This is a piece I wrote that was published in the SAIS Observer, a student-run monthly at Johns Hopkins SAIS.

I am one of two international students in my “Modernity and World Social Thought” class at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center; the other twenty or so are all Chinese students. Every week we talk about questions of modernity and modernization: whether a country can become technologically “modernized” without being culturally and psychologically “modern”; whether modernity is a universal value or a particular value for particular people; what part, if any, of the past should persist into the era of the nation-state.

I listen when my Chinese classmates debate the influence of Confucianism in the current Chinese socio-political environment, and whether the modernizing reformers of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 have been heeded to the present day. Most interesting to me is whether the project of modernity should have a “purpose,” whether modernity is a project or just an aimless process. Some writers, like Patrick Smith in “Somebody Else’s Century,” say none is needed. Other nationalists, like Jawaharlal Nehru, say that purpose lies in each country’s destiny. And many more say modernity’s purpose is derived from individual human fulfillment.

This question bites directly into the seminar and indeed many of my Chinese peers’ experiences. A century ago, China grappled over whether it could preserve its unique cultural ti (fundamental principles) while grafting onto it Western yong (practical application). Yong is the means, ti is the end. China is still dealing with this rift between ti and yong today. This separation is reflected in a number of common questions, like: what makes our state legitimate? What are our national values? Are we permanently stuck in a culture of material consumption, or is there a way forward?

Mao Zedong said at the outset of the People’s Republic, “Our new China is like a blank piece of paper on which we can write the most elegant characters and paint the most beautiful pictures.” In modern China, the question is not so much how to preserve the Confucian ti, but rather how to come up with a new ti after it has been thoroughly scarred from being scooped out and replaced, over and over again.

But then I focus on the reality of class discussion. I realize that, more than anything else, this small seminar, existing in a tiny bubble within China, is through its own way living out the project of modernity.  We are living out modernity through discussion; the classroom dialectic is perhaps the only way to move forward past confusion and post-modernism. Values are not objects for individuals. They are decided in common. And if we can do our small part in tackling such immense problems, especially in a place like China, then I will be happy.

Views: 111

Comment

You need to be a member of Global Ethics Network to add comments!

Join Global Ethics Network

Carnegie Council

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 33.3 (Fall 2019)

The highlight of the Fall 2019 issue of "Ethics & International Affairs" is a roundtable on "Economic Sanctions and Their Consequences." Other topics include human rights and conflict resolution, Afghan attitudes toward civilian wartime harm, the role of supererogation on the battlefield, and the ethics of not-so-civil resistance.

The Climate Reality Project & Environmental Activism, with Brian Mateo

Ahead of the Climate Strike rallies on September 20, Bard College's Brian Mateo discusses the Climate Reality Project, founded by Vice President Al Gore, and how it has informed his work regarding environmental activism and education. Why has Greta Thunberg's Climate Strike been so successful? How can protests turn into concrete policies?

Transactionalism and U.S. Foreign Aid

A draft of a new presidential directive on American foreign aid suggests that transactionalism will shift from being a rhetorical device to an actual defining principle. How will the continued departure from the pre-2016 bipartisan consensus impact the foreign aid community?

SUBSCRIBE TODAY

VIDEOS

SUPPORT US

GEO-GOVERNANCE MATTERS

© 2019   Created by Carnegie Council.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service


The views and opinions expressed in the media, comments, or publications on this website are those of the speakers or authors and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions held by Carnegie Council.