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The 體用 ti-yong dichotomy refers to an intuitive hesitation in Chinese political thought: where Western methods and practices seem more effective in society they ought to be adopted; yet, some may contradict the core principles of Chinese identity. How much of the West should China adopt? To what extent should China maintain its own culture and practices, and conversely to what extent should China embrace foreign ideals?

China’s doors flung open, though involuntarily, during the first Opium War. From then on, initial resistance to Westernism could not outweigh desire to emulate its practices; several attempts to reform meet resistance throughout the 19th century, backsliding in the early 20th, but ultimately Mao upends Chinese Traditionalism. When Deng subsequently upends Mao’s economics, the conversion is complete, accelerating to the present. I will delineate this historical continuum into 19th Century, which spans 1839 to 1911 (First Opium War to fall of Qing dynasty), Republican from 1911 to 1949 (Fall of Qing dynasty to Communist Revolution) and PRC from 1949 to present.


From the early 19th century, following social unrest related to the Opium Wars, among other reasons, many social uprisings attempted to overthrow the Qing dynasty. Hong Xiuquan led such a rebellion, merging quasi-Christian religious ideas with individual revelation (Schoppa 73). His “startlingly different framework from traditional Confucian social hierarchy” placed extreme value on egalitarianism by erasing Confucian societal roles (75). In response the Qing emperor appointed Zeng Guofan to create an army, pushing back the Taipings. Guofan decried Xiuquan’s anti-Confucian teachings, and further, intentionally built his army according to Confucian social structuring principles (79). These figures provide a challenge to Confucianism and a reactionary pushback, illustrating their views on the degree to which Chinese ideals should be replaced by Western (here, Christian) ones.

In a new development occurring in the mid-to-late 19th century, the Self Strengthening Movement argued that China should use Western technology to preserve itself (Joseph 46). Diplomacy, education, technology, but especially the military; the Self Strengthening Movement’s main success was the establishment of refortified military power (47). In counter, the semi-Empress Cixi ruled as a “thoroughgoing conservative traditionalist” in self interest (Schoppa 104); she later immensely persecuted Kang Youwei, the Hundred Days reformer for a reinterpretation of Confucianism that threatened Cixi’s power.


The Republican period began on rocky footing, with Yuan Shikai taking extreme measures to solidify and centralize power. The May 4th movement, responding to these and other issues in China, flourished as a rejection of Chinese Traditionalism and an embrace of modernity. It is hard to overestimate the degree to which the 5/4ers disregarded traditional culture – Shoppa remarks that they discarded, and even “trashed” symbolism that represented Confucism, Chinese authority or the Qing empire (176). Iconoclasm aside, the 5/4ers embraced new principles of social change and evolutionary cultural change, fully upending Chinese Traditionalism (Joseph 55).

In the decades following, communism would grow in China to become the dominant political force; Li Dazhou, Qu Qiubai and Chen Duxiu, early communist leaders, found and solidify the party in this time period (Shoppa 182). Despite later rhetoric from Mao, communism is not an especially Chinese philosophy; its import from the West signifies the furthest adoption of Western ideas in supplantation of Chinese tradition.


The People’s Republic of China, led in paramount by Mao Zedong from 1949 until his death in 1976, continued in full the communism of the 1920s and 30s CCP. Perhaps Mao’s first piece of anti-Western rhetoric was the “Resist America Aid Korea Campaign,” a move to expel UN troops from northern Korea. Had the Chinese army been more trained, it is possible that the Chinese would have lost less soldiers; their casualty rate far outnumbered Westerners, a “brutally costly war” (Shoppa 317). These military issues caused Peng Dehuai to call for reform of the military, with modernization that essentially amounted to Westernization of its forces. Beyond just the Korean War, however, Mao’s policies generally isolated China from Western influence, condemning at every opportunity bourgeois practices or ideas, especially individualism. Lin Biao led Mao’s efforts to upend existing Chinese Traditionalism in the Cultural Revolution, but rather than replacing it with modernity, replace it with Mao himself.

After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping controlled the Chinese political apparatus, gradually undoing all of Mao’s economic policies in favor of a blended command economy with market features (Godement 85). After this point, China will increasingly resemble the West, with accelerating similarities after Deng. From the mid 70’s to 1983, non-Deng Chinese leadership conducts the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, a move to resist bourgeois Westernism in all its forms; however, Deng intervenes (Joseph 128); so, attempts to gut Westernism ultimately fail, and the figurehead driving Western economic policy into China has perpetrated it. The Deng model of economic growth through command economics proves very successful under Wen Jiabao, leader of China in the mid 2000s, whose unhesitant acceptance of market systems indicates the end of the central 體用 ti-yong hesitation (Godement 109).


R. Keith Shoppa, “Revolution and Its Past: Identities and Change in Modern Chinese History, Third Edition,” Prentice Hall,  2011.

William A. Joseph, “Politics in China: An Introduction, Second Edition,” Oxford University Press, 2014.

Francois Godement, “Contemporary China: Between Man and Market,” Rowman & Littlefield Press, 2016.

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