Modernization of the East

What does a word “modernization” mean? This western notion, originally French, denotes a reorganization of a traditional country in an industrial society. Although this transformation is usually carried out for economic purposes, it is accompanied by a significant change in the social structure of the country. Because modernization is ineffective in a traditional society, appearance of a new class system is required. On the other hand, modernization implies deep cultural changes such as a spread of humanism and individualism, development of science, increasing availability of education, and emergence of the mass culture. All these alterations are more likely in a secular society where faith and church are separated from the social life. This is a classical scenario of modernization in a progressive European country with a Christian background.

Late modernization in India, Japan and China, lasted from the middle of the XIX century till the middle of the XX century, was not so easy and differed culturally and politically. Eastern modernists understood backwardness of their agricultural economies and stimulated modernization through promotion of “modern” western customs or reconsideration of traditional sources in order to find in them similar ideas. At the same time many locals did not encourage westernization and established nationalist movements trying to defend originality of their own culture.

Modernization of India was closely related to its cultural and political interaction with British colonialists. India formally came under direct British rule after a great Rebellion of 1857 (previously it was controlled by the East India Company). This six-month war for independence turned British to civilize the natives and stop converting them to Christianity. During the whole colonial period in Indian history there existed various movements, which concentrated on the Indian traditional beliefs and developed them. For instance, members of a nationalist Arya Samaj movement, founded in 1875, stood for return to Vedic Hinduism and rejected the implanted westernization, struggling with Christianization of Indians.

Another Indian religious group, appeared in 1828 and called Brahmo Samaj, was a Neo-Hinduist progressive movement. In 1860s its members campaigned for such modern things as education of women and prohibition of child marriages. Moreover, since members of Brahmo Samaj claimed that all the people are equal before God, they did not accept the caste system. This ancient stratification was a great social brake on the path of the country’s economic development. Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948), the leader of the Indian independence movement educated in London, also convinced people of unreason of this system and tried Indians to change their terrible attitude towards the untouchable caste. Gandhi’s views combined very modern ideas (such as equality) and new political thought (nonviolence and nonresistance) with a nationalist approach. This synthesis characterizes the whole Indian modernization process. [1]

By the middle of the XIX century Japan also was a backward country (e.g. the first railway on Honshu was constructed only in 1871 [2]) due to its isolation politics conducted by the Tokugawa shogunate. But circa 1865 Japan changed its political priorities. Foreign scientists and engineers began to be invited, while Japanese began to study abroad. A modernization period called Meiji restoration started. At the same time to unite people and intensify progress rulers undertook some unnatural cultural reforms such as introduction of a “standard dialect” and promotion of Shinto, a native Japanese religion, as a national ideology. This religion was restructured and included some Buddhist and local beliefs. For a few decades Japan managed to develop the industry to the level of advanced European countries and became the first Asian state which completed modernization of the western type. So, Japan was successfully modernized due to implementation of a unifying ideology based on the traditional culture. The first fruit of this deep economic and cultural reorganization was the victory of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War (1904 – 1905) that made Japan “a hope of Asia” for other Asian countries, as a country able to defeat western imperialism. As in India, there also existed nationalist movements (Japanese forms of Pan-Asianism). Chinese philosopher Liang, popular in Japan, wrote: “As Japan grew more powerful, there would develop a contradiction between its imperative to expand and dominate and the pan-Asianist desire to express solidarity with other Asian countries…” [3-5]

By that time, it was a choice of China to be westernized as Japan or not to undertake modernization seriously and be colonized as India. Two to some extend opposite views on the appropriate way of China’s modernization were represented by influential Chinese intellectuals Kang Youwei (1858 – 1927) and Liang Shuming (1893 – 1988). Both philosophers received a western-like education in Japan and paid much attention to the European philosophical schools. Kang as a representative of Neo-Confucianism insisted on such reforms as emancipation of women, mass education and introduction of constitutional democracy finding indirect indications of these in Confucius’ texts. Neo-Confucianist school rediscovered traditional Chinese culture and combined it with some “modern” ideas. Another point of view was presented by Liang, philosopher of the school of Social Darwinism. He considered politics as a struggle between powers which main driver is economics. Liang encouraged human rights, democracy and development of capitalism in China and did not found a place for traditional beliefs in the modern China. Liang’s pro-western views were altered significantly after his trip to America where his naïve picture of freedom and equality was destroyed. Liang was disappointed with classical western ideas and suggested that Chinese development should be different from the western-type modernization. This is an example of how hard the way of modernization was chosen. [5]

In general, the cultural adoption of modern ideas in India, Japan and China was a rather complex process. By the middle of the XIX century, these three Asian countries were far behind the European powers because of a traditional social structure. There were confrontations between philosophical schools promoting modern views (that usually meant western views) and various nationalist movements. Unlike in European countries, modernization in these Eastern states was not accompanied by strong secularization: tradition was rediscovered and reinterpreted by both reformers and conservatives. Indian modernization differed from that in Japan and China also due to the colonial status of the country and its active movement for independence.

[1] Dominic Rubin, Lecture notes, India – British and native influence
[2] Naotaka Hirota, Steam Locomotives of Japan, Kodansha International Ltd., 1972
[3] Pankaj Mishra, From the ruins of empire. The intellectuals who remade Asia, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
[4] Dominic Rubin, Notes, Japan modern background
[5] Dominic Rubin, Lecture notes, China modernity