Fine traditional culture bolsters Chinese modernization

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-07-05

Villagers raise their glasses to exchange good wishes in a “hundred-family banquet” at Ningcun Village, Longwan District, Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province. Harmony among neighbors is highly valued in traditional Chinese culture. Photo: CFP

Chinese modernization is a significant part of building a modern Chinese civilization. In the report to the 20th CPC National Congress, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping stated that Chinese modernization is socialist modernization pursued under the leadership of the CPC; it contains elements that are common to the modernization processes of all countries, but it is more characterized by features that are unique to the Chinese context.

The “features that are unique to the Chinese context” not only practically reflect the histories of the CPC’s endeavors for more than 100 years, of socialism’s development after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and of reform and opening up, but can also be ascribed to the influence of Chinese civilization’s traditions. 

Chinese modernization is deeply rooted in the history of Chinese civilization, which has spanned more than 5,000 years, and in the fertile soil of China’s fine traditional culture. The important speech delivered by General Secretary Xi Jinping at the meeting on cultural inheritance and development on June 2 has deepened and developed theories of Chinese modernization. As General Secretary Xi Jinping said, “Chinese modernization invigorates Chinese civilization with modern power, while Chinese civilization supports Chinese modernization with cultural sustenance.”

“China’s fine traditional culture is comprised of many important elements, which have formed the prominent features of Chinese civilization. That Chinese civilization is highly consistent is the fundamental reason why the Chinese nation must follow its own path,” General Secretary Xi Jinping continued, “If one does not learn about China from the continuity of its long history, there is no way for him or her to understand ancient China, modern China, or China in the future.” 

In the long course of human history, the Chinese nation has followed a development course distinct from other civilizations in the world. It is essential to promote historical studies of Chinese civilization, and summarize its formations and unique traits, thereby providing powerful theoretical backing for the Chinese path to modernization, the resultant new form of human advancement, and the building of a modern Chinese civilization.

Large population

The Chinese nation has set in motion the modernization of a huge population based on its farming culture, on its vast and populous lands with plenty of resources. Around 10,000 years ago, China had already progressed from the Paleolithic Age to the Neolithic, as gatherers became producers and hunters turned to rearing livestock.

For 10,000 years, agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries, and nomadic herding continued to develop on the vast lands of China, supporting the lives of numerous Chinese people. In the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Period (770–221 BCE), the Chinese population had reached more than 15 million. The Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE) expanded to over 20 million. The population grew to more than 60 million in the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and more than 80 million in the Tang (618–907). In the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the population exceeded 100 million, and registered more than 400 million in the Qing era (1644–1911). This is the civilizational history foundation for the modernization of a huge population, a unique characteristic of Chinese modernization. 

So far, the United States, which is relatively more modernized, has a population of just over 335 million, roughly one fourth of China’s population. The population of the European Union totals almost 450 million, about one third of China’s population. Due to an enormous population size and complex industrial structure, Chinese modernization will have a fundamental impact on the world economic pattern. In the 20th Party congress report, General Secretary Xi Jinping said: “China is working to achieve modernization for more than 1.4 billion people, a number larger than the combined population of all developed countries in the world today. This is a task of unparalleled difficulty and complexity; it inevitably means that our pathways of development and methods of advancement will be unique.”

Common prosperity for all

The Chinese nation has created the modernization of common prosperity for all based on the traditional social outlook of “regarding the people as the most precious” and the ethical norm of “valuing harmony among neighbors.” Due to long-term, continuous development of agricultural and pastoral practices, as well as clan-based settlement, Chinese civilization has demonstrated striking national features, including lineage management, rural communes, the “nine squares” system of land ownership in ancient society, and collective farming.

These practices have shaped the social mentalities which put the people first and aim to share happiness among the people, as well as the ethics of attachment to the hometown and neighborliness. According to the Confucian classic Mengzi, “The people are the most important element in a nation; the spirits of the land and grain are the next.” It is suggested that “the ruler rejoices in the joy of his people and grieves at the sorrow of his people.” Moreover, the policy of benevolence was advocated in state governance, as stated in Mengzi, “Treat with the reverence due to age the elders in your own family, so that the elders in the families of others shall be similarly treated; treat with the kindness due to youth the young in your own family, so that the young in the families of others shall be similarly treated.” In addition, it is advised to build a harmonious, family-like environment, in which “in the fields of a district, those who belong to the same nine squares render all friendly offices to one another in their going out and coming in, and aid one another in keeping watch and ward.” 

These social views and ethics constitute the core content of Confucianism, and after being carried forward and developed for thousands of years, eventually crystallize into the Chinese nation’s cultural psychological culture, profoundly regulating the behaviors and habits of later generations. “Chinese modernization is the modernization of common prosperity for all,” this represents an innovative approach to incorporating the fine traditional Chinese culture into China’s modernization drive.

Cultural-ethical enrichment

The Chinese nation has created the modernization of material and cultural-ethical advancement based on the traditional cultural and ethical foundation of “cultivating oneself and putting family in order,” and the inclination to “be impartial and selfless.” The cultural lives of the Chinese people are very rich, which is related to their production models and lifestyles.

The lineage management system, which follows a patrilineal kinship organizational chain, determines that individual families are included in kinship groups like clans and tribes, and the kinship groups are subordinate to the state. Families and clans of varying sizes and levels make up the state. The existence of the state is the premise of families’ existence. In ancient China, the state and families were inseparable. Therefore, Confucianism proposes cultivating the moral self, regulating the family, ruling the state, and making the world peaceful, each preconditioning the next. 

In the prolonged process of agricultural and livestock production, Chinese ancestors, when observing celestial motions, were inspired by sunrise from the east to strive to make progress, by the sun shining all over the land to foster philanthropy, and by its impartial illumination to stay fair and selfless.

These positive principles have eternal value and remain instructive to Chinese modernization. Chinese modernization aims not only to improve material conditions for people’s wellbeing, but also to foster strong ideals and convictions, and enrich China’s cultural heritage. 

Humanity-nature harmony

The Chinese nation has created the modernization of harmony between humanity and nature based on its traditional views of the universe, such as “treating nature with reverence” and “humanity is an integral part of nature.” Ancient Chinese deeply realized that sunshine, rain, dew, and mountains, rivers, and land are the underpinnings of crops’ growth and good yield, and are sources for birds, animals, and fish to survive and grow strong, while humanity is the center of the universe.

Under the leadership of tribal chiefs and patriarchs, all members of tribes and clans worshipped gods of heavenly bodies; of mountains, rivers, and land; and of their ancestors, regularly holding grand religious ceremonies and activities. In the culture of divinity, all beings are considered conscious lives. To become closer to nature, totemism was also brought into being. 

In the long history of Chinese agricultural civilization, myths, totems, and ceremonial activities were closely interwoven, as religions, politics, and social ethics were always integrated.

Chinese modernization is the modernization of harmony between humanity and nature. When he was working in south China’s Zhejiang Province, General Secretary Xi Jinping upheld the green economy and noted that “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets,” while calling for efforts to “protect nature and preserve the environment like protecting our eyes.” These ecological philosophies and the environmental awareness represent a transformation and innovation of ancient Chinese outlooks on the universe, such as “unity of humanity and nature” and “complementarity of yin and yang,” in Chinese modernization. 

Peaceful development

The Chinese nation has created the modernization of peaceful development based on traditional views of the world, including “peace among all nations” and “harmony in diversity.” From the concurrent development of diverse cultures during the Chines civilization’s origination period to “unity in diversity” in the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties (c. 2070–256 BCE), ancient Chinese gradually established outlooks on the world such as “pursuing common good for all” and “acting in good faith and being friendly to others; and fostering neighborliness.” These concepts are intrinsically connected to the contemporary Chinese vision of building a human community with a shared future.

Over its course of more than 5,000 years, China progressively developed from a primitive civilization to an advanced one. Today, the civilizational height scaled by Chinese modernization far surpasses that of the ancient agricultural civilization. The civilizational form of the modernized China is also far more complicated than that of ancient China. However, the connotations and features of Chinese modernization, and the new form of human advancement created out of the process, both result from transformations and innovations of the ancient Chinese agricultural civilization. 


Jiang Linchang is a distinguished professor from the School of History and Culture at Shandong University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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