Academic journal article China Perspectives

Guoxue/National Learning in the Age of Global Modernity

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Guoxue/National Learning in the Age of Global Modernity

Article excerpt

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This discussion will undertake two tasks. The first task is to place guoxue(national learning) within a contemporary global perspective, to suggest that while guoxuemay be unique in the nationally defined epistemological territory (a "Chinese" way of knowing) it claims, its claims to epistemological particularism are anything but unique. Epistemological nativism, or a general valorisation of ethnoepistemology, is a pervasive (if not defining) characteristic of contemporary global modernity.

The second task follows from this first one: what are the implications for guoxue as a subject and method of its contemporary global context? While epistemological nativism may be a necessary step in the recovery of epistemologies erased by the universalistic claims of Euromodern ways of knowing, it needs to resist reduction to a parochial marker of national identity in a narrow, ahistorical nationalism. The articulation to other knowledges is necessary if guoxue is to be of epistemological significance beyond national boundaries, to contribute to broader human causes, and, ironically, to enable a more comprehensive understanding of the national past than through a narrow nationalism. Throughout the discussion, I will use guoxuerather than "national learning," as I think the Chinese term guo suggests both more and less than the English term national, a distinction that may be necessary to grasping different understandings of guoxue even among its practitioners.

Global modernity and the proliferation of knowledges

Simply put, global modernity is modernity globalised. The consequences, however, are anything but global unification or global homogenisation. The political economic integration of the globe, which is usually what is under- stood by globalisation, has been accompanied by new fragmentations as well as the intensification of earlier ones. If I may cite a passage from a re- cent work of mine,

The globalization of modernity needs to be comprehended not just in the trivial sense of an originary modernity reaching out and touching all, even those who are left out of its benefits...but more importantly as the proliferation of claims on modernity. So-called traditions no longer imply a contrast with modernity, as they did in modernization discourse. Nor are they the domain of backward- looking conservatism, except in exceptional circumstances - such as the Taliban. They are invoked increasingly to establish claims to alternative modernities (but only rarely to alternatives to moder- nity). They point not to the past but, taking a detour through the past, to an alternative future. They have even taken over from so- cialism the task of speaking for those oppressed or cast aside by capitalist modernity and pointing to different possibilities for the future.(2)

At its paradigmatic simplest, modernisation discourse rendered the modernity/ tradition binary into a zero-sum relationship: the more moder- nity, the less tradition; the more tradition, the less modernity. Modernity was understood in its Euro/American manifestations (or what I think is best described as Euromodernity): scientific/technological development, a sense of history driven by its commitment to progress, the political insti- tutions associated with parliamentary democracy, and the social primacy of the individual. Except for the last item, socialist modernity shared in these basic assumptions of capitalist modernity. Modernisation, under- stood as development towards these characteristics, would relegate tradi- tions to the past and, ultimately, to oblivion. Indeed, its logical conclusion was that traditions themselves were inventions of modernity, not false but primarily ideological in substance. Euromodernity, universalised as Moder- nity as such, was all there was. (3)

Nevertheless, invented or not, the traditions refused to disappear. Those who spoke for traditions were labelled conservatives, which in these cases referred not just to a political (as in nineteenth century Europe) but also to a cultural phenomenon; indeed there was some puzzlement that so- called "cultural conservatives" (defenders of some native tradition or other, and therefore obstacles to urgent tasks of "westernisation," confounded more often than not with modernisation) could on occasion espouse rev- olutionary politics. …

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