Alexander Woodside – Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History

Alexander Woodside – Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History

It reads like a Ph.D thesis. Despite its dry style, trendy humanities jargon, and casual disdain for neoliberalism, which he never defines, Woodside argues that there is more than one kind of modernity. He sees it as essentially a rejection of feudalism. Europe went about it one way, on a Renaissance-Scientific Revolution-Enlightenment trajectory. East Asia went about it another way, rejecting hereditary status through a merit-based examination system for government officials.

I would define the term differently–modernity comprises roughly bourgeois popular values that favor openness and innovation. These values, when combined with roughly liberal political institutions, result in the mass prosperity we see today in Europe, America, and the Asian tiger economies–and rapidly emerging today in China and India.

But within his too-narrow confines, Woodside does well. China’s examination system was, for a long time, the world’s most thorough attempt to institute a meritocracy rather than a hereditary aristocracy. It didn’t work perfectly. But the system was far more modern, at an earlier date, than any governmental system in Europe. Neighboring countries had their own variations on examinations and their own rejections of feudalism.

Just as there is more than one trajectory to modernity–Renaissance and examinations being Woodside’s two primary examples–there are significant within-system variations. For examples, Woodside turns to Vietnam and Korea’s examination systems. These were influenced by China, but evolved distinct characteristics to fit their circumstances. Other East Asian countries such as Cambodia also had their examination systems, though Woodside did not have the space to cover them in detail. All of their examination systems were vastly different than Japan, which had no examination system and maintained a strict feudal system until its own rapid embrace of modernity in the 19th century.

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