Eurocentrism, modernity and Chinese sociality : an ethnographic study of everday socio-cultural life in new-millennium China

  • Tung Yi KHO

Student thesis: PhD Thesis (Lingnan)


This dissertation seeks to contribute to our understanding of Eurocentrism, Modernity,and their impacts on traditional Chinese cultural formations. It is based on ethnographic research conducted in Shenzhen, South China and Qinghai, West China, and explores the impacts of Chinese modernization on everyday forms of sociality.

I conceive of Eurocentrism foremost as an Ontology, a mode-of-being grounded in a cosmology about the nature of reality and human being-and-becoming in the world. I argue that because Eurocentrism is an ontology predicated on materialism and individualism - “matter” being the basis of reality and the “individual”, the fundamental unit of society, respectively - it was able to manifest materially and to spread by way of coloniality. Its perpetuation was justified by two interrelated premises: that the West in being Modern was the avant-garde of progress and, concomitantly, that the history of the West should be the fate of all humanity. It is on the pretension of being Modernity’s progenitor, along with its corollary of the Modern being Universal, that Eurocentrism was materialized as an ontology throughout the globe. Because of Modernity’s historical imbrication with the West, one cannot speak of Modernity without implicating Eurocentrism and vice versa.

The ideologies of Euro-Modernity have permeated the Chinese social fabric since the colonial encounters of the 19th C. The depth of their penetration renders the desire for Modernity in China today ubiquitous: being modern is verily the mark of progress. But since the Modern is of Eurocentric provenance, involving a certain cultural ontology that was itself the result of a momentous religio-cultural revolution in the West, my research is animated by the following query: How and to what extent has the Eurocentrism implied in Chinese modernity transformed traditional forms of Chinese sociality? My research thus consists of an ethnographic study of contemporary Chinese cultural change, examining Modernity’s impact on the most fundamental aspects of Chinese culture today: its forms of sociality.

My studies in Shenzhen and Qinghai reveal that while much of Chinese life has adopted the standard ideologies and practices of Modernity, rich socio-cultural practices of communality and kinship remain. These practices of sociality are a crucial cultural resource making possible the felicities of everyday Chinese living. They stabilize and sustain Chinese socio-cultural life as it is confronted by the de-culturing effects of Modernity. This insight is noteworthy since it challenges the ubiquitous faith that becoming Modern will yield a better life in some hoped-for future, mostly by material progress. Against this, my findings suggest that the “better” life in China is already attainable in the here-and-now, inhering not in greater material progress but in the nourishment of the relations that have traditionally bound kith and kin. Hence, life’s meaning does not reside in the domain of matter, as per the illusion of Modernity; it is found in the ineffable realm of moral economy and sociality: in the mutuality-of-ourbeing. This insight harbours potential, for if acted upon, offers up all peoples the possibility of a human future beyond the monoculture of Modernism.
Date of Award2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Department of Cultural Studies
SupervisorKin Chi LAU (Supervisor)

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