In the 1930s, a new debate about the value and meaning of Chinese culture took shape against the background of the “New Life Movement”. Intellectuals such as Chen Xujing and Hu Shi urged “wholesale Westernization” to counter calls for “cultural construction on a Chinese base“ (CCCB) by Wang Xinming and others, while Zhang Xiruo and Zhang Foquan strove to formulate yet a new theory of cultural borrowing called “cultural unit theory”. These approaches reflect what Metzger has called “epistemological optimism”, a belief that the knowledge to transform the people of China can be put into effective practice by properly informed intellectuals. This article offers a detailed overview of how CCCB and cultural unit theory respond to the idea of “wholesale Westernization.“
It contends that approaches advocated by cultural unit theorists, as well as advocates of CCCB, facilitated the reconceptualization of “Westernization“ as a universal process of modernization that could be adapted to local conditions. Chinese thinkers cannot avoid the question of choice about what to borrow, how to imitate or change it. With characteristic optimism, none among the thinkers examined in this contribution denied the capacity of Chinese to actually make those choices, in the best interests of the nation.