China’s Modernity at the Crossroads: Heritage and Society in Dialogue with the Past and With the World

Title: 1239 | China’s Modernity at the Crossroads: Heritage and Society in Dialogue with the Past and With the World
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: Sociology
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Karolina Pawlik, USC-SJTU Institute of Cultural and Creative Industry, China (organizer, presenter)
Frank Tsai, EmLyon Asian Business School, China (presenter)
Maximilian Mayer, University of Bonn, Germany (presenter)
Emily M. Hill, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada (chair, discussant)


Ever since the May Fourth Movement (1919) spread, China positioned itself in the process of developing its own modernity using binary categories traditional/modern, past/future, Chinese/Western, but at the same time constantly proved how misleading these oppositions often are. Closer examination of cultural practices, experiences and styles seems to prove that China’s ongoing struggle with modernity has resulted rather in hybridity and complex agency, and that China hasn’t entered a single linear path. If so, then has China, engaging with modernity, but remaining rooted in tradition, and opting for the “Western” ideas but maintaining “Chinese characteristics” actually ever left the crossroads of 1919? Today, when China transitions towards global leadership, it is worth asking if this crossroads can be cherished as a source of strength, and turned by China into a great asset for the future of a postwestern world, or will it become a burden. Looking at a variety of cultural practices and narratives this panel seeks to inquire how “tradition” and “modernity” have been used, reshaped and perceived since May Fourth Movement to consolidate Chinese identity. What topics and tropes concerning modernization and collective identity prevailed throughout the century or reoccurred recently? How do essentialized approaches to the West and “modernity” limit China’s potential or prestige? What are the implications of China’s struggles with redefining its collective memory and identity for the future? Is China making the most of its cultural resources? What inspiration can China’s experiences provide for other countries, currently redefining their relation with modernity – in Asia and beyond?

Panel Abstracts:
Chinese Calligraphy for the 21st Century: Inventing or Transcending Borders?
Distinctions East/West and traditional/modern pursued since May Fourth era had profound implications for understanding of calligraphy. Calligraphy raises increasing concern because it seems to be under threat of vanishing – seemingly unsuitable for the modern world of great speed and advanced technology. Since Chinese calligraphy is perceived as a core element of Chinese national heritage, multiple efforts are made to bring it back to its full glory, including a number of solutions implemented to encourage young generation to engage with it. While it is possible to indicate a significant number of projects and artists who succeed in breathing new life into this time-honored practice and gain attention of audiences both locally and globally, I choose to reflect in this paper on deficiencies of dominant narrative increasingly labeling calligraphy as “traditional” and essentially “Chinese” art, which eventually limits its appeal and growth. I intend to reconsider calligraphy as a creative practice (rather than just “art” or “heritage”) with enormous potential for the contemporary world. By looking at 1. intersections of calligraphy and design, 2. significant accomplishments of such artists as Fabienne Verdier (French) or Y. K. Shukla (Indian), 3. evolution of calligraphy in Japan and Korea, 4. research concerning benefits of calligraphy for well-being, I hope to unearth calligraphy as a practice which is inherently modern and timelessly relevant, but gradually disappears from view, while artificially omnipresent in modern urban space of Shanghai, and so often overpraised amid China’s struggles to gain “cultural confidence”.

Understanding and Misunderstanding Collectivism in China's Path to Modernity
East and West, tradition and modernity, collectivism and individualism – these distinctions seem in our unreflective understanding to resonate with each other naturally, as though marking out signposts on the crossroads to modernity reformers in China hoped they could bring about. Today, there may be no greater misconception among those worried about China’s rise than that China is a superior, collectivist society. While misconception by the West may be understandable, the issue of collectivism is fraught in China itself, given how the regime view itself, understands recent Chinese history, and molds China’s identity in contrast with the West. Is China a collectivist society? For China, the path to modernity starting from May 4th was simultaneously one toward the individualism reformers saw as characterizing the West, while more consequentially toward adoption of the collectivism that would make China stronger and result in the founding of the regime, thus inventing a collectivist identity in dialogue with the West. Because the Chinese tradition is so layered with quasi-collectivist Confucian virtues, upon which are imposed the ideals of Leninist collectivism, China misunderstands itself, placing itself in an imaginary of an essentialized Western liberal modernity that it therefore seeks to avoid. This presentation aims to explore collectivism in China’s self-understanding, buttressing essentially theoretical insights with (1) empirical research in the social sciences, (2) the meaning of a number of Confucian virtues, (3) the narrative of collective strength common to Chinese reformers of the last century that would impose upon China self-deceptions about its own collectivism.

Architectural Heritage Protection and Modernity: Restoring, Recreating and Representing the Past Across China
Heritage protection in China began long before the current Chinese government made imperial history a key narrative to legitimize foreign policy and China’s course as a great power. However, in contrast to often simplified and politically instrumentalized historical narratives that underwrite the ruling party’s legitimacy, the motifs, agendas, and methods of projects for architectural heritage protection are quite diverse and driven by local or even individual concerns. My paper, by focusing on architectural heritage, compares examples of architecture heritage protection across different provinces to explore diverging and partially conflicting narratives about China’s past and legitimate ways of remembering it. Given the great forces of modernization that have swept the country “melting everything into the air”, there is an intensifying search for local roots and collective identity. Practices of memory related to "Chineseness" remain pluralistic though. Against the backdrop of destruction and demolition, then, one can conceptualize the reconstitution of the past in a modernizing China. This past is not (fully) under the control of a single homogeneous master narrative. Remembering history - through buildings, tourist developments and public spaces - remains a powerful source for Chinese citizens to articulate their own visions of the future and substantiate diverging claims over identity and history.

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