Monday, December 12, 2011

Coexistence of Modernity and Tradition, in a “Modern” Sense?

Walking around cities of northern Europe, it is never hard to find the traditional and the modern side-by-side. The most glittering glass office buildings with the most cutting-edge design often stands next to the oldest churches dating from imperial eras centuries in the past. The best efforts of the city and national leaders to preserve heritage often cannot be fulfilled completely; it seems that even here, the businessmen do not like typing away on their computers in a 17th century building.

The phenomenon here is not particularly unique. After all, every country in the world faces similar dilemma. Some sees a need to keep physical pieces of history alive for posterity, while indeed, modern business and people have certain needs that cannot be satisfied by those historical relics. Yet, strangely enough, here in Europe, and Copenhagen in particular, there is a unique feel of harmony as little pieces of modernity are injected into century-old townscapes.

Over in Asia, modernity and tradition are always perceived as enemies. For one to advance, the other must suffer. The two are constantly fighting to win a perpetual zero-sum game. The tearing down of traditional neighborhoods and disappearance of traditional art forms, to be replaced by skyscrapers and youth-led pop culture, are perfect demonstration of the conflict. But here, ancient residences with their equally ancient residents stand, literally, right next to the newest additions of the city, surrounded by businesspeople with their global projects and youth blasting their pop music.

In Asia, such coexistence would have led to complete cacophony and mutual hatred of the two sides. Here, however, there seems to be not a single bit of annoyance in the air as the two go about their daily lives. None strive to prove that his/her lifestyle is better than that of the other, and none attempts to “expand” his/her own “territory” by damaging the other’s interest in any way. It seems that long time ago, the two groups have already come to the conclusion that the best way of life is a mixture of both, openly and publicly, without shame or condescension.

That such peaceful and accepted mutual existence of tradition and modernity can exist in Europe, but not Asia, is, perhaps, because Europe essentially created the modern definition of “modernity” by which the rest of the world must live by. And by striving to be “modern” like the Europeans, the rest of the world, especially in a self-conscious Asia, decided that even European traditions, in the most superficial form that most Asians come to understand, are actually somehow more modern than millennia of Asian traditions.

So, the rest of world, in an effort to become “modern,” went on a campaign to shame their own cultures into positions of inferiority, and a blind and all-too-comprehensive purge to replace their own inferior traditions with superior European ones. Above the ruins of traditional local symbols, not only are modern skyscrapers constructed, but pieces of mimicked European-style traditional residences are hastily built. A foreign tradition attempted to inject itself on cultures where there are not only no such cultural roots, but also not even proper cultural contacts with distant foreign lands until little more than a century ago.

Meanwhile, back here in Europe, the people have moved on to other forms of modernity, fused with tradition. People are going back to greater consumption of less processed food (I have never seen greater concentration of sushi bars outside Japan than out here in Copenhagen). They are going back to bicycles, with dedicated cycling lanes while in other parts of the world, the car is still embraced as a symbol of modern wealth. And communal living dating from the age of the hunter-gatherers is reemerging, weed- and graffiti-filled, in places like the “alternative commune” of Christiania.

The fact is that, even with their economy badly damaged in the past few years, the Europeans are still leading the world in terms of innovative mentality. They still pioneer what the rest of the world would call “modern thinking.” But the ever-changing European “modern thoughts,” in fact, have their developments largely triggered by reflecting on European, and world, traditions. What is cutting-edge does not come from a vacuum, but from looking back at history. And Europe, by keeping traditions alive on every street corner, makes possible those easy, omnipresent stimulations for further innovation and creation of “modernity.”

And this is the point that those in the other parts of the world, happily destroying their own traditions with wrecking balls and brainwashing, do not really understand. They have not yet figured out the correlation of the ancient buildings and ways of life in their own cultures with their own sense of “modernity.” They do not realize that they can never be “modern” by simply copying Europeans, because they can never fully copy European traditions. Perhaps such lack of a deeper realization is what truly cause others to lag Europe in mental modernization.

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