Book Review: The Intellectual Foundations of Chinese Modernity

Edmund S. K. Fung, The Intellectual Foundations of Chinese Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). xv, 319 pp. $90.00 (cloth).

By Leigh K. Jenco

In this book Edmund S. K. Fung synthesizes an enormous range of intellectual materials generated during China’s Republican period, dating primarily from the May Fourth period (1915-1923) to 1949. Fung argues that intellectuals of this era confronted the same crisis of modernity with which intellectuals, in both East and West, continue to wrestle today. These Republican conversations, he claims, provide the foundational vocabulary through which contemporary Chinese elites debate the direction of their society. Fung masterfully and carefully surveys both Chinese- and English-language scholarship to provide one of the most comprehensive and richly detailed pictures of these intellectual debates available in English. He carefully examines positions and thinkers that have been strangely overlooked in much academic work on the era, but that played decisive roles in shaping ideologies of the time. These include the Chinese “humanism” of the Critical Review Group (pp. 70-72); Chen Xujing’s “total Westernization” thesis, which prompted Hu Shi to revise his views on cultural radicalism (pp. 46-60); and the political thought of the “Warring States School,” which vested Chinese salvation in a revival of Qin-era concern for national security and military capacity (pp. 120-126).

The broad scope of Fung’s analysis belies his somewhat simplistic organization of thinkers and debates into an inadequate (and sometimes unhelpful) liberal-conservative-socialist trichotomy. He draws repeated attention to how thinkers and themes continually reappeared in diverse conversations, transcending the very labels he uses to describe them. As Fung effectively argues in Chapter 1, the Westernized radicalism of Chen Duxiu and other May Fourth thinkers betrays an unexpectedly conservative resistance to cultural pluralism and historical change, possibilities embraced by the so-called “conservative” thinkers examined in Chapters 2 and 3. His discussions therefore enable readers to draw connections between themes, thinkers, and materials usually thought of as isolated or distinct. For example, in Chapter 3 Fung points out that conservative impulses in China were not opposed to modernity but in fact saw tradition as an important part of modern development.

One of the strongest elements of the book is Fung’s discussion in Chapters 4 and 5 of the statist elements of liberalism and related ideologies in China. Rather than interpret Chinese liberals’ emphasis on the need for strong state power as an aberration or misinterpretation of “true” liberalism, Fung uses the work of political theorists such as Stephen Holmes to show that extreme individualism did not necessarily always win out over socialist economic policies and strong nationalist states within such liberal thought (p. 140). By pointing out European precedents for these broader possibilities, Fung succeeds in his task of situating these intellectuals within global rather than merely “Chinese” conversations about modernity. He does, however, miss an opportunity here to reverse the gaze and to portray Chinese liberal thought as an independently significant contribution to global liberalism, not simply one of its many interpretations.

The one flaw of the book is its failure to examine Marxism in China, at least in terms of addressing how Marxism transformed the landscape through which past and contemporary intellectuals debate the “modernity” mentioned in the book’s title. Fung avoids this topic because, in contrast to many of the other intellectual debates the book brings to light, it has been so well-covered elsewhere (including by Fung himself). The importance of drawing attention, as Fung does, to the role played by non-communist elite discourses in modern Chinese intellectual history cannot be overstated, especially given their relative neglect among historians of China. In a book, however, with a title promising examination of “the intellectual foundations of Chinese modernity,” it is not entirely obvious how Marxism “is outside the scope of [the] study” (p. 5).

By the end of the book, for example, the author himself declares the “ultimate” triumph of Marxism and Mao Zedong thought over “all other schools of thought” (pp. 255, 262)—implying a historical discontinuity that troubles his depiction of a continuous, “ongoing conversation” between contemporary and Republican-era intellectuals struggling with the stakes of modernity (p. 2). It may be true, as the author claims, that the two sets of intellectuals invoke similar vocabulary (such as “modernization” and “liberty”), but given the domination of Marxism in China for most of the twentieth century it remains unclear how Republican thought would necessarily be foundational for these or other conversations (as opposed to simply being inspiring, similar and/or historically prior to them). In addition, including some discussion of Marxism would have thrown more critical light on the unremitting elitism of nearly all the discourses Fung surveys—a characteristic he notes only in passing on page 260. Even the liberal and social-democratic views examined in Chapters 4 and 7 unreflectively installed intellectuals or other “moral paragons” (Chapter 5) at the apex of a top-down system designed to care for, rather than listen to, the Chinese masses, whose mobilization lie at the core of Chinese communist thinking. Although the Chinese Communist Party’s own record of elitism is well-known, Marxist theory in principle nevertheless introduced into Chinese intellectual debate awareness of inequality, class conflict, and materialist social science that interrogated the agents and direction of modernity in contemporary China. Some consideration of these intellectual challenges to elite thinking in the 1930s and 1940s would have contextualized intellectual insistence on moral leadership, possibly helping to identify more clearly continuities between the Republican-era conversations about modernity and those of their later, communist counterparts.

Despite this oversight, in its rich detail and extensive command of source materials Fung’s book remains an excellent contribution to scholarship on Republican-era Chinese discourse. It ranks alongside Chester C. Tan’s Chinese Political Thought in the Twentieth Century as a definitive guide to the ideas and debates of that sorely neglected but important era.

Leigh K. Jenco is Assistant Professor of Political Science, National University of Singapore.

© 2011 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

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