Modernity remains a resourceful historiographical tool both theoretically and empirically. Conceptually, modernity may signify a quality or a condition regarding a particular period in history. In general, the emergence of modernity as a notion, as well as its rising popularity, is overwhelming. Modernity rose from the simple older modernization theory, which had continuously diminished as the generation of Asian historians as well as Africa coming of age logically had criticized it as being a self-serving Eurocentric or somewhat in favour of capitalism. With regard to Chinese history, it is said that China’s transformation through modernization was significantly contributed by the West. The history of China dominated Asia’s history, especially during the period of 1800 to 1920 (Spence, 1990). Therefore, this paper takes to define modernity from my perspective, looking into China’s history from 1800 to 1920. It will then discuss ways China became modern and also ways it did not become modern.
Definition of modernity
Modernity is a highly contested concept for a long time. To start with, the term modernity stances semantic differences. It can mean two things; modernity’s meaning may be an inherent quality of being modern, basically a “modern-ness”; or it may mean conventionally applied to a particular era in history. The first meaning seems to be more flexible, while the second meaning seems to be static and semantically unfortunate. The term modernity implies a condition or a state instead of a process, thus creating various problems whenever historical terms modernity and modern have been applied to Europe for a long time more than 800 years (Spence, 1990). Even when estimating the contemporary era to the period between the Enlightenment and the current period, as it is customary, it fails to clear the problem that arises when dealing with modernity, whereby it results in different perspectives among historians. It is obvious that modernity’s meaning is different in the digital age characterized by mass communication than the meaning it used to have during the period of steamships, railways as well as the telegraphy invention which used to be the fastest means that connected people (Spence, 1990). If it were not associated with the modernization theory, modernization would be a much better term, allowing the construction of a process which would have been open and ongoing. Modernity being a highly contested concept, it remains open for everyone to derive meaning and understanding of what the term modernity means. Therefore, in my perspective, I believe that modernity in historical and artistic terms refers to a permanent movement aimed at breaking the ties of normal stuff, breaking from what is already established.
History of China from 1800 to 1920
With regards to the definition of modernity as a permanent movement aimed at breaking the ties of normal stuff, to break from what is already established, Chinese history of modernization is closely tied to this definition as China’s modernization era entailed breaking from, economic, political, cultural and traditional limits to transform the livelihood of its people through economic developments. From 1736 to 1795 Qianlong reign, China encountered an economic succession and also political crises shaking the empire’s foundation (Spence, 1990). At about the mid-19th century, foreign forces forced and opened many ports to international trade at the Chinese coasts. Initially, China was only involved in trade within its borders and after the Qianlong reign, which resulted in the opening of many ports in China by foreign powers opening China to international trade. This is a form of modernization that triggered significant economic development in China. As a result, Shanghai flourished and became a commercial attraction for artists as well as craftsmen across the country. Modernization triggered economic growth, which later led to the development of urban centres. Consequentially, there was an increasing demand for household as well as personal items which fostered the different styles in ceramics, wood carving, painting as well as textiles (Spence, 1990). Literacy developed through auspicious symbols, literacy characters, as well as folk deities, often featured through aesthetic objects which were popularly consumed. In the nineteenth century around 1920, there was a development of the Stele School. Creativity advanced, as people used archaic inscriptions on bronze vessels, stones as well as seals as references, the proponents of the school established new calligraphic expressions emphasizing articulate structure and also raw strength. These types of works gave an aesthetic option to the fluid classiness attributed to the canonical brushed-calligraphy of Dong Qinchang, Wang Xizhi as well as Zhao Mengfu.
Ways China became modern
During the 16th century, China was hit by modernization due to the foreign powers which settled and opened many ports along China’s coast. Initially, China was only involved in trade within its borders, and the opening of many ports in China by foreign powers exposed China to international trade. This boosted modernization in China through economic development. Chinese economy became the most erudite and also productive worldwide (Spence, 1990). The Chinese adored the higher living standard than other people. The expansion of international trade is the most significant breakthrough from the set internal trade that they used to practice. It transforms the economy and livelihood of the people of China. Moreover, the Qing Dynasty that lasted between 1644 and 1912, which was established by the conquering Manchus, progressed this form of modernization (Spence, 1990). Life standards significantly improved. Being a country with abundant natural resources, China’s modernization made it exploit its resources efficiently to cater to the international market, making China a contented population and making it a place of great prestige due to the economic returns obtained. To add to it, the 18th century was referred to as “unparalleled in history” due to the exponential flourishing of culture.
Towards the end of the 18th century, China’s population had significantly expanded. This was a consequence of modernization as the population grew to 100 million and remained at this number for a long time. The population further double to 150 million in 1650 then increased to 300 million by 1800. By the 19th century, the total population of China has increased up to 450 million, while the United States population was at 200 million (Spence, 1990). Consequentially, land for occupation was depleted, especially in the central and southern provinces of China. Modernization influenced China as the New World crops were introduced into China through trade. These crops included American crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, and tobacco. These crops required different growing conditions and therefore occupied a big piece of unusable land. The introduction of these New World crops through trade made China’s breakthrough through its cultural plants adopted the newly introduced crops. This is a modernization that transformed food production and enhanced food security in China. Due to improved food security and an abundance of food, the population growth rate increased. Land for occupation was depleted due to the overwhelming population and the increased crop farming, which occupied a big part of the previously unused land.
The Chinese became modernized through a highly developed civilization that was forcefully imposed on them by the Western nations and later by Japan too. This made the Chinese see themselves as being highly civilized individuals. The Chinese were challenged as an advanced and universal civilization and accepted the Western idea of the international relation carried out among sovereign nation-states (Spence, 1990). It was hard for the Chinese people as their emperor was acknowledged as the supreme authority to adopt the advanced system that had spread in Europe in the 1800s, where sovereign nation-states engaged equally. The civilization that was forced upon them by the West and Japan played a significant role in modernizing China by increasing its literacy levels.
Modernization is accompanied by its consequences. Land diminished as Chinese farmers increased their farming and due to the growing population that increased the demand for property. Modernization was notable through the disruption of the traditional right to equal inheritance among sons by accelerating land fragmentation. Consequentially, the political control by the state declined to address this issue. The diminishing state political control over land-sharing denotes modernization as it demonstrates a diversion from traditional or normal state functions to new functions. However, the bureaucracy’s size persisted, whereas the population increased. Changes were noted in the form of the Chinese bureaucracy’s responsibility. This was notable in the 19th century whereby the district magistrates at the low level of China’s bureaucracy were accountable for taxation, welfare as well as control over about 250,000 people (Spence, 1990). As a result, local leaders were left with control and accountability of the government whose responsibility was to oversee their families and locations but not the entire state. These changes transformed leadership in China. Responsibility was redefined, changing the attitude and form of accountability that only focused on one’s family or locality but instead is responsible for the entire state. This transformation in leadership and responsibility is a top-notch modernization witnessed in China.
Ways China did not become modern
When the industrialized European countries tried to entice China to join the newly formed world economy in the 1700s as well as the early 1800s, the Chinese turned down this offer. China rejected this economic transformation by joining the newly formed economy because it felt that it would gain little from it. When it comes to economic issues, China was conservative and focused on improving its economy rather than diminishing it. By failing to join the New World economy, China remained conservative making it miss out on the modernization that the Western nation and countries that had joined the new world economy were experiencing. To make the matter worse, China was conquered by the superior military from the West in numerous military quests forcing China to sign the “unequal treaties” which opened Chinese ports to Europe, America, and Japan traders (Spence, 1990). Foreigners took over China’s ports. The Chinese were also denied jurisdiction over the ports and areas that foreigners lived in.
China also did not get modernized due to various natural and man-made, especially from floods arising from deteriorated water-control works worsen through over-reclaiming the wetlands, mountain slopes as well as low-lands important in controlling water run-off which substantially hit China. China was weakened, and its economy was disrupted because of the presence of Western states, which left China unable to cater to its significant population. This led to a series of rebellions all over the country. In the 19th century, the Taiping (1851-1864), Boxer (1898-1901), and Moslem (1855 – 1873) rebellions occurred (Spence, 1990). In the course of the Taiping Rebellion, rebel forces took control over a more significant part of China and created their capital in Nanking city. Moreover, the central government’s power was weakened when the military power was granted to provinces to handle these rebellions. Due to these harmful actions against China, modernization in this context did not happen. Essentially, modernization is the transformation that makes a state better or improves a specific condition. In this context, the change that occurred only harmed and ruined China, therefore that is not modernization.
However, the Chinese did not get modernized as they rejected the adoption of western technologies in order to preserve the significance of Chinese civilization. Instead of adopting the western technologies that would have improved their civilization, they emphasized the moral duty of the government, man’s perfectibility, as well as the belief that moral qualities rather than technical expertise required reward and eventually benefited the society, which resulted in their unwillingness to nurture a class of technical experts both in the government or in industries (Spence, 1990). As the situation worsened, some argued that the Chinese Confucian values were the cause of China’s incapacity to repulse the military as well as political infiltrations of Japan and the West in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
To sum it up, modernity is a highly controversial concept. Modernity rose from the simple older modernization theory, which had continuously diminished with the generation of Asian historians. With regard to Chinese history, China’s transformation through modernization was significantly contributed by the West. Essentially, modernity in historical and artistic terms refers to a permanent movement aimed at breaking the ties of normal stuff, to break from what is already established. It is clear that the Chinese history of modernization is closely tied to this definition as China’s modernization era entailed breaking from economic, political, cultural, and traditional limits to transform the livelihood of its people through economic developments. Modernization in China was partly forcefully imposed by the West and Japan and partly willfully on their preference. There are also ways that China did not modernize as they persisted in being conservative and stick to their traditional methods rather than adopting digital technologies.