Move to modernize China should begin with its culture

Modernizing Chinese culture is vital to China’s modernization. Modernization of Chinese culture must start with understanding Chinese culture. In China’s 5,000 years of history, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism emerged as prominent schools of thought in Chinese civilization. The Analects, the Diamond Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism and the Tao Te Ching are canonized as some of the most important texts that best represent Chinese philosophy. Besides, businesspeople, politicians and militants must learn another classic, The Art of War by Sun Tzu — a book of tactics — by heart. 

The saying “Chinese culture is profound and comprehensive” is not an overstatement. The achievements brought by Chinese cultural heritage expand across fields and are by no means exhaustive. Other ancient texts like Huangdi Neijing and Shanghan Lun teach the doctrine of treating life with traditional Chinese medicine and illustrate the relationship among human bodies, nature and life. The I Ching, also known as the Book of Changes, speculates on systems of changes and tries to account for the cosmic patterns in the universe. Such an approach toward understanding the relations between humankind and nature is completely different from the laws of physics and mechanics as postulated by the West.

Therefore, to modernize Chinese culture and for its people to enter a new realm of spiritual civilization, first, they must look past discourses, popularized by the West, of contemporary materialism, which depends heavily on physical capital, and of competitions that flaunt ranks. Given the present shape human material civilization has taken, we must think over how to reconstruct human beings’ spiritual civilization. Brought forth by unrestrained development, a society’s affluence spawns millions of desires among its inhabitants. Human desires will grow evermore insatiable. How can this problem concerning spiritual civilization be solved? Traditional Chinese culture can inspire different ways of thinking and hence answers.

Chinese culture has always been mistakenly seen as monotonous. Yet the reality is quite the contrary. Chinese culture pursues diversity, yearns to cater to the people it serves, and seeks to amalgamate strength from all walks of life. Since humans are central to cultural development, cultural policy should aim to inculcate humanistic values in its people and strengthen their mental states. Talent development should thus be foregrounded in cultural policy. However, it requires materialistic support, i.e., capital. Humans are essential not simply because they are bearers of cultures, but they also play an important part in cultural and economic developments. Without people, there would not be developments. The profits the economy creates should be channeled to developing cultures, which eventually contribute to greater happiness.

Thus, it is of little value for modernization of Chinese culture to adopt the zero-sum approach of the West and the cultures of aggression and ranking. Its focal point should shift to reconstructing a modern realm of Chinese culture with enhanced spiritual civilization, of which various classes in society would display modesty and manners. As technological advancement enjoys a growing momentum, how shall we cope with the impacts technology brings? As the West struggles with evolving technologies, how will Chinese culture, imbued with its rich cultural heritage, develop an approach that can harmonize relations between individuals and technologies? That, certainly, will help create a society and a world for sustainable development.

On top of the matter of logistics in modernizing Chinese culture, a few theoretical questions must be thought through. First, how will one act against the propagation and expansion of vulgar culture popularized by the West? Second, how will a system of cultures that centralizes Chinese culture be constructed? Last, how will an organic cultural environment that benefits humankind and promotes multifaceted development be created by leveraging the positive energy resting in Chinese culture plus meaningful and equal exchange and collaboration? It will help to counter the West’s inclination for aggression and alter the market-oriented status quo, which is contingent on stimulation of the senses and focuses solely on short-term effectiveness.


The author is a member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies and artistic director of Zuni Icosahedron.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.