The impact of the disciplinary power of the dominant culture on the selection of symbolic signifiers that represented modern China

From Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Western society underwent a transition in its cultural mood, from an intellectual awakening to a state of self-sufficiency. However, the common need arising from economic expansion and political colo- nialization gave rise to the development of cultural modernity, facilitating what might be called the transition of cultural self-sufficiency to cultural dominance.

At one point, the post-colonialist thinker Antonio Gramsci pointed out that, with the establishment of the capitalist rule, the political reality of the Western countries would, in accordance with the characteristics each country or nation, come to attain a leadership role by gradually controlling education, culture, the art of performing and ideology.13 In other words, such a leadership is achieved not by force, but by means of cultural appeal, cultural influence and cultural assimilation. Those forces can produce a change in the fabric of the recipient’s cultural psyche, leading to a reconstruction, in the system of knowledge of the “other,” of the subjective self-consciousness.

Since the Opium War, China being long subjected to the colonial rule, its cultural subjectivity came to be seriously blurred under the influence of the dominant culture of the West. With the dominant culture’s monopoly of the mainstream discourse and the repulsion of the unprivileged culture, a series of distinct binary oppositions came into existence, the oppositions between “freedom and enslavement,” “civilization and barbarism” and “progress and decay.” Those dichotomies have in turn brought about changes in the psychic structure of the cultural subjects, imbuing the culture of the Chinese empire, which had heretofore poured scorn over all the nations other than China as “barbaric states,” with a despairing sense of self-inferiority. Since the 19th century, out of the need for breaking itself of poverty and backwardness, the Chinese culture had undergone radical development during which the Western culture, once taken as the objective and the framework of reference for China’s modernization process, had been exalted as the center which the Chinese culture endeavored to approach.14 With the dissemination of Western learning to the East over the past few centuries, the Chinese cultural subjects have become accustomed to seeking solutions from the Western discourse about China. Such a mentality produced extremely poignant disciplinary impact on the self-identity of the Chinese subjects, and, as a result, the Western discourse came to attain a kind of discourse hegemony.

Under the oppression of the Western dominant culture, many measures and practices undertaken by China in modern times seemed to have all become an echo of those of the West, in which the Western standards served as the ultimate criteria to gauge the Chinese culture. Many Chinese individuals often considered it a success if what they did could be recognized and accepted by the West. In many fields of the Chinese culture, Chinese practitioners came to accept and endorse the Western rules under the influence of the disciplinary power of the Western culture. With the increasing assertiveness of the ideological and cultural hegemony, they identified themselves so completely with the disciplinary power of the dominant culture that they willingly surrender themselves to the guidance of the more “advanced” culture. Because of this profound and lasting disciplinary power of the Western culture, both the East and the West have demonstrated surprising uniformity in choosing a multiplicity of signifiers to represent modern China. A series of pejora- tives like “decayed,” “unenlightened” and “backward” were employed in a blatant and seemingly justified manner to stand for the national image of modern China, making the country a common construct of the Western and Chinese discourse.

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