West:

Can present-day civilization compensate for the loss of the independence of our souls through modernization? Are the steam engine, radio, champagne, torpedoes, and guns better than peace? Does civilization mean spending six billion dollars to maintain standing armies of two and a half million soldiers in Europe, producing anarchists and increasing nervous disorder? ("Kyūanroku," 1893, A record of search for peace)

But by Taishō times, Uchimura's dissent was directed more at his fellow intellectuals than at the government:

I rejoice at the news that the government has a plan to restore Chinese studies in school. It is not the time to argue over the difference between the ideas of the West and the East. What we should do now is to destroy modern man [ kindai-jin ] and modern ideas [ kindai-shiso ]. ("Hibi no shōgai,"1924, Daily life)

There was an echo here, however distorted, of Liang Shuming's desire to counter temporal divisions with a call for spatial unity.

Stark counterpositions of West and East nonetheless persisted—even for those who despised kindai jin and kindai-shiso no less than Uchimura—throughout the interwar and war years. For in this period the Meiji aspiration of climbing up the rungs of a hierarchical world order of "civilization" was replaced, on the one hand, by spatially stressed notions of a plurality of cultures and ethnicities, under the catchphrase of a "return to Japan." On the other hand, Fukuzawa's vision of enlightened individuals acting with a spirit of independence gave way to fear of the modern decadence of an ill-informed individualism that was the captive of a debased mass culture. At the same time, images of socioeconomic modernity itself became much more divided. In the 1870s it was taken for granted that there was just one basic model of civilization, even though the Meiji oligarchs had borrowed selectively from the West. By the 1930s this was no longer possible. Russian Communism, Italian Fascism, American capitalism, and German Nazism offered a range of completely different models of state and society.

Against this background, a symposium that would have enormous resonance was held in Kyoto in the summer of 1942, shortly after the outbreak of the Pacific War. Modeled on League of Nations symposia chaired by Paul Valéry in the 1930s, notably on "The Future of the European Spirit," this Japanese forum brought together philosophers from the Zenand-new-Kantian influenced Kyoto School founded by Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945), writers from the Japan Romantic School Society, to discuss the problem of "Overcoming Modernity" (kindai no chôkoku). The political context of the symposium—Japanese fascism—featured prominently in the discussions, but these did not adhere to any rigid ideological agenda, ranging over many aesthetic, philosophical, cultural, and social issues. Modernity had to be overcome, some argued, because the failures of capitalism, democracy, and liberalism had led inevitably to the war. But was modernity simply a European or American phenomenon? Others doubted it, pointing to a Japanese modernity compounded of indigenous and foreign elements alike. By the end, the chairman of the symposium concluded it had failed in its task.

Yet, after World War II, the symposium became a landmark for intellectual inquiry into Japan's modern history and its future. This outcome was primarily due to the work of Takeuchi Yoshimi (1910–1977) in the early 1950s, who extracted its quest from the compromised setting of wartime Japan, and "refunctioned" it for an anti-imperialist politics in postwar Japan. Significantly, Takeuchi was the major Japanese editor and translator of Lu Xun. Writing after the Communist victory in China, he contrasted the trajectory of the Chinese Revolution with the Japanese experience of a military-fascist regime followed by American occupation. Yet, throughout East Asia modernity had been the result of imperial violence by the West that forced it upon the East, in a continuous process in which until 1949 the West had always claimed victory. Truly to overcome that modernity in Japan required a "double resistance"—resisting both the external imposed reason and the internal denial of the defeat of which it was the outcome. Such resistance was the task of the citizens of a politically responsible nation (minzoku), to exercise their independent subjectivity (shutaisei). It was not antimodern. "If I were asked what is resistance," he wrote, "the only answer I have is, 'It is what you find in Lu Xun'" ("Chūku kindai to Nihon no kindai," 1948, China's modern and Japan's modern; in later collections the title changes to "Kindai towa nanika," What is modernity).

In postwar Japan, subjectivity had become one of the central terms of political debates over the recent past, as intellectuals sought to understand the human agents of social change in the processes of modernization and Japan's war experience. Maruyama Masao (1914–1996), a leading thinker of the Occupation period, rejected the existential interpretation of subjectivity of the Kyoto School, which continued as a major influence in the 1950s. During the war, Maruyama had invoked Fukuzawa as a thinker who "could never conceive of national independence in the absence of individual autonomy" ("Fukuzawa ni okeru chitsujo to ningen,"1943, The order and humane in Fukuzawa); and in his path-breaking essay Chôkokkashugi no ronri to shinri (1946; "The logic and psychology of ultranationalism") he attributed the disastrous course of Showa politics to the "collective irresponsibility" of an elite drifting to war in the name of a mystified imperial rule transcending temporal or spatial boundaries, and commanding the passive obedience of its subject-citizens (kokumin).

A true democratic revolution in postwar Japan, Maruyama contended, required the "establishment of a modern personality," capable of responsible decision making. His ideal here was Max Weber's (1864–1920) ethic of responsibility, as set out in Politics as a Vocation (1918). This was an admiration shared by his contemporary Otsuka Hisao (1907–1996), an economic historian who energetically appropriated Weber's theory of the Protestant ethic as a model for the kind of self-discipline needed to build a robust civil society in Japan. In their different ways, Maruyama's championship of the "modern personality" and Takeuchi's call for resistance by the minzoku opened a new page of critical thinking in Japan. The themes of modernity or its overcoming were taken up by many others in subsequent decades and have lingered in various contexts as a persistent theme in Japanese thinking to this day.

The issue of a politically responsible citizenry, resonant in Maruyama and Takeuchi, reappeared in Korean intellectual life during the 1970s. Paik Nak-chung (b. 1938), a leading literary critic, advocated a "national literature" (minjok munhak), the modernity of which is defined by its opposition to Korea's North-South division, and its openness to the world at large from a Third World position. Paik has since actively promoted an independent, creative national subjectivity, in a series of debates on modernism, postmodernity, and globalization.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Methane to Molecular clockModernity - East Asia - Civilization And Enlightenment: Meiji Japan (1868–1912), Belated Enlightenment: China (1880s–1920s), Urban Cosmopolitan Modernity (1920s–1930s)