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Global Space and the Nationalist Discourse of Modernity: The Historical Thinking of Liang Qichao / Edition 1

Global Space and the Nationalist Discourse of Modernity: The Historical Thinking of Liang Qichao / Edition 1

by Xiaobing Tang
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This book reexamines the historical thinking of Liang Qichao (1873-1929), one of the few modern Chinese thinkers and cultural critics whose appreciation of the question of modernity was based on first-hand experience of the world space in which China had to function as a nation-state. It seeks to demonstrate that Liang was not only a profoundly paradigmatic modern Chinese intellectual but also an imaginative thinker of worldwide significance. By tracing the changes in Liang's conception of history, the author shows that global space inspired both Liang's longing for modernity and his critical reconceptualization of modern history. Spatiality, or the mode of determining spatial organization and relationships, offers a new interpretive category for understanding the stages in Liang's historical thinking.
Liang's historical thinking culminated in a global imaginary of difference, which became most evident in the shift from his earlier proposal for a uniform national history to one that mapped "cultural history." His reaffirmation of spatiality, a critical concept overshadowed by the modernist obsession with time and history, made it both necessary and possible for him to redesign the project of modernity. Finally, the author suggests that the reconciliation of anthropological space with historical time that Liang achieved makes him abundantly contemporary with our own time, both inextricably modern and postmodern.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804725835
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 04/01/1996
Edition description: 1
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.37(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.07(d)
Lexile: 1620L (what's this?)

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Global Space and the Nationalist Discourse of Modernity

The Historical Thinking of Liang Qichao

By Xiaobing Tang


Copyright © 1996 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-6474-2


History Imagined Anew: Liang Qichao in 1902

The year 1902, the fourth year of Liang's political exile in Japan, witnessed the birth of Liang Qichao the New Historian. It also marked a high point in his career as a giant man of letters. Through his prolific writings, Liang Qichao found a way to make the changes of his time narratable as part of the global history of the arrival of modernity. The central, historicizing narrative was provided by nationalist discourse, which introduced to Liang a new and dynamic spatiotemporal regime.

Liang's intellectual energy and versatility are abundantly demonstrated in the scores of diverse articles he authored in this one year. They range from expansive essays such as Discourse on the New Citizen and "On the General Development of Chinese Scholarship and Thought" to more specific studies like "A Private Proposal for Financial Reform in China" and "A Brief History of the Development of Economic Theory." Other indications of his broad interests are his introductions to and biographies of personalities as varied as Darwin, Montesquieu, Kossuth, Mazzini, Descartes, Bentham, Kidd, and Aristotle. Also during this period, Liang wrote political commentaries on current domestic and world affairs and contributed to the development of a nascent reform literature by tirelessly promoting contemporary poetry. His notes on poetry would later be published as the influential Poetic Commentary from the Ice-Drinker's Studio. All these voluminous writings first appeared in the New Citizen Journal, one of two journals that Liang Qichao operated virtually single-handedly. Meanwhile, for the other journal, New Fiction, he composed, among other things, his major political novel, The Future of New China,and, in keeping with his intense interest in the future as a realm of anticipation, he wrought a rather liberal translation, presumably from Japanese, of Camille Flammarion's dark La fin du monde (1896). In addition, Liang's manifesto-like essay on the social function of a new form of fiction overtly stressed the moral content of literary representation and struck the keynote of modern Chinese literature.

Looking back many years later at this prodigiously productive period, Liang Qichao (speaking of himself in the historical third person) would express a well-deserved pride in his accomplishments: "From that time on Liang once again devoted himself solely to the task of popularizing ideas, publishing the New Citizen Journal, the New Fiction, and other periodicals to expound his ideals and objectives. ... The thinking of students for the next twenty years was much influenced by those journals." Not only were the ideas expressed fascinatingly new to the public, Liang noted, but his very style had a magical power over readers. It was a new and liberated writing. "He interlaced his writings with colloquialisms, verses, and foreign expressions fairly frequently, letting his pen flow freely and without restraint. Writers then hastened to imitate his style, and it became known as the New-Style Writing."

Indeed, at the turn of the century, Liang Qichao's new-style writing inspired a generation of young and eager Chinese readers, not merely because he demonstrated the possibilities of an innovative and expressive written language, but also because his impassioned writing reflected a cosmopolitan intellectual orientation and signified modernity itself. Through his extensive writings on the new citizen, the new China, and a new historiography, Liang Qichao emphatically turned the "new" into an engrossing theme and a positive value. The "new," or "making new," firmly caught his imagination and best expressed his modernist-rationalist confidence and excitement about the future.

This ideological obsession with the new marked Liang's profound intellectual transformation in the early years of the twentieth century. In exploring various dimensions and implications of the new, he found himself on a different level of knowledge and for the first time seriously confronted the question of history and modernity. A poem titled "Self-encouragement" from 1901, for instance, documents his heroic determination to embark on this new phase of his life.

Willing to subject myself to thousands of piercing arrows,
I shall always write to guide hundreds of generations.
Determined to advance people's rights and remove old customs,
I must further my studies to embrace new knowledge.

This Promethean heroism, foreshadowing the pervasive and supremely self-confident optimism and youth mentality of the May Fourth period, established Liang as a spiritual forerunner of what has been termed the Chinese Enlightenment in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Yet the new knowledge that Liang was eager to absorb was specific in content. The "new" involved a distinct historical vision of the emerging world space. The spatiotemporal horizon of human experience, both personal and collective, was to be reorganized around the modern nation-state, which now necessarily participated in a global imaginary of identity. For this new global imaginary, nationalist discourse, as Liang would soon theorize, provided the most convincing historical narrative and evocation of political agency.

Legitimizing the New

According to traditional Chinese calculation, Liang Qichao was 30 years old in 1902. Four years earlier, his name had been on the most wanted list of the reactionary Qing court, and he had fled to Yokohama, Japan, in the wake of the aborted One Hundred Days Reform. These four anxiety-ridden years in a foreign land brought a new horizon of experience and intellectual excitement to Liang, who until the age of eighteen, when he saw a world map in the colonial port city of Shanghai, had had no idea that there were five continents and many other nations beyond the Middle Kingdom. The maps that Liang found in Xu Jiyu's Yinghuan zhilüe (A brief account of the maritime circuit) informed him not only of the physical geography of the world but also its political divisions and population. In the last years of the nineteenth century, Liang, following his mentor Kang Youwei and drawing on a sprinkling of knowledge of the modern world, had actively contributed to the short-lived elitist drive for institutional reforms, but his forced trip to Japan continued the fundamental intellectual transformation initiated by the world map as a new totalizing discourse.

Months after landing in Japan, Liang issued an urgent call to his comrades and compatriots to learn the Japanese language. Now able to read books he had never seen before and to ponder over matters he had never quite thought through, the Mourner of the Times (Aishi ke — Liang's self-description after the frustrated reform) felt almost a physical gratification from his studies: "It was like catching a beam of sunshine in a dark room, or having a cup of warm rice wine when you were starving."

The smothering "dark room" that Liang now saw crumbling had always been a central image in his perception of the precarious situation of Qing China. To him the whole country resembled an ancient, dilapidated building on the verge of collapse, with its inhabitants happily unaware of the impending catastrophe. Those in power, however, were willing only to make patches here and there rather than undertake overall repairs. It was with this captivating (and perennial) image that, in 1896, Liang Qichao opened his lengthy and programmatic General Discussion of Reforms and drove home the disastrous consequences of failing to implement institutional reforms and adapt to the times.

Basing his discussion on the "universally acknowledged law of change," supposedly embodied in natural as well as social phenomena, the youthful Liang argued his case with great eloquence and immediately established himself as the most outspoken and readable advocate of the rising reform movement. The starting point of this celebrated document was a supposition that revealed, as Joseph Levenson pointed out, a paradigmatic shift in post-Confucian China, namely, a reconceptualization of China as a finite guojia (nation-state) rather than a boundless tianxia (all under heaven). The implications of this cosmological restructuring were still to be grasped and the meaning of a limited and territorial China yet to be fully explored when his escape to Japan placed Liang in a new historical and intellectual landscape. In the series of giant issues with which he was to wrestle, as Robert Scalapino and George Yu observe, "Liang Qichao was a near-perfect representation of the intellectual destined to be born into a narrow, highly traditional environment and thence to move into an ever-wider geographical and cultural arena, confronting troublesome complexities and dizzying changes at each turn. Like every serious Chinese intellectual of his generation, Liang could not avoid comparing China with this new world and attempting to draw the appropriate lessons from it."

Immersing himself in the new knowledge, Liang Qichao systematically studied social theories and political philosophies from modern Europe and changed, in the words of Philip Huang, "from an essentially Confucian intellectual orientation to that of a modern liberal-nationalist." This intellectual transformation, on one level, was very much an acquisition and testing of an alien but invigorating vocabulary and language. One new word Liang started using frequently during this period was wenming (civilization), adopted from the Japanese phrase bummei kaika (generally understood to mean "civilization and enlightenment"), which in Meiji political culture had unmistakable connotations of modernization and of modernity as a new civilization. Also, for a while he adopted the Japanese term Shina to refer to China, a coinage that must have enabled a different political and geographical perspective and reinforced his sense of being on a new threshold. In his selection of modern Western political thinking through the Japanese filter, on the other hand, Liang showed much purpose and deliberateness. He was, for example, more attracted to writers in the Meiji Enlightenment tradition such as Fukuzawa Yukichi or recent proponents of nationalism like Kato Hiroyuki than to their anti-modern and conservative contemporaries such as Uchimura Kanto or Hazumi Yatsuka.

What intrigued Liang even more than the new intellectual landscape, however, was the experience of living in a deeply un-Chinese and change-conscious culture. This direct contact contributed greatly to his understanding of what he believed to be modern civilization. A casual stroll in the Ueno district in Tokyo, for instance, allowed him to witness the ritualistic ceremony of recruiting soldiers. The crowds that followed the newly uniformed soldiers with banners of encouragement appeared to him both proud and happy. To Liang, they amounted to a vivid demonstration of bushido. First amazed and then impressed by a banner he thought read "Pray for Death in War," he came to a perplexing conclusion that the militant Japanese indeed differed from the pacifist Chinese, for whom war was somehow never enjoyable or glorious. He would later attribute China's weakness to a lack of military spirit and adventurousness, agreeing in essence with what Ozaki Yukio, a contemporary Japanese liberal thinker, had to say about the effeminate Chinese nation.

Incidents like this were just as stimulating to Liang as his abundant reading. In August 1899, he began a column called Book of Liberal Writings in his Journal of Disinterested Discussion to record his thoughts on and responses to events, readings, and conversations in Japan. He introduced the column with a direct reference to John Stuart Mill, his first ever: "The Western scholar J. S. Mill once said: In the progress of mankind, there is nothing more important than freedom of conscience, of speech, and of the press. All these three major freedoms I now enjoy, and thus I shall name my writings." A refreshing absence of political constraint and the concomitant prospect of unhampered expression gave tremendous impetus to his intellectual development. A happy conflation of "freedom" as a philosophical concept with the political notion of "liberty" in the one Chinese phrase ziyou (jiyu in Nakamura Masanao's translation of Mill's On Liberty, Jiyu no ri [Principle of liberty, 1872], with which Liang apparently was familiar). also added much to his enthusiasm about the new world.

In his pioneering analysis of Liang Qichao's intellectual development, Joseph Levenson believed that the second phase (1898-1912) was marked by a paradigm shift in Liang's discourse. After his arrival in Japan, the "precarious Confucian-Western structure" that Liang had achieved in the 1890's readily gave way to a history-oriented belief in progress and nationalism, with the result that the binary opposition was no longer constructed between West and China but between the "new" and the "old." This intellectual reformulation not only indicates a change in perspective but also suggests that the temporal categories (new versus old), brought into use to generate new historical possibilities, contained and explained the previous spatial mapping (Chinese versus Western).

Around 1895 a shift from Chinese learning versus Western learning to old learning versus new learning occurred in general political discussions in China; from this grew the popular notion of engineering a political reform or institutional renewal (weixin, inspired by the Japanese precedent of Mei ishin). Liang was an active promoter of both institutional reforms and the new learning. The change from "Western learning" to "new learning," to Liang, was largely a strategic move; after all, the concept of "making new" was arguably part of the Confucian tradition. The canonical text the Great Learning, as Liang and others were quick to point out, contains the quintessential phrase "If you can one day make yourself new, make new from day to day, and make new again every day." A semantic as well as interpretive appropriation of classical sayings such as this provided the reformist Liang with an initial justification for his Discourse on the New Citizen.

But the "new" in the canonical text might appear to be an abstract quality, a natural force that was at the same time universal. The classical presuppositions were quite different from those of Liang's notion of "making new" in modernity, which took hold of him only after his arrival in Japan and had its roots in a distinct historical consciousness. In other words, as Levenson suggested, Liang's conception of the new was predominantly a temporal one and entailed a different spatial imagining. A brief comparison of Liang's 1897 preface to a new collection of essays on practical governance edited by Mai Zhonghua and his own 1902 Discourse on the New Citizen, which contains Liang's most systematic explication of the new as a fundamental value in the modern age and his new cosmopolitanism, will illustrate the difference between the two understandings of the "new."

The brief preface of 1897 begins with extensive citation of aphoristic sayings on the idea of making new from canonical texts such as the I Ching, Great Learning, and Doctrine of the Mean. In an intellectual tradition where, to be valid, meaning had to be derived from the established body of a few sacred texts, this ostentatious homage served to legitimize the new writing as yet another exegetic effort at clarifying what was already encoded in the scripture. The new that Liang praised here is therefore substantially deflated as a historical category; instead, the new as well as the old is more of an expression of some omnipotent will and an effect or explanatory cause of dynastic successions. It still resides in the realm of the historia rerum gestarum, governed by an sources for either prosperous growth or catastrophic adversity," announced Liang. Every form of movement or development, from the rotation of heavenly bodies to the biological phenomenon of breathing to the realm of politics, necessarily contains the twofold process of making new and cleansing the old and stale. Happiness reigns in the blessed land of the new, and the human world stands in a homological relationship to the natural world: "Those who open themselves to the new will prosper and grow strong, but those who confine themselves to the old will diminish and become weak. Such is the natural way; such is also the human way." Given the cosmological generalization of the force of the new, the historical process in which the active enterprise of making new should be engaged is inevitably short-circuited. The notion of the new, too, is emptied of any specific content or practical relevance.

However, Liang Qichao quickly sensed the danger implicit in turning the idea of making new into a too comfortably general concept and, worse, a too agreeable part of the native cultural heritage. He realized that he faced a theoretical problem concerning the legitimacy of the new knowledge and, more generally, of modernity as a historical threshold. Starting with a painstaking attempt to incorporate the demand for political and social renovation into the existing epistemological order, he came to see that the reforms or changes he advocated were inspired by a knowledge system almost incompatible with the traditional order of things. The very idea of "institutional reform" (bianfa) already suggested a different political approach to the issue of native tradition than that implied in an earlier official effort at containing an ominous foreign presence (yangwu). One of the conceptual novelties that challenged the organizing logic of analogy, or an explanatory "imagination of resemblance," as Liang gradually discovered, happened to be the modern discourse of history or historicity. Therefore, in the 1897 essay, we see an abrupt insertion of a historical narrative that reclaims human agency and responsibility for making new in history.


Excerpted from Global Space and the Nationalist Discourse of Modernity by Xiaobing Tang. Copyright © 1996 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Copyright Page,
Introduction: - Toward a Geography of the Discourse of Modernity,
1 - History Imagined Anew: Liang Qichao in 1902,
2 - The Nationalist Historian and New Historiography,
3 - The Nation and Revolution: Narrating the Modern Event,
4 - Modernity as Political Discourse: Interpreting Revolution,
5 - The Spatial Logic of the New Culture: Modernity and Its Completion,
6 - Conclusion: Toward a Production of Anthropological Space,

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