Research Project


Traditional Beliefs and Colonial Modernity in 20th century East Asia

Prof. Dr. Faye Kleeman

The transition to a modern worldview in East Asia was brought time-honored ways of understanding and dealing with the world into conflict with a modern, empirical worldview that accompanied modernity. Systems of divination and prognostication were only the most evident points of a fundamental disjuncture between a traditional world composed of qi/ki ("pneumas") and directed by the unseen forces of yin/yang and the five agents, and a modern world of atoms and germs. Over the hundred years from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, this traditional worldview slowly yielded to a modern approach based on scientific empiricism in domain after domain, but still maintains a vibrant relevancy in the areas of religion, divination, and indigenous medical traditions. Moreover, because this modernity came accompanied by colonialism and unequal treaties, it took on a political dimension that brought together proponents of nativism and nationalism with practitioners and adherents of traditional worldviews and practices. This project studies this transition from a traditional world to a modern one, focusing especially on the cultural significance of traditional worldviews and traditional mantic and magical ways of responding to the challenge of modernity. I will draw primarily on fiction and expository and travel writings by Japanese and Taiwanese authors, but also consult ethnographic accounts and elements of popular culture of the colonial period, roughly the turn of the twentieth century to the end of the Second World War.

back to "Modernity and Prognostication" Overview