Traditional Asia Meets the Modern West

Friday, January 30, 1998

I begin with a few geographic facts that are meant as a metaphor for the analysis I offer.

In the heart of Brazil's jungle, near the city of Manaus, two great streams come together in a distinctive, perhaps unique, way. One branch, the Amazon, arrives a muddy, sand-colored, churning river. The other branch, flowing equally strongly, is more nearly brown, close to the color of tobacco, noticeably clear and even translucent. At the point where the two rivers come together, they do not immediately blend but rather run side by side within common banks for several miles, so sharply delineated at their common margin that one could easily imagine there was a great glass wall separating the two. But gradually the swirling and eddying effect of the river becomes manifest. The two streams begin to run together at the edges and then gradually blend into a new, more-uniform consistency. A few miles farther on, the Amazon becomes one uniform stream, once again a predominantly muddy sand color. Perhaps a scientific test of the waters could identify the separate elements that had been carried into the mixture of the two great tributaries. But to most observers the new river would seem to reflect the original Amazon more than the stream that had so recently joined it.

Contrary to expectations, the preference for filial piety in Japan has actually risen.

Just so in Asia, and especially on the Pacific Rim, we see the confluence of two great streams of culture operating under the vast and powerful stimulus of industrialization, urbanization, modernization, and globalization. As in my geographic account, these two streams--Asian and Western--manage for a period to run side by side, preserving remarkably intact their distinctive identities. But as time elapses and as they become increasingly entangled with each other, a vast blending ensues. Both great sources contribute in significant ways to the new melded stream. But, I believe, the nature of the forces at work ensures that one of the streams will predominate and that the emergent new river will reflect the long-standing properties of the one more than the other.

This article presents the first results of a continuing program to assess the extent and form of changing popular values and attitudes in a number of the most important of the growth engines in the area, such as Taiwan, mainland China, Singapore, Korea, and their forerunner, Japan. The evidence is drawn from public opinion polls and social surveys covering a span of decades. To be sure, the region provides evidence of the persistence of tradition, and even of its actual strengthening, under conditions of modernization.

The Great Stream of Asian Tradition

In a world in which various kinds of religious fundamentalism are burgeoning on every hand as a response to the perceived threats of modernization and Westernization, it seems appropriate to inquire whether the nations on the Pacific Rim may be experiencing some of the same tendencies. I see little evidence that the Pacific Rim is anywhere generating the kind of intense reassertion of tradition that is evident in many parts of the Muslim world, but there are indications that some Asian populations are in some ways reinvigorating traditions that had been slipping away under the impact of forces for change. In some cases, the pattern seems to be one in which an externally forced process of change, such as that imposed by the cultural revolution in China, has been lifted, permitting the expression of value commitments that had never fully died out. At least this is the interpretation I put on the data from Baoding, China, where the now adult offspring are more likely than their elderly parents, who lived through the Maoist era, to disagree with the modern idea that obligations to children or careers should come ahead of obligations to parents.

Ancestor worship is a widespread and deep-seated element of many Asian cultures. Yet one might also expect that it has been eroded by the acids of the modernizing experience. It is, therefore, notable that in Taiwan there seems to have been a resurgence of commitment to this ancient tradition. Between 1963 and 1991, the proportion of Taiwanese who claimed to have attended an ancestor worship ceremony increased from 39 percent to 75 percent. Something similar, although less dramatic, may have occurred in Shanghai.

Likewise, consider the case of Japan. Professor Chikio Hayashi and his colleagues are longtime students of Japan's national character. Every five years, beginning in 1953, they have measured the strength of Japan's cultural traditions by taking a sampling from the citizenry. They identified giri-ninjo (an element of which is filial piety) as a key element of Japanese culture, and to measure it they asked a nationwide sample to choose two values out of a set of four. One of the set was "filial piety." Contrary to expectations, the preference for filial piety rose year by year. In 1963, the first year this question was asked, filial piety was selected by 61 percent of the respondents, but by 1983 it had risen in popularity to 73 percent; it held its rank as the number-one value in subsequent surveys through 1993.

Clearly, there is some evidence that on the Pacific Rim, much as in other parts of the world, the response to the forces of modernization may be an actual recommitment to and strengthening of some traditional values and behaviors.

The Vigorous Stream of Modernity

We come now to the main part of the story. Although one can find some evidence of the strengthening, the persistence, and the adaptation of tradition in Asia, the frequency with which one can document such occurrences is modest compared with the mountain of evidence that, in numerous Pacific Rim nations, traditions are being massively abandoned in one realm of life after another. The Pacific Rim is being inundated by a flood of forces exposing it to industrialization, modernization, and globalization. Occupational systems are being transformed, mass communication of all kinds is washing over every shore and reaching every distant corner, transportation and associated human movement are being extended, deepened, and greatly speeded up, knowledge is being redefined and revalued. In the process, many fundamental values are being challenged and reformulated, basic human relationships are being redefined and reordered, and numerous traditional ways of thinking and behaving are undergoing a great transformation.

To fully document this massive abandonment of tradition cannot be attempted here. Yet modest selection of the evidence across just one realm of tradition--family and kinship--may serve to suggest the depth, the scope, and the force of the argument.

Communal responsibility has come to be replaced by individual expression. The present is increasingly stressed over the past and future. These are the hallmarks of modernity.

Continuing the lineage. Continuity of the family name in Japan has for centuries had the status of an almost sacred responsibility. When the head of a family produced no male heir, it was essential that an appropriate male be adopted to carry forward the family name. In the years immediately after World War II, despite the great upheaval Japan was experiencing, a striking 73 percent of a national sample affirmed the idea that it was necessary to adopt a child to continue the family line "even if there was no blood connection." In every subsequent five-year period, however, fewer and fewer people supported this idea. After twenty years, in the 1973 survey, the proportion taking this position (36 percent) had been cut in half, and at the latest report, from the 1993 survey, it had sunk to 22 percent, considerably less than one-third its original strength.

Surveys taken on Taiwan indicate that there too the population was responding in a manner similar to the way people were responding in Japan. In this case we do not have numerous periodic reports, but we do have information for two relatively widely separated points in time. In 1963, 70 percent of the Taiwanese considered it "very important" that one have a male heir "to transmit the lineage"; by 1991 the percentage was down to 32 percent.

Choosing a marriage partner. Perhaps no decision in life is more important than determining whom one will marry--all the more so in societies in which divorce is infrequent and difficult to obtain. From Chengdu on mainland China comes evidence of a virtually total transformation in the practice of finding a mate.

Martin Whyte divided his sample from Chengdu according to the year individuals were married. From his informants he knew whether each marriage had been arranged following tradition or whether the individuals had found their mates in some other way. The oldest cohort consisted of people who had married between 1933 and 1948. Thereafter they were grouped in five-year intervals, with the last cohort including all those whose marriages had occurred between 1977 and 1987.

It is hard to imagine a more profound shift in fundamental human values and behavior than that reflected in the reports of the residents of Chengdu. In the cohorts married before the communist victory, 68 percent reported that their marriages had been "arranged," but, in the cohort married most recently, the proportion of arranged marriages had dwindled to a mere 2 percent. Almost equally dramatic was a shift in the proportion affirming the importance of being in love as a condition for marrying. In the oldest cohort love had been a factor in 17 percent of the cases, but by the 1977–1987 cohort it was an important consideration in 67 percent of the marriages. Given both Chinese cultural mores and the puritanism of the communist regime, it is also notable that having sex with one's affianced before the wedding rose from 4 percent in the marriages occurring in the earliest period to 18 percent of those entered into the 1980s.

The striking pattern Whyte reported for Chengdu was also manifested in Taiwan, although the data there covered a somewhat shorter span of time, with the sample made up of six cohorts starting with those married in 1955 and ending with those married between 1980 and 1984. As on the mainland, in Taiwan marriages in which the parents decided on the marriage partner fell over time from 53 to 11 percent of the cases; marrying without dating fell from 51 percent to a mere 4 percent; and having sex before the actual marriage rose from 13 percent in the cohorts married early to 37 percent among those marrying after 1980. In short, the patterns of change in Taiwan were, broadly speaking, identical with those observed in Chengdu.

This evidence from Taiwan makes it clear that the shift reported for Chengdu was not merely an artifact of communist control of every aspect of life. Rather, we are led to conclude that broad forces of social change--occupational, educational, and spiritual--were at work in both places and that they had the same effect despite the differences in the socioeconomic and political systems governing these two settings.

In short, within little more than one generation the approach to selecting marriage partners has changed dramatically. Other patterns have likewise undergone profound and rapid shifts. Communal responsibility has come to be replaced by individual expression. The present is increasingly stressed over the past and future. Consumption is more and more displacing saving and accumulation.

These are the hallmarks of modernity. The diffusion of these tendencies in Asian populations increases the facility with which the two great streams--Asian tradition and Western modernity--will be able to blend.