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Between Tradition and Modernity

January 29, 2010

Paul A. Cohen. Between Tradition and Modernity: Wang T’ao and Reform in Late Ch’ing China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Zhou Guanghui (2000)

In the 1970s imperialism was under heavy fire by young intellectuals who were deeply disturbed by American involvement in the Vietnam War. The progressive, civilizing, and enlightening mission that was usually assumed by Westerners to be operative in the encounter between the East and the West was bitterly criticized; while on the other hand, these young scholars showed great interest in the possibility of the non-West to adapt to the modern world. It was in this intellectual context that Paul Cohen undertook to examine the relationship between tradition and modernity in this book. Unlike Mary Wright, Levenson, Feuerwerker and other scholars who, while deeply regretting the death of a great civilization, viewed it as inevitable because of the incompatibility between traditional and modern society, Cohen argues that he Chinese culture which came into growing contact with Western civilization in the nineteenth century was anything but inert. (p. 275) In his view, Chinese culture was perfectly capable of generating from within itself the impulse to change.

The problem with the previous scholarship that more or less ignored the dynamics of the tradition, according to Cohen, has much to do with the perspective held by those scholars, who often compared the recent history of China to that of Japan. From the vantage point of Japanese uccess, the late Qing epitomizes ailure, and next to the dynamism of the Meiji era, China, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, appears as the very embodiment of stasis. (p. 4) However, such a cross-cultural comparison while valuable, is misleading as a yardstick for the measurement of change. Despite that they both happened to be re-modern, China and Japan did not share a common aseline in their attempt at modernization. A more suitable way of measuring change, Cohen argues, should be by internal points of reference. From this point of view, apparently a huge transformation occurred in nineteenth-century China.

Cohen illustrates his proposition by examining the intellectual experience of Wang T’ao. Wang, in Cohen’s term, was a new man who, while profoundly steeped in the culture and learning of the Chinese past, was doubtless a pioneer reformer advocating institutional changes for China. After failure in the civil service examination, Wang took a job as a Chinese editor for the London Missionary Society press in 1849. During 1867-1870, Wang visited Europe for over two years. After his returning to Hong Kong, he became an influential journalist who was critical of dynastic policy and attempted to introduce contemporary European events and British institutions to China. Cohen carefully analyzes Wang’s perspectives on a new world and rescriptions for a new China and notes that raditional culture did not constitute an obstacle for Wang to appreciate the modern world. On the contrary, the well-established strong conviction of tradition permitted Wang to entertain certain highly untraditional notions without experiencing the shock of cultural dislocation. Wang assumed that the essence of Chinese civilization, the core values, was indestructible. Therefore, he was theoretically free to take any position he wished in regard to technological change. (p. 150) Because of this, Cohen points out that Wang was able to be quite radical in proposing sweeping technological change and other institutional reforms. After analyzing both the littoral and hinterland intellectuals in the nineteenth-century China, Cohen further finds that Wang’s intellectual orientation was widely shared by these pioneer reformers. In this sense, Chinese tradition was dynamic and fluid. And it is certainly problematic to think of tradition and modernity as having wholly different, often mutually antagonistic qualities.

In her book review, Linda Shin argues that despite Cohen careful treatment of Wang’s ideas, the reader is nonetheless left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the radition vs. odernity framework with which Cohen has analyzed Wang. But she finds that the final section ittoral and hinterland in modern Chinese history is especially useful. The analysis of the difference and interaction between littoral and hinterland intellectuals sheds new light on the dramatic reform movement that arose during the last decades of Qing dynasty.

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