The following is an excerpt from Taking China to the World: The Cultural Production of Modernity by Theodore Huters:
In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels characterized communism as a specter haunting late-nineteenth-century Europe, one whose leaders tried desperately to exorcise. For the past century of Chinese history, following the the pivotal cultural reform movement named after the May Fourth patriotic demonstrations in Beijing in 1919, communism has not been a specter but a full-blown movement that came to dominate the whole country. The actual specter haunting both post-nineteenth-century China and the communist movement itself is represented by a complex, difficult-to-grasp web of overlapping terms: modernity, modernism, and modernization.
Most problematic of all in this web of ideas about a new, world-facing China was the relationship between the old and the new, or how pre existing modes of thought and institutions might relate to China’s future. At times, the past and its formidable influence could almost overwhelm those intent on reform, but as much as many intellectuals wanted to banish its influence, it could not simply be wished away. How the past and the present relate to one another has always lain at the core of the specter of the modern, no matter how much certain reformers deemed the past to have been overcome. Central to this problem was the irony that China’s new sense of nationalism, which accompanied this reach for “modernity” and was meant to usher in a sense of a renewed, more robust China, could not be conceived of without some sort of “usable” past that would allow China the perception that it was a historical and organic whole as a nation.
A key part of this national renewal was the need to mobilize the vast majority of the population, perceived in China early on as one of the keys to the power of the West, so calls for mass mobilization went hand in hand with the new discourse on modernity. A stumbling block in this push was that this population had been previously regarded as essentially culturally and intellectually inert; there were few precedents to show how the great majority of the Chinese people might be brought into the national conversation. While there had been government-sanctioned lectures, the popularized “Sacred Edicts” offering moral suasion to the people during the late empire, these were seen as so intertwined with the imperial past, not to mention being by design strictly top down from the educated elite to the ordinary people, that they were regarded as something to avoid, as opposed to something to emulate. They also offered no lessons on the extent to which popular agency was to be part of the new information order, a major issue that lurked just under the surface of the discourse on the transmission of modern ideas, and more often than not resulted in conclusions that relegated popular agency to a mere amplification of the insistent voices of the educated elite. The question of how to move this population—and how to move it in the right direction—remained hugely fraught and has continued to be one of the most pressing questions in Chinese intellectual and political life today.
About the author: Theodore Huters is Professor Emeritus of Chinese at UCLA and editor of the translation journal Renditions, the leading international journal of Chinese literature in English translation. He holds a PhD from Stanford University. Professor Huters’s publications include Qian Zhongshu, Bringing the World Home: Appropriating the West in Late Qing and Early Republican China, as well as many articles on modern and late traditional Chinese culture, and numerous translations of the work of important contemporary Chinese intellectuals.