The "Great Divergence" Redefined: the Rise and Fall of the West and the Recovery of China

By Molly B. Kroker
2014, Vol. 6 No. 09 | pg. 2/3 |

Defining the "Modern" World

What exactly is the "modern" world? There is a serious problem with the way the world views modernity because the word "modern" has become fundamentally associated with practices that emerged in Western Europe in the 19th century and ignores the practices in other parts of the non-Western world. By definition, the word "modern" claims that "modern" practices cannot have existed before nineteenth-century Europe. As such, it means that in order for a nation to enter the "modern world" its people must adopt Western "modern practices."

Economist Jacques Martin, speaking at a TED Salon in London, on "Understanding the rise of China,"15 discusses his qualms on this view on modernity. He claims that "It's an assumption that modernity is a product simply of competition, markets and technology. It is not. It is also shaped equally by history and culture. China is not like the West, and it will not become like the West. It will remain in very fundamental respects very different."16 Jacques Martin, in When China Rules the World (2009), discusses further the problem with assumptions associated with modernity:

The arrival of modernization in different parts of the world and in diverse cultures obliges us, therefore, to rethink what is meant by modernity and to recognize its diversity and plurality. We can no longer base our concept of modernity simply on the experience of North America and Europe. Our understanding of modernity is changed and expanded by the emergence of new modernities.17

In short, the assumption that what is considered to be "modern" must have been originated in the West needs to be corrected. It needs to be understood that what it is to modernize does not mean another country must westernize.

How do we account for the rapid economic development of nineteenth-century Western Europe in comparison to China? If China is not Westernizing than how is it modernizing? Historians such as Roger T. Ames, David L. Hall, and Henry Rosemont Jr., have presented the theory that the reason for why China did not modernize before Europe is because European culture and that of China—art, politics, religion, the scientific principles and moral ideas—are products of the belief systems, that had been determined by the ideas defined by their originators, that have shaped culture. Not that "divergent paths were taken at a number of crucial moments in the development of Chinese and Western cultures."19 Therefore, because the originators' philosophies were very different from each other's, European culture and that of China are really quite distinct.

For instance, the main origins of Western (i.e., European and American) belief systems are largely derived from that of the Greek philosophers during the "Axial Age" (c. 800-200 BCE) —among them were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. These philosophers' ideas generated individualistic and democratic thinking, and then were reinforced by the Enlightenment thinkers during the Age of Enlightenment. In contrast to Western thought, the Chinese have a widely divergent train of thought ingrained within their minds. The Chinese cultural belief systems are based on the philosophies of such men like Confucius (the forefather of Confucianism), and thus have played, and still play, a role (though within the last decade has decreased) in shaping Chinese civilization.

Chinese civilization has always been, and still is (with the rise of Communism), extremely centralized. Therefore, because of this "Confucian-infused" environment, China and its mode of production and life have generated a mentality of greater respect for authority and submission to government than in the West. In short, because of this difference in belief systems, the manner in which the Chinese society operates is drastically different than Western societies. Every aspect of the Chinese basic way of life is affected by their belief systems (not unlike the West)—their government, values, customs, culture, relationships, and even the structure of the Chinese language.

In short, the key difference between the West and China is that European society has always been focused on the "individual," whereas the Chinese have always centered their focus on "relationships," the interaction between people, or "guanxi 關係." The Chinese have been fundamentally a "relationship-based" society that places emphasis on taking care of the community as a whole.

Understanding Confucianism

If influence is determined by the sheer number of people who have lived their lives in accordance with the thinker's vision of how people ought to live, Master Kong 孔子­, or Confucius (551-479 BCE)20 is probably the most influential thinker in human history. Confucius is recognized as China's first great teacher both chronologically and in importance. Confucius considered his role, believing that he was a transmitter rather than an innovator, a classicist rather than a philosopher. The ideas associated with his name have had an unparalleled significance in shaping the history of Chinese civilization.21

Confucius' ideas have been the fertile soil in which the Chinese cultural tradition has been cultivated and has flourished. In fact, whatever we might mean by "Chineseness" today, some two and a half millennia after his death, is inseparable from the example of personal character that Confucius provided for posterity.22

All his ideas symbolize the ideals that have pervaded Chinese Culture throughout most of its history and have molded Chinese minds in the consequent course of social, political, scientific, and technological developments in China. Confucius taught that China's troubles were rooted in the failure of its people and leaders to understand and act according to the rules of proper conduct. Proper conduct, or "junzi 君子­," meant actions conforming to the standards of an ideal structured along lines paralleling those of a harmonious family. He taught about the importance of relationships, or "xiao 孝­." This meant that just as fathers, wives, sons, and daughters have specific roles and obligations within families, individuals, depending on their age, gender, marital status, ancestry, and social standing, have specific roles and obligations within society.

Within the family, children owed parents love and reverence. Parents, especially fathers, were expected to be kind and just. These specific roles that extended to outside families and into society was a duty, or "zhong 忠." Subjects owed rulers obedience, and rulers were expected to be models of virtue and benevolence. Children learned from parents, and subjects from rulers. Confucius also taught that whatever one's status, one must live according to the principles "ren 仁," which means humanness, benevolence and love, and "li 禮," a term that encompasses the concepts of ceremony, propriety, and "yi 義," meaning proper etiquette of good manners.

Because the wisdom and practices of ancient sages were central to his teaching, Confucius taught that one could achieve virtue by studying the literature, history, and the rituals of the past. Education in traditional values and behavior was the path to sagehood, the quality of knowing what is proper and good and acting accordingly.23 Like his Western philosophical counterparts such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, Confucius had a "vision" of the way the world was. However, he did not attempt to convey and emphasize that vision, as did many of his Western counterparts. In fact, it was not a key importance to him. Rather, how one should act in the world and make one's way through it was his message.

His vision was not simply one to be understood, and then accepted, modified, or rejected on the basis of its congruence with the world "objectively" perceived by his students. On the contrary, his vision was one that had to be felt, experienced, practiced, and lived. He was interested in how to make one's way in life, not in discovering the "truth."24

Confucianism is an ideology that is humanistic and non-theistic, and does not involve a belief in the supernatural or in a personal god. Confucianism, rather is a deep respect and affection for the rich cultural Chinese past, what in the Analects is called, "hao xue 好學," meaning "the love of learning."25 Xinzhong Yao, in An introduction to Confucianism (2000), explains that Confucianism is also considered an ethical system.

Morality has been characteristic of Confucian theory and practice. It was on the foundation of Confucianism that various codes of moral life, rules of propriety, patterns of behaviour and guidelines for social and daily life were produced and enhanced. Confucianism underlined, and perhaps to a smaller extent continues to underline, the basic structure of society and community, to orient the life of the people and to define their moral standards and ethical ideal in most parts of East Asia.26

Overall, Confucianism is a way of life. Confucianism illustrates how a person should behave, how that person should lead his life and what that individual must do for an ideal society.

If we were to characterize in one word the Chinese way of life for the last two thousand years, the word could be "Confucian." No other individual in Chinese history has so deeply influenced the life and thought of his people, as a transmitter, teacher and creative interpreter of the ancient culture and literature and as a molder of the Chinese mind and character. (de Bary, et al., 1960, vol. 1: 15)27

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