A War on “Westernization” in China

A McDonald's in China.

A fair share of readers have taken international relations or global economics courses in college. And even more people reading this currently mow through a daily assortment of news and blog content. It would not be presumptive of me, then, to assume that you know the ubiquity with which the term “Westernization” is used in both academic and daily communication.

But the word “Westernization” is usually meaningless. Authors and laypeople alike need to quickly reduce the frequency with which they use this term.

(By the way, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve used the word too much in the past; just call me a Reformed Semantic.)

I am declaring a war on the word “Westernization”

There are four reasons I am declaring a war on the word “Westernization”.

First, influences from the Western Hemisphere — henceforth the “West” — in non-Western places apply in selective ways rather than in a unified manner. There is not a wholesale adoption of Western culture. If culture anywhere is a set of playing cards combined to make a unique cultural “hand”, then Western influence is, at most, one culture taking a card from the West’s hand, thereby making a new cultural hand.

The common usage of “Westernization”, though, implies that the Western hand is copied card-for-card. Anyone who has lived in another country would know the error of this notion.

Take Taiwan, where I live, for example. Taiwan is often considered highly “Westernized” due to its history of influence from the U.S. and its considerable economic development. To be sure, some Western brands like BMW, 7-Eleven, or McDonald’s have become household names; English is widely taught from a young age; and Western movies and music are widespread. Yet the presence of these things isn’t enough to deem this place “Westernized” because the way in which they are adopted into the culture are unique.

A 7-Eleven convenience store in Taiwan.

7-Eleven, the lifeblood of Taiwan.

The convenience store 7-Eleven is a Texas-born brand that is omnipresent in Taiwan. From some intersections, you can see four 7-Elevens within a two-minute walking distance. Each and every customer that enters the store is greeted by employees chanting “Welcome” (“欢迎光临”). And while in the store, you can pay your rent or any of your bills at the checkout, which means that people avoid a lot of online banking in this already-decidedly cash economy.

None of this sounds like an American 7-Eleven.

In Taiwan, McDonald’s is a “classy” eatery; Western music is often blasting in stores without people understanding a single word; Playboy is a popular clothing brand among moms; many people, despite English knowledge, have had too little practice in daily conversation to use it on the street.

And none of this even mentions old cultural cards that have remained in the Taiwanese hand: there are more scooters than cars on the street; the street food culture is unlike any place in America that I’ve been; and Taiwanese concepts of personal privacy are different, to say the least, than most in the U.S.

I could go on. The upshot is that even at the broad cultural level, “Westernization” misses all sorts of cultural variations in adoption.

Second, even within the West itself, a meaningful concept of the “West” rapidly falls apart. Indeed, you could hardly even clarify a single “America” definition. Life in New York City and rural suburban Ohio — my stomping ground — is separated by a chasm. In the latter, you must drive long distances to do any daily task, most people live in spaces that would only be afforded by the elite in NYC, and people have a much lower threshold for the volume of ambient noise.

“Westernization” has this implicit assumption that cultural adoption only goes one way.

Third, “Westernization” has this implicit assumption that cultural adoption only goes one way. But while Chinese are wearing Nike and listening to Linkin Park, Americans are sporting Chinese character tattoos and eating Sushi before they go to yoga in their Honda Prius. Moreover, while cultural cards are swapped from the West, they are also swapped from other places. In Taiwan, Japanese products hold as much influence as American products.

Fourth, at worst, “Westernization” has an air of cultural superiority. Sometimes implicit in the usage of this term is the idea that to be like the West is progress, toward a more civilized and ideal world. But one needn’t look too far to point out problems in the West that are hardly desirable — e.g., greed in corporate culture or hyper-consumerism.

So when someone says or writes that a place is “Westernized”, what do they really mean? Usually they should be saying “developed”, “capitalist”, “democratic”, or “consumerist”. These words carry much more specific meaning than “Westernized”; furthermore, they don’t assume that the West somehow has ownership of these concepts.

No place fully adopts a Western culture, and the continued use of “Westernization” will just remain a symbol of ignorance or arrogance.


Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  • Some HTML can be used to format your comment.
  • Add a picture to your comments with Gravatar.
  • Please be civil. Comments may be moderated.
  1. dan

    You seem to have the mindset of a person living in Taiwan for 1 year

    • Is this meant to be a character attack? It doesn’t even work well on that (low) level.

      • dan

        Not an attack on character whatsoever. Your thoughts just remind me of what was going on in my head my first year in China as well.

      • yangrouchuan

        Somebody’s angling themselves as another expat writer. That train is long gone kid.

        “and while in the store, you can pay your rent or any of your bills at the checkout, which means that people avoid a lot of online banking in this already-decidedly cash economy.
        None of this sounds like an American 7-Eleven.”

        Being welcomed, no. Only wal-mart has greeters and wal-mart is the lowest sector of US society.
        And in some 7-11s, you can indeed pay some bills. Due to privacy and liability laws (lacking many countries who have yet to westernize), companies, public utilities and certainly rent payments cannot be processed. Do some research if you are going to be a “writer”.

        • Bai Ren

          Government Policy is a key aspect of daily social life. Privacy and liability laws can be included in this. The laws of a land are made to promote the normative concepts of good in a society, and common folk in their daily lifes, and business in their practices adopt to fit these. That 7-11 and the experience one can have there differs between countries, AND that this can be a result both of policy and market viability only furthers Mr. Slaten’s point.
          Instead of challenging the writer to research their facts, reflect on your own ability to be able to critically analyze theory.
          This being said I do commend you on adding detail to the issue.

  2. xian

    Well said. Modernized does not equal Westernized.
    Commercialized does not equal Westernized. Young Chinese are very well aware of this.

    I prefer “globalized”, but many of the Chinese I know (as well as other Asians) continue to hold the view that the [relevant] outside world consist mostly of Western countries, and their first preconception of a foreigner is a white person. Hence, when faced with foreign influence, it is usually associated with the West.

    • yangrouchuan

      Globalized with vibrant western characteristics. Admit it, western society has its shit together far better than the world’s dirty villagers.

    • Tim

      But even by preferring to use the term “globalized” you are implying a non-Chinese, for example, foreign force – social, economic, political – acting on and perhaps altering the essence of that particular society. When you say “globalized” are you not merely referring to “Western” ideals and norms? Monikers aside, it’s important to recognize that what the author is really trying to convey to his audience is the rather complex reality to folks’ insistence on categorically labeling a society “Westernized” simply because that society is, say, disposed to adopt certain aspects of another society (e.g. America).

  3. King Tubby

    Really profound stuff which boils down to two non profound points.

    People in Asian cultures (or, in Western reverse) buy and/or appropriate brands, grub, body branding and global shopping institutions purely within the terms of their own culture and daily needs.

    Commenters and pundits lack the conceptual depth/ sociological grasp to deconstruct the idea of westernisation.

    As for your *worst case*. The idea of Westernisation as having an air of progress/superiority, and linking it to corporate greed and hyper-consumerism. Obviously, you know bugger all about the life styles of the rich and famous in China. Go to Hainan Inland….even blog boy Han Han denounced the place.

    Westernisation is a multi-dimensional notion. From a different perspective, it could connect to discussions about ROL, HR and environmental regulation. Or, on a another level, open acceptance of gay relationships. Get the idea.

    Overanalytical, are you kidding.

    Pass conceded, and that is being generous.

    • As long as you are the one conceding in the debate, then I have nothing left to say. ;-)

      • King Tubby

        A superficial response to my post. And one in return.

        These Fullbright grants sound like a cinch. Got the family cat completing an application as I write.

        Feel sorry for your students, if that is how you respond to my quite valid points about the multi-dimensional perspectives contained in the concept of westernisation. And it is probably the most important abstraction used by people today to discuss East-West cultural pollination.

        Oh well, you probably impress your female students.

        Opinionation??? You might get an entry in the OED one day, but don’t hang by the neck.

        • King Tubby,

          Do you have a personal gripe against Kevin or something that I don’t know about? You seem to be riding him awfully hard right out of the gates with all of the explicit personal attacks and, worse, insinuation (about his students?).

          I don’t see how Kevin hasn’t already addressed the “multi-dimensional perspectives contained in the concept of westernization.” See his second to last paragraph for him breaching it. He just thinks there are better, more specific terms to address each of those dimensions, that “westernization” as a term has become too ambiguous to be accurate or useful.

          • If Tubs looks into my piece and reflects a bit more, then he’ll find his answers.

            But, Kai, please don’t stop his character assaults *too* quickly; he might become even more outraged (and thus entertaining) if he is allowed to carry on.

          • “Oh well, you probably impress your female students.”

            I think there is some physical attraction going on here amongst some of our commenters, which might explain the short tempers.

            I for one am offended as I have never been on the receiving end of such a passive-aggressive attack, based in part on my physical appearance. I guess I’m just not a hot guy like Kevin, which makes sense since none of my female students has ever been impressed. All of this harms my already fragile ego.

            That’s about as intellectual as I get on a Saturday evening.

          • yangrouchuan

            Kevin made his debut railing against the shame of ethnic jokes by non-white comedians. He had no reply to my point about Jewish self-effacing comedic tradition.

            Kevin does a piss poor job at trying to multidimensionalize western culture. There are many flavors, but many common roots as we are all the sons and daughters of ancient Greece and Rome. Even in Latin America.

            Regardless of the variation on the theme, western brands and their culture of service, variety and adaptation have penetrated and conquered the non-western world. 7-11 and Pizza Hut over there are associated with cool, hip, cutting edge. In the US, the exact opposite. How many westerners do you see at Pizza Hut in Asia compared with local pizza joints?

            What you won’t see is non-western countries importing similar brand types into western countries. Bad service, filth and poor product are regarded as problems in the almighty West, not “the way things are done”.

        • friendo

          Kevin does a piss poor job at trying to multidimensionalize western culture. There are many flavors, but many common roots as we are all the sons and daughters of ancient Greece and Rome. Even in Latin America.

          And Ancient Greece and Rome were the bastard offspring of Egypt and Sumer, which doesn’t really bode well for your “glorious heritage”.

          Regardless of the variation on the theme, western brands and their culture of service, variety and adaptation have penetrated and conquered the non-western world. 7-11 and Pizza Hut over there are associated with cool, hip, cutting edge.

          “Service, variety and adaptation” is one clever way of saying “savagery, vanity and deception”. 7-11 and Pizza Hut are cutting edge? No, it gets that clean image because the third worlders working there have more class than your average American dropout. I’m willing to bet the Pizza Hut an McDonald’s you work at are a mess.

    • King Tubby,

      I think you could’ve numbered your two “non-profound” points for clarity, or added a colon after your introductory sentence. I may have gone to bed late last night but it took me awhile (happens sometimes).

      Westernization is indeed a multi-dimensional notion, but as you said, I think Kevin’s just challenging and criticizing popularized usage. Do you disagree that “westernization” is invoked with an air of progress/superiority at times? I’m not sure how pointing that out, and criticizing it, suggests that Kevin knows “bugger all” about the lifestyles of the rich and famous in China. What’s the relation? Further, what does Han Han have to do with it?

      Not too sure what Kevin said grated you the wrong way, but come on, substituting that “westernization is a multi-dimensional notion”, that it can concern different concepts of life or thought, isn’t exactly profound either. Maybe to some, but when you’re shooting from the hip denouncing Kevin for not being profound…

      Come on, man. What’s going on?

  4. lolz

    As I wrote in another thread I think “Westernize” should be synonymous with “Modernize”, at least for now. I think this mostly has to do with the fact that much of the world today is greatly influenced by some nations in the western hemisphere, namely the US and European nations, who lead the industrial revolution.

    I agree that these nations may not be the first people who originated the ideas which “westernization” are associated with today, but nonetheless the Western nations are responsible for pushing these ideas and standards which they think are important to other nations who hope to learn from these western nations.

    I also agree that the term “westernization” itself implies American/Euro centrism. Heck after reading your essay I feel the term is almost racist. But at the same time it’s difficult to argue that Western nations are NOT the thought leaders on topics surrounding modernization of this world. Let’s be honest here, most of the standards we have from construction to manufacturing to music to politics are set by or greatly influenced by folks in these Western nations. Until people in these Western nations start to not only learn about, but to actually adopt ideas and standards from non-Western nations over their own, I think the term will be heavily used.

    • King Tubby

      A thoughtful response. Im not sure I want to buy an apartment built to Asian building specifications, but that is an aside.

      Its about the role and value placed on the individual in society which distinguishes the East from the West. Individualism will always win hands down over the work unit mentality. Even if some western countries are pretty unpleasant places to live in on a daily basis. And I am not dissing the family institution…thats a universal.

      All this is leading Kevin into some pretty unexplored lines of inquiry.

    • Interesting points. On your first, though, I think relating “modernize” and “westernize” falls victim to many of the same problems. What is “modernized”? Economic development? Quality of life? Healthcare? Food safety? Transportation? And even if it’s not as explicitly preferential, “modernized” also borders on calling any place that is not a “backward” place.

      We might be better to just name the thing itself — e.g. better healthcare. Is there a lot of utility in being to widely label a culture “modern” or “not modern” or “becoming modern”? “Developing” might be more accurate and useful because you can measure it; it can specifically refer to economic numbers of some sort.

      On your second point, historically, is it necessarily true that all “Western” ideas originated in the West? For example, is consumerism a Western notion? Or is it simply the degree of consumerism? The royalty of every major civilization were major consumerists long before the phenomenon was coined in English. Whole societies would be constructed and wars fought to feed the consumerism of the king, queen, and their ilk. The only difference might be that now the average person can be a consumerist — it’s a matter of degree. And if that is the case then logically, is consumerism defined by the number of people or the action?

      On your third point, this is no where near self-evident. The amount of innovation that comes, collectively, out of Asia alone rivals the the combination or Europe and America.

    • Bai Ren

      @lolz, Just when I get ready to key word search this article for ‘modernization’ I come across your piece.
      @Christine, good for you for problematizing the concepts underlying the word westernization.
      @Kevin, I think you are dealing with the issue a tad too superficially if you only criticize the use of the term ‘westernize’ and don’t bother to deal with the global forces and habitus which helped to give rise to the general acceptance of this term.

      Yes, Westernization is related to western brands and methods.
      Yes, the adoption of such multinational firms in ‘non-western’ nations and governing methods are structured in the international dialoge and debate over development. This is because, as we can see in China, modernization carries connotations of participating with (leading) the global economy. This can be seen in the Work Bank, and IMF operational policies to promote development. This is seen in the very fact that development (modernization, or for our case the success of westernization) is judged on a nation’s GDP.
      We live in a neo-liberal world. International norms facilitate the goals of neo-liberalism in their function.
      America, and Western Europe (japan too) dominate in this framework as they host the most successful businesses and abilities to provide their populations with the capital to fulfill lifestyles. The lifestyles these people choose are heavily influenced (to the point of actually being created) by the advertising of the previously mentioned multi-nat firms, and are claimed to bring one happiness and fulfillment.
      Everyone wants the happiness and fulfillment that modernity appears to bestow, and so western business and practices are developed.
      So hail to the M-TV generation of slightly bygone years. May all our locally developed normative values colour and shape the institutions we adopt from others.

  5. whichone

    I agree with most of what is said however I think the definitions mentioned at the end are not at the level of distinction that a lay person can naturally summon when writing (on a blog for example). This is the difference in category formation between experts who are more nuanced in their definition than the rest of us, we see trees and forests while they see sequoias and red woods.

    Moreover I think “westernization” is a description of one way cultural influence phenomenon, we are talking about the target population’s adoption of a foreign culture, if cultural influence in the other direction is being discussed, certainly different words like Sinicization (ok, my browser is telling me that this is actually not a word, but hopefully my point is clear) can be used to focus on a different group of cultural recipients.


    Heck after reading your essay I feel the term is almost racist.

    I lol’d!

    • @whichone: The problem, as I elucidate above, is that in using “Westernize” to describe the adoption of some cultural cards from the West, there is often an assumption that it is the same once adopted. But it’s simply not. *Adaption* is what is taking place, where the cultural bit is mixed into a larger culture. (In my post, I actually made a mistake in one of my usages of “adoption”. In the third usage, I should have said “adaption”.)

      A thought experiment to further this point using your suggestion: do Americans adopt Chinese cultural cards “purely” so that it is a clean trade? Hardly. A good deal of people with Chinese tattoos cannot pronounce the word and American Chinese food joints are hardly what you might find in a typical Chinese city. So they are adapting bits of Chinese culture so that they might resemble the original, but the new version is different in important ways.

  6. Christine

    “Usually they should be saying “developed”, “capitalist”, “democratic”, or “consumerist”. These words carry much more specific meaning than “Westernized”; furthermore, they don’t assume that the West somehow has ownership of these concepts.”

    So you don’t think “developed” and “capitalist” are value-laden concepts imported from the West? What counts as “developed”, according to whom? by what standard? How do you demarcate “developed” from “developing”? Does it really mean anything to homogenize China with other so-called “developing countries” such as Cambodia and Myanmar?

    Secondly, I don’t think these alternatives are more specific than “westernization”. “Capitalism” is never an unambiguous concept from the outset. Heilbroner wrote of capitalism as a form of emancipation of the wage-labor relationship over enserfed labor; Adam Smith conceived “capitalism” as the great expansion in commodity production for the enlargement of the national fund of capital; Marx took a similar but divergent view of capitalism as the wealth that is accumulated in capitalist systems as commodities produced for sale rather than for direct use by their owners and reinvested in production….The point is, these terms are not as uncontested as you want them to be.

    It is more sensible to contextualize these grand concepts on a case-to-case basis. In HK, where I was born and raised, I think it’s appropriate to (sadly) characterize the manifestation of globalization as westernization. Partly due to the lingering effect of 155 years of British colonial rule, partly a cultural predisposition towards “monetary fetishism”, most HK people do not pay attention to the cultural dynamics in the global economy. Since the average purchasing power is still stronger in the “West” (however this is used), this is what matters to most people in HK.

    It seems to me the issue here is not with the particular case of “westernization” but the level of specificity/abstraction for a globally theorized concept to terms with the diversity of locally inflected phenomenon. I am sympathetic to your concern here over the theoretical validity of “westernization” but it doesn’t appear to me how the alternatives you suggest are any “better” (as evident from my assessment) in encompassing the complexity of reality.

    • @Christine

      First, the idea of contexualizing is, in part, what I was getting at. So I agree with you there.

      Second, despite my agreement that cultures are highly contextual, I also believe that there are phenomenons and traits that link all humans in more objective ways. So, in terms of the alternatives, the aim of my article was not to create *the* definitive term to replace Westernize. Rather, I was suggesting that there are other, more measurable or specific concepts that can be used to describe a place or group of people.

      To look specifically at “capitalized”, for example, despite some difference in the flavorings of different theorists, I think that we could both agree on some indicators that could, generally speaking, describe a more capitalist economy (because capitalism is, after all, a combination of factors that constitutes a larger concept). For example, proportion of private ownership, freedom of capital, or average time/capital required to start a business.

      Even if you apply the above method (of linking indicators to a concept) to “Westernization”, it is problematic because of the reasons I list in my article. *This* is the difference. “Westernization” is too often thrown in as a lazy catchall and there is no semblance of an agreed-upon definition — as opposed to development, capitalism, or consumerism, which all have a wealth of literature from which one can assemble a valid definition.

      • Christine

        Calling for a critical reflection on the use of westernization is different from abandoning the term in favor of other equally questionable terms. The popular usage of westernization is sloppy, yes; but the problems associated with the use of westernization (sweeping generalization, aura of Euro-centrism, ignoring regional dynamics and differentials etc) are hardly specific to westernization.

        My proposition is not that there is no commonality among human behaviors across cultural contexts, but these commonalities are constantly evolving and transformed by new forms of interactions in the new global order. To me, it is much more interesting and meaningful to examine the process by which and the (social and technical) conditions under which the history of human culture is written.

  7. Kevin, I agree with you that the issue of the use of the term Westernization generates more heat than light. Indeed, while the terms “Western” and “Westernization” seems to make sense, especially when one sees KFCs in Beijing or 7/11s in Taiwan, their meanings rapidly fuzz upon reflection. Would Germans, English, or Frenchmen, e.g. Westerners, consider KFC as being representative of their respective cultures? Moreover, are the land masses of Central and South America included as being “Westerns”? Like all generalizations, “Westernization” is just another quick and sloppy way of describing a phenomenon among individuals who prefer quick and sloppy thinking.

  8. Terry

    Funny, I was thinking there should be a post on this subject when I was tempted to get off purpose and go back and forth with lolz on the “westernization” on the recent Stupid American blog. And lo and behold: it shows up!!

    lolz, we agree on many things, but:

    “the Western nations are responsible for pushing these ideas and standards which they think are important to other nations who hope to learn from these western nations.”

    I have to disagree that “nations” or “states” are the actors here rather than the sum total of individual discoveries of other culture through various mechanism inclusive of media, internet, corporate actors etc. Through the vehicle of travel and trade over the centuries, cultures and peoples have been learning from each other (paper, gunpowder, arabic numerals and yes McDonald’s and hip hop) and are absorbed and adapted as well. I personally believe that Daoism had a direct impact on the Enlightenment and classical liberal thought in the West.

    Maybe we are moving towards a more global culture with the revolutions in transportation and communication (certainly feels that way with youth culture), and I agree that calling all this Westernization (along with a touch of the “western” love of feeling guilty) is misleading and arrogant.

    Great post Kevin!

    I actually started formulating my thoughts on the imprecise modernization alternative to westernization when I first lived in Taiwan in the 1970’s at a time when all we had for American fast food was weak attempt at a McDonald’s copy called Ma Ma G’s!!

  9. I’m antisemantic myself, but I think people understand the negative connotations of “Westernization” and find the term useful. I’m most familiar with Shanghai, and I don’t think there’s any redemption in the fact that Starbucks there sells moon cakes or that McDonald’s has taro pies. The issue for me is that Western chains displace more culturally appropriate local small enterprises. To take the example of Starbucks, that company has more outlets in Shanghai than in San Francisco, and they exist primarily to serve expats. Starbucks can do this through unfair economic leverage; they have Chinese labor and overhead costs, but charge American prices. (Starbucks would LIKE Chinese to get hooked on its coffee, of course, but that in itself is a form of cultural imperialism for which “Westernization” is a useful shorthand.) When I’m in China it’s to experience the joys that are unique to China, not get my Starbucks fix, and every time I spot a Starbucks (or McDonalds, or KFC or Pizza Hut) outlet I wonder what mom and pop dumpling shop may have been displaced by an icon of Western capitalism.

    • yangrouchuan

      You could say the same about mom and pop coffee shops in western countries displaced by starbucks, etc.

      So is starbucks a frontal assault of western/american culture in itself? Especially when you see chinese or chinese/foreigned owned coffee shops, pizza shops popping up all over the place.

      Is it the company name or the product/service that is offered “westernized”?

    • “When I’m in China it’s to experience the joys that are unique to China, not get my Starbucks fix…”

      I take your point and have often felt the same way in China. But these dots of ‘westernization’ are nothing compared to, say, Chinatown in NYC, which anyone who’s visited that fine city would agree adds to the cosmopolitan flavour.

      And although I question the taste of those that would seek a Big Mac for breakfast in China (or anywhere else, for that matter), Starbucks are really a grade above this kind of slop in terms of interior design, company ethos, and sophistication. They even have magazines with words of more than two syllables and don’t run their houses on the ‘kindergarten model’.

      That said, I’ve only ever visited one Starbucks (waiting for a flight out of Chengdu) in China, preferring instead the uniquely ‘Chinese’ way of doing things in ‘western’ – style coffee bars under local patronage. When confined to the city, these are the places to go to get your material for your next letter home.

      • friendo

        Chinatown in NYC, which anyone who’s visited that fine city would agree adds to the cosmopolitan flavour.

        The scale of it is different. The West has pushed itself over 33% of the world’s land mass, and 90% of the best land. There’s a difference between taking a few streets and taking a few nations.

  10. Interesting thoughts. I haven’t read through the entire comments section (I stopped after reading about how your female students probably adore you?) so I don’t know if this has already been addressed:

    So if the term “westernization” needs to be rethought, which term should replace it? Globalization seems to general, but is that what you’re getting at?

    • Hey Josh,

      I understand your desire to just jump ship at the first sign of insults above — really, I do — but there should be some more commenting below that original bit that gets at your worthwhile question. Just search the page for my name and see the related comments.

      After that, see what you think about the alternative issue and give me your thoughts.

  11. yangrouchuan

    I think we know what Kevin’s Fulbright scholarship research is based on.

    But he picked Taiwan?

  12. King Tubby

    How do you go about considering the history of consumerism? It is certainly not one seamless narrative of ever expanding consumption, initially restricted to the nobility, then expanded to include the emergent capital classes (mostly manufacturers) and finally the masses -us guys.

    Looking at feudal Europe, the sovereign and nobility at the apex of the social pyramid, the consumption of luxury goods (furs, fabric, jewellery) was strictly regulated by sumptuary laws. And were commissioned directly in limited quantities for courtly consumption.

    This is a far cry from the type of mass, democratic consumption we are witnessing today, framed within advertising campaigns focussing on utility (soap powder, kimbies), fun (global fast food outlets, pepsi cola) or desire and noveau rich public display – eye shopping for the super rich – high end jewellery, maseritis and the like, to mention but three axis, and thinking of China here.
    (These techiques were pioneered in the west in the 1920s by the likes of Edward Bernays and others).

    My points if there are any. Modern advertising *techniques*/shaping and organising patterns of consumption for profit are East-West neutral. Types of consumption and consumerism are specific to time, place/social formation and Marx’s mode of production. (Thanking Christine here for a great return to conceptual basics.)

    Kai and Kevin. Peace.

    • Good points. But doesn’t the variation in consumption patterns between society’s and time make a bold claim like “consumption is Western” either 1) inaccurate or 2) meaningless enough not to employ? Even if can somehow be proven that mass, democratic consumption began as a phenomenon in a Western society, what is the utility of declaring it a part of “Westernization”?

      There are places in the broad, diverse West that still haven’t adopted the degree of consumerism that many places in the East have done. What do we do about this common disconnect for the validity of “Westernization”? For example, the amount of consumerism (in sheer numbers) in Kaohsiung, Taiwan probably outpaces even Washington DC, despite the latter being one of the “centers” of the Western world.

      • Bai Ren

        The west was the first to develop consumer based economies. Consumerism facilitates the political aims of neo-liberal theory.

        Now if we want to be Marxist (or better yet Hegelian) historians and claim that all human progression occurs along a certain epistemological/social organizational path, then we can call this development or modernization instead of westernization.

        Or we can say that other countries totally independent from the compelling soft power dominance of the West in constructing international norms self developed their own consumerism.

        But it is probably most accurate to acknowledge that although consumption has been around since time immemorial, that consumer based political economies haven’t as-such. And that because it has proved to be very sucessful for the ‘cool kids on the block’ that the others want to give it a try to. And inevitability do it in their own distinct way.

        Westernization needn’t be totally encompassing, but it is recognition of trajectories. And yes I too am waiting for less enthnocentric discussion about how instead of westernizing yoga, the west is being easternized. Alas it appears that ethnocentricism is too compelling and Sinoization has picked up speed

        • I’m going to need clarification on this: “Westernization needn’t be totally encompassing, but it is recognition of trajectories.”

          So, are you saying that ‘a consumer-based political economy having first gained ground in some Western countries that industrialized earlier’ is evidence that countries who adopted such a model later are necessarily copying the consumer model from the West?

          I’m just a bit confused in your ultimate argument — truly, I’m not being coy — because you say we could look at this from a more generalist/Marxist/Hegelian perspective (which would rid of the one-way direction of consumerism to the East from the West), yet at the same time, you seem to be arguing that it could be either a Western or more generally human phenomenon.

          You offer two options, but don’t really resolve which one is the accurate model. They cannot both account for the same change in any given society because they are opposite forces.

          Anyway, if you are tired of making your point, then I can be happy with a “?” on the consumerism issue. But the very fact that we are now discussing the direction and history of *consumerism* rather than the more murky term “Westernization” may prove my original point.

          • Christine

            Everything has a history. Returning to Slaten’s subject matter, what would a semantic history of westernization look like?

            The widespread interest on the self-congratulatory concept of “westernization” began in the 18th C, when the “West” apparently took control over the “rest”. The influential scholarly writings of important thinkers like Adam Smith, Max Weber, and Thomas Malthus invariably pursue one theme: what are the distinct factors that could explain the rise of European superiority over the rest of the conquerors? The nature of law and institution, the Protestant ethics, and moral restraint on reproductive checks are offered by each of them respectively to account for the apparent differences that these scholars see as historically inevitable. The term “westernization” is not rigorously examined in western literature because the idea in and of itself is assumed to be axiomatic under the world order of 18th C. Ethno-centrism is not generally considered as a problem due to the imperative of imperialism and that of objectivity (“statements of fact are one thing, statements of value another, and any confusing of the two is impermissible” as Weber famously declared). Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that from the beginning the term itself lacks theoretical specificity and empirical adequacy.

            Much has been written on modifying these crude explanatory accounts to adapt to the changing historical reality without modifying the central thesis. Wallerstein followed Weber’s footstep in contrasting feudalism in Europe and despotism in the East to further his contention of the expansion of a world market system. Landes saw the European advantage stemming from the secular political system and the republican ideal in the classical world. The latest published book of Landes is dated as recent as 1998, entitled “The wealth and poverty of nations: why some are so rich and some so poor”. Landes’ and Wallerstein’s works are almost eviscerated by anthropologists and historians like Blaut and Goody.

            It is conceivable to strip westernization away from the above list of literature. Specially each scholar is dealing not with westernization per se, but the manifest attributes of western advantages. However the question in the form of “why does capitalism/consumerism/modernization/scientific revolution emerge in the West?” is situated within the unreflexive context of westernization, which itself is an ideological backdrop supporting the epistemic construction of this set of questions. Without the assumption of European superiority, these questions won’t even be raised in the first place.

            From this brief and somewhat hasty historical portrayal of westernization, it is evident that westernization is historically employed to underline the ascent of European power in many social aspects. My point is not that we should continue the unreflexive use of westernization but recognizing the historical bias of the alternatives you suggest (which I think are largely avatars of westernization) is perhaps as important as (if not more important than) casting doubt on the current uncritical use of westernization.

          • @Christine

            A appreciate the interesting semantic history you’ve shared, and as a person know appreciates the validity of ideas, I think such analyses are critical to understanding current usage.

            At the same time, getting back to the issue of alternatives, I will make it clear that, again, my piece was not meant to offer a full-proof argument (if such a thing exists anyway) for the usage of other terms. Yet in most of your comments, you finish with a consistent theme: nothing else is really valid to use either because these other terms are also colored by their epistemological evolution.

            True. I will be the first to admit that language — all of it — is undoubtedly influenced by its history. But given that, we need to ask whether a term is, now, still valid and useful based on the context in which it is used. Because while history (as you’ve eloquently described) is critical, the counter-acting force is *communication*.

            In a day and age where thousands of article — millions? — get published daily, we have to have a common lingo by which to continue certain important streams of ideas. ‘Capitalism’ may be heavily influenced by the writings of Western, ethnocentric thinkers, but despite that, as I’ve mentioned above, the concept still has validity because of the work of current thinkers and their efforts to define the term clearly — and strive to keep the integrity of the term.

            Is ‘capitalism’ air-tight? No. But if you want to argue that its current usage in scholarly and common language is less conceptually valid than Westernization, then I’m willing to sit on the opposing side because I think that the evidence would weigh in my direction.

            Again, thanks for the really thoughtful answer on the history.

          • Sorry to interject but excellent points and responses by both of you. This is the kind of conversation I think people can learn a lot from, challenging our assumptions, even if the vocabulary is a bit nerdcore.

        • King Tubby

          Bai Ren

          I lost my post to you but will send the link again.


          And I will leave you with a thought.

          People have been condemming the westocentric nature of existing conceptual models because they cannot escape the baggage of Western exceptionalism. Jacques Martin reads like the reverse side of the same coin.
          Nothing like an apostate Marxist.

          • Terry

            Thank you so much for that link King Tubby. Perry Anderson’s reviews and writing in it were truly wonderful to behold.

  13. friendo

    The reason why these markers of Taiwanese culture remain is because there is “anti-Westernization” sentiment. It’s natural for people to cling onto their culture, and it happens at every place and at every time.

  14. Chip

    An interesting point that might be made is the fact that in China you rarely hear the word “westernization” 西方化,it’s almost always called modernization 现代化。

    • Likewise in Taiwan. Actually, there’s often talk of too much capitalism or needless consumerism. But, notably, this is coming from the parents or adults, not from the young people and kids who are buying all the stuff!

  15. yangrouchuan

    A horse of any color is still a horse.

  16. B-real

    Not to sound out of context but, does this mean we should stop calling them “western toilets”? Japan and Korea has modernized or updated their hole in the ground “eastern toilets”. But when you go to venues in asia, it is often common to hear the term “western toilets”. China maybe modernizing, but in some aspects in favor of the west. Just my simplified 2 fen. Continue argument educated people.

    • Haha. Don’t underplay your own intelligence.

      You make a good point and this is *exactly* where using the term “Western” or “Western-style” might make sense. But notice the specificity of use. It is applied to a toilet which can be clearly traced back to having been influenced by Western designs.

      My argument is never that the “West” is not influencing places around the world. My argument is that “Westernization” writ-large is inaccurate, within the West itself there is tons of variation, it is not a one-way street, and the term often carries a scent of superiority.

      • yangrouchuan

        Western style is being adapted because of its demonstrated superiority.

        And I’ll focus on toilets as someone else brought them up. Squatting toilets allow one to completely compress the intestines, pushing out more. But various intestinal issues can lead to “misses” to put it politely. And the toilets do not clean themselves well.

        Customer service is a great focal point for this discussion.

  17. Kim Slaten

    Great observations Kev!

  18. King Tubby

    Ah Christine. You are hitting us on the head with your PhD research. Deja vu reading, but fun. To be brief. All epistemological theories of knowledge/explanatory structures/models should be cast aside because of their totalising, ambitious nature, interlocking network of major and minor concepts, each with its own evidential field, and which simply function to confirm an initial thesis: in this case western exceptional. Cf Bachelard’s concept of problematic.
    Discard this big view of knowledge formation and you wont have to torture yourself reading Ricardo and Landes. While I cried when I had to dump my water logged library at the tip. In retrospect, it was a great release. Discovered the joys of cartoon posts and gave into my Dorian Grey bad side.

  19. Christine

    Thanks, I should learn how to become a reformed semiotician from Slaten. Enjoy the exchange so far~

  20. Agreed, sir.

    I would argue that most uses of Westernization come from a disguised form of ethnocentrism and cultural chauvinism.

    Just because it has the name (711, Pizza Hut, etc) doesn’t mean the culture is the same. Rather, these companies have done a magnificent job of adapting to the cultures of the market they want to enter.

    Those people who attack “Westernization” are also those who blame globalization for all the world’s ills. But, I would say, we had problems before globalization and (for all its shortcomings) it is now helping us break down barriers, freeing up stored energy, and is generally a positive phenomenon.

    • I agree with you all on but a single of your points: I am no fan of the term “Westernization”, but I think that globalization has some notable benefits — if, by globalization, we mean the process by which the world becomes more interconnected in various ways. Globalization itself, due to all of its flavors — e.g., economic, cultural, security, environmental, technological — is too broad for me to simply say “it is good for the world”, but in many important respects, there are advantages.

  21. King Tubby


    Glad you found a benefit. It is Benedict Anderson brother of Perry Anderson, convenor of the now defunct New Left Review. The second got all the publicity (private income) ,but his brother Benedict published about 15 years later and had a ton more to say: Imagined Communities being his must read. Check it out, you wont regret the 20$.
    My personal history.
    Hey, this site is getting pretty interesting.

  22. Mike

    Very well written. I’d like to see someone come up with a cohesive definition of what just “Western” means. And where countries like Poland stand. Are they “Western”? No one knows.


    oh dear. Everyone always mixes politics with culture, religion with tradition, history with propaganda,
    conspiracy with economics and gets debating XD. I am from Britain (insert Great if brave), one of the oldest err so called western nations to have had interacted (or was that interfere with) with err the eastern nations (funny that phrase hasn’t stuck and neither has the phrase easterner) and i think an important point to all this is being missed. WE…ARE…ALL…HUMAN. We should respect and enjoy our err differences on how we view “each” other.
    Just remember back home in the UK there is a battered and twisted sign which does state “please do not throw stones at this sign”. There is no perceived problem till someone claims one exists XD.

  24. Nob

    This article is very true. The term “Westernisation” is essentialy meaningless, and as a ‘westerner’ I have no idea what it means. Having lived in several countries I know the social and cultural differences within the western hemisphere as stark and diverse as anywher else on the planet (try comparing France v. Germany, or the USA v. Sweden). I notice the term tends to be used by people ignorant of other cultures, or fearful of change within their own – the latter usually a defensive reaction to the fast pace of globalisation today.

  25. fhorseface

    I, like Kevin, also live in Taiwan and think the majority of his well written piece is nonsense. The best definition I’ve seen for Westernization is this: The relatively uncritical adoption of first European and then North America cultural and sociopolitical attitudes and practices on the part of the non-European and non – North American world.

    It is not the replication of the western culture in another geography, it is the gleaning of that which is western that has societal, economic or cultural appeal.

    Kevin’s treatment of the term is superficial and misses the nuance that the word westernization embodies.

    There is no need to abandon a term, but to better define it, so that no room for misunderstanding exists.


    • “the majority of his well written piece is nonsense”.

      What an extraordinary ability to make me all fuzzy inside and make me cry in the same short sentence!

      “It is not the replication of the western culture in another geography, it is the gleaning of that which is western that has societal, economic or cultural appeal.”

      How does my metaphor of a deck of “cultural cards” describe something wholly different from your description. We seem to agree, but you’re angry enough to be oppositionally defiant.

      “The best definition I’ve seen for Westernization is this: The relatively uncritical adoption of first European and then North America cultural and sociopolitical attitudes and practices on the part of the non-European and non – North American world.”

      Please define “North American cultural and sociopolitical attitudes and practices”.

  26. L

    Many of the comments seem to miss the point: there is no replacement word for westernization. It’s such a fuzzy concept that anything can be described as western-ish. You have to go back to the person who used the word and ask them what they really meant.

    Eighty percent of the time their true meaning is “not us”, i.e. foreign, but in some indistinct way. The reality is that the word “western” is usually a negative stereotype. It’s modernization but in a bad way (e.g. Starbucks in the Forbidden City) or it’s consumerism while there is a famine or it’s America supporting Israel after an air strike on Gaza, and so on.

    It’s very convenient to bundle all the bad things together and tell yourselves it’s foreign and not really our way. On the other side of the fence, we’re all growing sick and tired of being the scapegoat for the ills of the world.

Continuing the Discussion