For a Critical Philosophy of Media and Technology in China

The rapid economical and technological developments in China since the 20th century have led to a disOrientation in the double sense of the word. A sense of lost, as well as the sentiment that the Orient is no longer the Orient as, but rather the replication of the Occident, from commodities, to concepts, life styles, and ultimately dreams. What was supposed to be the ground, so to speak Chinese thoughts, become a mere mask for a global technological culture. The cultural imagination after the Opium wars in China has been reversed; since at that time, Chinese thought was understood as the “soul” and the western knowledge as the “instrument”. The Cartesian approach confronts its misery today, since Chinese thought become the figure instead of the ground (as the mask mentioned before). I take this framework of analysis from Gilbert Simondon in Du Mode d’existence des objets techniques, which understands that the ground stabilises the figure, and gives it the potential and imagination for progress.

The reversal of the figure and the ground leads to a disorientation in almost all aspects. The problem, hence our hypothesis, is the lack of reflections on technics in China. According to anthropologists, for example Jack Goody in The Theft of History1, shows that technical development in China was far ahead of Europe before the 16th century, and then was totally reversed. Technological development in China has almost totally stopped and the West advanced in a much faster pace, marked by the two industrial revolutions. The missions of the Jesuits during the 16th and 17th century had introduced scientific thoughts to China, but this cultural exchange remained on a superficial level due to various reasons. It is not sufficient to say that there was a technical culture in China before the 16th century, or the ancient Chinese had better understanding of technology, but rather a technological thought has been always absent from the beginning. While we need to recognize that for this thought to emerge, it should no longer retreat to a tradition that is not compatible with technological progress.

Reflections on Technologies in Modern China after the Opium Wars

One could speculate on different reasons behind this phenomenon, should it be culturally, politically or economically, but fundamental to the question is to reestablish the knowledge and understanding of technics in China. Otherwise, it induces either fear or hype. We can recall an example of the first railways in China around 1876-1877 from Shanghai to Woosung build by an English company Jardine, Matheson & Co., the railway led to so much fear (in terms of security and accident), that the Ching Dynasty has paid 285,000 taels of silver to buy the railway and destroyed it2. This fear of technics was paradoxical, since after the Opium wars (1839–1842, 1856–1860), China recognized that it would be impossible to win any war without developing western technologies. The serious defeats led to the Self-Strengthening Movement (1861–1895), which extensively modernized military, industrialized productions and reformed the education system, etc. Two slogans came out of the movement fully characterize the spirit of the time, the first one is the “learning from the west to overcome the west”(师夷长技以制夷); the second one bears more cultural and nationalist spirit, “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application” (中学为体,西学为用)”.

The second reflection on techno-science as well as democracy came after the 1911 revolution in China, those children sent by the Ching government study abroad become the majors intellectuals at the time. One of the most important intellectual movements broke out in 1919, now known as the May fourth movement. During the 20s and the 30s, western philosophy started to flourish in China, three names are closely related to the contemporary intellectual history of China: William James, Henry Bergson, Bertrand Russell (note that in fact none of these philosophers are specialist in technics). The intellectual debates went around if China should be fully westernised and fully adopt western science, technologies and democracy, supported by the intellectuals such as Hu Shi (student of John Dewey) and on the opposite side Carsun Chang Chia-sen (student of Rudolf Eucken), Chang Tung-sun (Chinese translator of Henri Bergson in the 1920s) and among others. The debates however led to unresolved questions and un-compromised propositions, some intellectuals started to realise the mistake of the Cartesian opposition between the mind and the body(instrumental), expressed in the conception of the relation between China and the West. This reflection didn’t go beyond neither the reiteration of a modernized China (which includes the alphabetisation of Chinese writing) nor the insistence in the values of life in traditional thought that resonate with the metaphysics of Eucken and Bergson,

The Need of Critical Philosophy on Media and Technology in China

Today the copy culture of all technical objects has been seriously criticized and condemed in the West. The Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han tried to deconstruct the capitalism in China in his book Shanzhai: Dekonstruktion auf Chinesisch3. He has rightly pointed out that the way, which one calls Tao, is different from the Weg of Heidegger. For the former, there is no creation but only de-creation (Ent-schöpfung) regardless of its origin. One can go further like Keiji Nishitani in claiming that historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) doesn’t exist in general in Asia. It is true that the originality in China didn’t bear the same value as it has it the West, one should also notice that the Cartesian tendency toward technology after the two Opium wars has amplified this difference, since the question of atemporality largely comes out of the ignorance of technics as retention. Since technics is always only understood as “practical application”, which follows the will of human beings, while this will is itself determined by a natural theology (in the terms of Leibniz). The Chinese philosopher Li Zhi Hou calls it “degree”(), meaning there is no absolute, but always maintaining certain degree of consistency. The reflection on china didn’t go further due to the change of political regime, then the technological competition during the cold war (marked by the invention of the atomic bomb in 1964 and the hydrogen bomb in 1967) and the latest stage, the economic reform in the 80s until today China becomes the world factory.

Hence this lack of reflection leads to a poverty of a critical philosophy in China. After the Civil War, the Chinese Marxists are more or less economic determinists or technology determinists, who saw Chinese thoughts as obstacles against the progress in China. After the end of the Chinese cultural revolution and until 1989, the focus has been on economic reform and the control of the market. At the beginning of the 1990s, a new thought dominates the Chinese intellectual discussion. It was the proposal of Li Zhi Hou, who believes that one should say adieu to revolution, and return to what he calls a pragmatic reason. Paraphrasing the former communist party Chairman Deng Xiao Ping’s “good cat theory”: no matter it is a white cat or a black cat, the one which can catch mice is a good cat. For Li, the reason is that in the past 100 years, China has been an ideological laboratory, and this experiment of ideology should come to the end in favour of a pragmatic program for China. This proposal further obscured the ontological question concerning technics, since it is not at all a question. 

This however doesn’t mean that philosophy as a discipline didn’t exist in China, it was introduced during the education reform, but it turns out to be studies on the history of philosophy or biographies of philosophers as it is now in many places in the world. From the 1990s until today, the arrival of the critical theory and French theory, and also cultural studies – a discipline based in the department of literature or chinese language on the one hand. On the other hand, the development of liberalism in China since the early 20th century becomes a strong counterpart of the theory of the State. These gave rise to new discourses such as the New Left (e.g. Wang Hui et al), as well as liberalist thought. But besides of a very general critique of modernisation, none of these schools has space for technical questions, the intellectual discussion becomes the application of either american liberalism or certain readings of French theories, we witness an impasse of the development of a critical philosophy in China.

It is in this occasion that I proposed to form an international committee, in order to reintroduce a dialogue between China and the West, especially Europe, as well as to reinsert the question of technics after 100 years of modernisation, in order to develop a critical philosophy reflecting on industrialisation, technological globalisation, and the becoming of philosophy in China. This initiation is kindly supported by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Press, and also by a group world renowned scholars. The scientific network in the coming years will focus on translations, publications of original works on technological thoughts, as well as the organisation of exchanges and discussions.

Innitiator: Yuk Hui

Berlin/ Summer 2014

1 Goody, Jack, The Theft of History, Cambridge University Press, 2006

2 Sun, Kuang-Teh, Late Ching Tradition and Debates around Westernalisation, Taiwan Commercial Press (in Chinese)

3 Byung-Chul Han, Shanzhai: Dekonstruktion auf Chinesisch, Berlin: Merve, 2011