Is there an Asian conception of modernity?
By Andreas Herberg-Rothe
In the 1990s, there emerged a debate and public discourse about "Asian values", as opposed to "Western values". With this concept, the prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore tried not only to explain their success, but also to legitimize their own authoritarian roles.
The distinction between Western and Asian values centered on the concept of freedom and the question of whether human rights
are universal or historically and culturally determined.
The core of the debate seemed to me the question about the relation of the freedom of the individual versus the order of the related community. All other distinctions stem from this fundamental difference.
Whereas the Western understanding seems to favor the individual above the community, the Asian proponents of the debate put emphasis on the community, which gives even meaning to the understanding of the individual. In line with some understandings of Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, the latter understanding gives priority to hierarchically structured social, political and cultural kinds of order.
The political background of this debate is quite obvious.
If the imaginary two worlds, the East and the West, were merged largely by Western imperialism in the nineteenth century for the first time in world history, it is historically unprecedented for an underdog to rise, challenging the global hegemony of Western norms, rules, and institutions.
In fact, it was Japan that had challenged Western hegemony in a series of wars culminating in World War II as the first Westernized East Asian power in the early twentieth century, but its ascendency has been dwarfed by the rise of China and East Asia as a civilization or an empire at the turn of the twenty-first century. With the Western states still retaining hegemonic status in ideas and institutions, what could East Asian elites do to voice their visions for a new world order? - Key-young Son
The eminent Chinese scholar Zhang Wei Wei has raised in his most influential book about China, The Civilizational State, the idea that the world is at a watershed, the transforming of a hierarchical international system into a more symmetrical one.
Zhang Wei Wei has been echoed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his criticism of the international hegemony of the United States. In fact, he is obviously right in maintaining that in the 21st century hierarchically structured international relations are a remnant of European colonization as well as the subsequent American hegemony. But of course, this should not apply only to the US, but for China itself, too.
Additionally, the idea of symmetrical relation does not not only apply to international relations, but also to relations within a nation, a culture and society.
The question, then, is whether the concept of symmetrical relations within a society and hierarchical international relations is exactly the Western understanding of modernity? Should it be replaced by an Asian understanding of symmetrical international relations and hierarchical relations within society?
I think that both the Westerners and the Asian nations have to learn from one another. Concerning this learning process, the Asian concept of harmony might be of some importance.
Harmony does not mean leveling differences or the absence of tensions, nor a static understanding of society. It could be most clearly characterized with my interpretation of the Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz as a floating and developing balance between contrasts.
The concept of the "between" stems from Plato, Eric Voegelin and Hannah Arendt and can be found in various philosophical and cultural traditions throughout Asia. The concept of harmony is also the basic concept of the writings of the "Masters of Hainan", which are much more applicable to the building and developing of a prosperous society than the pure asymmetrical relations described by Sun Tsu.
To sum up, the Western world as well as East Asia may need a "floating and developing balance" of the contrast of modernity. How this would look like? I'm not sure about that, but it seems to me as if the Asian nations are still copying too many elements of Western modernity and some others are relying on reactionary, far right, and very old concepts such as nation, race, religion. Some are trying to combine a Western modernity, based on industrialization and technology with very old "non-Western" conceptions of identity.
In my view, Western modernity is characterized by at least five elements:
c) Domestication of nature,
e) Functional differentiation.
Some have labeled this kind of modernity as a partitioned, divided modernity, because the complementary (and conflicting) tendencies of these five elements have been neglected in the course of Western modernity: a) rationality versus emotion and intuition; b) individualism versus community; c) domestication of nature versus the feeling of being part of nature; d) secularization versus religious feelings; d) functional differentiation versus being aware of the whole, that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
In history, there have been a lot of counter-movements to this kind of modernity, which nevertheless were at their roots a product of modernity itself. They rely on constructions of an ideal past, which in reality never existed in this ideal form, may it be the community at the time of Mohammed or ethnic identity (the German race) or whatsoever - perhaps current nationalism, too. The main problem is, how to criticize Western modernity and "liberalism" without denying it's undeniable progress in the history of mankind?
What is needed in the learning curve "between" the West and Asia might be a floating and developing balance: 1) between rationality and emotion, intuition; 2) between individualism and the community; 3) between domestication and nature; 4) between secularization and the religious sphere; 5) between the part and the whole.
German philosopher George W F Hegel once noted the importance of the struggle for recognition between the master and the slave. His proposition centered on the idea that the master is not working while the slave is working - and therefore, although oppressed, the slave is the one who is developing and transgressing beyond his status and therefore freeing himself on a higher level.
But if he would become a master for himself, the same process is starting over again. The former slave as the new master fails to develop himself further.
Would it not be wiser to abandon all kinds of hierarchies? I don't think so, because total equality would lead to a new kind of totalitarian movement, as Hannah Arendt has noted: the masses need the "Fuhrer".
Instead of either symmetrical or hierarchical international and societal relations, the Asian cultural tradition might contribute to a different kind of modernity: a "harmony" in the sense of a floating and developing balance of symmetrical and hierarchical relations between the individual and the community.