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Souvce TIe Anevican HislovicaI Beviev, VoI. 116, No. 3 |June 2011), pp. 638-652
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AHR Forum
Modernity: The Sphinx and the Historian
riod in history to a sphinx whose riddle is resolved, and posed again, at moments of
social transformation. Heinrich Heine (17971856) later famously paraphrased Bal-
lanche, declaring that every epoch is a sphinx that plunges into the abyss as soon
as its riddle has been solved.
It is no coincidence that this image was coined by two
romantic skeptics at a moment when modernitys march through Europe, and the
world, seemed more assured than ever.
The image of a sphinx with a riddle is an
apt one for modernity, particularly when historians of areas other than Europe come
to this period, which, no matter how theoretically sophisticated we try to be, always
exudes a hint of exceptionalism or specialness. The mythical sphinx from Thebes
used to ask travelers a riddle whose answer, as we eventually learned from Oedipus,
was about periodizationabout the ages of man. The sphinx devoured all those who
got the answer wrong. Thus Ballanche is inspiring and perhaps cautionary. He was
deeply concerned with questions pertaining to global historical times (the ages of
man as opposed to divine times), the coming into being of periods and epochs,
and the differences between them. Moreover, he was concerned with the transition
from a static to a dynamic world view and with the role of historical awareness in
this transition.
This perception of dynamism has implications for historians of mo-
dernity as well.
Modernity appeared to non-Europeans, and historians of non-Europe, as a sort
of sphinx. But unlike the sphinx in the myth, which simply posed a question, mo-
dernity seems to have solved its own riddle about the ages of humankind and then
imposed the answer on history. Moreover, modernity presented historians of areas
outside Europe with a new riddle, what Frederick Cooper identies as modernitys
powerful claim to singularity.
As is well known, this singularity relates to both the
I am indebted to Christopher Owles, Joanna Waley-Cohen, and Zvi H. Schiffrin for their comments and
encouragement on the rst draft of this essay. I wish to thank Ethan Kleinberg for most appreciated
criticisms on the nal draft. I owe a debt of gratitude to the three anonymous readers for the AHR and
to its editors for their comments, criticisms, and encouragements throughout.
On Ballanche, see Arthur McCalla, A Romantic Historiosophy: The Philosophy of History of Pierre-
Simon Ballanche (Leiden, 1998), 331; for Heines paraphrasing, see ibid., n. 46.
On Heine as Romanticist and modernity, see Michael Lowy and Robert Sayre, Romanticismagainst
the Tide of Modernity (Durham, N.C., 2001), 7576.
See McCalla, A Romantic Historiosophy, 1, and see also 173205, 250318.
Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley, Calif., 2005),
space that is Europe and the time that is modern: modernity. In other words,
the claim to singularity delimiting European modernity consists in its being an era
that marks a distinct and discontinuous period of human history etched out by the
transformations of the past two hundred years.
One should add that this singular modernity is doubly articulated, or Janus-faced.
One of its sides claimed an unprecedented and uniquely European move forward,
while the other told a story about the rest of the world not moving, or sometimes
moving in the opposite direction. For historians, at least, this view makes questions
of time and periodization most crucial, because the denition of modernity as a
distinct periodthe periodin world history redenes other periods and other times
as well. In other words, the riddle that modernity poses about the ages of man is not
only how this period came to be viewed as purportedly progressive and dynamic, but
also how the other times came to be dened as static and regressive. Within this
framework, the theme of progress is well known, although it is always thought
through and explained tautologically and self-referentially. So one still has to answer
a concomitant question: What does it mean to say that one is degenerate or re-
gressive as opposed to progressive, not at the moment when we all already know
what modernity is, but at the very rst moment when different timesEuropean
modernity and, say, Asian periods of timeencounter one another?
Simon Schaffer recently articulated an important insight concerning such ques-
tions of progress and degeneration. As he elegantly put it, European colonizers were
able to represent the current occupants of the [colonized] territory as decadent,
utterly decadent, when it came to the original form of their own cultural achieve-
ments. In other words, the civilizations and cultures that European modernity en-
countered were seen to represent backward or degenerate forms of those cultures
own original moment, and not just vis-a`-vis Europe itself. As a historian of science,
Schaffer was interested in the encounter of Indian mathematical knowledge and
Newtonian astronomy in India during the late eighteenth century, the formative
phase of British imperialism in India and a time when British scientists on the
Ganges sought to represent imperial dominance . . . as a form of return to the
colonized cultures original condition.
In other words, the colonizers insistence on
returning to an original condition produced the notion that Indian scienceread
also, Indian society and historyhad somehow degenerated or become static. This
sad truth is supposedly revealed only at, and through, the moment of encounter with
European modernity on the Ganges. That is, the colonial context, in which the col-
onizer arrives in (returns to) the land of the colonized, is what makes possible the
elaboration of this theory both of degeneracy and of return to an imagined, lost,
so-called purer state.
A historian with a sensitive stethoscope could already hear faint traces of eigh-
Roger Friedland and Deirdre Boden, NowHere: An Introduction to Space, Time and Modernity,
in Friedland and Boden, eds., NowHere: Space, Time and Modernity (Berkeley, Calif., 1994), 2. Also cited
in Cooper, Colonialism in Question, 122; here Cooper critically treats the idea of modernity as discon-
Simon Schaffer, Newton on the Ganges: Asiatic Enlightenment of British Astronomy, Harry
Camp Memorial Lecture, Stanford Humanities Center, Stanford University, January 16, 2008,
Modernity 639
teenth-century argumentation about return and encounter with a degenerate cul-
ture in earlier Jesuit claims about Confucianism and Chinese religion in general.
Such claims were made in a context that was not properly colonial but that still
involved an encounter between Europeans and non-European Others during the
time that we now call the early modern period. Seeking ways to legitimate the Chris-
tian missionary project in China, Father Matteo Ricci (15521610) was among those
who claimed that the teachings of the great Chinese sage Confucius (551479 B.C.E.)
were originally compatible with Christianity. The problem, he contended, was that
they were subsequently corrupted by Song Neo-Confucian thinkers who were
steeped in Buddhist ideas.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that in the late sixteenth
century we see religion playing the same role that science does in the eighteenth as
the index of the stage of development of non-Western civilizations and societies.
Sixteenth-century European world-historical discourses tended to classify the var-
ious civilizations they encountered mainly through observations of their religious
ALREADY IN HIS EARLY WRITINGS, Ricci developed the ideawhich he communicated
to a European readershipthat the original (he called it primitive) form of Chi-
nese religion was pure enough and not inferior in comparison to Greek and Roman
Greek and Roman religions were taken as precursors to Christianity.
Only at some later point, ran the Jesuit argument, did Chinese religion become
corrupted, and even though the ancient Chinese knew God, a process of degen-
eration occurred and that knowledge of the divine was lost. Later on, since the Jesuits
were keen on preventing the Chinese emperors from thinking about Christianity as
an entirely foreign religion, the idea that the Chinese actually had known God but
had somehow forgotten about him became the standard argument. The French
Jesuit writer Charles Le Gobien (16531708), who collected notices and information
from missionaries all over the world, summarized things thus: China preserved
knowledge of the true God for more than two thousand years, and it became idol-
atrous only ve or six centuries before the birth of Christ.
The argument was
This is not to say that the Jesuits invented Confucianism. For a comprehensive treatment of the
Jesuit mission in China, see Liam Matthew Brockey, Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China,
15791724 (Cambridge, 2007); the comment on Confucianism is from 106. On Ricci and Buddhism, see
R. Po-chia Hsia, A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci, 15521610 (Oxford, 2010), 135136.
See the quintessential example of Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimage; or, Relations of the
World and the Religions Observed in All Ages (London, 1613). On that particular point, see also Zvi
Ben-Dor Benite, Religions and World History, in Jerry H. Bentley, ed., The Oxford Handbook of World
History (Oxford, 2011), 210214.
Matteo Ricci, Primitiva religione della Cina abbastanza pura e non inferiore a quella Romani,
in Pasquale M. dElia, ed., Fonti ricciane: Documenti originali concernenti Matteo Ricci e la storia delle
prime relazioni tra lEuropa e la Cina (15791615) (Rome, 1942), vol. 1: Storia dellintroduzione del cris-
tianesimo in Cina, 108.
Of course, the connection between Greco-Roman religion and ancient Chinese religion seems
uncanny. But Riccis equation of the two is an interesting epitome of the ambivalence he must have felt
about what he thought Chinese religion wasan ambivalence that was later shared by many Europeans
and that is similar to the attitude Christians have had toward Greco-Roman religion, a relationship of
apology and attack. On this relationship, see Luke Timothy Johnson, Among the Gentiles: Greco-
Roman Religion and Christianity (New Haven, Conn., 2009).
Charles Le Gobien, La Chine a conserve plus de deux mille ans la connoissance du vray Dieu,
640 Zvi Ben-Dor Benite
intended not only for a Chinese audience, but in fact mostly for Europeans. In Eu-
rope, the Jesuits were struggling to justify their policy of accommodating certain
Chinese rites as part of their conversion project. This effort necessitated that those
Chinese practices be tied somehow to Christianity or to its precursors. Louis Le
Comte (16551728), a member of the rst French Jesuit mission to China, boasted
that the ancient Chinese had sacriced to the creator in the most ancient temple
in the Universe.
In a long letter concerning the ancient and modern Chinese
religions, he declared that China, for two thousand years, had the knowledge of the
true God, and had practiced the most pure morality; while Europe and almost all
the world wallowed in error and corruption.
He explained that Chinese knowl-
edge of God had suffered a gradual [peu a` peu] degeneration from its original
In other words, the modern Chinese religion was not only a degenerated
version of its own original form; it was also the opposite of European (modern)
religion. China and Europe had in effect moved in opposite directions: Europe from
a corrupted past to a shining modernity, China from an ideal past to a degenerated
The coming of Christianity to China with the Jesuits was thus presented as a
return, and the Christianizing of China was consequently in part a project of res-
toration, of returning China to its original momentwhen the Chinese had actually
& elle nest devenue idola tre que cinq ou six cens ans avant la naissance de Jesus Christ, in Le Gobien,
Nouveaux me moires sur le tat pre sent de la Chine: Tome troisie `me contenant lhistoire de le dit de lempereur
de la Chine en faveur de la religion chre tienne, avec un e claircissement sur les honneurs que les Chinois
rendent a` Confucius & aux morts (Paris, 1698), 104. Le Gobien also produced the story in a single smaller
volume: Histoire de le dit de lempereur de la Chine, en faveur de la religion chrestienne: Avec un e clair-
cissement sur les honneurs que les Chinois rendent a` Confucius & aux morts (Paris, 1698). This little history
was quickly translated into several European languages. See Carlo Giacinto Ferrero, trans., Istoria
delleditto dellimperatore della Cina: Collaggiunta dalcune notizie intorno gli honori, che i Cinesi rendono
a` Confusio, & a` defonti (Torino, 1699). Of course, the story about Chinas knowledge of God raised
not only the question of why it lost this knowledge but also the question of when. Le Gobien claims,
for no clear or evident reason, that the Chinese knew God for two thousand years and that the
corruption of Chinese religion occurred sometime during the 6th or 5th centuries before the birth
of Christ. Le Gobien is effectively offering a new periodization of Chinese history. And it seems that
this periodization is deliberate. It implies that the period of Chinese ignorance also lasts for two
thousand years and ends with the arrival of the rst Jesuits in China in the late sixteenth century. The
notion of two thousand years is a central time unit in Christian (and Jewish) theological conceptions
of human history. For instance, two thousand years passed between the revelation to Abraham and the
Crucixion, and two thousand years should pass between the resurrection of Jesus and his Second Com-
ing. Thus, the coming of the Society of Jesus to China marks the end of a two-thousand-year unit and
could be seen, implicitly, as part of a divine plan of sorts designed specically to restore knowledge
of God in China. Le Gobien, Nouveaux me moires sur le tat pre sent de la Chine, 104.
le plus ancien temple de lunivers; Louis Le Comte, De la religion ancienne & moderne des
Chinois, in Le Comte, Nouveaux me moires sur le tat pre sent de la Chine, 2 vols. (Paris, 1696), 2: 135.
Ibid., 147. Le Comtes whole book was widely circulated in Europe. See Louis Le Comte, Memoirs
and Observations Topographical, Physical, Mathematical, Mechanical, Natural, Civil, and Ecclesiastical:
Made in a Late Journey through the Empire of China, and Published in Several Letters; Particularly upon
the Chinese Pottery and Varnishing; the Silk and Other Manufactures; the Pearl Fishing; the History of Plants
and Animals. Description of Their Cities and Publick Works; Number of People, Their Language, Manners
and Commerce . . . The Philosophy of Confucius. The State of Christianity, with Many Other Curious and
Useful Remarks (London, 1697).
I am using David Mungellos translation of this phrase; Mungello, Curious Land: Jesuit Accom-
modation and the Origins of Sinology (Honolulu, 1989), 337. Le Comtes original wording spoke of the
corruption of Chinese religious practices: La connoisance du vray Dieu avoit dure plusieurs siecles
. . . ne se conserva pas toujours dans cette premiere purete . . . & les murs devinrent . . . corrompues;
De la religion ancienne & moderne des Chinois, 148.
Modernity 641
known (the Western) God. This was part of a broader debate about the lost Chinese
past, thought to have existed before degeneration, and ostensibly equal or similar
to the current state of religion in Europe. Along with the idea that Chinese religion
at the time of encounter with the Jesuits represented a corrupted version of its orig-
inal form, the seed may have been planted for later Eurocentric tales about back-
wardness, degeneration, decay, and decline.
From very early on, evidently, the historical template within which European
modernity was to be written by later historians was framed not only as a powerful
argument about modernitys own greatness as a singular European period, but also
as an argument about the degeneracy of other times and placesa claim that later
became an assertion that non-European societies were not moving forward. As the
cases of British astronomers on the Ganges River and Jesuit missionaries in the
Forbidden City suggest, a tendency to intervene in the periodizations of other his-
tories existed from the outset. And this tendency clearly went hand in hand with the
Europeans advent to other territories, which is to say, their intrusion on other his-
tories. This is key, for it further helps us understand why European ideologies and
structures of modernity were later so powerful among historians who struggled with
the subject. To be a modern historian meant working with the concepts of history
and time, which were decidedly European even if they also seemed to t with or
belong to non-European histories. Reacting to the current age of globalization, Tim-
othy Brook seems to be touching precisely on this point when he calls, albeit from
a different angle, for using an alternative conception of time in writing histories
of globalization that are not structured mainly as the narrative of Europes ex-
pansion around the globe.
Expansion around the globe brought new geographies, to be sure, but also chang-
ing conceptions of historical time. European modernity identied and classied ear-
lier periods all the way back to pre-historical times, and made all other places and
histories appear backward.
So powerful and all-encompassing was this argument
that when Shak b Arslan (18691946), a prominent Arab Muslim intellectual,
framed the question of Islamic modernity in the 1930s, he asked not one but two
questions: Why have the Muslims become backward, and why have others [the
West] moved forward? Arslan was echoing questions asked throughout Asia and
In its Jesuit incarnation, this argument is structurally similar to what Christians have been saying
about Judaism for centuries. Indeed, the origins of Schaffers insight, as he is careful to note in his
lecture, are also theological. Schaffer cites Colin Kidd, who has shown that early British orientalists in
India sought not to establish Indian otherness, but its degenerate afliation with the British within the
universal Noachid family of nations; Kidd, British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nation-
hood in the Atlantic World, 16001800 (Cambridge, 1999), 56. With regard to the (earlier) Chinese case,
Le Comte was explicit about the issue of common ancestry, claiming that the original Chinese religion
was closely connected to the Noachid origins of the founders of the Chinese empire; Nouveaux me -
moires sur le tat pre sent de la Chine, 133134. According to this argument, the modern Chinese religion
that the Jesuits encountered in China in the sixteenth century was a degenerate form of a Noachid
religion that had once existed there. Similar arguments about cultures elsewhere in the world spoke of
degenerate forms of the religion practiced by the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. See, for instance, the case
of the natives of the Canary Islands, the rst people to be encountered, in Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, The
Ten Lost Tribes: A World History (Oxford, 2009), 157161.
Timothy Brook, Time and Global History, Globalizations 6, no. 3 (2009): 379387.
Donald R. Kelley, The Rise of Prehistory, Journal of World History 14, no. 1 (2003): 1736.
642 Zvi Ben-Dor Benite
In the case of Confucianism, taken as a body of knowledge and a set of
values as well as the basis for the Chinese education system, things were grimmer
still: at the beginning of the twentieth century, it experienced a scriptural collapse
and was, for a long while, blamed almost exclusively for Chinas alleged backward-
ness. Modernizing Chinese intellectuals sought solutions elsewhere.
It seemed that
Confucianism was not t for modern times. It is no wonder that the history of the
Modern Fate, as he called it, of Confucian China by the great historian Joseph
R. Levenson (19201969) was written as a tragedy.
Again, modernity was seen as
singular twice over: both because it was European and because, as opposed to other
civilizations and cultures, it was in tune with world-historical time.
And so, like the sphinx from Thebes in the old Greek myth, this twice-singular
modernity seems to have strangled and devoured all other times. More concretely
for the historian, this means that Europe became the point of origin even for non-
European history, and other civilizations were cast outside history or lost it alto-
gether. It is small wonder, for instance, that G. W. F. Hegel described oriental
empires as belonging to mere space and therefore being without time.
For Karl
Marx, on the other hand, China was a giant empire . . . vegetating in the teeth of
It seems apt to ask, in whose time was China vegetating?
It is clear that non-European times had been lost by the time of Hegel and Marx.
For the twentieth-century historian, those lost times became an object to be sought.
Discussing the search for modern times in Chinaan oft-heard phrase among
Chinese historians until very recentlyR. Bin Wong asserts that since the late nine-
teenth century, it has become difcult to consider Chinese history without being
inuenced, consciously or unconsciously, by European history. Moreover, even
when no mention is made of European history, general theoretical ideas about what
to expect in a Chinese historical situation usually owe their empirical base to some
European experiences.
Ottoman historian Huri I

slamog lu, speaking of consti-

tuting modernity in the East and West, writes in a similar fashion about a European
self-understanding of social reality . . . [that] has pervaded vocabularies of European
domination over non-European areas since the nineteenth century.
Historians of
the rest, it seems, could not give a better answer to the sphinxs riddle about the
ages of humankind. Worse still, contend I

slamog lu and Peter C. Perdue, time outside

of Europe was depicted as having halted:
Shak b Arslan, Li-ma dha takhkhara al-Muslimu n wa-lima dha taqaddama ghayruhum (Misr
[Cairo], 1933).
Mark Elvin, The Collapse of Scriptural Confucianism, Papers on Far Eastern History 41 (1990):
4573. Elvin discusses Confucianism in this context in comparison with other scriptural traditions as well.
But see also Wang Hui, The Fate of Mr. Science in China: The Concept of Science and Its Application
in Modern Chinese Thought, Positions 3, no. 1 (1995): 168.
Joseph R. Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: A Trilogy (Berkeley, Calif., 1972).
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History (New York, 2007), 107. See also Brook,
Time and Global History, 382. Elsewhere in his Philosophy, Hegel makes a clear reference to the myth
of the sphinx, referring to Asia as the Childhood of History (107).
Karl Marx, Trade or Opium? in Marx, Marx on China, 18531860: Articles from the New York
Daily Tribune (London, 1951), 55. See also Brook, Time and Global History, 382.
R. Bin Wong, Great Expectations: The Public Sphere and the Search for Modern Times in
Chinese History, Chugokushi gakku [Studies in Chinese History] 3 (1993): 7.
Huri I

slamog lu, Towards a Political Economy of Legal and Administrative Constitutions of In-
dividual Property, in I

slamog lu, ed., Constituting Modernity: Private Property in the East and West (Lon-
don, 2004), 7.
Modernity 643
Historians have held despotic states or disabling belief systemsConfucian or Islamicre-
sponsible for the backwardness of the East. This high drama of pitting absences and presences
against each other has achieved two interrelated objectives: it has legitimated European dom-
ination over non-European areas and it has reconstructed Europe, or the West, and non-
Europe, or the East, as homogeneous, ahistorical, hypostatised entities.
The sphinx, it seems, not only gulped down the East, it has devoured Europe as well.
Not surprisingly, historians of different regions have similar concerns. Precisely
because the self-evidence of modernitys singularity is taken as manifest in the pur-
ported degeneration of non-European histories, no meaningful discussion of mo-
dernity can be limited to just one region. Many of the same problems created by
modernitys claim to singularity are posed by historians of different regions, and are
the subject of a fruitful conversation among historians. Evidently, at least in the case
of Asia, the notion of singularity is the most enduring enigma that European mo-
dernity has posed to historians. In the not too distant past, historians of China
worked hard to identify elements of European modernity in the Chinese experience
and historical trajectory. This search came with the waning of the notion that Chinese
modernity was the (awed) product of a modernization project that was forced or
triggered by the rise of the West. The dominant assumption of that earlier phase
implied that there was only one modernity and only one road to it. Everybody else
was measured and evaluated according to their distance from that road or their place
along it.
Despite obvious differences in their historical experiences and in the ways
in which they encountered Europe, the historiographic treatment of other Asian
polities, such as the Ottoman and Mughal empires, was not dissimilar to that ac-
corded the Chinese.
The later effort to identify landmarks on the European road to modernity, how-
ever, was different in nature. For those of us who were studying for Ph.D. exams in
Chinese history during the mid- to late 1990s, this endeavor inevitably involved plow-
ing through numerous then-recent studies struggling with the question of the ex-
istence (or absence) of, for instance, a public sphere, civil society, capitalism, in-
cipient capitalism, or rational law in Chinese history.
All of these, to be crude,
were shorthand elementsgments, as Frederic Wakeman would call themof
modernity as it had been articulated over the years, pulled out from their original
birthplace and now cast like a template onto the study of the Chinese past.
is tempted to equate the search for these gments of modernity with the earlier
search for Chinas monotheist past, symbolized best in Le Comtes temple, where
the Chinese supposedly worshipped the Western creator.) To varying degrees still
carried out under the yoke of Europe-based paradigms about modernity, these stud-
Huri I

slamog lu and Peter C. Perdue, Introduction, in I

slamog lu and Perdue, eds., Shared His-

tories of Modernity: China, India and the Ottoman Empire (New Delhi, 2009), 120.
For a contemporary criticism of the response paradigm, see Paul A. Cohen, Discovering History
in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past (New York, 1984), 956.
See I

slamog lu and Perdue, Introduction.

For a critical summary and analysis of a variety of such works, see Wong, Great Expectations,
750. For another critique, see Frederic Wakeman, Jr., Civil Society in Late Imperial and Modern
China, in Frederic Wakeman, Jr., and Wang Xi, eds., Chinas Quest for Modernization: A Historical
Perspective (Berkeley, Calif., 1997), 325371; reprinted in Frederic E. Wakeman, Jr., and Lea H. Wake-
man, Telling Chinese History: A Selection of Essays (Berkeley, Calif., 2009), 333358.
Wakeman, Civil Society in Late Imperial and Modern China, 353.
644 Zvi Ben-Dor Benite
ies of the Chinese past were not unrelated to Chinas contemporary present. Of-
tentimes they were intimately inspired, sometimes deeply informed and shaped, by
contemporary uncertainties about the prospects of Chinas various twentieth-cen-
tury modernization projects. And in a manner that often reected the fates of such
projects, these studies represented shifts, twists, and reversals in the direction of the
perception and historiography of modern China.
Chinese modernizations and their
discontents aside, the crucial inspiration for such studies was the European trajectory
toward modernity, no matter how, and by whom, it was dened. European moder-
nityan idealized form of it, to be surestill served as the crucible and clearing-
house for structures, institutions, and concepts that were sought, tested, and ex-
amined elsewhere.
AT SOME POINT NOT TOO LONG AGO, these efforts dead-ended, because of either the-
oretical exhaustion or empirical fatigue resulting from the inability to produce a
sufciently European instance of modernity within an Asian historical experience.
These were indeed, to quote R. Bin Wong, great expectations. These expectations
remind us, in a way, of the Jesuit effort to identify traces of Chinas religious past,
a past that ts European trajectories to Christianity. But we cannot simply dismiss
these histories as the product of historians who were consciously, or worse still un-
consciously, inuenced by the European historical experience and the hegemony of
its historiographic paradigms. The effort to locate at least parts of the European road
to modernity within Asian trajectories produced a wealth of data that otherwise
might have been overlooked. Since these studies were already focusing on Asian
experiences in order to locate modernity in Asia, they paved the way for thinking
about Chinese modernity, and thus the concept of modernity as something not re-
ducible to the European experience, in truly independent terms. At the same time,
the conscious effort to locate elements of European modernity within the Chinese
historical experience was effectively its undoing. This undoing was crucial, for it
dismantled both the chronological and the internal integrity of European modernity
itself. No longer do historians feel impelled to look for all the elements or features
that constitute modernity as a specic time correlating with European periodization.
In this regard, one must recognize that modernity, even as a awed category, has
been usefulor at least has served as a sort of historiographical agitatorin pro-
pelling historians to write meaningful non-European histories.
The current phase of Chinese historiography seems to be successfully redening
both modernity and the road to it on Asian terms. In the Chinese case, Philip Kuhn,
a noted historian whose career stretches over several decadesan important re-
minder that this shift is not necessarily generationalis able to state unequivocally:
the character of Chinas modern state has been shaped decisively by the ow of its
internal history.
The idea of an internal ow in Chinese history resonates also in
the words of Wang Hui, perhaps the most celebrated of Chinese intellectuals today,
For a critical assessment of the link between Chinas modernizations, modernization paradigms,
and Chinese historiography, see Arif Dirlik, Reversals, Ironies, Hegemonies: Notes on the Contem-
porary Historiography of Modern China, Modern China 22, no. 3 (1996): 243284.
Philip A. Kuhn, Origins of the Modern Chinese State (Stanford, Calif., 2002), 1.
Modernity 645
who uses the term neibu fazhan lun (inner development theory) to characterize the
recent Chinese historiography of modern China. Wang also points out that even the
switch in usage from modernization to modernity in historiographical discourse
about China is linked to this reorientation inward. From this perspective, modern-
ization may be somebody elses project, but modernity suddenly sounds like it is
With regard to signicant changes in language, moreover, instead of
searching for modernity in China, historians have begun talking about discov-
ering ita change that implies a much less prescribed image of the historians work.
Wang himself is the author of a huge opus, The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought
(Xiandai Zhongguo sixiang de xingqi, 2004), in which he seeks, among many other
things, to restore the centrality of Confucian thinking not only to the history of mod-
ern Chinese thought, but also to its present and future. In this ambitious work, in
which the author corresponds intensively with Western thought without reducing it
to a mere scarecrow, Confucianism emerges as vibrant and very much alive through-
out history and as having great promise for the present and future of China as well,
particularly concerning the politico-ethical realm of life. On the occasion of the
books second printing, its author was able to boast that Modern China emerged
before its encounter with the West.
One could ponder the temporal aspect of this statement: modernity having suc-
cessfully been unpacked, the phrase before its encounter with the West still implies
the perception of a strong link between modernity and the West, as if the mere
presence of Westerners in China already sets the country on a qualitatively different
trajectory. (The aforementioned Le Gobien would agree.) Nevertheless, there is no
doubt that a great deal has been achieved in discovering a history of modernity
in China. For instance, contemporary Qing historiography has emerged as one of the
most promising elds in dening, identifying, and establishing Chinese modernity.
Because of this shift, not only has pre-nineteenth-century Qing China been released
from the shackles of stagnation, decline, decay, and involution, it has also been
brought to the fore as a potent and active polity, economy, culture, and civilization.
We now see a China that marches west and plays an active role in global history,
a China that is expanding its economy, working to perfect its control over territories
and people, and undergoing important transformations in the ways in which knowl-
edge is produced, preserved, and transmitted within its boundaries. When it comes
to certain aspects of these key issues, this Qing state looks far better than its suc-
cessors who are modern in name only.
For decades the eld was tormented by
Wang Hui, Modernity and Asia in the Study of Chinese History, in Eckhardt Fuchs and
Benedikt Stuchtey, eds., Across Cultural Borders: Historiography in Global Perspective (Lanham, Md.,
2002), 309333, citation from 309310.
Wang Hui, Xiandai Zhongguo sixiang de xingqi [The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought], 2 vols.
(Beijing, 2004); Wang, Modern China Emerged before Its Encounter with the West, New Perspectives
Quarterly 25, no. 4 (2008): 1015. For a lengthy review of Wangs book, see Wang Ban, Discovering
Enlightenment in Chinese History: The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, by Wang Hui, Boundary 2 34,
no. 2 (2007): 217238.
The literature pertaining to this is expanding rapidly and could not be adequately represented here.
See, for example, Peter C. Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cam-
bridge, 2005); Madeleine Zelin, The Merchants of Zigong: Industrial Entrepreneurship in Early Modern
China (New York, 2005). See also Laura Hostetler, Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartog-
raphy in Early Modern China (Chicago, 2001); Michael G. Chang, A Court on Horseback: Imperial Touring
and the Construction of Qing Rule, 16801785 (Cambridge, Mass., 2007); and Pamela Kyle Crossley,
646 Zvi Ben-Dor Benite
debates about the absence of a capitalist breakthrough, which supposedly had left
China behind Europe; that controversy has now been replaced by a discourse
about a great divergence. The Chinese economy did not stay behind the Eu-
ropean (that is, British) economy after a transition to capitalism occurred during
European early modernity. Rather, it was actually on equal terms with Europe until
the late eighteenth century.
In other words, thinking about divergence replaces talk
about moving forward or falling behind or stagnating. The main point here is not
only to see Chinese economic history in a different light. More importantly, such
interventions help us rethink the parameters of the global conversation among his-
torians about economic history.
Shak b Arslans questionwhy some became
backward while others forged aheadcan now be rephrased, using the language of
divergence, perhaps.
Even the touchy issue of science in China, an area where Western dominance,
presence, and penetrationmainly through technologyseemed to be the most de-
cisive, is now written as a history of how the Chinese engaged science on their own
terms. (After all, until recently we were still struggling with the absence of a sci-
entic revolution in Chinese history and blaming it, in part, on Confucianism.)
Interestingly enough, this releasing of Chinese history from the Eurocentric nar-
rative of modernity has been accompanied by an equally dramatic escape from Si-
nocentric modes of thinking about Chinese history. In this specic regard, Chinese
modernity is now also seen as being characterized by a complex set of transforma-
tions in which different trajectories were taken by different peoples and groups
within the Chinese world.
This point is key, for escaping Sinocentrism not only allows us to see multiple
strands within Chinese modernity, but it also sets the stage for conversation with
historians of other regions, most notably India and the Ottoman Empire.
Since the
late 1990s, we have seen a proliferation of modernities. The term multiple mo-
dernities is heard with increasing frequency, and is even used by former leading
champions of modernization theory.
As the conversation between historians goes
Helen F. Siu, and Donald S. Sutton, eds., Empire at the Margins: Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early
Modern China (Berkeley, Calif., 2006). A signicant part of this literature belongs in the New Qing
History, on which see Joanna Waley-Cohen, The New Qing History, Radical History Review 88, no.
1 (2004): 193206.
Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World
(Princeton, N.J., 2000).
It is impossible to cite all reviews and debates that illustrate this point here. One should begin by
plunging into the heated debate in the Journal of Asian Studies in 20002002.
Benjamin A. Elman, On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 15501900 (Cambridge, Mass., 2005).
See Evelyn S. Rawski, The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions (Berkeley,
Calif., 1998); Pamela Kyle Crossley, A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology
(Berkeley, Calif., 1999); Mark C. Elliott, The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late
Imperial China (Stanford, Calif., 2001). For a non-ruling group, see Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, The Dao of
Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China (Cambridge, Mass., 2005).
See Huri I

slamog lu, Modernities Compared: State Transformations and Constitutions of Prop-

erty in the Qing and Ottoman Empires, Journal of Early Modern History 5, no. 4 (2001): 353386. Among
the rst events, I believe, were the Shared Histories of Modernity workshops: State Transformations
in Chinese and Ottoman Contexts, Seventeenth through Nineteenth Centuries (New York University,
1999) and Law and Administration in 19th Century China and the Ottoman Empire (Sanbac Uni-
versity, Istanbul, 2000).
S. N. Eisenstadt, Multiple Modernities, Daedalus 129, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 129.
Modernity 647
on, we read, for instance, about shared Histories of modernity; about constituting
modernity . . . in the East and West; about a complex of early modern Eurasian
empires; about lost modernities.
In some cases, earlier work is brought back into
the conversation and reread in a new light. For instance, Wang Hui has drawn at-
tention back to the studies of early-twentieth-century Japanese historians such as
Konan Naito of the Kyoto School of Sinology, who saw commercialization and ur-
banization, and particularly the rise of gentry to prominent roles in society, as early
forms of East Asian modernity.
Alexander Woodside provided a recent echo of this
argument in his discussion of East Asian bureaucracies (mandrinates) in China, Viet-
nam, and Korea. He argues that the rationalization processes we think of as mod-
ern are more manifold than is often assumed. They may occur independently of one
another, as a multiplicity of developments, in some instances quite separately from
such obvious landmarks as the growth of capitalism or industrialization.
In short,
the critique of singular Eurocentric histories of modernity and the historiographic
effort to pluralize modernity allow us to see non-European modernities.
But by multiplying modernities, we of course run the risk of emptying the term
of any concrete meaning. As Cooper bluntly puts it, the concept of modernity, mul-
tiplied, therefore runs the gamut, from a singular narrative . . . to a word for ev-
erything that has happened in the last ve hundred years.
Furthermore, it is not
enough to pluralize modernities. One still has to discuss their actual content in mean-
ingful terms, and it is this endeavor that exposes the limits and problems of this
project. The biggest obstacle, it seems, is the simple fact that one cannot think about
modernity without having European modernity somewhere in the frame of inquiry.
In the case of Confucianism, for instance, it is important to distinguish between the
return of Confucianismhowever denedin contemporary Chinese society and
politics, and the historiographical return to Confucianism as the main vehicle in the
history of Chinese modernity.
Neither is without problems. With regard to the former, Daniel Bell and Michael
Walzer recently debated the meaning of the revival of Confucianism in China
today and the possibility of left Confucianisma sort of socialist Confucianism
that might be more applicable to China than is another candidate, liberal Confu-
cianism. Bell, an ethicist and political theorist at Tsinghua University, based his
argument for the possibility of left Confucianism on the fact that political surveys
show that attachment to Confucian values has increased with modernization, and
that an increasing number of critical intellectuals are turning to Confucianism to
think of ways of dealing with Chinas current social and political predicament.

slamog lu and Perdue, Shared Histories of Modernity; I

slamog lu, Constituting Modernity; Pamela

Crossley, An Early Modern Complex for the Eurasian Empires, in Edward Farmer, ed., Inscribing
Empire: Early Modern Eurasian Empires as Cultural Constructs (Cambridge, forthcoming); Alexander
Woodside, Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History (Cambridge, Mass.,
Wang, Xiandai Zhongguo sixiang de xingqi, 1: 57, and particularly 6667 and 105106 (for Song
capitalism). As Wang points out (15921594), these early-twentieth-century studies were not unrelated
to questions of Japanese modernity and modernization at the time.
Woodside, Lost Modernities, 1.
Cooper, Colonialism in Question, 127.
Daniel A. Bell, Reconciling Socialism and Confucianism? Reviving Tradition in China, Dissent
57, no. 1 (2010): 91.
648 Zvi Ben-Dor Benite
Walzer found this conclusion dubious and was quite skeptical. And as he pointed out,
Left Confucianism . . . seems heavily dependent on Western ideologiesat least as
dependent as the liberal Confucianism. He reminds us that the truth is that both
the adoption and adaptation of Western ideas in China and all over the world began
a long time ago and is already well advanced.
In short, it is impossible to discuss
both Confucianism and modernity today without the yoke of Western ideas and
ideologies hung about their shoulders.
With regard to the historians return to Confucianism as modernity in Chinese
history, Benjamin Elman observes:
Historians measure the past according to the yardstick of the present. As the present changes,
that yardstick also changes. In an earlier era, when China was visibly economically backward
and militarily weak when compared with Western European nation-states, Confucianism was
singled out and blamed for that backwardness. Now that Chinas present is far different from
its past, so also the perception of Confucianism has changed; it is now viewed as the facilitator
of modernity.
The problem for the historian seems similar to the challenge the political theorist
faces: how to locate specically non-European modernity after two hundred years
of direct and indirect Western inuence and impact. In a manner similar to Walzers
reminder about the legacy of Western ideas and ideologies in China in the recent
past, Elman contends that with respect to the period after the 1860s, that is, after
the processes of conscious Westernization in China began . . . , the historian must
make this process an object of analysis at all levels, from the intellectual to the
economic. This is so because since that moment Westernization itself [has become]
part of the fabric of the Chinese state and society. The problem arises when one
tries to employ upon earlier periods a framework suitable for analyzing historical
phenomena in Chinese history after 1860. When we do so, we wind up in a te-
leological narrative that reduces historical phenomena to something they never
were: steps to or obstacles against the transition to modernity.
It seems safe to say that the problematic that Elman identies in the Chinese
instance applies, with adjustments in dating and specics of content, to other regions
as well. This discernible turn to a model of modernities multiplied also brings new
problems and highlights other biases. Glaringly absent, for example, from the Tur-
key-India-China groupingthe Three Tenors of non-Western modernitiesis
Iran. This reminds us that, perhaps more than any other religion, Islam was labeled
as non-modern or as deeply at odds with modernity, since secularizationthe dis-
tancing of religion from public lifeis considered a vital element in the set of pro-
cesses and social changes that constitute modernity and the road to it. It is precisely
for this reason that we still see historians struggle with the place of religious Muslim
intellectuals and clergy in debates about modernity in Islamic societies.
Michael Walzer, Michael Walzer Responds, Dissent 57, no. 1 (2010): 100.
Benjamin A. Elman, The Failures of Contemporary Chinese Intellectual History, Eighteenth-
Century Studies 43, no. 3 (2010): 373.
Ibid., 374.
See Dale F. Eickelman, Clash of Cultures? Intellectuals, Their Publics, and Islam, in Ste phane
A. Dudoignon, Komatsu Hisao, and Kosugi Yasushi, eds., Intellectuals in the Modern Islamic World:
Transmission, Transformation, Communication (London, 2006), 289304. See also Eickelman, Islam
and the Languages of Modernity, Daedalus 129, no. 1 (2000): 119135.
Modernity 649
Perhaps this is also why one of the main issues in contemporary debates is the
public sphere in Islamic societies.
(Not surprisingly, in the Chinese case the pub-
lic sphere debate gained momentum right after the 1989 Tiananmen tragedy and
became a hot topic among China historians.)
In addition to the question of Islam,
which is really the question of religion writ large, recent successes in Asian histo-
riography now present more sharply the problem of meaningfully integrating his-
tories of modernity with other regionsmost notably Africa. Finally, even though
modernities are now pluralized, we still use the term modernity as it was rst
coined in Europe. As Rajit Mazumder comments, it is a debilitating contradiction
that the language in which we are conducting this conversation remains one of the
abiding legacies of the hegemonic power of the West.
Modernity seems, with at least partial success, to have been dislodged from its
European moorings, and it can now be found in multiple locations on the world
time-space continuum. Yet this raises the question of what happens to the meaning
(and value) of modernity as an analytic category for historians. If historians nd
modernities in different times and places, doesnt its meaning dissipate? And if its
meaning, through the extension of the label to other places and other times, has been
hollowed out, why write histories of modernity at all? Years of criticism of past
Eurocentric historians have made it very clear to us why they were writing the history
of modernity. But why us, and why now? The current interest in multiple modernities
has merit as consciously attempting to be part of a truly global (as opposed to Eu-
rocentric) conversation. That is to say, the various internal ows of different histories
are not discovered in isolation or only vis-a `-vis the West. Historians from around the
world are consciously bringing them together.
We should note, however, that in many other cases it is simply the current con-
ditions in China, or India, or Turkeythe rise of stable market societies, for ex-
amplethat have inspired the historiographical discussion of multiple moderni-
This shift is also, perhaps even more so, stimulated by the general historical
mood created by and around globalizationalthough this, too, can have some pos-
itive impact on our historiographic models. Timothy Brook observes that the glo-
balization of the past two decades has altered . . . our sense of history, and that
less and less are we persuaded to accept a local historical narrative as capable of
standing in for the whole.
This statement could easily be applied to the phenom-
enon of multiple modernities.
The historiographic shift to a modernity that is multiple rather than singular is
framed by, and can only be discussed within, the context of a global conversation,
and also, perhaps, a globalized one. This global conversation signals the possibility
of articulating a history of global modernitya history that pays sufcient heed to
On this issue, with particular emphasis on the subject of the public sphere and religion, see Eick-
elman, Clash of Cultures; Eickelman, Islam and the Languages of Modernity; Modjtaba Sadria,
Multiple Modernities in Muslim Societies (Geneva, 2009). For one early attempt to answer related his-
torical questions, see Aziz Al-Azmeh, Islams and Modernities (London, 2009).
Wakeman, Civil Society in Late Imperial and Modern China, 333.
Rajit K. Mazumder, When Strong Men Meet: Recruited Punjabis and Constrained Colonialism,
in I

slamog lu and Perdue, Shared Histories of Modernity, 189.

Huri I

slamog lu, Towards a Political Economy of Legal and Administrative Constitutions of In-
dividual Property, in I

slamog lu, Constituting Modernity, 334.

Brook, Time and Global History, 380.
650 Zvi Ben-Dor Benite
the role played by European modernity, but that also takes into account the many
other strands and times that existed in the past and at the same time continue to
provide us with better understandings of our present global condition. In order to
articulate a history of global modernity, we should learn to view it as the product
not only of one modernity, but of many others, tooother modernities that were lost
in the abyss over the course of the past two hundred years.
It is the historiographic
discussion about modernity that has arguably produced the most truly global con-
versation of the discipline to date. Historians from around the world are participat-
ing in it. And this, perhaps more than the truth or mistakenness of any given
notion of or model for modernity, is what has made it such a fruitful category of
Recent historiographic shifts raise new riddles even as they make the sphinx of
European modernity sink into the abyss: Is a history of global modernity possible?
Since it probably is not, of what use is the global conversation about it? One possible
answer can be found in Alexander Woodsides comment that Modernities plural-
ized . . . allow us to begin to uncover traditions of discursive rationality that the
cruder singular notion of the modern has obscured; or at least to end uses of the
singular term for the modern that merely camouage one civilizations historical
Woodside calls these traditions lost modernitiesdanger-
ously close, perhaps, to the Jesuits notion of Chinas lost God, but powerful nev-
ertheless. The frame of lostness can be a compelling one for historians: there is,
after all, nothing more sought-after than things that are dened as lost. Simon Schaf-
fers insight about the European return to original forms of knowledge in India;
Sumathi Ramaswamys wonderful insight that loss is a condition of modernity
these remind us that European modernity, at least in its early days, was at times
understood as the attempt to restore and bring back things lost: lost knowledge, lost
continents, lost peoples. Loss was and is one of the driving forces of modernity.
The real riddle, perhaps, is this: Whose is the thing that was lost and that we seek?
Developments in non-European elds suggest that, fumblingly, we are starting to
At the same time, however, we should be mindful of the fact that we as historians, no matter how
much some of us may rail against globalization, are shaped by it, tooas are our historiographic
Woodside, Lost Modernities, 9.
Sumathi Ramaswamy, The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories
(Berkeley, Calif., 2004). See also Ben-Dor Benite, The Ten Lost Tribes; Dick Teresi, Lost Discoveries:
The Ancient Roots of Modern Sciencefrom the Babylonians to the Maya (New York, 2002); Michael
Hamilton Morgan, Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists (Wash-
ington, D.C., 2007); Elizabeth McHenry, Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African Amer-
ican Literary Societies (Durham, N.C., 2002). Interestingly enough, a what went wrong book about
Islam denes it as Lost in the Sacred in a title that seems to capture all the problems with modernity
and the historian that this essay highlights: Dan Diner, Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood
Still (Princeton, N.J., 2009). At the same time, a very fresh book on early modern philosophy in India
seems to capture the promise in the idea of lost modernities: Jonardon Ganeri, The Lost Age of Reason:
Philosophy in Early Modern India, 14501700 (London, 2011). Ganeri specically situates his project
within the larger project of understanding the nature of the global origins of modernity (10).
Modernity 651
nd ways to look not for Europes past in the pasts of others, but for those others
own lost pasts.
Zvi Ben-Dor Benite is Associate Professor in the departments of History and
Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. He specializes in
Chinese, Islamic, and world history and is particularly interested in the rela-
tionship between religion and history. He is the author of The Dao of Muham-
mad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China (Harvard University
Asia Center, 2005) and The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History (Oxford University
Press, 2009). His current book in progress, Crescent China: Islam and the Nation
after Empire, will also be published by Oxford University Press.
652 Zvi Ben-Dor Benite