What do we mean by Modern?

Redefining the Modern World

When we teach about the modern world, we tend to define "modern" as a set of traits—political, social, and economic—that came to exist in Europe in the nineteenth century. So, for instance, we think of "modern" as including a political system with democratic representation, an economy that has an industrial sector, and a social system with urban workers, professionals, and businessmen. We tend to think of a set of policies that governments pursue as being "modern" when these policies fit economic and social characteristics that emerged in Europe in the nineteenth century. That is how we define what "modern" is.

Modern: The Tyranny of the European Model [VIDEO]

TRANSCRIPT: What I'm going to suggest is that we continue to live under the tyranny, conceptually, of a belief that a set of traits that emerges in nineteenth-century Europe is what is "modern." That's the proposition. One of the corollaries of that proposition is, we are not prepared to see phenomena in other parts of the world until they appear in nineteenth-century Europe.

So, for instance, if you study China, and you see that roughly from the year 1000 there's a civil-service bureaucracy that is selected through examinations, that acts according to a set of rules, and has some degree of specialization. In other words, has, in broad measure the traits that Weber told us we should expect in a modern bureaucracy. What we do is we invent reasons why it doesn't qualify as a modern bureaucracy. One of the favorites I remember when I was a student was, "They may appear to be a real government, but, they were really personalistic and corrupt." Well, it seems to me that ever since Watergate, the notion that modern officials can't be corrupt seems a little inappropriate. So it therefore seems to me that the marker of distinction, at least in the early seventies that was used, no longer can work.

What I want to suggest is that there are more similarities in the nature of that Chinese bureaucracy and the bureaucracy that emerges, let us say, beginning in England in the nineteenth century, there are more traits of similarity than of difference. Sufficient to make us wonder whether the emergence of civil-service bureaucracies, as we think of them as modern bureaucracies, is really a useful way to think of it. Rather, we should think about the emergence of a type of bureaucracy that takes place in nineteenth-century Europe. Well for European history, that's when it's important. Fine, no big deal, let us live with it.

Let me give you another example, one with which I, am pleased to say I get in much trouble when I speak, infrequently, though I do, I speak before audiences with large number of Europeanists. Not many of whom invite me back a second time, but I will, I'll give you one reason why they become uncomfortable. One of the principal arguments about nineteenth-century Europe is one that relates politics and culture. And briefly it goes like this: Before the nineteenth century in Europe, and inferentially the rest of the world, there was a real disjuncture between political rule and culture.

Elites shared a culture that transcended political boundaries. Think of European aristocrats, they all spoke French, they married each other, they moved from Poland to Spain, France, England, they were all over the place. A contrast between high culture that spaned political borders, and popular cultures that were rooted in locales. That is, well within the borders of any particular country. So that the culture of a peasant in Languedoc was very different than the culture of a peasant in Normandy, let alone a peasant in Alsace or in Bavaria, et cetera.

That the existence of common traits like Christianity, while true to many peasants, span political borders. So either you have culture fitting comfortably within political borders, or you have it spanning political borders, in the case of elites, or in the case of Christianity. In none of these instances do you find a kind of coterminous or a simultaneity of the borders of politics and culture. It is a modern phenomenon.

National states, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, start to promote the construction of national cultures. They develop educational systems, they develop the use of media to promote the notion that people living Languedoc ... and Normandy are both Frenchman. All right, that's the argument. Well I read this argument as an historian of China who has been struck that one of the strategies of this imperial regime that goes back at least to the fourteenth century—the data I know best is eighteenth- and nineteenth-century data—but I'm struck by the ways in which this regime quite deliberately and consciously develops cultural criteria to promote the integration of their empire, the degree to which certain Confucian ideas are used instrumentally to create common patterns of practice, whether it's of marriage, of funerals, that this state promotes common institutions like lineages. That this state also creates a civil-service curriculum, exams, the curriculum which commits elites to studying some of the same texts, and with a common purpose.

We define as "not modern" what existed in Europe before 1800 and what existed in the rest of the world until Europeans arrived and changed the way people did things or alternatively, until European ideas and opportunities were made available to people in other parts of the world to adopt and adapt to fit their local situations.

So there are two possible ways in which modern ideas and practices came to non-Western places. They came via either an imposition by Westerners or by other people adopting the ideas and institutions that Europeans first developed. Now there's a serious problem with this way of viewing modernity because it tends to ignore the existence in other parts of the world of practices before 1800 that, in fact, resemble in certain important ways what exists in Europe after 1800. In fact modern is fundamentally associated with practices in Europe in the nineteenth century to the degree that some scholars believe almost by definition that practices they label modern cannot have existed before they appeared in nineteenth-century Europe.

Conventional Wisdom

Over a period of 4000 years the Chinese people developed a unique and self-contained society at the extreme eastern end of the Eurasian landmass. This society, like others in Asia, was based on agriculture rather than trade and was governed by landlords and bureaucrats rather than by merchants and politicians. . . . The Chinese first came into direct contact with the West when the Portuguese appeared off the southeast coast in 1514. After the Portuguese came the Dutch and the British, who also arrived by sea.

L. S. Stavrianos, A Global History: From Prehistory to the 21st Century, 7th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1999).

The Manchu dynasty, which came to power in 1644, built upon the achievements of the Ming dynasty, which had ruled China since 1368. Throughout the 600 years of the Ming and Manchu dynasties, emperors based their rule on Chinese traditions. In those years, as China enjoyed a high level of prosperity, peace, and order, its rulers saw no reason to change the Chinese way of life. Thus, China became a self-centered civilization, largely secluded from the outside world. However, after 1800 the policy of following old traditions and maintaining seclusion from the world worked against China. As the nations of Western Europe and the United States embarked upon an industrial revolution, China was left far behind.

T. Walter Wallbank et al., History and Life, 4th ed. (Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foresman, 1990)

In the 1800s, the Manchus still ruled China as the Qing dynasty. For many years, China had been a prosperous country, with a highly developed agricultural system. Farming was critical because, by 1800, China had some 300 million people—more than the entire population of Europe. China was not industrial, but workers in small workshops were able to produce most of the goods that the Chinese needed. . . . For decades, Europeans could do business only at the port of Canton. Despite pleas from Britain and other nations, China refused to open other ports to foreigners.

Larry S. Krieger et al., World History: Perspectives on the Past (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1990).

There was nothing like the modern Western belief in "progress" and its orientation to the future. . . . The modern West followed a different course, actively pursing change in the name of "progress," attacking nature to get at its secrets, and developing a new science and technology, which in a century or two transformed Western society in the progression from steam and steel and railways to the internal-combustion engine and nuclear power. East Asia did not make this leap, until the Japanese, impressed by new Western power, determined to replicate it for themselves in the last part of the nineteenth century. China, Korea, and Vietnam (the latter by then under French colonial rule) resisted such catastrophic change as disruptive of all their traditional values and moreover as something of despised "barbarian" origin, until their modern humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan drove them finally to purse fundamental change.

Rhoads Murphey, East Asia: A New History. 3rd ed. (New York: Pearson Longman, 2003 10–11

Chinese dominance was challenged with the appearance of Westerners in Asia. . . . Pressures from the Western world eventually forced China into a century-long struggle that led to the collapse of its ancient Confucian way of life.

Esko E. Newhill and Umberto La Paglia, Exploring World Cultures, (Lexington, Mass.: Ginn, 1986), 258

The Chinese did not want what modern science offered—greater technology, power over the natural world, and an improved standard of living. Unlike Westerners, the Chinese felt no need to develop modern science to conquer the natural world.

Esko E. Newhill and Umberto La Paglia, Exploring World Cultures, (Lexington, Mass.: Ginn, 1986), 323.

Basic cultural differences existed between the Chinese and Western Europeans. To Westerners, the individual was more important than the group. The Chinese took the opposite view. Westerners believed in the supremacy of law. The Chinese believed in an all-powerful emperor. Westerners placed a high value on technology and material wealth. The Chinese considered proper relationships far more important. According to Confucian thought, Chinese society at this time was divided into four classes. In order of importance, they were scholar-gentry, who governed in the name of the emperor; peasants, who provided food and taxes; artisans, who crafted useful objects; and merchants, who made profits by selling things that the peasants and artisans produced. Thus, while Westerners held merchants and business people in high regard, the Chinese tended to despise merchants, who "neither plow nor weed."

Paul Thomas Welty and Miriam Greenblatt, The Human Expression, 4th ed. (Peoria, Ill.: Glencoe, 1992), 234.

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