Modernization or Westernization?

A famous designer once criticized the stubbornness of Vietnamese people for not modernizing fashion. According to him: “[Vietnamese people] are part of a lazy race with no intuition, no desire to discover the intricacies of art; therefore [a designer’s] artistic expressions could only reach that limit.” To add to the comment, he also rhetorically questioned: “When will our people reach that level of modernity?”

Do you agree with him? If you do, congratulations! That designer does not exist and you have just fallen for an infamous concept that Vu Trong Phung satirically popularized in his novel “Dumb Luck”:

You have fallen prey to the allure of Westernization.

The concepts of Westernization and Modernization are hard to grasp, especially when they are so easily misunderstood for one another. Let’s break down each concept first. Modernization is defined as the process of starting to use the most recent methods, ideas, equipment, etc. so that something becomes or seems more modern (Cambridge English Dictionary). Meanwhile, Westernization is defined as: the process of a country, place, or person adopting ideas and behaviors that are typical of Europe and North America, rather than preserving the ideas and behavior traditional in their culture (Collins English Dictionary).

That should made it clearer, or did it? The thing is, it is never easy to distinguish between the two. In his book “The Constitution of Liberty,” F. A. Hayek commented that the market economy requires cultural underpinnings in the form of a set of “modern” values based on individualism and that since the culture of liberty successfully arose in the West, it should naturally spread across the world (Hayek). His economic viewpoints eventually became the standard for the Western world to consider whether a country was modern or not – that it should have individualistic values, liberty, and democracy.

However, that is not the case. The counter-evidence for such claims lie in a country that is going head-to-head with the US in an economic clash: China. With a population of almost 1.4 billion, China is making use of its abundant workforce to drive the modernization efforts laid out by the government. A land of conformity, totalitarianism, and lack of freedom, up until 2015, China still overtook the economic powerhouses of the world, ranking as the world’s largest economy for the third year in a row (Amadeo). Furthermore, they are bringing back Confucianism – a 2500-year old system of moral teachings that was abolished during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Clearly, this does not show modernity, but no-one would say that China is out of date. So why are we not following China’s policies and fashion and philosophical values? Why do we only attribute modernism to Western civilizations?

That may be because of one reason: Westernization is a part of Modernization. Or more precisely, the West paved the way and redefined our understanding of Modernization, starting from the French Revolution. The Revolution gave the strongest possible impetus to the rise of the golden age of philosophy of history. It was also believed that the Revolution had not only grown out of philosophy but that it had been assigned the task to fulfill the promises of philosophy, to conclude the prehistory of humankind and complement the revolutions in the physical world by a moral world revolution. (Fehér). The French led the moral enlightenment movement and passed it along to multiple other Western civilizations. What about the East then? During the 18th century, Asia underwent Western Imperialism. The continent was under both the influence of trade and colonialism, where by taking advantage of the colonies, the West indoctrinated the people of Asia with their teachings, spreading their version of modernization and eschewing the Asian vision of modernity. This led to a domino effect where now we would only consider what is in the West to be modern like politics, fashion, and customs, but would regard our own Vietnamese values as outdated.

This thought is deeply reflected on by Vu Trong Phung in his novel “Dumb Luck” where in the 2nd chapter, he lays out the typical self-humiliation of the Westernized Vietnamese when they discuss Vietnam’s perception towards art (Vu): “All because of society’s lowliness that [artists] have to revert to designing female clothing – the simplest form of art. When this society realizes the beauty of women’s thighs will they understand the values of nudity and naturist art, and maybe supreme art.”

Westernization hits more than just clothing and political structure, it also hits the mindset. Think about it, if one were to wear Áo bà ba onto the streets of Saigon, they would be considered a yokel, a country-person, but if that same person were to show up in torn jeans and a Polo Assn. t-shirt, they would automatically be modern, be Western. Why must we attribute all this from the West to be the standards of modernity? Why couldn’t we value the traditions that we have held in so many generations? Why must we feel necessary to say that a person has no taste in fashion if they wore anything that did not come from Western brands? The answer is clear: the effects of Colonization had left deep-rooted conflicts within every society, especially in those with long history.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Our country is changing and is catching up to the powerhouses each day. We are always embracing new cultures and are taking in those that are beneficial to our old ways of living, and we have been doing this for the entirety of our country’s existence. The Chinese made Confucianism and Taoism, the Indians made Buddhism, but the Vietnamese combined all three into a system of three teachings, forming the backbone of our civilization. The French brought in technology as well as oppressive colonist teachings; we made light of the situation and integrated their technological understanding into our newly liberated nation. When rap music was booming in the West, we took that and added a Vietnamese twist to it, offering a fresh taste of music. We have always been great at cultural syncretism and putting it into Vietnam’s growth. The question still stands, though: can we modernize our country without following in the West’s steps? Absolutely. We could take after the examples of Japan, China, and Singapore. They are all economically powerful, but, at the same time, are all culturally conservative. They are not afraid to take in values that could enrich their culture but are cautious not to take in those that would make them lose out on theirs. A good balance between Westernization and Modernization is needed to both guarantee growth and a preservation of culture.

Looking back at the arguments, we learned that Modernization is a process of taking in things that are considered modern, Westernization is an intake of Western cultures and values in replace of one’s own. We also learned that the rise of Westernization grew strongest after the French revolution where, at the same time, France paved way to modernity, leading the world into a confusing twist of Modernization and Westernization. However, countries have found a way around it, allowing technological growth while still maintaining their sense of identity. With one foot on this slippery slope of cultural conflict, Vietnam is placed in a tough spot, but it doesn’t have to be. Teenagers, especially those living abroad, are more aware of their sense of identity and are very supportive of traditions in place of rampant Westernization. And you can, too! It is but our choice to decide which course this country shall take.

At the end of the day, the globe will still turn, and our country will be modern. Or shall I say, “Western”?

Ho Chi Minh City panorama - Is this modern or western?

Ho Chi Minh City panorama – Is this modern or western?

Works Cited

Amadeo, Kimberly. World’s Largest Economies. the balance. 05 05 2018. 24 10 2018. <https://www.thebalance.com/world-s-largest-economy-3306044>.

Cambridge English Dictionary. n.d. Cambridge University Press. 24 10 2018. <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/modernization>.

Collins English Dictionary. n.d. HarperCollins Publishing. 24 10 2018. <https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/westernization>.

Fehér, Ferenc, ed. The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity. Berkley: University of California Press, 1990. 24 10 2018. <http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft2h4nb1h9/>.

Hayek, Frederick August. The Constitution of Liberty. London: Routledge, 1960.Vu, Phung Trong. Dumb Luck. Hanoi, 1936. 25 10 2018.