A Way Out of the Raging Tide of Modernisation—Taking Refuge in Ancestral Wisdom of Traditional Cultures

In the last 300 years of development of the West, science and rationality, together with capitalism which advocates free competition, has been pushing the world towards modernisation in anticipation of the dawning of a brave new world. As a form of development, modernisation was once considered a path of progress that every society must take. That is, every society must go through industrialisation and move from a subsistence economy to a commodity economy, and finally urbanisation is also a main feature. In this process, traditional culture is regarded as backward and superstitious.

Has modernisation brought a brave new world?

The reality is that although modernisation has created a civilisation of material wealth, it has also brought ecological disasters on an unprecedented scale. We are now in the midst of all sorts of environmental crises and human beings are threatened by new incurable diseases because of a polluted ecological environment. Modern modes of production have resulted in the decline of traditional communities and the disintegration of their mutual support networks. As the culture that gives a community its self-confidence collapses, people within it lose their spiritual values and understanding of the meaning of life. In the meantime, material life in modern societies fails to provide people with spiritual happiness and fulfillment.

Recognising the predicaments that modern societies are faced with, some scholars and development workers have been reflecting on modernisation with respect to the traditional life of local communities. They have found that there is a legacy of wisdom in traditional cultures which addresses the problems of modernisation and may provide the solutions. The cultural values of the traditional life of local communities can be seen in three aspects: 

Three elements of traditional wisdom that address the predicaments of modernisation

1. In contrast with modernisation, which often involves a reckless level of resource consumption, the traditional approach of local rural communities to production and livelihood attaches importance to ecological conservation so that natural resources can be used sustainably.  
2. Traditional institutions emphasise solidarity and mutual help among community members, enabling the community to develop self-reliance and self-sufficiency as a whole. The sense of belonging and the spirit of mutual help among community members from the same clan are usually expressed in sacrificial rituals honouring ancestors and fostering the spirit of solidarity and care for one another. In contrast, modern societies emphasise competition and plundering natural resources while individuals are forced to confront risks alone. When a farmer who used to be self-sufficient starts growing cash crops, he/she has to face the ups and downs of market on his/her own and personally comes under the pressure from merchants and consumers. Individualised farming divides a community and traditions of mutual support collapse.
3. There is a set of spiritual and cultural values behind every tradition. It is an expression of the importance that traditional cultures attach to ethics, values, outlook on life and world view. Villagers in traditional communities have their own idea of 'happiness' that has nothing to do with material property. However, the mainstream culture of modernisation - material pursuit - embraces only one development path, one set of values and one purpose in life which is material gain.

The harmonious relationships within and between human beings, and between human beings and nature, are emphasised in these three aspects of traditional culture and they are the foundation of sustainable living.

Traditional cultures attach importance to nature conservation because the survival of human beings and nature are interdependent. Traditional rural knowledge fosters biodiversity and the sustainable use of natural resources. Anthropological studies show that indigenous peoples follow practices that conserve their environment. For example, anthropologists found that in arid and semi-arid pastures in Africa, herders maintain a diverse pasture management system which is built on their centuries-old knowledge of nature and local social conditions. While the behaviour of herders is regulated by these system, their production continues to grow on a long term basis but the risk is minimised. In China, rural knowledge that respects nature is even more diverse. In Guizhou, Dong people used to keep fish and raise ducks in rice paddies. This traditional form of ecological agriculture is an effective way to deal with the problems of pests, weeds and fertilisation. At Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, shifting cultivation used to be practiced. This is a rotational form of agroforestry practiced in natural forest and human intervention is limited. It allows forests to grow back after clearings, preserving a high level of biodiversity and guaranteeing the sustainable development of the community.

Is restoring traditions 'backward' and 'superstitious'?

Some people question the idea of restoring traditional knowledge, asking whether it is an attempt to force villagers to continue to live a 'backward' life and to keep them from coming into contact with the more advanced world. To answer this question, it must be emphasised that sustainable living and human well-being are not dependent on having an 'advanced' lifestyle. Take Guangxi water wheels as an example. As a traditional form of technology, the water wheel is able to solve the problems of field irrigation and drinking water supply for people and livestock. Made of bamboos and rattans, the water wheel is easy to build and conserves resources and energy. It does not need electricity or diesel. Because of the water wheel, farmers may have a good harvest even in the dry season. On the other hand, in some villages, local governments have introduced irrigation pumps which are considered to be 'advanced'. Concrete dams have to be built to stop water from flowing and diesel or electricity is necessary for the pumps to work. Not only do these pumps consume energy, they are also a burden for the farmers because they have to pay for pump maintenance. Another example: in some villages, cash crops with which farmers are unfamiliar have been introduced. Since the price of cash crops fluctuates, the security of farmers’ livelihoods is also affected. If such 'advancement' does not bring happiness, shouldn’t we stop and think about the very concept of 'advancement'?

Harmonious relationships between human beings are usually facilitated by the religions and beliefs of traditional communities. For example, the spirit of dan (sacrifice) and songma (expressing regret for the use of natural resources) of the Bulang people of Yunnan is the spiritual foundation of their collective support system and their caring attitude towards natural resources. This provides the basis for the development of community economy in the village (for details, please read the article, How Traditional Cultural Spirit becomes the Basis for Community EconomyCase Study of Zhanglang Village, Yunnan in this newsletter.) The sacrificial ritual to honour ancestors is another key element that is a symbol of solidarity in the community. The history of the Miao people is marked by the hardships of the many migrations that their ancestors undertook. Not only does offering sacrifice to ancestors serve to unite the Miao, it is also an expression and inheritance of their history, culture and spirit. It therefore enables the younger generation to gain a sense of belonging as they learn to contribute to the public affairs of the community (see Searching for the Collective Memory of Miao Villages—‘Guzang Culture’ as the Spiritual and Cultural Bond for Community Rebuilding in this newsletter.)

Some people ask whether reviving sacrificial rituals and nature worship to restore traditional ecological conservation practices encourages villagers to become 'superstitious'. They say: “While we encourage the villagers to revive their traditions of care and love of nature, why don’t we provide them with modern ecological knowledge?”

Whether in undeveloped countries or developed countries, it is common for people to hold ceremonies to remember their ancestors. The purpose is to commemorate the hardships that ancestors went through in nurturing their descendants and passing on their wisdom. People in modern societies have their own ways and rituals of commemorating their ancestors. It is not difficult, however, to grasp the values embraced by the rituals of traditional communities. The only difference is that the rituals in traditional communities may be more complicated. It is therefore not fair to criticise these rituals as 'superstitious'. Reviving villagers’ traditional way of worshipping nature is only respecting the traditional beliefs of villagers that have been swept away by the raging tide of modernisation, resulting in ecological destruction. It is of course a good thing for villagers to gain modern ecological knowledge. However, if there is a gap between their knowledge level (and language) and modern knowledge, and long-term interaction is required before they can master that modern knowledge, isn’t it to the advantage of local communities to revive traditional mechanisms that are known to be effective for nature conservation?

For a community and its members, unearthing the spiritual and cultural values of traditions is an important exploration of the soul. If a community does not understand its own culture, or is misled by modern attitudes into thinking it completely wrong, that community loses its cultural self-confidence. Wisdom embodied by traditions that contribute to the community’s sustainability will disappear, and the community will have nothing on which it can depend to respond to modernisation and its associated problems. The community will lack the vigour and resilience necessary for its survival because members are unable to identify with their own culture or recognise their own values and the value of life.

Are traditional culture and modern culture mutually exclusive?

Are traditional culture and modern culture mutually exclusive? Does it have to be either one or the other? We do not mean to reject modernisation completely. Indeed history shows that modernisation has enabled some primitive communities to shed ignorance and gain enlightenment. Some customs that were an assault on the minds and bodies of individuals have subsequently been outlawed in many societies. However, since the 20th century, globalisation and modernisation has swept the world in violent ways. Many people believe that science is omnipotent while rejecting all traditional cultures and local knowledge. This has led to destruction of the ecology and estrangement in human relationships, but traditional culture can contribute to the healing of both.

In reality, no culture remains constant and unchanged. Chatchawan Thongdeelert, a development worker in Thailand, once pointed out that culture was similar to a running river. New water is always added to the river.. The native culture of a place can positively interact with modern culture. Thongdeelert also suggested that a culture must have the following three aspects for it to be considered valuable:

  • It attaches importance to the harmonious relationship between nature and human beings and to the mutual support between human groups;
  • It affirms community solidarity and recognises that people live together and cannot be separated. Togetherness means warmth, love, mutual help and security between human beings;
  • It attaches importance to self-reliance and self-sufficiency: the community practices the ethics of mutual care and love. 

The above three emphases seem to be lacking in the modernisation that now grips the world. They can, however, be found in traditional cultures. By synergising traditional cultures and modern values, we may be able to address the problems that we are witnessing today.