All this talk of imposing or importing outside values on China but there is little talk I hear of importing Chinese values to the west. I believe that the west needs more of Chinese values, especially Confucian values, than China needs western values.
He thus asserts an asymmetry in global cultural influence: the US, or the "West" more broadly, seems to set the international cultural agenda (and let's think of "culture" broadly here to include political-economic principles as well as art and social behavior and patterns of consumption). My sense is that this is a pervasive view among Chinese intellectuals. I ran into it most notably in 2006 at a conference in Beijing, "The International Symposium on Confucianism in the Postmodern Era." I blogged it then and made this observation:
...there was a certain anxiety among some of the Chinese participants about the Western origins of postmodern theory. They pointed out that these ideas - as well as the ideas of nationalism and the state - are "Western" and do not fully capture the subtlties of Chinese intellectual history. At one level, they are right - these concepts are "Western". But, as I argued in response to these points at the conference, such concepts have become deeply inscribed into the national discourse of China. Can we conceive of "China" in terms other than "nationalism," or "sovereignty," or the "state."?
I think the tension here is a recognition that Chinese dicourse has been colonized by Western notions. My sense is that there is really no escaping this. Rather than looking at the revival of Confucianism as the retrival of some sort of "authentic" or "real" Chinese mind or discourse, it seems to me we have to situate that revival, and continuing debates about Chinese-ness, in the context of global postmodernity.
I understand the frustrations of Chinese intellectuals in having to use a language of postmodernity/modernity created somewhere else. But it is a frustration similar to those in the US, conservative commentators, who worry about the loss of some sort of essential national qualities. I think we have to embrace the disappearance of "authenticity" everywhere. So, the situation of Chinese thinkers is actually the same as that of Western thinkers (though the critique may be that that is easy for me to say, since the terms of the debate are "Western"). We are all in the same globalized boat, struggling to extract meaning from the churn and flux of the world-wide cultural economy. One of the Chinese academics said something along these lines and I found myself nodding in argeement - a moment of transnational understanding.
It may be best to understand this as "modernization" and "post-modernization," instead of "Westernization." Yes, certain processes of modernization were formed in China as a result of imperialism. That is the case in many parts of the world - some of which are in the "West" (that's my Irish nationalism coming through...). But, the "West" is a hopelessly vague concept, as Lewis and Wigan make clear in their marvelous book, The Myth of Continents. It is a political concept, and its meaning changes with shifting political struggles (in WWI the Germans were "Eastern").
I think we can say, however, that the "West" was not the "West" until modernization took hold. Indeed, the "West" was not the "West," in the manner that it is often construed by critics, until the mid-20th century, when civil and human rights became more prominent.
Moreover, Imperialism and colonization, however horrible their depredations, are essentially past (I'm open to certain understandings of "neo-imperialism" but this is not 1895...) They brought in their wake modernization. But notice that the US was being torn up by the furies of modernization (the US Civll War) at the same time imperialism was wreaking modernizing havoc on China. Similarly, Germany coalesced into a modern state (1870) as China was attempting "self-strengthening" and Japan was rushing forward with the Meiji Resotration. So, yes, modernization via imperialism forced China and Japan to change; but modernization via domestic upheaval caused the "West" to change as well.
What matters is modernization, and its evolution into post-modernization. The modernizing processes of centralized/rationalized political power and large-scale industrialization and social mobilization and cultural secularization are powerful and pervasive and (to use one of Marx's favorite terms) ineluctable.
If China is to exercise greater global cultural influence, therefore, it must do so within the parameters of modernity/post-modernity, even if those are perceived by Chinese intellectuals as being created and reproduced by the "West." It is very hard to conceive of a China-defined global transformation on the scale of the modernizing/post-modernizing effects of the past two hundred years.
Thus we should not expect a singular and unitary "Chinese" effect on global culture. Rather, bits and pieces of Chinese behavior and understandings will drift out and through global cultural flows. Some of this has already happened. Daoism circulates, in a wide variety of ways, through global channels, as does Buddhism (can we call this "Chinese"?). There are all sorts of Chinese products and practices that move globally: tai qi; Sunzi; chunjie; etc.
But "China" will not be the definer of global culture. All cultural products, wherever they are from, must fit into, or run parallel to, the dominant process of modernity/post-modernity. And the latter, post-modernity, makes it especially difficult to construct conherent and stable definitions of "China." How can "China" dominate global cultural flows, when global cultural flows are constantly redefining "China"?
All of this poses a certain challenge to Confucianism. To have more of an effect on global cultural flows, Confucianism needs to be accommodated more thoroughly with modernity and post-modernity. This is possible but it requires an uprooting from its Chinese soil. As I wrote in 2006, reflecting upon that conference:
...I have continued to sense a certain unease among Chinese intellectuals about being "takers" of global culture instead of "makers" of global culture (those are my terms). They worry that postmodernism is just another Western import, destined to shape Chinese intellectual life in terms of someone else's language and ideas. Of course, the source of this worry may well be the decline, nay disappearance, of Marxism from serious consideration. Marx was invoked exactly twice at the confernce, neither time to very much effect. Given the vacuum that has now opened up at the center of intellectual life, other Western ideas are flowing in. So, several Chinese commentators again today, just like yesterday, expressed a concern that China needs to produce its own ideas to put forth into the world.
They shouldn't really worry. As one of my American colleagues here poitned out today, Taoism has certainly travelled to the US and other places; it is a significant Chinese cultural contribution. So, I am imaging that Confucianism can and should make a similar transformation, from something uniquely identified with China to something widely dispersed around the world and integrated into cultural practices in a wide variety of settings.
But maybe Confucianism is different. Maybe it is too closely identified with China, and East Asia (of course, it has moved historically to Korea and Japan and Vietnam) to allow it to be merged into Western societies. Yet that is what has to happen if China really wants to expand its role as a cultural producer instead of just a cultural consumer.
So, give it up, China. Let go of Confucianism. Don't try to force it to remain narrowly Chinese, or East Asian. Let it go out into the world and settle and transform in unexpected places.
Confucianism will thus take on new forms, forms that are not as closely associated with "China," or the definition of "China" that the PRC government attempts to maintain. There will have to be a more democratic understanding of Confucianism, or else it will be seen simply as a crude apology for authoritarianism. There will have to be a more individualized Confucianism, or liberal societies will not embrace it (this is not to say it will have to jettison its familial and social ethics; rather, these will have to be re-imagined in the context of a stronger sense of individual self-possession). Instead of being associated with hierachies of power, it will have to adapt to horizontal network relationships.
All of this is possible, to my mind. But it might not be desirable for those who want to hold on to a more traditional "Chinese" notion of Confucianism.