The Invention of Modernity: Chinese Historians Help Tradition Fight Back!

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.


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