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East AsiaCivilization And Enlightenment: Meiji Japan (1868–1912), Belated Enlightenment: China (1880s–1920s), Urban Cosmopolitan Modernity (1920s–1930s)

Modernity (kindaisei in Japanese, and xiandaixing in Chinese) is a relatively recent term in the intellectual vocabulary of East Asia, becoming current only after World War II. Differing conceptions of "the modern" start much earlier, when terms long available in both languages acquired new connotations, as the region felt the impact of the West. The classical Chinese jin (close, nearby) provided the root for the Japanese kinsei, or "recent epoch," popularized in the sense of "modern period" by translations of European works in Meiji time. It was soon replaced by kindai to free Buddhist implications in sei. These came to China as loanwords jinshi and jindai, but gave way to xiandai in the early 1920s, indicating not "recent" but "present" age. Although intellectual exchange between the two countries was intense after the Opium War (1840–1842), ideas relating to the "modern" in fact developed along distinctive trajectories.

At the same time, certain shared features have been unmistakable. The notion of the modern, coming to the region accompanied by the military violence of Western imperialism, acquired a strongly spatial, not just temporal, force. It meant learning from the West in both enlightenment and material advance, and struggling for equal position with the West in national, cultural, and intellectual terms. This implied an inevitable element of borrowing or imitation, bringing with it anxieties of collective identity. Moreover, the very process of modernization brought unintended—or even uncontrollable—changes to social life, turning "modernity" into part of an unprecedented daily experience that demanded articulation. Consequently, hard claimed universal ideas have been constantly challenged by local experience, and the relation between universal aspiration and particular attributes is never stable. These were issues that have preoccupied thinkers in the region down to the present.

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