Escape to Inwardness: Philosophical Responses to Modernity and Modernization in China during the 1930s

  • MAK, King Sang (PI)

Project: Research project

Project Details

Layman's description

This project investigates the philosophical reflections of German-educated Chinese thinkers on the problem of modernity and the state during the 1930s when the Nanjing Government’s (1927-1937) nation-building programme was in full swing.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the impact of modernity in China has been highly visible: industrialism, rationalization, consumerism and scientific intervention crawled into various aspects of Chinese life, bringing about transitions in urban life, health and medicine, popular culture and significantly, the political reform of Republican China. Jiang Jieshi, inspired partly by a simplistic understanding of Germany, looked to reproduce a centralized industrial and military machine in China fueled by a culture of pragmatism. As a result, the Nanjing Decade witnessed an attempt in fabricating a strong state of nation-wide authority, complemented by an immense economic and industrial capacity that would further China’s modernization.

Contradistinctive to Jiang’s idea, an influential group of Chinese philosophers, poets and political thinkers expressed concern over the future of China under the clockwork of modernity. The intellectuals- Zong Baihua (1897-1986), Feng Zhi (1905-1993), Zhang Junmai (1887-1969) and He Lin (1902-1992) studied at German universities and experienced first-hand the woes of the Weimar Republic. Seeing beyond the surface of modernity a crisis from creeping political transformation and excessive innovation, the intellectuals noted the peril of creating a China hanging merely unto an empty shell: stripped of inner essence, modern men end up isolated and soulless, strolling aimlessly in modern techno-poleis, as was confirmed by Hitler’s use of an almighty state apparatus to govern a society of helpless individuals.

Convinced that China dangerously traced the footsteps of the German experience, the intellectuals began in the 1930s to assess the power and evils of a rapidly ongoing modernity. As a resolution to the withering of spiritual wellbeing, the traditional German cultural ideals of Innerligkeit (inwardness) and Bildung (forming of the soul) were put forth, calling for a new Chinese culture which could afford the transformations and pressure of a modern Chinese state. Working as the Chinese counterparts of Innerligkeit and Bildung, Feng’s solitude and meditation, He’s “inner sageliness,” Zong’s aesthetics and Zhang’s integration of democracy and social statism sought equilibrium in modernization through an enlightening reform for the Chinese mind, particularly in exploration of the relations between: material progress and cultural growth; spiritual interiority and modern life; self and collectivity and individual and state, eventually kicking off the search for an alternative approach to China’s future development.
Effective start/end date1/10/1430/09/16


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