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How is the modern world different from previous periods of history and why did it come into existence when and where it did? (Dr. Stephen Davies, Institute of Economic Affairs)

Runan Lin, Georgetown Preparatory School, United States

Winner of the 2020 History Prize ​| 7 min read 












Picture a country that is the global leader in terms of military strength and political influence. It has a complex law code that governs all parts of the population regardless of their social or economic status; it plays a major role in global trade and maintains a vibrant industrial system divided into public and private sectors; this is a country whose population comes from different cultures and has various religious affiliations, including but not limited to Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam; this country practices the idea of meritocracy - selecting government officials on the base of merit - and has a complex system of government built upon the balance of power. This country is also unrivaled globally in civil and military technology, its inventions being spread across continents.

This country, of course, is China during the Tang and Song dynasties. The “complex law code” refers to the law code of the Tang Dynasty, which went through three major modifications and included four distinct forms of law enforcement;[1] meritocracy is exercised through the Keju examination system; the “complex system of government” refers to the “Three Departments and Six Ministries” model, which divides the government into three major branches and six subordinating ministries; advanced “civil and military technology” is exemplified in the development of gunpowder and the introduction of paper currency. Indeed, for many living during the Tang-Song period, this was the pinnacle of civilization, their “modern” society.[2]

The Oxford Dictionary defines the concept of modern as “[pertaining to] the present time or recent times.”[3] The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains modernity as “the self-definition of a generation about its own technological innovation, governance, and socioeconomics,” and the key phrase in this explanation is “self-definition of a generation.[4] This essay aims to reconsider the questions of how, why, when, and where the modern world came into existence, and what sets it apart from the pre-modern world. Instead of tying the emergence of the modern world to a specific time and place, this work will analyze several historical periods to suggest that the definition of modernity is extremely subjective and that this concept manifests itself differently in various times and places.

Since modernity is, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “a self-definition of a generation,” the concepts of modernity and of a modern society have been subject to different interpretations at different time periods. For example, the United States considered itself to be the “City upon a Hill,” the beacon of liberty and the avant-garde in democracy and human rights. American Exceptionalism was a common theme since the founding of the young republic, and Thomas Jefferson famously described the United States in the following words:

[The United States was] trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence. All mankind ought then, with us, to rejoice in its prosperous, and sympathize in its adverse fortunes, as involving every thing dear to man.[5]


The founding fathers had indeed provided their citizens with more personal and political freedom under a democratic elective government, and, at the time, the United States did indeed seem modern. However, only several decades later, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois would go on to challenge Jefferson’s perception of America as the epitome of modernity and freedom and the best realization of Enlightenment ideals by pointing to the institution of slavery and to racial injustice. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the US was at the forefront of modernity in terms of industrial developments, activists such as Elizabeth C. Stanton criticised the society’s unequal and backward treatment of women in social, economic, and political spheres. What was thought to be modern in the 19th and early 20th centuries became obsolete within a matter of a few decades, once again demonstrating that the understanding of modernity changes over time.

Even within the same historical period, however, modernity remains an extremely subjective concept that could be interpreted differently in different places and cultures. In the Middle Ages, Europe saw little progress under the shadows of feudalism and manorialism, while the Islamic World and China were entering their respective “golden ages.” In the Middle Ages, the Islamic World was reaching unprecedented heights in cultural and scientific advancements. Mathematician al-Khwarizmi created the concept of algebra, Arab scholars in Cordoba translated and preserved the works of great Greco-Roman writers, and Muslim scholars made remarkable progress in medicine and navigation technology.[6] At the same time, Song Dynasty China was going through a golden age similar to that in the Islamic World. Therefore, while a resident of Song Dynasty China would have considered paper currency, thousand-miles-long canals, and civil service examinations to be modern, a contemporary Western European would have never heard of gunpowder, compasses, spices of Asia, and social mobility and would have seen the heavy plough as the pinnacle of modernity.[7]

When Europeans first discovered the American continent and came into contact with the natives, the Aztecs must have thought that Tenochtitilan was the most developed city of the world, and firearms, written languages, and the Renaissance were definitely not included in their definition “modernity.” Similarly, during the Industrial Age, Emperor Qianlong of Qing Dynasty wrote a letter to King George III of the United Kingdom in which he claimed that “...our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures [sic] of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.”[8] At the time of this letter (1793), Great Britain was embroiled in the new ideas of the Enlightenment and the inception of the Industrial Revolution and was considered to be the most advanced nation in terms of its military and civilian technology. While an 18th-century European would have defined modernity in terms of factorial production, voting, and republicanism, a citizen of the Qing Empire would have had a vastly different interpretation of the term. This is reflected in Qianlong’s belief that the Celestial Empire possessed “all things in prolific abundance and lacked no product within its own borders” and therefore did not need to be modernized any further.[9]

In each of the examples above, it is clear that interpretations of the concept of “modern” differ drastically across time and space. Many scholars, including those not coming from a Western background, believe that the Enlightenment marks the beginning of the modern world.[10] However, if these criteria are applied to the contemporary world, then countries that do not have a democratic or republican form of government or do not otherwise conform to the western standards of modernity would have no place in our shared modernity. Such a Western-centric approach dismisses the cultural and scientific innovations that non-Western civilizations have made throughout history, thus contributing to the establishment of the modern world from which they are now excluded. While the Western understanding of modernity is becoming more prevalent around the world due to globalization, the contemporary world still does not have a unified definition of “modern,” nor do people in different parts of today’s world experience modernity in the same way. Even in the 21st century, absolute monarchs retain their power in kingdoms such as Saudi Arabia and Brunei,[11] despite the fact that this system of government goes against the ideals of natural rights, republicanism, and democracy. Even throughout the Western world, undisputedly “modern” to most, is still plagued by issues such as slavery and human trafficking, as well as the remnants of racial discrimination rooted in slavery. 12.3 million people remain under some form of forced labor, and at least 10,000 of them are in the United States - the number would increase further if the incarcerated population were included in this statistic.[12] Stories of forced laborers being moved across huge tracts of land and being abused along the way frequently make us question our socioeconomic definition of “modern.”

In all of the three main factors defining modernity according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica - technological innovation, governance, and socio-economics - the world had never before, has not yet, and probably never will, reach a consensus. In terms of technological innovation, the internet could not be accessed by 89.3% of the households in Africa and 52.4% in Asia and the Middle East.[13] In terms of governance, the debate ensues in terms of the balance between individual freedom and security ever since John Locke’s proposal of a social contract theory. The discrepancy among attitudes towards socio-economics upheld by various nations is even more extensive and complex. Taking these three factors into consideration, it is impossible to identify a specific point in history during which everyone in the world lived according to the same definition of modernity, which suggests that the concept of modernity is subject to individual interpretation and that there has never been and never will be a universal “modern world.”


1 Li Linfu, Tang Liudian, ed. Jiuling Zhang (Shangwu Yinshuguan, 1978).

2 Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, trans. Shiyu Zhao, Shiling Zhao, and Hongyan Zhang (Jinan, Shandong: Shandong Huabao Press, 2001), pp.76-92; 98-105.

3 “Modern,” Oxford Learner's Dictionaries, accessed June 12, 2020,

4 Sharon L. Snyder, “Modernity,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., May 20, 2016),

5 Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson to the Citizens of Washington, D.C., 4 March.,” National Archives and Records Administration (National Archives and Records Administration), accessed June 13, 2020,

6 Amira K. Bennison, The Great Caliphs: the Golden Age of the Abbasid Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2014), pp.181-186.

7 “China in 1000 CE,” The Song Dynasty in China (Asia for Educators, Columbia University, 2020),; Thomas Barnebeck Andersen, Peter S. Jensen, and Christian Skovsgaard, “The Heavy Plough and the Agricultural Revolution in Medieval Europe,” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2013,

8 Qianlong, “Letter to George III, 1793,” Internet History Sourcebooks (Fordham University, 2020),

9 Qianlong, “Letter to George III, 1793,” Internet History Sourcebooks (Fordham University, 2020),

10 Yi Junqing, and Lingmei Fan, "Dimensions of Modernity and Their Contemporary Fate," Frontiers of Philosophy in China 1, no. 1 (2006): 6-21, Accessed June 15, 2020. This article serves as a good example ofto the argument above, with the authors - both Chinese- beginning by defining modernity as “the cultural schemata and mechanisms of social action stemming from the Enlightenment.”

11 Harry St. John Bridger Philby, William L. Ochsenwald, and Joshua Teitelbaum, “Saudi Arabia,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, iInc., June 13, 2020),; Ooi Jin Bee, Mohamad Yusop Damit, and Pushpa Thambipillai, “Brunei,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., June 15, 2020),

12 Rodger Doyle, "Modern Slavery," Scientific American 294, no. 1 (2006): 30, Accessed June 16, 2020.

13 Marcus Leaning, “Internet Accessibility Continental Comparison,” UNESCO, accessed June 23, 2020,



Andersen, Thomas Barnebeck, Peter S. Jensen, and Christian Skovsgaard. “The Heavy Plough and the Agricultural Revolution in Medieval Europe.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2013.


Bennison, Amira K. The Great Caliphs: the Golden Age of the Abbasid Empire. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2014.


Bee, Ooi Jin, Mohamad Yusop Damit, and Pushpa Thambipillai. “Brunei.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., June 15, 2020.


“China in 1000 CE.” The Song Dynasty in China. Asia for Educators, Columbia University, 2020.


Doyle, Rodger. "Modern Slavery." Scientific American 294, no. 1 (2006): 30. Accessed June 16,



Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Translated by Shiyu Zhao, Shiling Zhao, and Hongyan Zhang. Jinan, Shandong: Shandong Huabao Press, 2001.


Hunter, Shireen T. "Can Islam and Modernity Be Reconciled?" Insight Turkey 11, no. 3 (2009): 1-12. Accessed June 15, 2020.


Leaning, Marcus. “Internet Accessibility Continental Comparison.” Internet Accessibility.


UNESCO. Accessed June 23, 2020.


Linfu, Li. Tang Liudian. Edited by Jiuling Zhang. Shangwu Yinshuguan, 1978.

“Modern.” Oxford Learner's Dictionaries. Accessed June 12, 2020.


Qianlong. “Letter to George III, 1793.” Internet History Sourcebooks. Fordham University, 2020. From E. Backhouse and J.

O. P. Bland, Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 322-331


Snyder, Sharon L. “Modernity.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., May 20, 2016.


“Thomas Jefferson to the Citizens of Washington, D.C., 4 March 1809,” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March


1809 to 15 November 1809, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004, pp. 13–14.]


Yi, Junqing, and Lingmei Fan. "Dimensions of Modernity and Their Contemporary Fate." Frontiers of Philosophy in China 1, no. 1 (2006): 6-21. Accessed June 15, 2020.

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