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Traditional culture in modern society

Author  :  LIU YI     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-08-14

 

Pictured above is an old town against a background of skyscrapers in Shanghai. In contemporary social life, the traditional and the modern exist in interplay. Photo: FILE

“Modern” and “traditional” used to be in binary opposition. However, in the contemporary age, the line between the two concepts has been increasingly blurred, as they have gradually transitioned to a state of integration. When a traditional culture passes down from history and retains some vitality in contemporary social life, from certain perspectives it is in fact modern.

Therefore, however hard we try to protect the purity of traditional culture, we can never change the evolution from traditional to modern due to continuous social transformation, as the evolution happens subtly and cumulatively. Regarding the pair of concepts as a unity serves as a basic starting point for carrying forward traditional culture in modern society and as one of the key conditions for expanding the room for traditional culture to develop. 

Historical evolution

In his magnum opus From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society, renowned Chinese sociologist and anthropologist Fei Xiaotong noted that each person’s present contains the projection of his or her own past, and the human present is the total accumulation of the past that is retained through memory. This means, when viewed from historical angles, the traditional is the foundation of the modern, and the modern in any era will eventually turn into the traditional.

Thus, the traditional and the modern constitute a whole in different ages of historical evolution, existing in relation and interplay. The two concepts have ceased being opposite since the beginning of post-industrial civilization, because the traditional has become the basis and resource for the construction of new cultures. 

The formation and transmission of culture is inseparable from human lifestyles, and cultural characteristics vary in different social structures. Fundamentally, time and space are the two dimensions that dictate cultural evolution.

To people today, traditional culture is special largely in that it is from the past. It includes preserved codes of conduct and moral standards shaped prior to the formation of modern social structure. In the process of straining ourselves to adopt these traditions out of our respect for history, we have also felt their incompatibility with the modern. This is surely the result of social changes. 

However, if we extend specific points of history to different times and link them up into a whole, we will find that all traditional cultures follow the cyclical interconversion between traditional and modern.

Almost all traditional cultures are exerting an impact on modern society, big or small. Some traditional cultures are performing entirely different social functions from what they used to in the past, while others, with more distinctive external features, have been labeled as intangible cultural heritage. 

Take the interactive development of spoken and written language as an example. The function of language for expressing feelings and conveying ideas has been handed down to us not only as a result of the development of human wisdom, but also out of the need for its social function.

It is because of the interplay between spoken and written language that human society has made remarkable achievements. However, the increasingly complex social division of labor, more and more sophisticated understandings of matters and events, and ever more developed industrialization and market economy have quickened the pace of people’s lives day by day. A brand-new concept of time has been constructed in the human consciousness. 

The quick pace of life has put so much pressure on modern people that they prefer to use simple, clear and standardized language. It has been a social norm to communicate by electronic means, rather than the traditional way of speaking and writing. The internet has gradually become the principal medium for communication, while songs, operas, calligraphy and literature that were developed out of spoken and written language have been preserved in various forms of art.

Due to human estrangement in modern society, daily spoken language has mostly been replaced by written language, while written language typed out on the keyboard has gradually turned into a world of emojis. 

Looking back on the development of spoken and written language, it is not difficult to find that traditional culture represented by language is a source of power behind the development of modern culture. The prototype of traditional culture, though seemingly inadaptable to the fast pace of life in modern society, has actually never disappeared. In essence, emojis are homogenous with early hieroglyphics, even totems in remote antiquity.

Change of aesthetic consciousness

Since the Opium War (1840–42) in the late Qing Dynasty, Chinese people’s aesthetic consciousness has broken further and further away from traditional aesthetics under the influence of Western culture. Not only has their aesthetic taste evolved, but their cognition and behaviors have also altered with the advancement of human civilization. In an age of globalization, informatization and the internet, and the domination of Western culture, people have been striving for profit in the market and the accumulation of wealth, while their aesthetic philosophy has unconsciously shifted towards institutionalization, standardization, practicality and effectiveness, which are typical in the Western world.

These shifts took place during the cultural integration of different regional spaces. Fei said that changes in the traditional model necessarily occur when our lives are changed from a fixed to an ever-changing existence. All sorts of uncertain factors in modern society will likewise affect people’s aesthetic perception. All of the modern in contemporary society is based on the intermingling and interchange between different regional cultures along the axis of time, and result from the progressive development and evolution of the cultures. 

Amid rapid changes of social structure, the past modern will quickly turn into the present traditional. Under modern construction, culture exists in a modern way in the eyes of modern people, even if its traditional spirit is being conveyed. It is a kind of modern tradition.

Artistry and entertainment

All forms of art should be both artistic and entertaining. The two qualities refer to the two dimensions in which art forms exist in human social life. Regarding the value orientation inherent in music, artistry plays a dominant role in literati music (wenren yinyue), or classical Chinese music, while popular music normally pursues only entertainment.

The literati music created by intellectuals and gentlemen under Fei’s pen was somewhat self-entertaining. In the process of entertaining themselves, the literati fully explored the artistic heights of music. This has several meanings. 

First, literati music was created and spread by knowledgeable people. Second, teachers, students, players and communicators of the music generally had rich social resources and high social statuses, along with strong financial abilities and much spare time. Third, literati music, by nature, aimed at the artistic heights in the spiritual domain. Different from popular music that values entertainment more, literati music might exist only for the sake of pure art. It didn’t always need the recognition of the public. In this light, literati music was in fact avant-garde to some extent.

However, with the deepening of industrialization, alongside the promotion of market-based art, traditional art and culture are being popularized. Because markets operate based on high efficiency, high profit, a short cycle and standardization, traditional features of art, such as idiosyncrasy, irreplaceability and smaller audiences, have been discarded. To maximize profit and market share, the size of audience determines the value of art, so popular culture represented by fast-food culture has become the mainstream of the contemporary cultural world. 

To develop a larger space for themselves in modern society, some types of traditional Chinese music, which represented literati music in history, are also changing direction toward improving their self-entertainment value. Even Nanyin, literally meaning “The Music of the South,” a specialty of Quanzhou in southeast China’s Fujian Province that is reputed as a living fossil of Chinese music history, seems unable to avoid catering to the market.

Here we would like to emphasize that though traditional music has evolved into modern music through the change and integration of time and space, it has also evolved in the spiritual realm through the abandonment of artistic qualities in favor of entertainment. The tradition as it involves is also a kind of modern tradition. 

Modern inheritance of tradition

Benjamin Schwartz, a famed American expert on China studies, argued that it is wrong to sharply contrast the concepts “traditional” and “modern.” The two usually interpenetrate each other, contradicting yet integrating with each other objectively. Neither traditional nor modern is a simple, static concept. The traditional and modern are evolving and changing existences. The ideas and elements contained within them are complex and often conflicting.

Hsiao-t’i Li, a professor in the Department of Chinese and History at the City University of Hong Kong, agreed that a fast-changing modernized society actually contains many traditional elements. 

In any era, from the perspective of art, something is groundbreaking precisely in that it differs from prevailing perception. Most pioneering anti-tradition, or innovative, artistic ideas are not easily accepted by the mainstream culture if judged from the aesthetic standards of contemporary social life. Nonetheless, avant-garde ideas still challenge traditional culture and can prompt it to change.

Amid perpetual confrontation and equalization, traditional culture also absorbs many modern elements, transforming imperceptibly. However, only those traditional cultures that are forced to become modern actively can be preserved in the name of tradition. Those traditions unable or unwilling to change will eventually become part of historical memory. 

  

Liu Yi is from the Center for Studies of Sociological Theory and Method at Renmin University of China.

 

 

 

Editor: Yu Hui

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