“Western tools with Chinese characteristics” sums up the predominant Chinese approach to western ideologies ever since China was inexorably drawn into global history in the 19th century by imperialism and capitalism. Long before Deng Xiaoping’s “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,”Chinese receptions of western ideas had already focused on sinicizing western ideas to prevent China from being subsumed and subjugated by the world order created by western hegemonic powers. One such practice was the Chinese intellectuals and statesmen’s localization/sinicization strategy as they translated western ideas into China to jump start the country’s modernization. Initially, localization had the primary goal of making modern ideas readily accessible for the Chinese population so as to rapidly transform them into an educated citizenry capable of withstanding challenges from various colonial powers. Before long, the localization strategy became a conscious tool for China’s search for an alternative modernity. This was clearly Mao Zedong’s agenda, even though the search for an alternative modernity was already strong on the minds of reformers and revolutionaries long before Mao’s time. Localization in translation, or “western tools with Chinese characteristics” was ubiquitous in Chinese translation of western social science discourse. Yet its critical role in reflecting and effecting China’s quest for alternative modernity has never been discussed. This is what my book undertakes to do.
China’s defeats by various colonial powers forced upon the former the harnessing of her to global history as institutionalized by the West. Unlike the West, China experienced the globalization of history not as an internal development but as alien hegemony (Dirlik). Instead of sharing the West’s experience of modernity as a linear progress toward “human liberation” and “self-realization,” China had first encountered it as a destroyer of her sovereignty and autonomy. But in order to break free from the threat of being subjugated by Western modernity, China must also modernize.
Instead of allowing China to be subjected and incorporated into the world system initiated by western imperialism, Chinese intellectuals and statesmen used translation to incorporate the modern West into the Chinese tradition in order to produce a third way that is neither the Old China nor the Modern West, but a regenerated and independent China with a new kind of modernity. The Chinese intellectuals’ localization strategy was not about fixating on their own cultural tradition, nor was it just about synthesizing the local with the global. Rather, it was about translating in order to transgress—that is, translating the global into the local so as to transgress the world order created by the western imperial powers, thereby opening up the possibility for China to enter global history not as its object but as an independent subject, not as a slave but as its citizen.
China’s alternative modernity is not, as popular imagination goes, just another modernity built on linear progress. Rather, there is no future for China that does not also include her cultural past. Even more importantly, it is her cultural past when being transformed by modernity that would open up an opportunity for China to become “more modern than modern,” or, in the language of Xunzi, “to arrive first precisely by starting last” (後發先至).
Sinkwan Cheng has been awarded 13 (inter)national fellowships and grants. She is Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Critical Theory at Duke University. Together with Samuel Moyn, David Armitage, and Michael Freeden, she serves on the International Editorial Board of Global Intellectual History and has reviewed fellowship applications for the European Institutes for Advanced Study and the French Institutes for Advanced Study. She is currently an IFK_Senior Fellow.
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