The Modern Spirit of Asia:

Comparing China and India

posted by Peter van der Veer

The Modern Spirit of Asia is a book about India and China and the ways in which they have been transformed by Western imperial modernity. In my understanding, the onset of modernity is located in the nineteenth century and is characterized politically by the emergence of the nation-state, economically by industrialization, and ideologically by an emphasis on progress and liberation; “imperial modernity” is the formation of modernity under conditions of imperialism. This book is an essay in comparative historical sociology, informed by anthropological theory. Comparative historical sociology of culture is a field that was founded by Max Weber and practiced by his followers, of whom the late Robert Bellah and the late S.N. Eisenstadt are among the best known. It has been connected to interpretive anthropological theory and to insights gained in ethnography, especially in the work of Clifford Geertz.

The increase of sophisticated specialist historical work and the emphasis on economics and politics in comparative work has made it hard to pursue this line of interpretive analysis. Our knowledge of the complexities and the modern transformations of Chinese and Indian societies has increased greatly since Weber wrote his studies. This makes it difficult to do a comparative project, but I am convinced that, in an era of increasing specialization, it is important to do comparative work if it succeeds in highlighting issues that are neglected or ignored because of the specialist’s focus on a singular national society. The nation-form itself is a global form that the state takes during the nineteenth century and cannot be understood as the product of one particular society. It is the dominant societal form today, and India and China have been gradually developed into nation-states. That is why one can compare India and China as nation-states, although these societies are, internally, immensely differentiated, and the particular nation-form they have taken is historically contingent.

While India and China are taking a globally available form that is characteristic of modernity, they follow quite different pathways, and their differences can be highlighted and understood through comparison. China’s and India’s nation-forms are comparable because they are both based on huge societies with deep cultural histories, which have united large numbers of people over vast territories and long periods of time. Both have taken the nation-form in interaction with Western imperialism. The comparative analysis that is introduced here takes the nation-form not as something natural or already preconditioned by deep civilizational or ethnic histories, but as something historically contingent and fragmented. By focusing on the comparative analysis of the different pathways of two nation-states in a global (imperial) context, the argument goes beyond methodological nationalism.

My main interest in this book is to understand the differences between nationalist understandings of religion in India and those in China. In other words, this is a study of the relation between nationalism and religion from a comparative perspective. Both nationalisms have ideas about progress, rationality, equality, and anti-imperialism in common, but the location of religion in Indian and Chinese nationalist imaginings is very different. In short, religion is a valued aspect of Indian nationalism, whereas it is seen as an obstacle in Chinese nationalism. I will argue that such a difference in the location of religion in modernity can be understood by comparing the ways in which India and China have been transformed by imperial modernity. As I have argued in an earlier book on the case of Britain and India, imperial interactions have been crucial to the formation of imperial modernities. In this book, I alternately speak about Western or Euro-American imperialism with an emphasis on British imperialism, which was the global hegemonic force until the Second World War. The relation between religion and nationalism is constitutive to Indian and Chinese modernities and forms the general problematic of this book.

Globalization in its current phase has forced us to go beyond nationalist histories, but world history more often than not emphasizes economics and politics and, in an established secularist fashion, underplays the formative role of religion. What I present here is an interactional history that emphasizes interactions between Euro-America (also known as “the West”) on the one hand and India and China on the other, with an emphasis on what I would like to call a “syntagmatic chain of ‘religion-magic-secularity-spirituality.’” I lift the term “syntagmatic” out of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale (without any further Saussurean implication) to indicate that these four terms are not simple essences, nor do they possess stable meanings independently of one another. Instead, they emerged historically together, imply one another, define one another, and function as nodes within a shifting field of discourse and power that is, itself, always being negotiated, invented, and re-invented through historical and social processes.

The emergence of “religion,” for example, as a modern category of thought and identity, implies the modern emergence of “secularity,” which implies a particular attitude toward “magic” and “spirituality,” which is itself a modernist construction and relies on “secularity.” This syntagmatic chain occupies a key position in nationalist imaginings of modernity. This book, then, is about religion, nation, and empire in India and China. It is about the effects of universalizing categories like spirituality, magic, and secularity on ideas of the nation in India and China.

My approach raises two related issues. First, no one today is totally outside the modern West. There is a history of a century or longer of Western hegemony in the world, which makes it impossible to assume that there is a pure outside that can be investigated. Instead, what we study are various forms of interaction between different cultural worlds, some of which are of very long duration, some of which have a nineteenth-century origin. In the latter cases, we deal with imperial interactions that engender modern transformations.

Secondly, by acknowledging this history of interactions we turn a critical eye on the universal pretentions of models based solely on a putatively isolated Western historical experience. The pervasiveness of ethnocentrism in the social sciences is astonishing, ranging from discussions of democracy, public sphere, and civil society to discussions of religion, secularism, class, and the family. One of the greatest flaws in the development of a comparative perspective seems to be the almost universal comparison of any existing society with an ideal-typical and totally self-sufficient Euro-American modernity.

Comparison should not be conceived primarily in terms of comparing societies, events, or institutional arrangements across societies—although this is important—but as a reflection on our conceptual framework, as well as on the history of interactions that have constituted our object of study. One can, for instance, want to study church-state relations in India and China, but not without reflecting critically on why one would assume the centrality of church-like organizations and a Western, secular state in an analysis of developments in India and China. That critical reflection often shows that Western concepts do not fit the social reality that one wants to investigate which, in turn, may lead to the exaggerated claim that societies “outside” the West should be understood in their own terms and cannot be understood in Western terms.

However, one cannot escape the fact that, in today’s world, “native” terms have to be interpreted and translated in relation to Western scholarship. Moreover, such translation and interpretation is part of a long history of interactions between Asia and the Imperial Western powers that became dominant in the nineteenth century. For example, it is good to realize that, despite its foreign origins, English is now also an Indian vernacular. It is also good to realize that, despite the prevailing notion that everything in China has an ancient indigenous origin, communism did not, in fact, originate in the Song dynasty, but is a Western invention. Any attempt to make a sharp (often nationalist) demarcation of inside and outside is spurious in contemporary society. Comparison is thus not a relatively simple juxtaposition and comparison of two or more different societies, but a complex reflection on the network of concepts that underlies our study of societies as well as the formation of those societies themselves. It is always a double act of reflection.

Although anthropology as a discipline has moved away from comparative work, social and cultural analysis is always within a comparative frame. Some of us are acutely aware of this; others less so. In general, there is inadequate consideration of the extent to which our approaches depend on arguing and comparing with the preexisting literature on a topic; on the use of terms that have emerged in entirely different historical situations and thus convey implicit comparison (such as “middle class” or “bourgeoisie” or “religion”); and also on the ways in which the people we study are, themselves, constantly comparing the present with the past or their situation with that of others. It may give a certain confidence to claim that one is a Sinologist, an Indologist, or an Africanist and to believe that sufficient linguistic and cultural competence is enough to claim mastery over that subject, as if one is not constantly standing in a reflexive relation to both discipline and subject, but such a position is untenable.

After a theoretical introduction that discusses concepts of modernity and civilization and offers a critique of the work on civilization and religion of S.N. Eisenstadt, Robert Bellah, and Charles Taylor, the second chapter shows how the category of “spirituality” receives a global modern meaning in the nineteenth century, becoming part of an alternative modernity in different places around the globe. In India and China, indigenous forms of spirituality are invoked as alternatives to Western imperialism and materialism. Spiritual superiority becomes part of Pan-Asianism in the writings of some Indian and Chinese intellectuals. At the same time, state- and nation-centered religious ideologies focus on spirituality as a part of national character. These ideologies are crucial even today in China, India, Taiwan, and Singapore.

The third chapter concerns the making of “Asian religion.” This chapter explores the field of Asian studies and comparative religion, especially the “Sacred Books of the East” project headed by Friedrich Max Müller, and it builds on recent reappraisals of the Indologist Müller and the Sinologist James Legge. It goes beyond the study of scholarship by examining the role of the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. The major analytical issue is to what extent these products of Western scholarship and imagination have produced forms of religious categorization that have had an actual impact on religious belief and practice in India and China.

In the fourth chapter, I discuss conversion to Christianity and the impact of missionary movements in India and China, analyzing the different trajectories of Christianity in India and in China. Christian missionaries have played a major role in the creation of modern vocabularies and modern attitudes in India and China: both reform movements and popular resistance movements derive much of their discourse from Christianity. This chapter examines the concept of conversion in relation to the discourse of modernity.

The fifth chapter engages the question of “popular religion” and the relation between religion and magic in India and China. The categories of “popular belief,” “superstition,” and “magic” have been used by modernizers in India and China to intervene in people’s daily practices and remove obstacles to the total transformation of their communities. These attempts have developed in different ways in India and China, but in neither case have they been entirely successful. After a historical discussion of heterodoxy, messianic movements, and political protest, the chapter delineates the transformation of popular religion in India and China under the influence of economic liberalization and globalization.

In the sixth chapter, the discussion of anti-superstition movements in the previous chapter is taken up in a broader discussion of secularism as a political project with its own utopian elements. The great differences in the nature of that project in India and in China are used to illustrate the historical specificity of the secular in relation to religion within different historical trajectories.

In the seventh chapter, yoga (a system of bodily exercise and spiritual awakening) is compared with taiji (shadow boxing) and qigong (bodily skills used to connect to qi, or primordial force). The argument here is that these forms of movement, while connected to notions of health, have strong political and social implications and can be important in nationalism. The chapter discusses, among others, the Falun Gong and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar movements.

In the penultimate chapter, the construction of minority and majority ethnicities, cultures, and religions is discussed. This is, in the case of India, the construction of a Hindu majority versus Muslim, Christian, and Sikh minorities; in the case of China, it is the construction of a Han majority versus a variety of recognized ethnic minorities, among which the Hui Muslims are the most significant. The most important comparative case of a minority religion in India and China is Islam. The chapter looks at the position of Muslim minorities in India and China in relation to the nation-state and the ways in which the majority population feels the existence of these minorities as a threat. This involves a discussion of the relation between central authority and regional minorities.

In the conclusion, the differential impact of Western imperialism on India and China is highlighted. Indian and Chinese societies have deep histories, and these histories have resulted in fundamental differences, but modernity has been mediated by imperialism in both cases. India was colonized for a century, while China was under imperial pressure but was not made into a colony. Being run by a British state that has its center thousands of miles away is quite different from being pressured, though not taken over, by a number of competing foreign powers, including neighboring Japan. Even when we consider that India was governed mostly by Indians, it remained a colony. This difference in the nature of imperial interactions can be conceptualized as a difference in state formation and in what Michele Foucault calls “governmentality.” India’s postcolonial state emerges from the crucible of the British colonial state, while China’s contested republic succeeded a traditional empire and, after Japanese occupation and civil war, was made into a communist state following World War II. The role of the state in producing a modern society cannot be overestimated. However, while state formation is a crucial historical process, one cannot simply see cultural processes as straightforwardly resulting from state formation. Rather, one’s interpretation depends on one’s conception of the state. My understanding of the state is close to governmentality, with its emphasis on the connection between techniques of the self (governing the self) and techniques of domination (governing others). This allows one to broaden the understanding of power beyond the arbitrary confines of the state. Religious tradition, religious organizations, and religious discourses and practices have a relative autonomy from the state, but are all part of governmentality. The religious movements of the Sikhs in India and the Taiping Rebellion in China even attempted to create their own states, showing the arbitrary nature of sharp definitional boundaries between state and religion. Moreover, traditional states like those of the Mughal and the Qing are, at least partly, ritual theatres, in which, as Clifford Geertz has argued, “power serves pomp.” The concept of governmentality allows one to see the state not as a unified actor (abstracted from social life), but rather as a set of arrangements, apparatuses, and institutions that are often contradictory and active at different levels of centralization.

It is remarkable how much discussions of China are dominated by awe of a unified, dictatorial state, on the one hand, and by an awareness of considerable regional and local decentralization and informalization on the other hand. In particular, the Chinese economy is characterized by a large number of informal arrangements and transactions that are not controlled by the state and involve actors that are often not recognized as economic actors, including religious actors. Capitalism is not a rigid system that makes everything the same everywhere, but rather a flexible set of economic and political arrangements that attempt to open up markets for production and consumption. The opening up of China for global capitalism has had an immense impact on Chinese society, not by destroying it but by redeploying Chinese patterns of interaction and expectation. Similarly, it is remarkable how resilient the institutions of the postcolonial state in India have been, despite much anxiety in 1950s scholarship about the potential fragmentation of India.

The state has dealt with considerable challenges by separatist movements, such as the Sikh Khalistanis. Except for a relatively brief state of emergency in the 1970s, the state is legitimized by regular elections. Nevertheless, much political action in India is extra-parliamentary, basically following a pattern set by Mahatma Gandhi’s political performances (e.g. the Salt March and hunger strikes). While Gandhi opposed the British, current political activists challenge an elected Indian government. Gandhi operated largely from outside of the Congress Party, projecting himself as a moral exemplar above politics. Major recent examples of such extra-parliamentary action are the campaign to remove the Babar mosque in Ayodhya in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the more recent anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare, another charismatic imitator of Gandhi. The latter also shows the extent to which business transactions involve state officials and are not controlled by public debate in Parliament. In both India and China there is a lively debate about corruption and exposing scandals, which seems to indicate that the boundary between political power and economic entrepreneurship is constantly shifting.

This book has argued that imperial interactions have had a major impact on the formation of Indian and Chinese modernities. It is instructive to look at a formative moment in the 1850s. The Taiping Rebellion in China (1850-1864) and the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858) occurred almost simultaneously, after a period of deep penetration of Western imperialist power in these societies. The Opium Wars in China (1839–1842, 1856–1860) had made clear how immensely vulnerable the Qing dynasty was in the face of imperialist pressure. The gradual colonization of India by the British was completed with the suppression of the Mutiny. In this era of rupture with the past, desires for restoration fought with passions for innovation. One cannot overestimate the deep resentments that resulted from the encounter with Western imperial power and which are felt even today in postcolonial India and China. The Taiping Rebellion, the later Boxer Rebellion, and the Mutiny can be taken as major events that mark a transition from pre-modern arrangements into imperial modernity. It is interesting to note that this transition was characterized by a type of thought that imperial modernity would call “magical” or “irrational.” One of the events that sparked the Mutiny was the rumor that the British had greased the bullets that the Indian soldiers had to bite open with beef (abhorrent to Hindus) or with pork (abhorrent to Muslims). In the case of the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions, it was the belief in miraculous weapons and invincibility that made the rebels such a formidable force. The anxiety about imperial Christianity is expressed in the Taiping Rebellion via the fascinating translation of Christianity into indigenous millenarianism, while it is expressed in the Mutiny as a revolt against a greasy form of conversion.

The radical nature of this imperial transition, with its violence and iconoclasm, makes it impossible to take what appears to be continuity with the past—in terms of language and cultural traditions, for example— at face value. There is a strong tendency, especially in the study of China, to emphasize continuities despite the enormous upheavals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In my view, the imperial moment in the case of both China and India has indeed been a rupture—so much so that I would suggest that the global context is at least as important in understanding the cultural transformations of the late nineteenth century and twentieth century as pre-modern history. If this is correct, comparative sociology has an important role to play in furthering our understanding of contemporary India and China, since it can interpret this global context better than national historiography. Imperial modernity to a large extent constitutes this global context.

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