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Globalization and transformation of Chinese consumer culture

Wang Ning | 2022-09-08 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

The term “civilization” has two meanings. On the one hand, it is regarded as a socio-cultural complex within a certain period of time and space, such as the Maya civilization, Confucian civilization or agricultural civilization. In this view of civilization, civilization is seen as an entity. On the other hand, civilization is seen as a type of behavior standards in opposition to barbarous behavior standards. Such standards are usually set up based on self-constraints and controls over impulses, drives, and emotions. 
No matter which meaning it contains, civilization entails comparisons and evaluations. Since civilizations need to be compared and evaluated, it is necessary to set up a standard for comparison and evaluation. But who is to set up the standard? Since the Enlightenment, the European countries have become standard makers. Some tribes’ behaviors are regarded as “barbarous” according to the standards of civilization made by the Europeans. Such standards of civilization imply a worldview of Eurocentrism. European standards of behaviors were treated as universal standards that should be applied to the rest of the world. Although the connotation of racialism has been given up during the period of postcolonialism, the term civilization still contains ideological elements. 
How can the comparison of civilizations be possible? Certain elements of civilization (such as technology) are comparable, but others are not comparable (such as cuisines). Taking this fact into account, we need to distinguish between two types of factors of civilizations: the commensurable and the incommensurable. The commensurable factors of civilizations indicate that there are objective criteria by which we can rank and compare different civilizations. By contrast, the incommensurable factors of civilizations imply that there are some factors of civilizations that are not comparable or ranked. We just like them or dislike them according to our subject preferences. There are no objective criteria by which we can judge which civilization is superior to or better than the other. It is this type of incommensurable factors that justifies the position of cultural relativism. 
However, there is a tendency to treat all factors of civilizations as commensurable and hence to hold the position that all factors of civilizations can be assessed in terms of some universal, objective criteria. But these criteria have been made by advanced countries based on their own experiences. The developed countries not only regard their commensurable factors of civilizations as the standards of all civilizations, but also treat the incommensurable factors of civilizations in their countries as the commensurable factors, which should become the universal model of civilizations. For example, they think that “no consumption of dog meat” should be a universal standard of civilized behavior. 
Many residents in developing countries have been influenced by the above-mentioned tendency and share the standards of civilization made by developed countries when evaluating their own civilizations, including the incommensurable factors of their civilizations. As a result, they adopt the incommensurable factors of civilizations of developed countries. For example, people in South Korea have forsaken the tradition of eating dog meat since the 1990s. 
As far as China is concerned, during and after the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, China’s sense of civilization superiority was shaken by the reality that China was defeated by Western countries, which had more advanced warships and artillery. The fact that China was defeated by Japan in the War of Jiawu (1894–1895), reinforced China’s sense of frustration. It was against this frustrating sentiment that the Chinese tried to re-negotiate the relationship between the Chinese civilization and Western civilizations. They began to change traditional Chinese criteria of civilization evaluation on the one hand, and began to adopt Western criteria of civilization evaluation, at least to some degree, on the other. The shift of criteria of civilization evaluation was also revealed in Chinese consumers’ attitude toward Western commodities and brands. 
With the growth of the national sentiment of frustration after the mid-19th century, Chinese people’s attitudes towards the incommensurable factors of Western civilizations changed significantly. Those incommensurable factors of Western civilizations, such as lifestyles, were seen as commensurable, superior, and applicable to other civilizations. It is only after China grew stronger that the Chinese changed those standards of civilization evaluation. 
Since China’s reform and opening up, there have been changes in Chinese residents’ attitudes towards both commensurable and incommensurable factors of Western civilizations. These changes are exhibited as the curve of confidence in Chinese civilization. During the early stage of the reform and opening up, Chinese consumers appeared to worship and to have blind faith in foreign things. They tried to imitate and follow Western consumer lifestyles to some extent. 
As China’s economy becomes increasingly strong, Chinese consumers’ attitudes towards Western commodities and brands have changed. On the one hand, Chinese consumers have continued their positive attitudes towards those foreign commodities and brands. On the other hand, the younger generation of Chinese consumers have an increasingly more positive attitude towards traditional Chinese lifestyle and elements, and they tend to be more supportive of domestic products. 
Obviously, consumption is a window through which we can see the change of criteria used by Chinese consumers in evaluation of civilizations and the associated growth of the national confidence in Chinese civilization. 
Wang Ning is a professor from the School of Sociology & Anthropology at Sun Yat-sen University. This article was edited from his paper submitted to the forum.
Edited by BAI LE