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China's turn to Confucius for possible solutions to contemporary social illness associated with commercialization and rapid economic growth inevitably spotlights the tension between tradition and modernity. Traditional values and their preservation are subject to change. Despite their persuasiveness and persistence, the principal Confucian orientations do not give rise to a static, integrated, and closed system. They produce not perfect harmony but ongoing problem-atics. The rise of new forms of social organization and activities entailed new interpretations of many of the traditional beliefs and institutional premises.
These new interpretations greatly transformed many of the antecedent basic tenets and institutions of Chinese civilization. In sum, cultures constantly appropriate current development into their core elements. At present, the rise of a consumer society has challenged many of the Confucian doctrines. The emergence of a wealthy consumer class and the rise of popular culture have ushered in a set of values often associated with the notion of "modern. Such "modern" ideas have been absorbed into contemporary Chinese society and become part of the Chinese cultural identity.
Chinese cultural identity hence comprises both tradition and modernity. Indeed any tradition has to be understood as a selective version of the past filtered through the aspirations, experiences, and concerns of the present. China's modernization project since the early 20th century has left an imprint in the values of Chinese culture. Empirical claims of cultural identity in a particular filmic representation may help to illuminate the issue of cultural identity. Here I zero in on one Chinese film, Not One Less directed by the much-celebrated Zhang Yimou in , to examine the evaluation of cultural identity in a particular film.
Zhang's film tackled the problem of rural illiteracy in China's culturally and financially deprived countryside. The subject matter is not necessarily attributable to the film's Chinese identity, as this problem exists in many developing countries.
The Cinematic Negotiation of Chinese Identity - New York Times
The film's contemporary Chinese setting grounds the problem on a concrete Chinese soil which brings to the film much of its Chinese characteristics, or Chinese identity. As a cinematic contribution to the "Hope Project," a nation-wide project raising money as well as people's awareness for elementary education in poor rural areas, the theme of Not One Less can easily pass as a propaganda film. With its measured pedagogical and ideological impact characteristic of the main melody film, the film's official Chinese identity is recognizable. As the story opens, a thirteen year old village girl Wei is selected to be a substitute teacher at a local elementary school when the real teacher Gao is on a week-long sick leave.
Wei accepts the job after the head of the village promises her 50 yuan pay. Wei is further promised an additional 10 yuan if she can keep the students in school, a difficult task given the fact that so many rural kids have withdrawn from the school. After the first turning point, a kid drops out of the school to work in the city.
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And you get programmes in our own Minnan dialect. But best of all, you get news. Real news, not the bull they give you on Chinese TV. And I like it when some politician in the Taiwanese parliament can use Minnan dialect to shout down the old Kuomintang fogeys. I know that kind of fogey; we've got them on this side, too. And I like it when Taiwanese get all worked up about elections. Wish we had free elections here. I'd vote for the opposition. It is this fusion, not a renaissance of ancient Asian glories, that explains the explosive growth of the Pacific and provides the possibility of continued peace and prosperity in the region.
We talk today about Asian culture as an explanation for rapid growth, conveniently forgetting that for long, Asian culture was seen as an obstacle to the region's modernization.
Asian models of economic and political organization are championed by zealous advocates to challenge the Western political vision, at a time when that Western vision has itself become clouded by alienation and uncertainty in the search for new political avenues. The advocates of "the Asian way", boosted by the success of their economic challenge to the West, argue that "Asia's time in the sun" has now arrived. The Asian defence was that the values underpinning these models are particular, not universal.
Asian values are different in kind, not in degree. They are self-reliant, yet somehow communitarian rather than individualistic; built on personal relationships and mutual obligation, rather than the cold letter of the law - even if the law is today called upon to enforce those values; respectful of authority and hierarchy; and state interventionist, even into the private space of individuals.
The word that summed up this - in part self-contradictory - spirit was Confucianism. Its validity was seen to lie in the achievement built up in the East Asian region, although presumably the most Confucian part of that region, China itself, was for many years its most enfeebled component. But the debate has today taken on a subtly different tone. While maintaining that the West must appreciate the social and cultural differences that set Asia apart from it, there is a recognition by East Asians that their region faces a struggle to work out norms of governance and social organization that will be perceived as legitimate by fellow citizens.
The conviction holds, though, that Asians will succeed, because they are aware that their continued prowess is dependent on looking ahead, and on making something new. In looking to tradition, it is not to borrow from a sterile past, but rather to re-interpret traditional values selectively, to make them relevant for the circumstances of today. There is now an acknowledged openness to draw on values and practices from other traditions, including Western ideas.
What is being asked for on the Asian side is that this borrowing become a two-way process, a dialogue rather than a haranguing of one by the other. The current debate needs to take on additional considerations. There is a guarded acknowledgement that Asian societies will have to create room for intellectual enquiry and to address issues of human rights and political liberties.
It is no longer adequate to say that the record of modernizing governments justifies their right to rule.
Confucianism and Human Resource Management in East Asia
Asians today ask awkward questions: from where does this right spring? Much of the traditional political theory of developing societies focuses on how political life is shaped from the top down. This misses a critical dimension. Whatever Asian political elites or Asian governments may say, there is a lively political discourse at the grass-roots level which, in the long term, is going to determine the shape of Asian governance. The values that feed this debate are not easily characterized, as they come from a variety of sources. Ideas of democratic governance are very much a part of it.
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Authoritarianism is acknowledged as a component of Asian values - is it not also in Western values? Today, Asian political systems, Asian modes of economic governance and Asian political leaders are very much on trial. The Politics of Globalizing Societies How are we to characterize those Asian societies in which this vigorous political debate is taking place?
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Most obviously, these are societies exposed to the full brunt of globalizing forces, and changing rapidly as a consequence. For individuals, there is a multiplication and intensification of relations and interconnections. Issues transcend national frontiers. But they are issues which arise from interactions between individuals and agencies which are not directly under government control. David Held argues that the politics of globalization strikes at the heart of political legitimacy in all societies.
Governments have to justify themselves to people who are increasingly politically aware. Notably in Taiwan and South Korea, growing prosperity under authoritarian rule gave rise to democratic transition led by an emergent middle class. For South Korea, the process was characterized by mass social mobilization and violent confrontation spearheaded by radical students and labour groups.
Yet after the democratic breakthrough, the middle class withdrew support from Kim Dae Jung's opposition - seen as too radical and hence threatening - and became critical of the students and the labour unrest. The political process was opened up, but this led to an immediate concern for stability and government efficiency. In Taiwan, the process was more low-key and involved bargaining and compromise between key political groups.
Once the government committed itself, somewhat cautiously, to political liberalization and the ruling Kuomintang transformed itself into a party with more native Taiwanese - as opposed to mainland Chinese - characteristics, the middle class began to return its support to the reformed ruling party. The overriding concern again was to restore the stability of the system.
Globalization has had profound and widespread consequences in Asia, ranging beyond the middle class.
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The improvement in living standards experienced by most people is a consequence of their integration into the global political economy, a fact readily appreciated by them. On the other hand, unequal burdens and social dislocation have also resulted from economic growth. Again, governmental authority is called into question. Globalization has stimulated an intensification of demands for participatory politics at the community level.
Exposed to massive changes, people look - not for more political rights, in a Western conceptual sense, but - for a government which is more responsive to local needs and to individual concerns. We should be clear, though, that their demands arise in a situation where incomes are, for the majority, growing rapidly. The politics of local identity is not simply a defensive politics which is fearful of change. People are open to change, but they seek to make change relevant to their personal circumstances by differentiating the homogenizing forces which globalization brings.
In doing so, they perceive that only a government which is accountable locally can be responsive locally. In this way local interaction and a thriving grass-roots politics are encouraged. This politics of identity is sharply focused in Taiwan. Repressed feelings of a distinct Taiwanese identity now find political expression and the independence versus reunification debate reaches even into families with roots in both camps. But a vigorous grass-roots politics can also be seen in supposedly apolitical Singapore. In the Potong Pasir area, for instance, a strong local political movement supports a political leader identified very much with the concerns of a largely working class community.
In China itself, direct elections at the village level stem the pervasive influence of the Communist Party, which is increasingly under pressure from populist grass-roots democracy. The New Asian Politics: Populism through Democracy It is populism, rather than democratic theory, which explains the nature of the new Asian politics. Above the level of the ordinary citizen, there is indeed a debate going on between political elites.
The nature of this debate in authoritarian China is anti-populist, hence disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people. The ruling Communist Party destroyed much traditional culture, reaching its height in the Cultural Revolution with the ravaging of temples and the denouncing of parents by their children. Its intellectual opposition, which was crushed at Tiananmen, equally disparages popular belief, feared to be feudal, backwards and inimical to modern scientific progress.
Related Confucianism and Modernization: Industrialization and Democratization of the Confucian Regions
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