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Interview with a sexologist (about postmodernity)

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Modern Weekly (周末画报)is a Chinese tabloid-sized magazine focused on news, lifestyle, finance, and urban fashion. The latest issue is its 2006 special anniversary. It's 112 pages fat, and named 'Post-Modern Modern'.

There are two highlights of the topic, one is a series of interviews with 'post-modern intellectuals'; the other consists of article on "the city, its growth, its decay, and its future".

The interview section includes explorer Zhang Yiwu (张颐武) from Beijing University, Hong Kong cultural critic Li Oufan (李欧梵), social scholar Gu Xiaoming (顾哓鸣), sexologist Li Yinhe (李银河) and other six intellectuals.

Below is a translated excerpt from sexologist Li Yinhe's interview:

Q: What is your understanding of 'tradition', 'modern' and 'post-modern'?
A: Take the gender question for example, tradition is men first, women second (男尊女卑), modern is men and women are equal, post-modern means that the gender boundaries between men and women are ambiguous. (后现代是男女性别界限模糊化)

Q: Is China's modernization actually post-modernization in essence?
A: I don't think it is right to say China's modernization is post-modernization in essence. We can only say China's modernization has a factor of 'post-modernity'. For instance, the information industry is not the product of industrial age and the general modernization of industry. Also, the concept of environment protection is post-modern, it is not modern. However, our country has put much emphasis on it. We cannot conclude that we are post-modern only judging by some post-modern factors during our modernization.

Q: If the judgment 'post-modern modern' is reasonable, what is your understanding?

A: I don't think mixing two different concept up is a clear judgment.

Q: Is China the origin of post-modernism?
A: In my opinion, why some people think so is that Westerners think of the world in the way of dichotomy----ration and emotion, material and spirit, mind and body and etc. But the Chinese think of the world in a wholly integrated way. A typical example is the difference between traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine in clinical treatment. The western medicine analyzes and treat the organ or disease as an isolated part: if one is suffering from headache, treat the head; if one is suffering from an ache in the foot, treat the foot. But traditional Chinese medicine treats the body as a whole. This kind of thinking matches the post-modernism thinking pattern spiritually. So if you regard China as the origin of post-modernism, this may be one of the reasons.

There are currently 7 Comments for Interview with a sexologist (about postmodernity).

Comments on Interview with a sexologist (about postmodernity)

Li Yinhe has chosen her words carefully, and has avoided saying whether or not she personally considers China as the birthplace of postmodernism, so I'm not attacking her here, but the very idea that China is the birthplace of postmodernism is ridiculous. To make such a suggestion would be to reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of what postmodernism is.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that postmodernism can best be described "as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning."

I agree with this description, but as a "set" of practices, they represent, as the American Frankfurt School Marxist Fredric Jameson has so convincingly demonstrated, the cultural logic of late capitalism. By late capitalism, he means capitalism in its post-industrial stage, which is sometimes also called "information capitalism".

Now, capitalism first flowered in Europe, and it was Britain that led the way with the development of industrial capitalism. But it is probably fair to say that it was the United States that led the way with the development of a post-industrial society (and therefore with the development of a postmodern cultural logic).

Just because some of China's ancient and traditional philosophical concepts and practices are similar, if not the same as some of today's postmodern ideas, doesn't mean that postmodernism must have originated in China. Many of todays post-structuralist and post-modernist "ideas" were also expressed by past European thinkers. The ideas of the German philosopher Nietzsche, for example, inspired the post-structuralist Foucault, and have greatly influenced most of today's postmodern thinkers as well - but nobody in their right mind would try to argue that postmodernism must therefore have originated in 19th century Germany!

if anything I would say that (DPRK apart) China was one of the last places to abandon the modernist drive (grand narratives and all that). Anyway, wasn't the downfall of postmodernism the fact that anybody could read anything into anything, with the result that everything was valid and nothing was valid? A pretty fatal flaw if ever there was.

The same four questions were asked to each of the ten experts consulted by Modern Weekly. As for "Postmodernism arising from China" - the magazine cites David Couzens Hoy for that particular theory, but it's basically just a hook for them to hang their questions on.

You are right, Joel. Modern Weekly is playing the role of agenda setting.

Dear Joel,

I am familiar with David Couzens Hoy - he wrote a very well received critique of post-structuralist thought titled "Critical Resistence" and he is somewhat of an expert on postmodern studies as well, so I doubt very much that he would argue or even merely suggestion that postmodernism may have had its origins in China. I'm quite sure that he must have been either misquoted or misunderstood by the writers of Modern Weekly. You say they cite him as the source of this ridiculous idea - you wouldn't mind providing me with the details of this source would you, as I do not have access to Modern Weekly, nor am I fluent in Chinese. I would like to check the source, to see for myself just exactly what David Curzens Hoy actually wrote. Once again, I'm quite sure that he would never have made such a suggestion in the first place! Cheers!

I take your point though - the idea was used as a hook for them to hang their questions on. There's nothing wrong with that. But I think they may have misunderstood David Curzens Hoy nevertheless.

In his foreword to A Dictionary of Postmodernism (后现代主义辞典), David Couzens Hoy writes (my back-translation of the Chinese translation): "From the point of view of the Chinese, postmodernism is perhaps seen as the latest wave to enter China from the West. But from the point of view of westerners, China is frequently seen as the source of postmodernism." I don't have the original language, nor do I have access to the Dictionary to put this in context, but there it is.

The editor of the dictionary, Wang Zhihe, goes further, and says, "Practically all postmodernist thinkers...have a natural affinity for China and Chinese culture. This is not an accident of history, but something inevitable." (source)

Thanks Joel. I appreciate the trouble you went to in order to address my last comment. What you say above appears to confirm my suspicions - that it is not David Curzens Hoy who is actually arguing that postmodernism has its origins in China. He says instead, that China is frequently seen by some Westerners as the source of postmodernism. I find this in itself to be peculiar though, because I am not aware of any postmodern thinkers from the West who have ever argued this. A number of Japanese scholars, some years back, claimed that Japan was the origin of postmodernism, but their claims have been widely rejected - although there may be some truth to their assertions, since cities like Tokyo and Osaka are quintessential postmodern spaces - a fact that reflects the emergence there of the cultural logical of a post-industrial high-tech consumer society, which developed in the late 70s and throughout the 80s and 90s simultaneously with the US and other Western post-industrial nations. China's development of mass consumerism and its integration into the global capitalist order, along with the supporting cultural logic of such a society, lags at least a decade (maybe two) behind that of Japan's though.

I strongly suspect that the editor of this Dictionary of Postmodernism, Wang Zhihe, has misunderstood both Curzens Hoy, and that he doesn't quite understand posdtmodernism either. His claim that "Practically all postmodernist thinkers... have a natural affinity for China and Chinese culture" may be fair enough of a statement to make, but if he is trying to suggest that their affinity is the result of a belief on their part that China is the origin of postmodernism, then he is clearly overstating his case, and is riding on a flight of pure fantasy!

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