chapter  8
Critics of Modernity in India and China
Pages 19

In the course of this work, I have traced the ways in which a linear and progressive History charts the evolution of the national subject expressed in discourses of social Darwinism, anti-imperialism and even Marxism, mostly in the context of East Asia. We have seen how this History figures the national subject in the imagery of race, class and the state. While the evolution of the national subject can be complex, partial and circuitous, in most cases the telos of the narrative remains modern self-consciousness. In its imperialist expression, this narrative of History was presented to the colonial and semicolonial world as the history of Western, Enlightenment civilization. Here I consider another discourse – of culture or civilization with a small

c – which gains greater visibility in China, by comparing it with the Indian historical case. In these two final chapters, I compare how the leadership of these two societies adapted to the advent of nationalism and capitalism. In this chapter, I compare the critique of linear history in the two societies, mainly during the interwar years, while in Chapter 9 I study the movement away from this critique and adaptation to world systems during the postwar decolonization era and after. The notion of an alternative discourse to the linear history of Civilization,

centered around the notion of ‘culture’, is not new. The early use of culture to oppose evolutionism can be found within Europe in the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder. Those figures in Asia whose alternative ideas I try to understand were, perhaps, mostly unaware of Herder’s usage, but the circumstances of its appearance in the two contexts have much in common. According to George Stocking, in the late eighteenth century Herder reacted against the cultural imperialism of the French and Scottish Enlightenment conception of universal progress and the implicit hierarchy of cultural achievement. He emphasized the variety of national character, each national culture an expression of its own unique Volkgeist, all equally manifestations of the divine realizing itself in the spiritual development of humanity as a whole. To be sure, while Herder may be seen as a source of pluralism and anthropological relativism, his notion of culture never closed the back door to racialist evolutionism. Each national spirit evolved from an ‘internal prototype’: Jews would retain the spirit of their ancestors, blacks could never

acquire the ‘finer intellects’ of the Europeans, and so on.1 Thus, if ‘culture’ presented an oppositional stance towards the Enlightenment discourse of ‘civilization’, which since Hegel we have identified as History, it was also capable of recalling this evolutionism as a supplement. Within Asia, this oppositional mode gained salience during the years after

World War I. Because of the barbarism of the war, Western Enlightenment civilization was considered in many quarters of the globe to have forfeited the right to represent the highest goals or ultimate values of humanity; ‘the civilizing mission’ was no longer worthy of being desired or even recognized by those in the colonies. This gave an impetus to the recognition of other world civilizations, which had since the nineteenth century led a shadowy existence in the penumbra of Enlightenment civilization. The alternative – notably Indian and Chinese – notions of civilization, often interchangeably called ‘culture’, became tied to the sovereignty claims of the new nationalist movements. But like Herder, while these notions challenged linear, evolutionary conceptions of Western civilization, they targeted one or more dimensions while reproducing other assumptions of the dominant narrative of History. Thus Chinese thinkers such as Zhang Taiyan and, occasionally, Lu Xun

denied progress while accepting evolutionism,2 while Liang Shuming and the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in their own ways denied comparability while accepting progress. Mahatma Gandhi was one of the only significant figures to deny History in toto. The latter half of this chapter seeks to understand the significance of Gandhi’s thought, as well as the mirror in which his total and determined opposition to History was reflected. Modern scholarship has not been particularly sympathetic to these critics of the Enlightenment project. For example, history textbooks in America, India and China either ignore most of these figures, or, where they are unable to ignore them, as in the case of Gandhi, assimilate their actions and ideas into the narrative of national liberation, or into a lesson on moral courage. There is a tendency to pass over the critique of modernity. Until recently, the dominant narrative of Chinese history since the mid-

twentieth century, in both China and the West, has been the narrative of modernization. This has been seen as a painful and uncertain process, which has nonetheless inched toward a full modern consciousness in distinct phases. These phases are familiar enough, and I will just outline them. The narrative begins with the Opium War of 1840, and the initial refusal of the imperial state and the mandarinate to recognize the challenges posed by the West. This was followed by the self-strengthening movement, which attempted to confine Western learning to practical matters designed to strengthen the empire, while Chinese learning was reserved for all essential matters – the classic ti-yong dichotomy. With the increasing failure of the self-strengtheners to overcome the military challenges of the late nineteenth century, segments of the literati and progressive bourgeoisie began to advocate institutional reform without challenging the basic principles of the

Confucian imperial system. The exemplary representative of this phase is Kang Youwei and his experiments during the 100 Days of Reform. The 1911 Republican Revolution challenged the traditional political system, but it was left to the May 4th Movement of 1917-21 finally and systematically to attack the very cultural underpinnings of the old system. In fact, this simple linear narrative does not do full justice to the complex

responses to modern discourses that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Those who responded by questioning the project of total modernization in China have been called conservative, although Benjamin Schwartz has observed that their responses are very modern.3 Particularly in the Chinese political context, they have been painted in negative colors as people opposed to the epochal trends of progress and freedom. I would like to extend Charlotte Furth’s very useful distinction between two forms of ‘conservatism’, or what I call questioning narratives of modernity in China.4