- Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History
Alexander Woodside has entered the ongoing discussion on the definition of social modernity by examining East Asian Mandarinates and suggesting that they held traits of the "modern" long before the West. Lost Modernities is based on Woodside's lectures given in 2001 for the Edwin O. Reischauer lecture series at Harvard University.
His book looks at the tradition of bureaucracy and at civil servants recruited through public examination, beginning in Tang dynasty China (618–907 c.e.) and continuing in Korea and (what is now) Vietnam after they broke away from Chinese rule. Civil service exams in some form were operating in China by the seventh century, by the eighth century in Korea, and the eleventh in Vietnam. Woodside makes the point that the less-known Korean and Vietnamese examination systems are as instructive for historians as the Chinese. (He acknowledges that he is not a Korean studies specialist and cannot speak as authoritatively there as he does on China and Vietnam.)
The style of government resulting from this administration by meritocracy held many of the features of what is classified as modernity in histories of Western society. Woodside alleges that "Pascal's proposition—that meritocracy would threaten civil strife because all members of a meritocratic elite would acquire an absolute belief in their own merit—was vindicated in Korea long before it could be tested in Europe" (p. 46). In Europe, aristocratic administration lasted longer but was also bolstered by a tradition of elevating to the peerage those who had performed useful service. In East Asia, elevation by the monarch was more rare, and tended not to be hereditary.
Woodside acknowledges that he is following Harold Berman's work on Western history, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983). Berman challenged Marxist narratives of modernity by arguing that the modernization of the Western legal tradition occurred from the eleventh century, before capitalism or industrialization. Woodside aims to apply the same challenge to definitions of modernity in Asia.
He defines as "modern" the characteristic of pursuing transparency and incorruptibility in civil service exams. Recalling that the examination sites "became spectacles in themselves" (p. 2), he describes how in Jiangnan in the 1700s the examination venue held 17,000 students.
By the 1400s, for example, applicants' answers in the Korean civil service examinations passed through the hands of collection officers, [End Page 526] registration officers, recording officials, collating officers, and readers, whose tasks were to see to it that candidates' names were concealed from their examiners; that their answers were recopied in other people's handwriting before examiners saw them; and that many examiners, not one, evaluated the candidate's performances. Not even the examinations at contemporary Western universities take so many transparency-enhancing precautions.(p. 2)
The problem with this analogy of course is that university examinations are largely a private enterprise; they are not a governmental activity with a claim to transparency for the general public. This kind of comparison demonstrates some of the limits of reaching for cross-cultural and temporal analogues.
Woodside also sees the welfare strategies of these states foreshadowing European twentieth-century welfare bureaucracies. This he attributes to the idea, derived from Mencius, that the poor were the result of bad government (p. 59), and thus that it was the responsibility of good governance to alleviate poverty. This idea can be taken as overestimating the power (both for good and bad) of a bureaucracy, and underestimating the effects of natural disaster and other factors in creating shortage. As with the idea that meritocratic reward leads to overestimation of one's value, the Mandarinacy overestimated its omnipotence. A system of open opportunity also had other flaws: the examination system led to a backlog where successful candidates could wait years to actually be placed in a government post.
The evidence presented here suggests that stability and bureaucratization led to apathy toward government on the part of the average...