Modernization and the Confucian World
Colorado College’s 125th Anniversary Symposium
Cultures in the 21st Century: Conflicts and Convergences
“One material civilization, multiple spiritual cultures” (I prefer the German distinction of civilization and culture) is a favorite topic of mine. The first part of the topic means that modernization is irresistible in the world. People almost everywhere (there may be a few exceptions) prefer electric lamps to oil lamps, air conditioners to hand fans, cars to horses for transportation, houses to tents for living. Modernization has made great improvements in diet, clothing, housing, travel, and longevity, no matter the culture, religion, morality, or “nationality” of a people. I totally disagree with those who, emphasizing the negative aspects of modernization, intentionally overlook these fundamental facts. I raised the controversial topic of “a return to classical Marxism” and titled my philosophy jokingly as “a philosophy of eating.”
“Food before morals” is a plain, homely, but important truth. Some people, especially intellectuals (who have no problem of food) easily forget it. So it seems to me that it is still important to repeat that economic development, especially the development of science and technology (according to classical Marxism, this is the determinative element of the productive force), is a presupposition for essential changes of other aspects of civilization. The material life of common people is the foundation of any civilization. It is economy, not culture, which decides the modern appearance of peoples everywhere, and this is the real reason why modernization is so powerful that it destroys almost every kind of obstacle and causes a series of cultural shifts. After all, people are not celestial spirits but physical beings who want to maintain their life—and hope for a better one in this world. For this reason, millions and millions of people, boys and girls, are leaving their traditional villages, coming to modern cities, enjoying the new life styles (getting and changing jobs by themselves, living in small families or living single), and accepting new values (individual autonomy, equal rights of competition). This is exactly what is happening in China today.
By Li Zehou