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Postmodernism and Its Effects on China

We are now living in a globalized world where regional trends are able to permeate other parts of the world with a speed never before witnessed. The recent wave of postmodernism from the Western world is but one of the fast-changing trends in today’s world that demonstrates this reality. Apart from the Anglo-Saxon continents, the effects of postmodernism have also influenced oriental countries such as China. As we have witnessed the numerous transformations of China following its rise to become the world’s second largest economic superpower within the last thirty years, modernization of China’s urban residents is clearly seen. Therefore, it is not surprising that they are more exposed and influenced by postmodern values and practices. The content of this article will concentrate solely on the rapid infiltration of postmodernism into China, and its multifaceted effects on the nation.

The Infiltration of Postmodernism into China

In China, Fredric Jameson, one of the renowned contemporary Western critical theorists, has had a successful influence on the theorization of postmodernism since mid-1985.1 Motivated by an intense interest in Western critical theory, literary theory and related disciplines, Jameson introduced the idea of postmodernism through his lectures at Peking University and Shenzhen University. Such influences can be vividly perceived through his gifted students such as Zhang Yiwu and Zhang Xudong who later become scholars in analyzing postmodernity in China. Nevertheless, a distinctly Chinese form of postmodern cultural discourse only emerged in the 90s. This is due partly to Jameson’s other influence in China through the publication of his book in 1987 entitled Postmodernism and Cultural Theories, which fueled intense debate by local and overseas Chinese intellectuals over postmodernism from 1994 to 1997.2 Also, a forum on Chinese postmodernism (published in the January 1993 issue of Wenyi yanjiu) and articles on Edward Said’s “Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism” by Zhang Kuan, Qian Jun and Pan Shaomei (published in the September 1993 issue of Dushu) reshaped Chinese postmodernism through related issues.3 However, in 1994 Zhang Yiwu and Wang Ning respectively claimed that China had entered a “new post-era” linkage with global postmodernity but free from Western historicity and metanarratives since the early 90s.4

In 1995, the term “post-ism” was championed by Zhao Yiheng5 and is perceived to be shaped by Western theories. In China, however, it is utilized paradoxically as a means to describe China’s social and political reality and support the conservative aim of subverting previous revolutionary radicalism. Zhao Yiheng’s view caused some heated debates (such as Xu Ben, Liu Kang and others who have interacted with his article). Xu Ben is another scholar who critiques the ideology of the various “post-isms” but emphasized their “conformity with the nationalism and political censorship of the 1990s.”6

The Effects of Postmodernism on China

Postmodern Trends in Modern Society

Following Deng Xiaoping’s call for economic reforms in the early 80s, China has become the world’s fastest growing nation and has captured the attention of the entire world. Undoubtedly, tremendous transformations in China (especially in urban settings) are happening especially in fields related to finance, manufacturing, construction, telecommunications, science and technology. Nevertheless, after a series of revolutions and movements in the course of China’s history, it is not surprising that the current regime’s thinkers and politicians are seriously seeking an overall inclusive theme for nation building. As Charles Horner aptly puts it:

Whether the subjects are elevated ones like modern history, modern literature or modern architecture, or mundane ones like tariffs, trade and transportation, the party scrambles for ways of explaining how it thinks and why it acts in the ways that it does. Indeed, the regime in power is indefatigable in its search for a unifying theme or a consistent story to serve as a basis for grand design and a national purpose.7

Currently, Chinese society is operating under a mixture of political socialism and market economy capitalism. The drive for modernization of China has resulted in “the reinterpretation and reformulation of the origins, composition and ideals of the Chinese nation.” Deng Xiaoping’s renowned phrase encapsulates it very well: “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”; what follows is “democracy with Chinese characteristics.”8

However, in contrast to the olden days when foreign culture was always considered an intrusion, China now makes room for more international exchanges. Postmodern trends can now be more easily seen throughout the multifaceted layers of society in China. Of all its characteristics, postmodern thoughts and valueswhich are more inclusive and tend to be received by the general publicmay be the more accepted trends of modernization.

For instance, postmodernists cannot accept the only “truth”; on the contrary, they are in favor of many “truths,” but even their so called “truth” is merely current trends and fashionable logic. All the “-isms” of the present era will soon be replaced and will become the obsolete “-wasms” of previous culture.9 Postmodernists are, therefore, in favor of “pluralism.” That is, they accept ideas of various factions and put them in the same pot. It is thought that different views, after all, only come from different perspectives. There is no absolute true or false nor is there truth that applies universally. All so-called truth is only subjective, human interpretation without an objective real existence.10 Based on appearance, postmodernists seem to have many choices, and their thinking can change at any time as can their spiritual experience.

It is postulated that China’s modern society will experience tremendous change in the people’s philosophical mindset as the general public achieves more financial gains and its culture will gradually inculcate an inclusive attitude towards diverse ideas, which are similar to the ever changing postmodern trends as developed in the West.

Postmodern Challenges to Traditional Values

Similar to the Anglo-Saxon scenario, the growth of postmodernism in China can be considered the result of the material civilization of its society as well as a reflection of the spirit of institutional change, which finds expression in literature and the arts, philosophical thinking and awareness, and society’s culture and politics. The tides of postmodern thinking can also gradually influence current traditional social values.

The twenty-first century information and media age is the second great industrial revolution or the second wave of scientific breakthrough. The information age influences the lifestyle of people in material civilization and directly impacts the structure and boundaries of societies and humanistic ideas. Information is no longer seen as a “static” entity but as a constantly changing “dynamic.”11 Admittedly, the content of information consists of various media as in images, words, sounds, creativity and artistic functions. Through media information one can make contacts outside the confines of time and space and beyond time and geographical constraints of mass media. The information media of our present age is interactional. It enables participants of both sides to have dialogue and is not merely monologue communication.

As we enter an era of visual technology, the societal way of thinking also changes from logical to imaginative and sensual. With the intervention of information and media, integrative and active expressive thinking has surfaced more aggressively. Because of society’s rapid transformation, there is great change in human consciousness and ways of thinking. Information and film media can be perceived to dominate mass and popular cultures which directly influence “cultural consumption” of postmodern societies. In other words, changes in societal ideology hasten the masses to turn toward consumerism which is “symbol” led.

Undoubtedly, postmodernism calls for new perspectives in terms of our evaluations of many aspects of learning and the ultimate value of things in the world we are living in. Postmodernism, in a way, offers different ideological and social impacts, implications and meanings in different parts of the world and in different ideological and theoretical areas.12 Today, the postmodernists’ worldview is unlike the past because of society’s fast pace of life and pluralistic environment. Under the premise of “choice and replacement,” postmodern social groups naturally feel that the ideas of old traditional morals and ethics are out of date. Like modernism, trends in postmodernism can be hostile to traditional ethical values.13 These values directly oppose traditional virtues, especially in terms of family values. Therefore, it is not surprising that the position of postmodern societies in China (especially in urban settings) will be increasingly more liberal, just like what can be seen happening in some countries of Europe and North America where legalization of euthanasia, prostitution, drugs, homosexual marriages, co-habitation and sex before marriage are common. It is not surprising that the rights of minorities, such as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) will be more widely accepted and are championed over the rights of the majority.

The Infiltration of New Age and Postmodern Spirituality.

One of postmodernism’s features is the emphasis on the individual’s intuitive, subjective heart rather than the traditional objective, rational mindset of values or worldview. Such a scenario gives room for the infiltration of New Age spirituality which may in fact be a modern incarnation of classical pantheism. The message of the New Age is appealing since it is primarily egocentric and promotes self-esteem, even to a point that the human individual is seen as divine.14

Postmodernists have abandoned the idea of permanency and all things are inducted as First Principle, Absolute Idea, a priori and ultimate value. Against such a post-modern background, New Age spirituality seems to provide a unique resolution. “Holistic” is an important concept of postmodernism and the New Age movement links “holistic” and “monism” together.15 No wonder Arild Romarheim considers New Age thinking as “a syncretism of syncretisms.”16 It is a “nothing is believable yet everything is believable” concept. Its adherents do not believe in the claims of many world religious philosophies in their entirety, but accept only small parts, selecting their likes and favorable values as well as what they need to suit themselves. A small minority among them advocates for their inner conscience as truth and even consider themselves as “god.”17

In China, postmodern religions are deemed to show signs of revival and urge people to join spiritual searches which include the complete abandonment of materialism and pursuit of mysterious spiritual experiences. Some people (especially in urban settings), under various pressures, may blindly choose and follow the new religions in order to seek for alternative spiritual experiences. Consequently, postmodernists once again tread the path of ancient superstitions. Some may be urged to depart from logical reasoning before understanding spiritual matters.18

New Age religions advocate a total integrative view connecting the major world religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism) with various folk religions as one entity. They then wrap this up with modern theories catering to the desires and needs of social groups in the society. New Age religions tend to explore the spiritual world and promise people “enlightenment” and “salvation.” Their ways of spiritual exploration, which are common in ancient China, may include practices such as using crystals (to channel energy), hypnotism (looking for earlier connections), Ouija boards, psychic encounters and witchcraft. Apart from these, some people learn yoga, become vegetarians, practice Tai Chi qigong, meditate, farm, do voluntary work, are drawn into clinical counseling, run charity organizations and shops or become involved in the arts (for example, reflexology). All these, it is thought, lead to the same destination through different ways.19

In addition, the New Age movement has a tendency to seek wealthwhich is very attractive to the Chinese indeed. It has a worldwide trend that promotes the accumulation of wealth. Due to the intention of postmodernists who attempt to resolve human need issues worldwide, it will result in the popular emergence of this kind of thought system. No wonder Shirley MacLaine, one of the inspirers for “enrichment,” once indicated: “What I want to prove is that spirituality can be profitable.”20


Undoubtedly, with China’s rapid economic growth, individuals and families (especially in the urban setting) will gradually be influenced by the effects of postmodernism. Postmodernists’ emphasis on rapid change and sensuality could be founded upon a kind of uncertainty and fortuity, permissiveness and pluralistic ideology. On the one hand people hold social attitudes seeking to be participants, looking for excitement, variety, a selective nature of freedom, anomalous liberation and relative equality. On the other hand the postmodern world departs from rationality; contrarily they seek sensuality and advocate comprehensiveness and nondominance; they ask less about real essence but focus on the appearance of things. It is postulated that traditional values will gradually give way to more liberal practices, and Chinese urban residents especially will be pressured to be more inclusive in their approach. Diversity in the societal lifestyles of the Chinese, especially in aspects of the general public’s philosophical mindset, communications, culture, traditional values and even spirituality will be more prominent in the years to come.


1 Http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fredric_Jameson.

2 Important contributions came from Zhao Yiheng in London, Xu Ben and Zhang Xudong who were based in the USA (the latter had gone on to study under Jameson as a doctoral student at Duke). Http://contemporary_chinese_ culture.academic.ru/617.

3 Such as “From ‘Modernity’ to ‘Chineseness'” (Cong ‘xiandaixing’ dao ‘Zhonghuaxing’) by Zhang Fa, Zhang Yiwu and Wang Yichuan. Http://contemporary_chinese_ culture.academic.ru/617.

4 Wang Ning elaborated his postmodern criticism in the context of Chinese literature. Zhang Yiwu, on the other hand, perceives postmodernity in broadly urban popular culture for its democratic power and encourages the exploration of postmodernity in the Chinese language; however, he excludes current Western postmodern discourses in his thesis. Http://contemporary_chinese_ culture.academic.ru/617.

5 Especially in his article entitled “‘Post-Isms’ and Chinese New Conservatism” [published in the Hong Kong journal Ershiyi shiji (Twenty-First Century) 27:415].

6 Http://contemporary_chinese_ culture.academic.ru/617.

7 Charles Horner, Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context, (Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2009), p. 167.

8 Charles Horner, Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context, p. 173-174.

9 郑建生, “后现代再着魅”, 97页.

10 麦拉伦 (Brian D. McLaren), “教会大变身: 后现代教会发展新思维”, 104, 210-211页.

11 梁永泰, “新领袖 DNA” (香港: 突破出版社, 2005年再版), 39页.

12Janusz Przychodzen, Discourses of Postmodernism. Multilingual Bibliography. Part (1951-1993) (University of Massachusetts, Amherst: American Comparative Literature Association Net, 2000 http://www.umass.edu/complit/aclanet/janusz.html.

13 Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), pp. xii-xiii.

14 See David K. Clark and Norman L. Geisler, Apologetics in the New Age: A Christian Critique of Pantheism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), p. 223.

15 参 郑建生, “后现代再着魅”, 96页.

16 Arild Romarheim, The Aquarian Christ (Hong Kong: Good Tidings Ltd., 1992).

17 参 郑建生, “水晶、轮迥、外星、通灵” (香港: 卓越书楼, 1995), 147页; 郑建生, “后现代再着魅”, 69-70页.

18 Http://www.xenos.org/ministries/crossroads/dotrel.htm.

19 参郑建生, “后现代再着魅”, 135页.

20 郑建生, “后现代再着魅”, 31页.

Image Credit: Joann Pittman

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Jason Lim

Jason Lim

Jason Lim, PhD, is the principal of Malaysia Bible Seminary.        View Full Bio