The Abduction of Modernity

Part I: The Race Toward Barbarism

Henry C.K. Liu

This series first appeared in Asia Times in July 2003

The United States defines its global "war on terrorism" as a defensive effort to protect its way of life, beyond attacks from enemies with alien cultural and religious motives, to attacks from those who reject modernity itself. This definition is derived from the views of historian Bernard Lewis, a scholar of Islamic culture at Princeton University, who traces Islamic opposition to the West beyond hostility to specific interests or actions or policies or even countries, to rejection of Western civilization for what it is. To Lewis, Western civilization stands for modernity. This anti-modernity attitude, he warns, is what lends support to the ready use of terror by Islamic fundamentalists.

Samuel Huntington in his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order argues that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War will bring neither peace nor worldwide acceptance of liberal democracy. Huntington rejects Francis Fukuyama's prematurely optimistic "end of history" theme that the collapse of communism means Western civilization is destined to spread as people elsewhere seek the benefits of technology, wealth, and personal freedom it offers. Instead, because technology has been reserved for exploitation, wealth obscenely maldistributed, and freedom selectively denied to the powerless, narrow ideological conflict will transform into conflicts among people with different religions, values, ethnicities, and historical memories. These cultural factors define civilizations. Nations will increasingly base alliances on common civilization rather than common ideology; and wars will tend to occur along the fault lines between major civilizations.

Huntington points out that embracing materialist science, industrial production, technical education, rootless urbanization, and capitalistic trade does not mean the rest of the world will embrace the culture of the West. On the contrary, he argues that economic growth is likely to increase the aspiration for cultural sovereignty, breeding a new commitment to the values, customs, traditions, and religions of native cultures. The struggle is not capitalism against communism, but backward civilization against modern civilization.

The fault in both these views is the assumption that modernity is an exclusive characteristic of the West. On the surface, such views appear self-evident, since science and technology have been the enabling factors behind Western ascendance and dominance. But the "modern world" can be viewed as a brief aberration on the long path of human destiny, a brief period of a few centuries when narcissistic Western thinkers mistake technological development as moral progress in human civilization. Many barbaric notions, racism being the most obvious, appear under the label of modernity, rationalized by a barbaric doctrine of pseudo-science. The West takes advantage of the overwhelming power it has derived from its barbaric values to set itself up as a superior civilization. The West views its technical prowess as a predatory license for intolerance of the values and traditions of other advanced cultures.

Chinese civilization has weathered successive occupation by barbaric invaders, all of whom as rulers saw fit to adopt Chinese civilization for their own benefit and contributed to the further development of the culture they had invaded and subsequently adopted. The history of the West's interaction with the rest of the world has been culturally evangelistic, to suppress and encroach on unfamiliar cultures Westerners arbitrarily deem inferior, often based on self-satisfied ignorance. Until confronted by Western imperialism, China might have faced military conquests, but Chinese civilization had never been under attack. Barbaric invaders came to gain access to Chinese culture, not to destroy it. The West is unique in its destructive ethnocentricity. Under the domination of the West, Chinese or other non-Western intellectuals who do not speak or read Western languages are considered illiterate and ignorant, while Western "scholars", including the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who do not speak or read Chinese or other non-Western languages have written erudite books on Chinese and other non-Western culture.

Gunpowder was invented around the 4th century in China by Taoist alchemist Ko Hong while seeking an elixir for immortality. It is the height of Taoist irony that the search for an elixir for immortality only yields a substance that ends life abruptly. Gunpowder would not be used in warfare in China until the 10th century, first in incendiary rockets called feihuo (flying fire), forerunner of today's intercontinental ballistic missiles. Explosive grenades would first be employed by armies of the Song Dynasty in 1161 against Jurchens (Nuzhen), ancestors of modern-day Manchurians.

In Chinese dynastic culture, the use of firearms in war was considered cowardly and therefore not exploited by honorable warriors of self-respect. Firearms would not develop in dynastic China, not because of the absence of know-how, but because their use had been culturally circumscribed as not being appropriate for true warriors.

In the history of human progress, willful rejection of many technological inventions is traceable to cultural preference. This is the basis for concluding that the technological militarism of the West is of barbaric roots and that a civilization built on military power remains barbaric, the reverse of modernity, notwithstanding the guise of technology.

The oldest picture in the world of a gun and a grenade is on a painted silk banner found at Dunhuang, dating to the mid-10th century, that came to be in the possession of Musee Guimet in Paris in modern times. The museum on Place d'Iena was founded by French industrialist Emile Guimet, a 19th-century Asian-art collector from Lyon. On the silk banner, demons of Mara the Temptress, an evil goddess, are shown trying to harm the meditating Buddha and to distract him from his pursuit of enlightenment, with a proto-gun in the form of a fire lance and a proto-grenade in the form of a palm-size fire-bomb. The fact that these weapons are shown to be used only by evil demons illustrates the distasteful attitude of the ancient Chinese toward firearms.

Crossbows, known in Chinese as nu, have a shorter range than double-curved longbows and are slower in firing. But they became devastatingly accurate after a grid sight to guide their aim was invented 23 centuries ago by Prince Liu Chong of the imperial house of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).

Crossbows were first used 28 centuries ago in the Spring and Autumn Period (Chunqiu 770-481 BC) when their employment in the hands of the infantry neutralized the traditional superiority of war chariots. The use of crossbows thus changed the rules of warfare and the balance of power in the political landscape of ancient China, favoring those states with large sheren (commoner) infantry forces over those with powerful chariot-owning militant guizu (aristocrats).

The earliest unification of China by the Legalist Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), whose unifying ruler was an antagonist of fragmented aristocratic feudalism, was not independent of the geopolitical impact of crossbow technology.

History records that in 209 BC, the Second Emperor (Er Shi, reigned 209-207 BC) of the Qin Dynasty, son of the unifying Qin Origin Emperor (Qin Shihuangdi, reigned 246-210 BC), who fought 26 years of continuous war to unify all under the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), which subsequently lasted only 14 years before collapsing, kept a crossbow regiment of 50,000 archers.

Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian, author of the classic Records of the Historian (Shi Ji), wrote in 108 BC that a member of the Han royalty, the prince of Liang Xiao (Liang Xiao Wang), was in charge of an arsenal with several hundred thousand crossbows in 157 BC.

Two working crossbows from China, dating from the 11th century AD, one capable of repeat firing, came to be in the modern-day collection of the Simon Archery Foundation in Manchester Museum at the University of Manchester, England.

Most triggers and sights used in crossbows in China were manufactured by master craftsmen who signed their metal products with inscribed marks and dates. Shen Gua (1031-94), renowned Bei Song Dynasty (Northern Song 960-1127) scientist cum historian on Chinese science and technology, referred to his frustration over his inability to date accurately an 11th-century excavation, upon finding on a crossbow mechanism the inscription "stock by Yu Shih and bow by Chang Rou", but with no accompanying dates.

Even in 10th century BC, production of crossbows in China had already involved a sophisticated system of separation of manufacturing of parts and mass assembly of final products.

Crossbows were last used in war in China by the Qing Dynasty army in 1900, with tragic inadequacy, against the invading armies of eight allied European powers with more deadly firearms.

The ancient Greeks employed crossbows successfully at Syracuse in 397 BC. After the fall of the Roman Empire, crossbows reappeared in Europe only after the 10th century. They were used at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 by William the Conqueror.

The Second Lateran Council of 1139 condemned crossbows, together with usury, simony, clerical marriage and concubinage. Their use was banned under the anathema of the Church, except for use against infidels. The ban on crossbows was a position of moral righteousness yet to be taken by Christendom in modern times on the use of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction.

Richard, Coeur de Lion (1157-1199), mostly absentee king of England (1189-99) and less-than-successful hero of the Crusades, took many crossbows on his Third Crusade in 1190. Hernando Cortes (1485-1547), Spanish conquistador, used the crossbow as one of his main weapons in subjugating Mexico in the 16th century.

In medieval warfare, the rules of European chivalry required, as those of dynastic Chinese martial arts did, that honorable combat be personal and bodily. Arrows were considered cowardly by medieval Europeans, as firearms were by dynastic Chinese up to the 19th century. The use of bows and arrows was stooped to only by those outside of the socio-military establishment, the likes of outlawed English yeomen of the 12th century, such as Robin Hood and his chief archer, Little John, legendary folk heroes of English ballads. Another famous 13th-century archer was the legendary Swiss patriot William Tell, whose story would be made popular by Friedrich von Schiller's drama and later by Gioacchino Antonio Rossini's popular opera.

European knights, when prepared to suffer calculated losses, were able to survive slow-firing enemy crossbows with limited range. In sufficient numbers, the horsemen were able to decimate in full gallop an unprotected line of much-despised enemy crossbow-men. However, they were not able to overcome fast-firing longbows with long range.

Two millennia after the invention of crossbows in China, the Battle of Crecy of the Hundred Years' War, which took place on August 26, 1346, first demonstrated the effectiveness of Edward III's English archers, composed mostly of newly recruited, socially shunned yeomen with longbows, against the respectable armored French knights of Philip VI.

Similarly, the Battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415, decisively confirmed the obsolescence of hitherto invincible French aristocratic knights on horseback. In opposition, English yeomen, commoner foot-soldiers, members of a class unappreciated by their social betters in their home society, applied with glory in war a despised killing tool designed for illegal poaching in peace. Armed with a fresh military application of ignoble longbow technology, the socially inferior English yeomen in the form of simple unarmored infantry-archers, proved their battlefield supremacy to the socially superior French aristocrats in the form of powerfully armored mounted knights.

The Battle of Agincourt marked the end of the age of chivalry and announced the obsolescence of its stylized methods of warfare. It also heralded the beginning of a period in which the sovereign would look for military support from the gentry of his realm rather than traditionally from the aristocracy. This gave rise to the resulting political implication that henceforth war would have to be fought for national purpose or religious conviction rather than for settling private feuds among royalties.

In William Shakespeare's Henry V, the central scene of which features the Battle of Agincourt, the most glorious in English history, King Henry addresses his yeomen soldiers in a famous nationalistic exultation:

"Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot;
Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry! England and Saint George!'"

After the battle scene, Shakespeare (1564-1616) has King Henry recount the French dead:

"The names of those their nobles that lie dead:
Charles Delabreth, High Constable of France;
The Master of the Cross-bows, Lord Rambures ..."

In ancient Chinese warfare, the code of honorable martial conduct required that combat be personal, bodily and frontal. Combatants were organized according to rank, as per all other social activities in a class-conscious and rigidly hierarchical society. Jiangjun (generals) were pitted against jiangjun, captains against captains and foot soldiers against foot soldiers. Social segregation was reflected in the proverb: "Earthenware does not deserve collision with porcelain."

Expertise in corporeal martial skill was so highly prized that jiangjun were frequently expected to engage personally in one-on-one combat with their opposing counterparts. Battles were sometimes won or lost depending on the outcome of high-ranking personal duels under the watchful eyes of troops on each side. By Tang time in the 7th century, however, the cult of martial chivalry in which individual valor determined the outcome of battles already had become only a legend of the past. Firepower was still considered cowardly. And the use of firearms was not acceptable to proud warriors as respectable members of the social elite. Until influenced in modern times by popular Hollywood films on the American Wild West, Chinese children playing war would prefer swordfights to gunfights.

Gunpowder remained unknown in the West until the late 10th century. However, Europeans abandoned outmoded rules of chivalry after the Middle Ages and enthusiastically incorporated firearms and artillery into the lexicon of their military arts after the late 15th century. In contrast, thanks to the Confucian aversion to technological progress, Chinese military planners did not modernize their martial code, basing foreign policy on the principle of civilized benevolence. They continued to suppress development of firearms as immoral and dishonorable up to the 19th century, much to China's misfortune.

As a result, European armies arrived in China in the 19th century with superior firearms. They consistently and repeatedly scored decisive victories with their small but better-armed expeditionary forces over the numerically superior yet technologically backward, sword-wielding Chinese army of the decrepit Qing Dynasty (1636-1911).

China's most influential revolutionary, Mao Zedong, proclaimed in modern times his famous dictum: "Political power comes from the barrel of a gun." He was in fact condemning the obsolete values of Confucianism (ru jia) as much as stating a truism in barbaric modern realpolitik.

Confucian ethics notwithstanding, morality and honor failed to save China from Western imperialism, because morality and honor require observation from both opponents. It was not a clash of civilizations, but a clash between civilization and barbarism. Militarism is a race toward barbarism camouflaged by technology as modernity.

The Boxers Uprising of 1900, the Chinese name for which is Yihetuan (Righteous Harmony Brigade), was an extremist xenophobic movement. It was encouraged as a chauvinistic instrument for domestic politics by the decrepit court of the Qing Dynasty, dominated by the self-indulging, reactionary Dowager Empress (Cixi Taihou, 1838-1908). The Boxer Uprising was used by the Dowager Empress as a populist counterweight to abort the budding "100 Days" elitist reform movement of 1898, led by conservative reformist Kang Youwei (1858-1927) around the young monarch, the weak Emperor Guangxu (reigned 1875-1908), belatedly and defensively advocating modernization for China.

The members of Yihetuan, in a burst of chauvinistic frenzy, rejected the use of modern and therefore foreign firearms in favor of traditional broadswords. They relied on protection against enemy bullets from Taoist amulets, their faith in which would remain unshaken in the face of undeniable empirical evidence provided by hundreds of thousands of falling comrades shot by Western gunfire. The term Boxer would be coined by bewildered Europeans whose modern pragmatism would fill them with a superficial superiority complex, justified on narrow grounds, over an ancient culture that stubbornly clung to the irrational power of faith, in defiance of reason.

Historians often trace the source of national predicaments to particular decisions made by leaders based on personal character, rather than to structural conditions of institutions. This convenient emphasis on personal political errors at the expense of deterministic institutional structure tends to nurture speculations that with wiser decisions, a socio-economic-political order trapped inside an obsolete institutional system would not necessarily be doomed to collapse under the strain of its own contradictions. Such speculations are hard to verify, since it can be argued that bad political decisions by faulty leaders are not independent of a nation's institutional defects. The penchant of the sole remaining superpower to resort to overwhelming force against those not willing to bend to its will may well be an institutional march from modernity back toward barbarism.

Ironically, the Boxers Uprising so discredited the public image of the stubbornly reactionary Qing court that, within a decade after its outbreak, the democratic revolution of Dr Sun Yat-sen succeeded in 1911 in overthrowing the three-century-old Qing Dynasty, despite the effective reactionary suppression of progressive monarchist reform efforts in the dynasty's last phase, or perhaps because of it. Extremist reactionaries, in their eagerness to be gravediggers for progressive reformers, usually become instead unwitting midwives for revolutionary radicals. The Taoist concept of the curative potential of even deadly poison was again demonstrated by the pathetic phenomenon of the Boxers Uprising.

Thus a case can be made that extreme fundamentalist opposition to the West may be the midwife for modernization of Islamic civilization. The capitalistic West nurtured and used Islamic fundamentalism as an antidote against communism in the oil regions of the Middle East during the Cold War, the same way it had nurtured and used fascism during the Great Depression. The antidote proves to be more lethal to the capitalistic West.

Western military prowess, with its arsenal of smart bombs and weapons of mass destruction ready for deployment to impose its will on others, is not a march toward modernity, but a retreat toward barbarism. A civilization built on militarization of the peace remains a barbaric civilization. What Western militarism has done is to abduct modernity as synonymous with Western civilization, depriving human civilization of an evolving process of cultural diversity. The effect of this abduction of modernity had been profound and comprehensive.

The West is not the only guilty party in history, only the most recent. Chinese civilization during the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) took a great step forward toward forging a unified nation and culture, but in the process lost much of the richness of its ancient, local traditions and rendered many details of its fragmented past incomprehensible to posterity. Universality and standardization, ingredients of progress, are mortal enemies of particularity and variety, components of tradition. Human civilization deserves a richer vision of modernity than that offered by the West. Until modernization is divorced from Westernization, non-Western civilizations will continue to resist modernization.

Tu Weiming, professor of Chinese history and philosophy and director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute at Harvard University, wrote: "Hegel, [Karl] Marx and Max Weber all shared the ethos that, despite all its shortcomings, the modern West informed by the Enlightenment mentality was the only arena where the true difference for the rest of the world could be made. Confucian East Asia, Islamic Middle East, Hindu India, or Buddhist Southeast Asia was on the receiving end of this process. Eventually, modernization as homogenization would make cultural diversity inoperative, if not totally meaningless. It was inconceivable that Confucianism or, for that matter, any other non-Western spiritual traditions could exert a shaping influence on the modernizing process. The development from tradition to modernity was irreversible and inevitable."

Tu suggests that, in the global context, what some of the most brilliant minds in the modern West assumed to be self-evidently true turned out to be parochial. In the rest of the world and, arguably, in Western Europe and North America, the anticipated clear transition from tradition to modernity never occurred. As a norm, traditions continue to make their presence in modernity and, indeed, the modernizing process itself is constantly shaped by a variety of cultural forms rooted in distinct traditions. The recognition of the relevance of radical otherness to one's own self-understanding of the 18th century seems more applicable to the current situation in the global community than the inattention to any challenges to the modern Western mindset of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. For example, the outstanding Enlightenment thinkers such as Francois Arouet de Voltaire, Gottfried Leibniz and Jean Jacques Rousseau took China as their major reference society and Confucianism as their major reference culture. It seems that toward the 21st century, the openness of the 18th century, as contrasted with the exclusivity of the 19th century, may provide a better guide for the dialogue of civilizations.

According to Professor Tu, in light of the ill-conceived hypothesis of the "coming clash of civilizations, the need for civilizational dialogues and for exploring a global ethic is more compelling. Among the Enlightenment values advocated by the French Revolution, fraternity, the functional equivalent of community, has received scant attention among modern political theorists. The preoccupation with fixing the relationship between the individual and the state since [John] Locke's treatises on government is, of course, not the full picture of modern political thought; but it is undeniable that communities, notably the family, have been ignored as irrelevant in the mainstream of Western political discourse."

In Tu's view, East Asian modernity under the influence of Confucian traditions suggests an alternative model to Western modernism:

(1) Government leadership in a market economy is not only necessary but is also desirable. The doctrine that government is a necessary evil and that the market in itself can provide an "invisible hand'' for ordering society is antithetical to modern experience in either the West or the East. A government that is responsive to public needs, responsible for the welfare of the people and accountable to society at large is vitally important for the creation and maintenance of order.

(2) Although law is essential as the minimum requirement for social stability, "organic solidarity" can only result from the implementation of humane rites of interaction. The civilized mode of conduct can never be communicated through coercion. Exemplary teaching as a standard of inspiration invites voluntary participation. Law alone cannot generate a sense of shame to guide civilized behavior. It is the ritual act that encourages people to live up to their own aspirations.

(3) Family as the basic unit of society is the locus from which the core values are transmitted. The dyadic relationships within the family, differentiated by age, gender, authority, status, and hierarchy, provide a richly textured natural environment for learning the proper way of being human. The principle of reciprocity, as a two-way traffic of human interaction, defines all forms of human-relatedness in the family. Age and gender, potentially two of the most serious gaps in the primordial environment of the human habitat, are brought into a continuous flow of intimate sentiments of human care.

(4) Civil society flourishes not because it is an autonomous arena above the family and beyond the state. Its inner strength lies in its dynamic interplay between family and state. The image of the family as a microcosm of the state and the ideal of the state as an enlargement of the family indicate that family stability is vitally important for the body politic and a vitally important function of the state is to ensure organic solidarity of the family. Civil society provides a variety of mediating cultural institutions that allow for a fruitful articulation between family and state. The dynamic interplay between the private and public enables the civil society to offer diverse and enriching resources for human flourishing.

(5) Education ought to be the civil religion of society. The primary purpose of education is character-building. Intent on the cultivation of the full person, schools should emphasize ethical as well as cognitive intelligence. Schools should teach the art of accumulating "social capital" through communication. In addition to the acquisition of knowledge and skills, schooling must be congenial to the development of cultural competence and appreciation of spiritual values.

(6) Since self-cultivation is the root for the regulation of family, governance of state, and peace under heaven, the quality of life of a particular society depends on the level of self-cultivation of its members. A society that encourages self-cultivation as a necessary condition for human flourishing is a society that cherishes virtue-centered political leadership, mutual exhortation as a communal way of self-realization, the value of the family as the proper home for learning to be human, civility as the normal pattern of human interaction and, education as character-building.

Tu acknowledges that it is far-fetched to suggest that these societal ideals are fully realized in East Asia. Actually, East Asian societies often exhibit behaviors and attitudes just the opposite of the supposed salient features of Confucian modernity indicate. Indeed, having been humiliated by imperialism and colonialism for decades, the rise of East Asia, on the surface at least, blatantly displays some of the most negative aspects of Western modernism with a vengeance: exploitation, mercantilism, consumerism, materialism, greed, egoism and brutal competitiveness.

Nevertheless, as the first non-Western region to become modernized, the cultural implications of the rise of "Confucian" East Asia are far-reaching. The modern West as informed by the Enlightenment mentality provided the initial impetus for worldwide social transformation. The historical reasons that prompted the modernizing process in Western Europe and North America are not necessarily structural components of modernity. Surely, Enlightenment values such as instrumental rationality, liberty, rights consciousness, due process of law, privacy and individualism are all universalizable modern values. However, as the Confucian example suggests, "Asian values" such as sympathy, distributive justice, duty-consciousness, ritual, public-spiritedness and group orientation are also universalizable modern values. Just as the former ought to be incorporated into East Asian modernity, the latter may turn out to be a critical and timely reference for the American way of life.

Next: That Old Time Religion