Western Tools With Chinese Characteristics: Localization as a Translation Strategy and China’s Quest for an Alternative Modernity

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Western Tools With Chinese Characteristics:

Localization as a Translation Strategy and China’s Quest for an Alternative Modernity


​IFK Lecture by


Sinkwan Cheng, Ph.D.

Senior Fellow at the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften

(https://www.ifk.ac.at/fellows-detail-zh/sinkwan-chen.html )


18:15  Vienna Time, 3 May, 2021 


Via Zoom and at the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften, Vienna


Link to Zoom Attendance and Participation will be available on 3 May, 2021 at https://www.ifk.ac.at/kalender-detail/western-tools-with-chinese-characteristics-localization-as-a-translation-strategy-and-chinas-quest-for-an-alternative-modernity.html


Abstract for the lecture:


“Western tools with Chinese characteristics” sums up the predominant Chinese approach to western ideologies ever since China was inexorably drawn into global history in the 19th century by imperialism and capitalism. Long before Deng Xiaoping’s “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,”Chinese receptions of western ideas had already focused on sinicizing western ideas to prevent China from being  subsumed and subjugated by the world order created by western hegemonic powers. One such practice was the Chinese intellectuals and statesmen’s localization/sinicization strategy as they translated western ideas into China to jump start the country’s modernization.


China’s defeats by various colonial powers forced upon the former the harnessing of her to global history as institutionalized by the West. Unlike the West, China experienced the globalization of history not as an internal development but as alien hegemony (Dirlik). Instead of sharing the West’s experience of modernity as a linear progress toward “human liberation” and “self-realization,” China had first encountered it as a destroyer of her sovereignty and autonomy. But in order to break free from the threat of being subjugated by Western modernity, China must also modernize.

Instead of allowing China to be subjected and incorporated into the world system initiated by western imperialism, Chinese intellectuals and statesmen used translation to incorporate the modern West into the Chinese tradition in order to produce a third way that is neither the Old China nor the Modern West, but a regenerated and independent China with a new kind of modernity. The Chinese intellectuals’ localization strategy was not about fixating on their own cultural tradition, nor was it just about synthesizing the local with the global. Rather, it was about translating in order to transgress—that is, translating the global into the local so as to transgress the world order created by the western imperial powers, thereby opening up the possibility for China to enter global history not as its object but as an independent subject, not as a slave but as its citizen.

China’s alternative modernity is not, as popular imagination goes, just another modernity built on linear progress.  Rather, there is no future for China that does not also include her cultural past. Even more importantly, it is her cultural past when being transformed by modernity that would open up an opportunity for China to become “more modern than modern,” or, in the language of Xunzi, “to arrive first precisely by starting last” (後發先至).