Saturday, March 13, 2010

China's Cultural Revolution was Western Cultural Imperialism

Sometimes the cultural expansion of the US around the world is called cultural imperialism. American cinema and popular music introduce American traditions and values to foreign cultures, often to the detriment of native traditions. In Japan, for example, 60-70% of weddings are now Western-style white weddings instead of traditional Shinto weddings, with European actors pretending to be priests to people with no Christian tradition.

Japanese people choose this kind of ceremony, of course, it is not forced on them. During the colonial era some European powers tried to replace native cultures with their own, not least here in Ireland; this was a more direct and aggressive cultural imperialism.

"Western cultural imperialism" is used to describe both the popular spread of Hollywood throughout the world and the violent imposition of culture by colonists. But perhaps the single most destructive example of Western cultural imperialism was perpetrated not by Europeans, but by the Chinese.

Today "Western" is usually meant to imply social democratic/capitalist mixed states, with strong emphasis on secularism, individualism and free speech. Why? Nazism arose in Germany. Fascism started in Italy. Karl Marx and Frierich Engels were both German - Communism first took root in Russia; collectivism, Communism, hyper-nationalism and censorship all fit comfortably within "Western" values when we include the radical 20th century ideologies that also developed in Europe.

If Communism is Western, the Communist devestation of Chinese cultural artefacts during the Cultural Revolution must be one of the worst cases of Western cultural imperialism of all time.

The Communists turned on all other ideologies, including native Chinese belief systems like Taoism and Confucianism.

The Red Guard and supporters of the Cultural Revolution also destroyed temples and historical buildings. Between 1970 and 1974 an army unit stationed at Gubeikou tore down two miles of the Great Wall and used the stone blocks to construct army barracks. In Tibet the Red Guard turned thousand-year-old monasteries into factories and pigsties.... They ripped crosses from church steeples, forced Catholic priests into labor camps, tortured Buddhist monks in Tibet and turned Muslim schools into pig slaughterhouses. Taoists, Buddhists and Confucians were singled out as vestiges of the Old China that needed to be changed.

A secular, European ideology destroying Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism? Sounds like Western cultural imperialism, albeit perpetrated by anti-European Chinese.

Odd, then, that today China is sometimes depicted as an alternative to, or rival of "the West", while Japan (where no such violent destruction of indigenous culture took place) is seen as an ally. Communism is as Western an idea as Japan's social democracy, and radical Communism of 1960s China attempted to replace traditional Chinese culture with a radical ideal from 19th century Germany. The Cold War was never about West and East, but rather the West and the Other West.


  1. I doubt there has ever been a successful ideology/religion from the west of Persia that hasn't been guilty of this. I've always felt that it HAD to have something to do with the nature of ideologies from the Western world itself.

    It would be interesting to compare the nature of ideologies that have sprung from the West and those that have sprung from the East.

    Nice article Shane. You should post these thoughts on IR, should be good fun, considering the number of "passionate" debaters there.

  2. Thanks Nilan, interesting idea though I'm not sure I buy into a simple West/East division. I write this mainly to throw old assumptions about "China versus the West" into doubt. I suppose there have been lots of local, tolerant belief systems in Europe and the Middle East that gradually vanished in the face of more aggressive religious and political conviction.

    I just find it amusing to consider modern Communist China as being at the cutting edge of Western imperialism :P Bet they don't like that idea much!


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