For Teachers: Teachers' Guide

What do we mean by "Modern"


In the second section Kenneth Pomeranz and Bin Wong focus on the concept of modernity. They begin by looking at the traditional European notion of modernity that emerged in the nineteenth century and its consequences for our understanding of the modern world.

  • In the first video clip ("The Tyranny of the European Model"), Bin Wong also discusses how the European model of modernity makes it seem that potentially "modern" developments in China since 1000 cannot be considered modern because they do not fit with the traditional European model of modernity.
  • Pomeranz and Wong ("Comparing Modern China and Modern Europe") then discuss how various traits associated with modernity came together in Europe in the nineteenth century. They argue that while this development -- the confluence of a series of separate factors associated with modernity -- has often been mistaken for the emergence of modernity itself, it would be more appropriate to interpret this development as a conjunction of separate traits, some new and some old.
  • Following this argument, it becomes possible to define modernity in culturally neutral, rather than “European,” terms. Wong also stresses that it is important to recognize the emergence of traits associated with modernity in East Asia before their emergence in Europe.

Key Terms/Vocabulary

local culture
national culture
social welfare

Study Questions

  1. What is the traditional definition of modern; on what is it based?
  2. How does the development of a civil-service bureaucracy in China around 1000 affect our understanding of modernity?
  3. How does this traditional definition of "modern" affect the definition of "not modern"? How does it affect the traditional explanation of how places outside of Europe became modern?
  4. How do Pomeranz and Wong use the congruence of politics and culture in nineteenth century Europe as an example of conjunction? How does the use of thinking in terms of conjunction give us more flexibility in our definition of what it means to be modern?
  5. What has been the conventional way of interpreting the changes in nineteenth and twentieth century East Asia?
  6. What developments associated with modernity occurred in China before Europe? What is the importance of this?

Discussion Questions

  1. How does a non-European based notion of modernity affect our understanding of the world around us today?