Islamic Studies

On Engaging Modernity: Beyond Symbolic Critique Towards A Robust Assessment (Part II)[Tradition and Modernity: China A Case Study]

By Miriam Gross

The juxtaposition between tradition and modernity has become such a stock character in studies of Chinese history that the unenthusiastic reader can often only sigh at its inevitable onerous inclusion. At this point authors may only be able to grab the reader�s attention via titles (such as this one) that are better suited for newspaper headlines. This paper attempts to go beyond this automatic lethargy by exploring the evolving relationship between tradition and modernity. Further, it suggests that novel ways of delving into the so-called traditional realm are inspiring new questions that in turn allow scholars to understand people�s lived experience in a much more substantive way.

After briefly examining how tradition and modernity were addressed in the older literature (Levinson), this paper will assess three current understandings of this relationship: the indigenization of modernity (Morris); modernity and tradition�s mutual re-creation (Wang, Dong); and tradition�s exploitation of modernity (Dong, Yeh, Fong et. al). These different perceptions of tradition and modernity form a spectrum whose farther reaches are leading the field of modern Chinese history in striking new directions.

Modernity Topples Tradition: The Old School

When historians first began exploring the relationship between tradition and modernity there is little doubt that tradition always ended up the loser. Many scholars strongly promoted modernity and the modern lifestyle, complete with science, democracy, capitalism, and the nation-state, as the ultimate aim of history. In this linear vision, static traditions infused with the superstitious past constantly hindered the forward march of history, a history that would lead nations to an almost utopian vision of modernity. Thus the modern condition was posited as a radical break from tradition. Further, since Western nations constituted the supposedly objective default condition of modernity, to be modern was in essence to be Western. After European and American reformers and translated texts reached China in the late nineteenth century, Chinese self-strengtheners from Yan Fu on reflected the ideology of modernity. They too spoke of Chinese �tradition� as a unitary, unchanging, and resistant entity that must be conquered by modern practices, ideas, and material realities. The result was that when Western scholars studied China they not only had to contend with their own prejudices, but also to question Chinese source material that seemed to almost perfectly reproduce their own conceptual framework.

One of the most sophisticated assessments by the older scholarship is Joseph Levenson�s Confucian China and its Modern Fate: A Trilogy. In his first volume Levenson examines the relationship between substance (ti) and function (yong). Many self-strengtheners tried to marshal Western yong, such as modern technology and infrastructure, to buttress Chinese ti, or the whole set of traditional relationships and concepts that made up the Confucian enterprise. Levenson believes that the tiyong formula was doomed to failure because the �persistence of Chinese ti inhibited the Chinese acceptance of yong,�and the grating injection of Western yong�doomed the indigenous social order which was the base of the Chinese ti� (75). The result was that �the old ti would have a rival instead of a shield� (74). Thus at base Chinese tradition and Western modernity were unitary incompatible domains that were locked in a battle that only one could win. The champion by necessity would have to eviscerate all remnants of the loser.

This conceptualization of modernity had a number of imbedded problems. First, since modernity was a goal that only the West had achieved, China, no matter what it did, would always be placed in a laggardly position. Second, as a straggler, Chinese would inevitably always be responding to the pathway established by the West, rather than forging their own destiny. Third, after the introduction of Edward Said�s idea of �Orientalism�, it became clear that much of the edifice of China�s supposedly traditional culture was constructed to be the converse of the modern West. In other words, both ideas were primarily created in relation to each other. At the very least, scholars needed a new, more value-neutral definition of modernity and a reassessment of whether tradition and modernity were truly polar opposites. The following three sections will explore the evolution of scholars� appraisal of the modernity-tradition divide.

A Direct Inheritance: The Indigenization of Modernity

Perhaps the current scholars who are closest to the �modernity topples tradition� perspective are those who focus on the indigenization of modernity. One example of this is Andrew Morris in his book Marrow of the Nation on the history of physical culture during the Republican era. In this view, modernity was still China�s goal and tradition was still the insidious impediment to its success. However, modernity in its strictly Western incarnation was relatively unpalatable. Not only did various aspects of Western modernity need to be translated into a linguistic and symbolic idiom that made sense to Chinese, but also increasing nationalism forbade the continued, unquestioning replication of Western life. In essence patriots proclaimed that China would be modern, but on its own terms. Thus scholars who reflect this vision have changed few of the assumptions and guideposts of the prior literature, but have widened it to more closely examine how the Chinese instituted their own variant of Western-defined nationalism.

Throughout his book Morris judges the successes and failures of various physical culture movements by their efficacy in helping China to formulate itself as a modern nation. Morris begins his book by explaining that the physical culture movement launched in the late nineteenth century was �a decisive break� from prior physical activity (3). This new type of physical culture, he believes, was deeply integrated with the project of creating �the nation, modernity, and a modern citizenry� (16). Morris borrows Taussig�s concept of �mimesis�, which is an intercultural zone in which people can try out �Otherness� (52). However, when discussing Chinese activities, he is only interested in exploring how they became more Western. This makes their �intercultural zone� surprisingly lopsided. While he does examine one indigenous sport, martial arts, he appears interested in it only because it became part of the �national essence.� He highlights all the modern (i.e. non-Chinese) elements that are added to it without discussing any of the indigenous components that were retained in its new form. Morris does briefly examine one set of traditions, �the hegemonic Confucian ideals of female modesty and obedience� (95) that constrained female athleticism. However, typical of this scholarly perspective, tradition is once again an evil that is holding people and the nation back from achieving their full potential.

Perhaps because sports have rarely been included in the mainstream or taken seriously by scholars, Morris has linked his narrative to one of the oldest and most respected issues in the field, the development of the modern Chinese nation-state. Once this connection is made, it would be self-defeating to include physical activities that did not support the modernist agenda or that used modern rhetoric to shore up traditional beliefs about the body and physical culture. However, Morris is hindered by a second problem; his book is predominately focused on the discourse or the rhetoric about sportsmanship, rather than the experience of participating in or watching an athletic meet. Most of his sources are a valedictory intent on portraying their own part in the glorious creation of Chinese modernity and in giving birth to the ascendant Chinese nation-state. It appears Morris has trouble distinguishing himself from the perspectives of his sources. Further, as will be discussed below, it seems that the more a study examines actual experience, rather than the discourse surrounding it, the more obvious it becomes that so-called traditional and modern strands are intimately intertwined.

Orientalism Unveiled: The Invention of Tradition

Following Edward Said�s Orientalism as well as post-modernist concepts of the complex relationship between subject and object, many scholars began to take a closer look at the supposedly pristine, objective, and unitary ideals of tradition and modernity. If Western modernity exists and is defined primarily by its relationship to its oriental other, then both notions are just created concepts. If they are created, then new questions can be asked about why, where, and how this imaginative process has occurred.

Wang Liping in her article �Tourism and Spatial Change in Hangzhou� and Dong Yue in her book Republican Beijing examine the phenomenon of �invention of tradition,� a concept that they borrow from Hobsbawm and Ranger. In rather similar tales they document two cities fallen on hard times: Hangzhou after the Taipings blocked the Grand Canal and destroyed large portions of the city and Beijing after Nanjing became the new capital. In each case, city officials and business owners tried to reposition their city to successfully address the new environment. Each chose to capitalize on a cultural heritage that was in many cases more remembered through poems and stories than surviving in actual cultural sites. In many instances supposedly rebuilt sites were erected anew to suit modern visions of what tradition should be. Those traditions that did not correspond to the newly constructed ones, such as the religious center on City-God Hill that was deemed too infused with superstition to be acceptable in the modern era, were duly sidelined. Instead, traditions associated with the literary high culture of West Lake that would be attractive to the new Shanghai middle class were �recreated� as appealing vistas for the modern tourist. Beijing similarly tried to locate itself as a cultural heritage site. Such a site would ideally charm wealthy Westerns seeking their oriental fix and attract non-local newly modern Chinese who were searching for a representative home town of which they could be proud. Both Beijing and Hangzhou�s tradition was recast and updated to act as the appealing timeless and pastoral opposite to the frenetic pace of modern life in Shanghai.

However, what characterizes both accounts is that while this reconstituted tradition was persuasive and endearing to outsiders, it was totally alienating to locals. Pilgrims to City-God Hill and old Beijingren had difficulty finding a place for themselves in the new traditional order. Thus the �invention of tradition� or the realization that tradition and modernity are mutually constituted seems mostly expressed in political propaganda, tourist brochures, and the terrain that was built to reflect their reality. In the process of constructing credible rhetoric, they are frequently filled with strong dichotomies and precise categorizations which similarly do not reflect people�s everyday realities. The result is that while �invention of tradition� is an excellent lens through which to envision studies of changing discourse and ideology, it is less useful when applied to projects that try to access everyday experience.

Exploiting Modernity, Living Tradition

A wide range of studies have begun a new project. They have made tradition their starting point and then observed how modern ideas and practices are exploited to update or legitimate traditions creating a much more complex integration of tradition and modernity. Some scholars, such as Joan Judge, also point out that tradition is far from unitary; people are as much selecting from a panoply of traditions, some of them archaic, as they are from an array of modern behaviors. The result is that a wide range of new research questions can be addressed. As Dong Yue explains, �If modernization according to Western models is the ultimate goal, local people�s mentalities and values become irrelevant� (9). In addition, the innate teleological perspective imposed by searching the past to discover the roots of modernity undermines substantive historical research by automatically misrepresenting understandings of the time. Thus one of this standpoint�s greatest strengths is that it allows a much more complex picture that has the possibility of better reflecting people�s experiential reality. Five scholars who have explored the possibilities inherent in tradition are Dong Yue in Republican Beijing, Yeh Wen-hsin in �Corporate Space, Communal Time� and Grace Fong, Nanxiu Qian, and Joan Judge in Fong�s edited volume Beyond Tradition & Modernity.

To encompass all the old Beijingren left out of her �invention of tradition� analysis, Dong proposes the metaphor of recycling. She believes that in Beijing, �many of the people, and even the government�dealt with problems of the present by recycling material and symbolic elements of the past in order to gain some control over the transformation of the city� (11). Dong feels that the visceral interaction with recycled material items is as important as recycled concepts and newly redefined traditional social relations. The notion of recycling encompasses concepts of dynamism, resistance, and a greatly broadened definition of modernity. In her analysis, tradition actually helped people cope with the present, rather than providing the barrier that kept them from facing up to it. Further, the process of creatively recycling traditions, which gained new meaning in the altered city environs, actually become the city�s incarnation of modernity. Thus people�s experience of modernity is actively shaped by them out of the fragments of China�s own past, rather than being passively received as an imposed vision from the West. Among intellectuals, Dong believes that the consciousness obtained through recycling encourages an additional phenomenon, a �nostalgia for the present.� At the same time that people are living in the present-day, they imagine that it is ephemeral. In the process of trying to preserve it through stories and scholarly accounts, they turn it into a nostalgic museum piece lamenting for a time in which they still live. Yet this process also serves as an �active mechanism of self-protection and resistance� (304). Through the ideas of recycling and nostalgia for the present Dong imaginatively finds ways to counteract most of the problems that blight other studies of tradition and modernity and to find a conceptual framework applicable to both regular city dwellers and elites.

However, Dong partially undermines the wider validity of her own study. She explains that because the city was so impoverished, the government�s many airy promises of securing people�s livelihood simply could not be met. People fell back on recycling (literally) and on traditional social networks for survival. Thus recycling and retention of older networks became something people were forced into, rather than a choice they made. One wonders if the opportunity arose whether they would continue to be as interested in recycling tradition.

Articles by Yeh, Fong, Qian, and Judge take a different tack. They look at specific instances where patterns one might term traditional and modern have been integrated in sophisticated ways. Yeh describes the Bank of China, an institution that seems the epitome of modern values. Yet she discovers that much of its success during the Republican era originated in a corporate culture imbued with neo-Confucian ideals of self-improvement and hierarchies that reflected simulated familial relationships and teacher-disciple bonds. The ensuing reverence for superiors and loyalty to the bank ensured it remained competitive in the overheated environment of Shanghai banking.

Fong explores the life of L� Bicheng (1883-1943) who became a crusading feminist journalist for the Dagong bao in 1904. L�, who remained single, went on to be an educator, made a fortune in business, funded her own education at Columbia University, and then traveled around the world. By all accounts she loved ballroom dancing and showy Western dresses. Seemingly she was the archetype of a modernized and westernized Chinese woman. Yet once she succeeded in becoming economically independent, she pursued a �self-made hybrid individualism� (38). She used the social and economic freedom she gained to allow herself to engage in traditional male literati pursuits, such as classical poetic genres and ink paintings. For example when she visited Mont Blanc in the Swiss Alps she processed the experience by writing a traditional ci poem infused with Chinese mythology and poetic conventions. Near the end of her life L� returned to Shanghai, became a strong Buddhist, and spent her time laboring over translating sutras into English. Clearly L� had come to a complex integration of traditional and modern elements in which the liberty she found in modern life was exploited so that she could engage in the traditions of classical learning she valued most.

A final pair of articles by Qian and Judge both examine newly created texts about exemplary Chinese and foreign women written in the last decade of the Qing. Qian examines a text by Xue Shaohui that reconstructs the lives of foreign women to substantiate Xue�s own vision of the modern Chinese woman. However, this �modern� woman neither reflected Western values, nor traditional Chinese values. Instead, these exemplars evolved from Chinese traditions in new directions that Xue considered both moral and liberating. For example she included a selection of Western female rulers, but celebrated them for making their nation strong by nurturing their people and their culture through motherly love (ci). Qian points out that in doing so Xue not only greatly expanded the concept of ci beyond the family, but also envisioned ci (along with xue or learning) as women�s cardinal virtues, rather than the male-mandated virtue of chastity (100). Judge analyzes a wider selection of biographies and discovers an �archaeomodern approach to history � archaeo in their appropriation of ancient models, modern in their self-conscious break with the recent past and their embrace of Western figures and ideas� (104). Judge agrees with Qian that while biographies of foreign women opened up new possibilities, they �ultimately served as �life-story shells,� new vessels for local social and gender meanings� (132).

All three new manifestations of the tradition versus modernity debate have great potential to enrich the field. Studies analyzing modernity and tradition�s mutual re-creation have already been employed to enlightening effect. However, the instances where this tactic is applicable seem rather limited. Of wider usefulness are continued assessments of how Chinese traditions utilized concepts pilfered from the modern arena to reposition themselves within an enlarged and progressively more flexible traditional sphere. If studies exploring the indigenization of modernity move beyond portraying tradition as a malevolent reaction and instead truly examined local articulations of modernity rooted in Chinese traditions, exciting, new research is sure to result. As scholars access increasing numbers of local archives and conduct non-elite oral histories, it is becoming possible to move beyond rhetoric to truly gain entr�e to the way people experienced their lives and constructed their realities. New visions of the complex integration of modernity and tradition will undoubtedly prove to be an essential interpretive framework.


Dong, Madeleine Yue. Republican Beijing: The City and Its Histories. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.

Fong, Grace S. �Alternative Modernities, or a Classical Woman of Modern China: The Challenging Trajectory of L� Bicheng�s (1883-1943) Life and Song Lyrics.� Beyond Tradition & Modernity: Gender, Genre, and Cosmopolitanism in Late Qing China. Grace S. Fong, Nanxiu Qian, and Harriet T. Zurndorfer, eds. Leiden: Brill, 2004.

Judge, Joan. �Blended Wish Images: Chinese and Western Exemplary Women at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.� Beyond Tradition & Modernity: Gender, Genre, and Cosmopolitanism in Late Qing China. Grace S. Fong, Nanxiu Qian, and Harriet T. Zurndorfer, eds. Leiden: Brill, 2004.

Levenson, Joseph R. �Volume I: The Problem of Intellectual Continuity.� Confucian China and its Modern Fate: A Trilogy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1965.

Morris, Andrew D. Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.

Qian, Nanxiu. ��Borrowing Foreign Mirrors and Candles to Illuminate Chinese Civilization�: Xue Shaohui�s Moral Vision in the Biographies of Foreign Women.� Beyond Tradition & Modernity: Gender, Genre, and Cosmopolitanism in Late Qing China. Grace S. Fong, Nanxiu Qian, and Harriet T. Zurndorfer, eds. Leiden: Brill, 2004.

Wang Liping. �Tourism and Spatial Change in Hangzhou, 1911-1927.� Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1950. Joseph W. Esherick, ed. Honolulu, Hawai�i: University of Hawai�i Press, 2000, 107-120.

Yeh, Wen-hsin. Corporate Space, Communal Time: Everyday Life in Shanghai�s Bank of China. The American Historical Review. 100.1, 1995.

Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.

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  • Off topic:

    I was in a meeting with Chinese Scholars of Islam (all Muslims, mostly researchers), hosted by the State Dept. they were interested in how Imams are trained in the U.S. And I just so happened to mention your blog. What a quinky dink.

    They told us There are over 20 million Muslims in China.
    30,000 masajid
    40,000 – 50,000 “Islamic clergy” and Imams

    They also mentioned that other than ethnic groups which are known to be Muslim there are 50,000 converts/reverts in China from what they described as Hamm? people (the mainstream population? I guess our version of Indigenous?) in Beijing.

  • Azeem, you mean the Han who are part of the mainstream (widespread amonst China, traders, and culturally indistinct) Chinese population, and who are ethnically Chinese, as opposed to the Hui from the province of Xinjiang, who are of Turkic / Central Asian extraction.

    I think Dr. Abdullah’s “Thinking beyond the Abrahamic box: Muslims in China” has a good coverage of the muslims in China, and is an extension of his argument about “Islam and the Cultural Imperative” – see and the specific article on Islam in China at

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