Modernity was not just Western

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nicoleFor anyone who believes that the West held exclusive monopoly over ‘modernity,’ Professor Alexander Woodside’s 2006 book Lost Modernities should be mandatory reading.

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Woodside seeks to illuminate the modern characteristics of the “pre-modern” East. His book analyzes China, Korea, and Vietnam’s early, post-feudal bureaucracies and their transparent, meritocratic civil service examinations and social welfare systems, in existence between 618-1910 CE. In so doing, the book thoughtfully exposes the exaggerated differences between our visions of “traditional” and “modern” societies. It resoundingly calls for more scholars to study Asia if we wish to understand fully the modern world, and argues that industrialization and capitalism are not the only markers of modernity.

Lost Modernities seeks to move beyond Max Weber’s overly simple genealogy of modernity and the fallacies of ideal-type analyses. Weber based his ideal type of modern bureaucratic rationalism on Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany. He describes the rationalization of government through the shift from rule by the aristocracy to rule by a professional civil service as the hallmark of modernity. For Woodside, bureaucracy is also centrally important to understanding modernity, but he is quick to note that in Weber’s own lifetime 83% of the professional German bureaucracy belonged to the aristocracy.

Woodside argues that the rationalization processes integral to the Weberian, Western understanding of modernity are more manifold than we may assume. Long before the growth of capitalism and industrialization, certain modern processes and systems had already occurred in East and Southeast Asia, and did so well before they did in Europe (several centuries before, in fact). Due to a long, established engagement with bureaucracy (1.300 years), one finds in these Asian mandarinates a precocious consciousness of the uncertainties of post-feudal bureaucratic government. Indeed, Wang Huizu’s 1793 text on government describes such administration as “easily penetrated by its environment, without a strong sense of being religiously or socially underwritten.”

No bureaucracy is based upon pure reason, though Weber presented Western bureaucracies as being so, and this is the point of Woodside’s critique of Weber’s ideal-type analysis. Woodside differentiates between form and content in the modern processes he describes. In reconstructing the public examinations to recruit and qualify civil servants in the three mandarinates, Woodside highlights the transparent, meritocratic form of the process. He leaves room, however, for the content and outcome of the process to deviate from the ideal type.

Asian magistrates glimpsed and grappled with such post-feudal problems as depersonalization of political activity, unstable bases for elites’ self-worth, restricted ability to mobilize people toward public ends, and grade inflation. With the depersonalization of welfare goals and transformation of poverty reduction into administrative, bureaucratic assignments, we see these bureaucracies engage with the modern ills of alienation, public apathy, and the loss of face-to-face connection in governance. “In modern Western liberalism,” Woodside writes, “to be post-feudal is to be free and equal. In east Asia, to be post-feudal…was to be insecure; and the local theorizations of these insecurities are an important if neglected part of global political thought.”

The book shows us not only modern processes (and their attendant consequences), but so too their loss. During the nineteenth-century contact with the West, the mandarins were blamed for Asia’s weakness, and these societies’ early experiences of modern anxieties contributed to the eventual forgetting and dismissal of their “pre-modern” Asian modernities.

Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University

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