CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 16, December 2008


Chinese Visions: A Provocation | China Heritage Quarterly

Chinese Visions: A Provocation

Gloria Davies, Geremie R. Barmé and Timothy Cheek*

The following is a proposal drawn up for an international conference on the topic of 'Chinese Thought, History and the Present', which was held at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, in August 2007. The gathering was funded by Monash University, Geremie Barmé's Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship and the University of British Columbia. It is an addition to the small body of material that we have been publishing related to New Sinology.

Since the late-nineteenth century, thinking people in China have sought to produce ways of knowing that combine both the modern and the Chinese. In reflecting on this disposition or xintai, the eminent literary historian C.T. Hsia remarked that a certain 'obsession with China' had prevented the modern Chinese writer from identifying 'the sick state of his country with the state of man in the modern world'. We appreciate profoundly the historical circumstances—local and international, dynastic and imperialist, social and cultural—that have generated the need for Chinese people of conscience to be obsessed with the Chinese situation, the imperatives of national salvation and the conditions of modernity.

We also recognize that the insistence on identifying and being consumed with what are framed as uniquely 'Chinese problems' (Zhongguo wenti) is something that can be detected in Chinese intellectual discourse to this day. Indeed, the use of terms such as 'modern Chinese thought' and 'contemporary Chinese thought' is often accompanied by the assumption that they designate a set of 'properties' and an overall enterprise that is somehow unique to China, which itself is figured as a holistic project in its own right. In addition, writings produced in aid of improving 'Chinese thought' often reflect a desire for that which is Chinese to achieve eventual parity with 'Western thought'.

Since the civilizational connotations inherent in the expression 'Western thought' are derived from different European languages, not to mention disparate albeit overlapping histories, the term can readily be disaggregated into different geopolitical and cultural combinations and descriptions (such as EuroAmerican, Continental, AngloAmerican, French, Italian, German thought, and so on), or the thinking of particular individuals. Unlike 'Chinese thought' which projects the image of a singular civilization generated by individuated effort but 'unified' in the Chinese written language, 'Western thought' has always been divided from within: it projects a civilization developed out of the intellectual traditions articulated in and across different European languages through ceaseless, often raucous, conversation. In contemporary articulations, these traditions are fostered but questioned, enhanced while simultaneously being subjected to constant self-critique and challenge. While the institutionalization of 'Western thought' is the legacy of the power historically exercised through the divided interests of rival empires and nations, retrospectively coalesced into the figure of the 'West', engagement with 'Western thought' by thinking people in non-European cultural environments has and can enrich and enliven 'Western thought' on a global level.

In 'Western thought' of recent years, much concern has been expressed about the threat to inclusive openness posed by border security and the creation of a new victimhood. Writing in this vein, the thinker Zygmunt Bauman described Europe (a territorially diffuse, cultural multifarious and socially complex realm) as 'an ideal' that 'defies monopolistic ownership'. In doing so he affirmed Hans-Georg Gadamer's notion that 'We are all others, and we are all ourselves.' Bauman also argues that Europe, conceived of in civilizational or cultural terms, should signify 'a mode of life that is allergic to borders—indeed to all fixity and finitude.'[1]

We take Bauman's argument as being illustrative of a general drift in contemporary Western thought among those who, in rejecting the security fixation of contemporary politics, choose to figure Europe as a repentant victor who must now undo the 'barbarism' it inflicted along with the 'civilization' it sought to impose on the non-European world. In this regard, although the conflation 'Euro-America' remains relevant in the field of critical inquiry, the distance between the 'European' and the 'American' has clearly widened in politics. Furthermore, in the geo-political and intellectual spaces on the borders of latter-day economic and cultural empires—among, for instance, people in the former 'dominions' of Australia and Canada—there is perhaps an intellectual open-endedness and productive unease that encourages our interrogation of certitudes affixed both to the 'Euro' and to the 'American'.

The discussions revolving around such themes as the 'return to tradition' and the 'establishment of academic norms' that have shaped much Chinese intellectual inquiry since the 1990s sit somewhat at odds with Bauman's meditation on Europe, and perhaps offer a productive challenge to competing global visions. After all, these activities seem oriented towards a different ideal: that of restoring China to civilizational grandeur and regulated practice, together with the expectation of recovering or discovering, as well as delimiting, the borders of what is unique to China and Chinese culture. We also discern in Chinese intellectual inquiry a desire to learn from the West those things that would benefit China which reflect a moral imperative resonant since the time of Mencius, namely the art of 'knowing what to adopt' (qu) and 'what to discard' (she). In our discussions, perhaps we should consider whether there is a particular way of cultural being in China that, contemporary politics aside, cleaves to the holistic, generates meaning in particular and compelling ways, and tells us all something unique about the human condition.

Thus it is that we discern different speaking positions and sensibilities in contemporary Chinese thought: those (to extend Bauman's metaphor) of a recovering victim attempting to redress the tragedies of historical barbarisms, both Western and Chinese, while working towards new and better ways of 'being Chinese'. We are drawn to ask, therefore, if the following claim, pace Gadamer, is implicit in contemporary Chinese thought: 'Because we have been othered, we must now learn once more how to be ourselves'?[2]

We are concerned that in an age of unprecedented global exchange, borders—intellectual as well as territorial—are being rearticulated in a manner that may threaten to deprive thinking people of the wealth of thought and difference. We therefore invite you to reflect on the complex and challenging ramifications of this asymmetry between 'Chinese thought' and 'Western thought'. We take up Bauman's point that 'European life is conducted in the constant presence and in the company of the others and the different, and the European way of life is a continuous negotiation that goes on despite the otherness and the difference dividing those engaged in, and by, the negotiation.'[3]

We wish also to consider how the wealth of Chinese experience—an experience as vital, continuous, nuanced and multifarious as the Chinese world itself—engages both with some of the big and the small questions related to the human condition. Can therefore our condition be discussed without, to recall C.T. Hsia's lament, obsessive concern with more narrow conditionalities? And so it is that we wish to explore with you how Chinese thinkers, while pursuing the needs of an intelligentsia in the specific socio-political and historical framework of the present, are engaging more deeply with issues related to our shared humanity, and through this forum to contemplate what that engagement may mean for us all.

Many Chinese intellectuals have written about what they regard as the indiscriminate embrace of 'imported ideas' characteristic of twentieth century Chinese thought, but few have articulated ways in which the productive assimilation of such ideas can over time contribute to ways in which Chinese ideas can circulate more widely in the global context—and how the international currency of Chinese thought will nourish the way we all think about and inhabit a world culture of which China is a constituent and central part. In brief, China has yet to be affirmed as a mode of life that exceeds all fixity and finitude. As the attention of the world focuses on China on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, we believe, therefore, that this is an ideal juncture—and Australia a suitably distant, though not far flung, locale—for a gathering of people who share a common love and concern for the living legacy of Chinese thought and scholarship. We also believe that as China looms as an international presence, it offers extraordinary riches and possibilities as a world civilization. It is our hope that from within Chinese thought and scholarship epochal articulations may emerge of what it is to be particularly Chinese that are also meditations on what it is to be human.

It is in this spirit of inquiry that we would like you to join us in further conversation, one that will unfold in a mood of fraternal/sororal curiosity and innovative possibility. While many intellectual positions have been iterated and reiterated in Chinese cultural debate over the past fifteen years, some coalescing into camps of thought and collectives of temper, we make bold here to suggest a moment of renewed consideration and cooperative meditation. We hope to avoid the common academic circumstance that sees well rehearsed positions entrenched, controversy generated for the sake of notoriety and contrarian views advanced in a spirit of disruption. Ours is a hope for an unsettling of all positions in the spirit of fresh and exciting inquiry. We would propose that by stepping back from the tedious frenzy of contestation, Internet immediacy and public posturing, perhaps room can be found for a more tranquil and generous consideration of the aims and methods of thinking itself.

Thus, after this lengthy preamble, we offer you a 'provocation': As China continues to rise to a position of global and regional economic and political power, what lessons can Chinese thought teach a world where Western intellectual paradigms and cultural sensibilities remain dominant, a world in which international media reports often reflect an attitude of apprehension and suspicion towards China's rise?

We invite you to explore with us the ways in which new trajectories could be mapped for Chinese thought, to render it relevant to joint present-day and future global concerns and to our senses of history, culture and society. We hope that our conversation will range over issues such as how Chinese and Western ideas might be further brought into conversation with each other, or further engage in a commingling and evolution. We propose this also in the interest of facilitating more effective inter-cultural conversations on issues such as social justice, minority rights, modernity and postmodernity, globalization, democracy and cultural pluralism. We seek also to draw attention to China's rise and the concomitant anxieties attached to larger cross-border issues of bio-ethics, sustainability, the environment, nation-state diplomacy and personal politics, and so on: issues that engage the attention of thoughtful participants in intellectual community everywhere.

In brief, then, we invite you to contemplate the relevance of Chinese thought and Chinese ways of being on a planetary scale.

In this regard, we conceive of our gathering as organized around five broad themes: History and its Times; Traditions in Modernity; Cultural Difference; Intellectual Publicity; and, Heritage and Being. If you agree to join us, we invite you to contribute a substantive paper that takes as its focus one of these themes, or suggest ways to expand our inquiry and conversations.


History and its Times

In China, reprisals of recent histories denied by political will are joined by the histories of eras past; collectively they clamour for a place in contemporary China, its markets and the imaginative landscapes of its peoples. Intellectuals and culture creators, social engineers and party thinkers alike have been engaging in a sifting and reconsideration of Chinese history, thought and culture now for many years. Imagining what could, and can, unfold in China has led many thinkers to re-examine various paths to modernity, including those leading to other political futures, versions of bicameral democracy, social democracy and socialism that were curtailed by war, revolution, political cupidity, opportunism and sheer mischance. Concomitantly, dynastic times, and the thinking of pre-modern writers, have found a vital place within China's conversation with itself about identity and history. Such efforts can perhaps be spoken of as a form of 'reflective nostalgia', a term that Svetlana Boym coins to mean a positive, or active, nostalgia among those who are, as she writes in The Future of Nostalgia, 'concerned with historical and individual time, with the irrevocability of the past and human finitude. Re-flection suggests new flexibility, not the reestablishment of stasis.' Thus, as a theme, 'history and its times' is phrased in deliberate resistance to any anticipation of recovering a singular or absolute truth, or indeed a linear narrative. Rather, it is an invitation to meditate on the ways in which history can and does project different passages or trajectories of time either singularly or synchronically.

Tradition and Modernity

As projects of cultural or civilizational restoration, New Confucianism and 'national studies' have attracted both praise and criticism. Although many regard the call to learn and master the contents of traditional scholarship as a necessity for developing Sino-centered ways of knowing and thinking, some have expressed concern that it might also encourage an unhealthy conservatism or an indulgent antiquarianism at the expense of critical engagement with present-day concerns. We would like you to ponder what the 'return to tradition' or New Confucianism might contribute to critical inquiry both within China and globally. For instance, traditional Chinese scholarship has always reflected a desire to recover from the past the true moral structure of the known world. Does this desire still resonate in the different kinds of historicization now underway, ranging from Jin Guantao's and Liu Qingfeng's macrohistorical project, Zhongguo xiandai sixiangde qiyuan to Wang Hui's critical survey of modern Chinese thought, Zhongguo xiandai sixiangde xingqi? If Bauman's ideal Europe is 'a mode of life that is allergic to borders—indeed to all fixity and finitude,' what are the ways in which China could be envisaged as an ideal mode of life? In posing these questions, we invite you to explore with us the critical and reflective dimensions of historiography, of history as a process of re-transcription and reinterpretation that effects a transformation of the received past. We also invite you to consider whether the traditional Chinese emphasis on the moral and spiritual significance of scholarship remains of relevance for contemporary inquiry.

Cultural Difference

In his recent work A Cloud Across the Pacific: Essays on the Clash Between Chinese and Western Political Theories Today, Thomas Metzger provides a detailed study of the differences between Chinese and Western modes of theorizing. He characterizes these differences, among other things, as Chinese 'epistemological optimism' versus Western 'epistemological pessimism'. Many Chinese intellectuals have also written about perceived differences or even incommensurabilities between Western and Chinese modes of inquiry. In this regard, we note that deconstruction, a highly self-reflexive form of Western critical discourse, is often either misconstrued or ignored in Chinese critical discourse. We also note that when the writings of prominent Western social theorists such as Jürgen Habermas are discussed in Chinese, a transformation of Habermas's ideas takes place that reflects the different purpose they serve in Chinese critical discourse. Accordingly, we invite you to discuss how you perceive the differences between Western and Chinese ways of thinking and writing; to reflect on the types of 'Western theory' that have exercised an influence on Chinese intellectual inquiry since the twentieth century; to reflect on the types of 'Chinese theory' that have emerged since the 1980s; and, to consider how Chinese and Western ideas might be further brought into conversation with each other, in the interest of facilitating more effective inter-cultural conversations on issues such as social justice, modernity and postmodernity, globalization, democracy, and cultural pluralism.

Intellectual Publicity

One shared experience of critical inquiry in China and 'the West' is the experience of being an intellectual or being seen or designated as an intellectual. While specific definitions vary over time and place, and the relationship between intellectual and 'professional', 'expert', 'artist', and even 'revolutionary' or 'entrepreneur' remains contested everywhere, thinking and engaged individuals in every society continue, nonetheless, to speak to broad and compelling social and ethical problems. Given the constraints under which intellectual publicity is performed in China—and the contested nature of public dissent elsewhere—what constitutes public intellectual praxis, or the activities of the 'critical intelligentsia'? How is the appeal to and the engagement with the 'public' (which itself is evoked simultaneously with open intellectual practice) realized? If engaged Chinese thinkers are to speak beyond the specificities of the 'Chinese situation', how are broader issues to be addressed, and what are they? We also invite you to reflect on the tradition of voicing public concerns in twentieth century China and to consider the ways in which this tradition has been continued and modified via the Internet. In this regard, what is 'public' about being an intellectual? What right or authority does an intellectual invoke in addressing, advising or speaking for a public? Should an intellectual in China today be anything other than critical? We ask you to consider these questions in relation to the present-day complexities of becoming associated with a cause or voicing a concern in mainland China, and how that relates to the articulation of China outside of itself.

Heritage & Becoming

'Cultural heritage' (wenhua yichan) has become a mainstream discourse in China in recent years. This complex concept plays many roles: it is commonly used to codify cultures; it is used to preserve and enhance vital elements of the past; it is also a term that legitimizes particular accounts of the past. In this regard, 'intangible cultural heritage' (feiwuzhi wenhua yichan) is a concept that has enabled China's policy makers to sidestep the moralising and judgmental categories of 'quintessence' (jinghua) and 'dross' (zaobo) that previously informed historiographic morality and attitudes to tradition and specific aspects of the Chinese past in the early decades of the People's Republic. It is a concept that liberates tradition from the pejorative notions of 'superstition' and 'feudalism', rubrics once used to damn much of China's pre-1949 tradition. Although 'intangible cultural heritage' is grounded in an artificial distinction between the 'material' and the 'spiritual', a bifurcation generally viewed with skepticism by Western conservationists and heritage theorists, Chinese cultural officials and ideologues well versed in a clear-cut rhetorical and ideological dichotomy between materialism and idealism have put the concept to good use. 'Intangible cultural heritage' is often an implicit reference to the urgency of preserving the 'best' of traditional culture. Cultural policy makers are thus able to use 'intangible cultural heritage' to acknowledge, accept, document, resuscitate and preserve aspects of China's tradition that were once threatened or slated for condemnation, destruction, suppression and elimination. At the same time, the notion of 'intangible cultural heritage' has recast many historical practices and traditions as museum exhibits or decorative items that can make no ideological impact on current beliefs, customs and lifestyles. Such acts of preservation can offer us a more open-ended view of Chinese culture, when the plurality of practices and beliefs are affirmed. But they also have the effect of reinforcing an orthodox view of culture, its multifarious (and often contradictory) strands, and its possibilities. We invite you to reflect on the cultural ramifications of the new emphasis on heritage, both material and intangible.


* This provocation is the result of an ongoing conversation between Gloria Davies and Geremie Barmé on the future of Chinese thought, one that they first pursued in the late 1990s and have since sought to elaborate in their individual work as well as collaboratively. It constitutes an extension of the work undertaken in Gloria Davies, ed., Voicing Concerns: Contemporary Chinese Critical Inquiry (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), and draws substantially on issues raised in Gloria Davies, Worrying about China: The Language of Chinese Critical Inquiry (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2007); Barmé and Davies, 'Have We Been Noticed Yet? Intellectual Contestation and the Chinese Web', in Edward Gu and Merle Goldman, eds., Chinese Intellectuals Between State and Market (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon 2004); Geremie R. Barmé, An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Barmé, 'After the Future in China' (Review supplement, The Australian Financial Review, 31 September 2006); and, Barmé, 'On New Sinology', Chinese Studies Association of Australia Newsletter, No. 31 (May 2005), pp.5-9, also at: It also draws on Timothy Cheek, Living with Reform: China Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2006); and, Cheek, 'Xu Jilin and the Thought Work of China's Public Intellectuals', China Quarterly 186 (2006).

[1] Emphasis in original. Zymunt Bauman, Europe: An Unfinished Adventure (London: Polity Press, 2004), p.7.

[2] Davies, Worrying about China.

[3] Bauman, Europe.