Critical Examination of Chinese Culture
A Review and Critical Examination of Traditional Chinese Culture.
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China had experienced the biggest historical change ever modern times. At this crucial point of time, the inheritance and development of Traditional culture aroused great attention among the general public, particularly the intelligentsia. Over the past 150 years, the nation, especially its intellectuals, has been troubled by the problem of how to adapt Traditional culture to the world, the future and modernization. To solve this problem, it is imperative to first make a critical Examination of Traditional culture, analyzing its advantages and disadvantages in comparison with Western culture.
In the second half of the 19th century, a number of far-sighted intellectuals and people of other walks of life advocated opening China to the outside world and implementing reform. They believed that Traditional culture was by no means perfect and that some of the culture, if not changed and improved, could not adapt to modern society. They were correct, but their vision was far from profound. For instance, they held that the essence of traditional Chinese culture was the way of the sages, while that of Western culture was material products and technology. The central defect they saw in Traditional culture was the extent to which China lagged behind the West in scientific development; more specifically, China's lack of gunboats and weak armed forces
They proposed that China should retain its Traditional political system and ideology, while making use of Western science and technology, warships and armaments. This proposal was summed up as "Chinese learning as the base and Western learning for application." It became the cardinal principle to deal with the Chinese and foreign cultures.
Both the East and West have made their contributions to world civilization as a whole. Traditional Chinese culture and modern Western culture were originally independent from each other. Both had rich but diverse connotations in lifestyles and cultures. When the two clashed, the question was whether or not the cardinal principle it to be applied in such a way as to make use of the strengths and eliminate the weaknesses of one or the other.
In the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the Qing government was defeated by Japan. The tide of the times violently shook the thinking of the Chinese people of the time.
Those who worried about the destiny of the country and were determined to pursue reform felt that the cardinal principle needed to be improved. Many of them intensified their studies of Western learning and critical examinations of Traditional culture. By the turn of the 20th century, these intellectuals formed a new generation of cultural scholars.
This generation of scholars was critical of the principle. Zhang Zhidong's 1898 essay "Encouraging Learning," which was supportive of the principle, was strongly criticized by Liang Qichao. It would become absolutely useless, he said, within ten years. Others said that without the establishment of a modern social and political system, China would never have modern science and technology; and without modern ideology, China would never achieve modernization. An ox cannot do the work of a horse, said Yah Fu, and a horse cannot do the work of an ox either.
In the Reform Movement of 1898, led by Kang Youwei and supported by Emperor Guangxu, the reformists attempted to carry out bourgeois political reform, which aimed to learn from the West, promote science and culture, reform the political and educational systems, and develop agriculture, industry and commerce. The movement lasted only 103 days before it was crushed. From this time through the Revolution of 1911 and the eve of the May 4th Movement in 1919, a number of scholars proposed that studies of traditional Chinese culture should be guided by the principles of science and democracy.
Some critical of feudal ethics, held that Confucianism was the primary content of Traditional culture and should be eliminated. Others wanted to preserve the essence of Traditional culture. Anyhow, they were trying to solve the inheritance and development of Traditional culture.
Debate on the problem became acute, involving cultural, political, economic, military and diplomatic issues. These problems inevitably triggered further Examination of both the Traditional and Western cultures. Divisions and differences on the subject grew.
Many learned scholars believed that the immediate problem was the independence of the state and the nation. Unless this was addressed, the nation would fall. Only when this problem was resolved, could China afford the luxury of debating ancient classics, historical documents and Traditional culture. This argument convinced many young people.
In fact, this attitude and approach was consistent with traditional Confucian thought. Confucianism advocates "cultivating yourself, putting your family in order, running the government well and bringing peace to the entire country"; that "Every man has a duty toward his country"; and "Be the first to endure hardships and the last to enjoy comforts." Many patriotic scholars believed that by reforming traditional Chinese culture, it could be adapted to the modern age.
In this sense, traditional Chinese culture has not lost its value and appeal in modern times. Its essences should be preserved. Apart from the aforesaid patriotism, these essences include incommutability peace loving, defying intimidation, constantly striving to make oneself stronger, and pursuit for a target with unremitting efforts. All these will promote people's conviction.
In the retrospective Examination of Traditional culture, far-sighted scholars' standpoint and purpose were doubtlessly correct. Chinese Culture embracing its extracts and dross would by no means be easily defeated by foreign culture. Therefore, neither the preservation of the national cultural essence nor the realization of a total Westernized Culture should be held as a correct approach. They could not solve the problem of whither the Traditional culture would go. A number of modern scholars had sought a way out for the Culture between these two extremes.
For instance, Kang Youwei was clearly influenced by the modern concepts of freedom, mutual equality, universal fraternity and man's inalienable rights, and also by Confucian culture. Sun Yat-sen also absorbed much of Western democratic thought, but elements of the Traditional concepts of the great harmony, equilibrium and Confucian orthodoxy can still be Seen in his theoretical system.
Scholars who were successful in modern times had all closely studied Traditional culture. And almost none of them took a nihilist attitude or a completely assertive attitude toward the national culture. Toward both Traditional and Western cultures, they took an analytical, selective and screening attitude. At the time, ideology and culture, both past and present, Chinese and foreign, influenced, contradicted, infiltrated and assimilated each other to form a complicated and interwoven colorful scene. This was inevitably reflected m the thinking of far-sighted scholars. The developing and changing times forced people in China to study afresh, though it would cost very much.
During the May 4th Movement, progressive scholars held high the two banners of democracy and science. Their ideas differed from both the advocates of the cardinal principle of "Chinese learning as the base and Western learning for application," and from Yan Fu and those like him. These scholars reached new heights of achievement in the comparative study of Chinese and Western cultures, surpassing their predecessors and leaving a valuable legacy for following generations.
However, there is a question here to be carefully analyzed. During the period of the May 4th Movement, a number of scholars were severely critical of the Traditional culture with Confucianism at the core. Why?
Chen Duxiu (1880-1942) believed that these scholars were so indignant at the feudal ethical code that their radical expressions of resentment were more extreme than their true attitudes to Traditional culture. Complete negation of Traditional culture was not the mainstream of the cultural movement.
The idea of total Westernization could be rooted neither in the soil of China nor on any other lands. If any nation wants to realize modernization at the expense of first giving up its own Traditional national culture, then introducing everything from the West, it would prove an impasse theoretically and practically.
For this reason, the idea was criticized. When Hu Shi (1891-1962) who had been in favor of the idea, was criticized, he argued in his article "Total Westernization and Complete Globalization" that total Westernization meant complete globalization of the culture, that is, to know and improve traditional Chinese culture in accordance with the principles of democracy and science. He added that this did not mean that everything should be westernized. He doubted, for example, if the Chinese would be willing to abandon chopsticks in favor of knives and forks.
However, they forgot a fundamental truth that there will be no globalization without nationalization. The more nationalization is developed, the more chances there will be for cultural exchange in the world. This is the basic law of cultural development.
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