In the broadest sense, the Idea of Progress is a belief that technological, scientific, socio-political advancement will eventually improve the quality of life, happiness, and well-being of one’s society. In the West, it is a concept which can be traced back to ancient Greece, ancient Rome and Early Christian times. It is an overwhelming and recurring theme in intellectual movements like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In his book History of the Idea of Progress, Robert Nisbet has summarised the five core premises of the Idea of Progress:
1.Value of the past, 2.Nobility of Western civilization, 3.Worth of economic/technological growth, 4.Faith in reason and scientific/scholarly knowledge obtained through reason, 5.Intrinsic importance and worth of life on earth.
Thinkers such as Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Adam Ferguson, John Stuart Mills, and Herbert Spencer had all identified Progress as an unquestionable prerequisite of human advancement. To offer one example, since the late 19th century Marxism was one of the dominant forces of the Idea of Progress. Although scholars, governments and the general public in the West have subsequently challenged the Idea of Progress, Chinese intellectuals embraced the idea and implemented it since the late 19th century. As Metzger puts, “… the Western promise of material progress was welcomed not by people with just the normal human desire for rising living standards but by people for whom this very question of ‘the people’s livelihood’ was philosophically of the utmost importance.”2 Cheng Kuan-ying (18421923) and Kang Yowei (1858-1927) were the notable scholars who militantly supported such idea. This can be seen, for instance, when Cheng Kuan-ying two mountains. Yu Gong and his family, as the story goes, then lived happily ever after.
This Chinese version of the “Übermensch” was an ancient idol for Mao’s China.5 That passage from Lie Zi had been the most cited story, quoted by Chairman Mao Zedong, his party members and citizens. It was an ancient fairy tale justifying a secular myth. The moral behind the story was not only about individual self-determination. It also praised the selflessness, selfreliance, faith and honesty of the Chinese communist society.6 More importantly, the moral of the story was a political tool to justify the party slogan that “Man can conquer nature” (人定勝天). Chinese citizens, according to Mao and his Party, had to learn from Yu Gong by gathering every power, resource, and ounce of energy to conquer every challenge. Specifically, nature, like mountains, can be altered, corrected and modified to suit the needs of the communist society. In other words, Heaven can be conquered by the “general will” of the Chinese proletariat.
Published in Political Reflection Magazine Vol. 3 No. 4