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Foster Investigates Symbols Of Chinese Tradition

Tradition or technology? Morality or modernization? In the final Friday Faculty Colloquium of the school year, Professor Robert Foster tackled the tension between modern and ancient ideas in contemporary China on the 89th anniversary of the pivotal May Fourth Movement.

Professor Robert Foster presents at the final Faculty Colloquium of the year.

Foster, associate professor of history and director of the Asian Studies program, presented “Reinventing Tradition in Modern China” to a room full of avid listeners. “What exactly is China?” Foster asked as he began his exploration of China’s cultural history. “It’s hard to find a common essence of a national identity.”

Foster’s presentation centered on the ambivalence that China holds toward the West and its own cultural past. “When I think about China’s past, I’m concerned about how ideas interact with the material world,” said Foster. He focused on Confucianism, which was the reigning philosophical doctrine in China until the 20th century, as an example of that ambivalence.

Confucianism, which is a system of moral, social, political, philosophical and religious thought based on the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius, maintains that society is harmonized through such things as traditional moral values, virtue, etiquette and a strict social hierarchy. Confucian scholars in the 19th century were opposed to the modernization of China because Confucianism favors established traditions rather than new ideas.

However, a large-scale protest by students in Beijing on May 4, 1919 struck a blow to Confucianism. Arguing for progress and that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” the protest incited cultural critique leading to China’s eventual rejection of Confucianism as a system of belief. After the success of the communist revolution in 1949, Chairman Mao turned Confucianism into a “paper man,” or a symbol of cultural traditions that needed to be pushed aside in order to fix the past, said Foster.

Despite China’s eventual change of heart toward modernization, Foster said that the fear of Westernization, which started in the late 1800s, still continues to the present day. Foster explained that modernization and Westernization are similar, but if a society is Westernized then they can lose something of their own culture.

“There are all kinds of layers of culture,” said Foster. “The cultural matrix shifts [and] the meanings of what you engage in change.”

Foster also discussed various views of Confucianism and the uses of Confucianism and other Chinese traditions as symbols. He pointed out the differences between China and the West, such as how Western language uses absolutes and Chinese language focuses more on continuity and the links between things.

In closing, Foster addressed how China is “reinventing tradition” through the seeming resurgence in Confucianism in China over recent years. Foster showed examples of Confucian temples that have been turned into social and senior centers, and others that have been restored and opened to tourists. However, the temples are not actually used by followers of Confucianism, and, in fact, Foster says there is no practicing community of Confucians in China today.

Which raises the question, “Why would you use Confucius? It has nothing to do with Confucianism,” said Foster.

There has also been a reassertion of Confucius as a modernizer, with some people and editorials implying that Confucius would have approved of today’s scientific and technological advances. In actuality, that was against Confucius’ beliefs.

But what does this mean? “I really don’t want to engage in prediction, I’m a historian,” Foster said, but he believes that the apparent revival of Confucianism is for the sake of tourism and “those of us who are looking at China from the outside.”

“We link Confucius in our mind to traditional Chinese culture,” said Foster. “There is a sense in China of reasserting power,” and they are using non-Western symbols such as Confucius to encourage national pride. Instead of choosing between Confucianism and modernization, China is attempting to embrace both and use the cultural past to strengthen China’s route to the future.

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