Quotable (#1)

From Jing Wang’s highly-engaging High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China (1996):

… the theoretical proposal about modernity’s critique of tradition—which amounts to a self-critique of tradition—should not be taken at face value. Advocates of the “neo-Confucianism of the third stage” were obviously more concerned with the capacity of tradition to withstand the furious pace of modernity and all the problems that would accompany it. Although Tu Weiming insisted that a neo-Confucian renaissance is based on the concept of “creative transformation” rather than equated with a conservative return to the Great Learning, the neo-Confucianists did not adequately address the intriguing theoretical question of how one can critique but at the same time inherit tradition. On the other hand, tradition’s critique of modernity cannot be genuinely executed either. With the rise of the myth of “Four Asian Dragons,” the 1980s saw the possibility of collaboration rather than confrontation between the two seemingly antithetical terms of tradition and modernity. Overseas neo-Confucian scholars like Tu Weiming and Yu Yingshi played an important role in driving home the dramatic message. Their ideological interventions from abroad strengthened the belief that Confucian tradition not only does not jeopardize, but on the contrary, facilitates the modernization process. Tu cited examples of Taiwan, Singapore, and other prosperous East Asian countries, and Yu traced the positive influence of Confucian culture on mercantilism back to the Ming and Qing period. The timely entry into the Cultural Discussion of overseas discourses on neo-Confucianism helped shape the central thesis of the Chinese debate over traditional culture and modernization. The thesis that both Tu and Yu foregrounded derived its ultimate reference from Max Weber’s theoretical framework laid out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Can Confucianism be creatively transformed into a new ethos and ethics that could serve as the ideological foundation for Chinese modernization?

The implicit reference to Weber was well taken in China because it corresponded to the series of Weberian inquiries that Chinese intellectuals themselves had undertaken even before the “Weber fever” reached its peak toward the second half of 1986 with the appearance of the Chinese translation of The Protestant Ethic. If, as Weber implied, modern Western capitalism is supported by the spiritual culture of Protestantism (characterized as a model of rationality based on a synthetic vision of “other-worldly” quest and “inner-worldly asceticism”), then did not the successful experiment of East Asian countries with capitalism indicate that neo-Confucianism can serve East Asia as Protestantism served the modern West?

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