Colonial temporality and Chinese national modernization discourses

Marius Meinhof


This essay introduces the concept of colonial temporality to make sense of Chinese modernization discourses. Although institutional discourses on modernization and development in China are largely nationalist and tightly entangled with state authority, they nevertheless draw from conceptions of temporality that are colonial in character. However new the technologies of subjectivity are, they are embedded in a discourse transmitted from a colonial discourse that is not new, not entirely controlled by the Chinese state and not entirely favorable to the Chinese government. I will introduce three features of this temporality that make it colonial and highly ambivalent for the Chinese state:

Firstly, it was created by colonial encounters in history and in an entanglement of Western, Japanese and Chinese discourses. Secondly, it provides China with a “story” of future progress by placing it in the middle of history. And thirdly, it revolves around discourses of deficiency that compels Chinese institutional discourses to constantly compare themselves to the West. In consequence, the “quest” for a Chinese modernity also contains a search for narratives of a better future that allow imagining improvement but are not based on colonial temporality. Paying more attention to this problem would allow scholars to better understand the position of the Chinese state and of Chinese intellectuals within modernization discourses, and to better conceptualize the historic and transnational Character of these discourses.

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DOI: 10.4119/UNIBI/indi-v8-i1-168