Worrying about China: The Language of Chinese Critical Inquiry
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What can we do about China? This question, couched in pessimism, is often raised in the West but it is nothing new to the Chinese, who have long worried about themselves. In the last two decades since the “opening” of China, Chinese intellectuals have been carrying on in their own ancient tradition of “patriotic worrying.” As an intellectual mandate, “worrying about China” carries with it the moral obligation of identifying and solving perceived “Chinese problems”―social, political, cultural, historical, or economic―in order to achieve national perfection. In Worrying about China, Gloria Davies pursues this inquiry through a wide range of contemporary topics, including the changing fortunes of radicalism, the peculiarities of Chinese postmodernism, shifts within official discourse, attempts to revive Confucianism for present-day China, and the historically problematic engagement of Chinese intellectuals with Western ideas. Davies explores the way perfectionism permeates and ultimately propels Chinese intellectual talk to the point that the drive for perfection has created a moralism that condemns those who do not contribute to improving China. Inside the heart of the New China persists ancient moralistic attitudes that remain decidedly nonmodern. And inside the postmodernism of thousands of Chinese scholars and intellectuals dwells a decidedly anti-postmodern quest for absolute certainty.
on the Beijing dialect. Before the twentieth century, the Beijing-centered spoken language of officialdom (guanhua, or spoken Mandarin) and the classical written language (the centuries-old wenyan of scholar-officials and literati derived from the guwen10 of the Confucian canon and other ancient classics) served as the premodern corollaries of a standard language that enabled educated Chinese to communicate with one another regardless of the sheer diversity (and in some cases, mutual
writers of the early Republican era offered (by way of positive contrast) modern Western values of individualism and egalitarianism as the solution to the injustices and tragedies they claimed the hierarchical norms of Confucian patriarchy had engendered. Thus the theme of irreconcilable differences between generations of the same family divided over the relevance of “traditional” versus “modern” values acquired an iconic significance from May Fourth and thereafter in modern Chinese literature.2
the bow to the full, and the student naturally also aims at drawing the bow to the full. In teaching others, the master carpenter naturally does so by means of compasses and square [ guiju] and the student naturally also learns by means of compasses and square.”22 The significance accorded to correct measurement and evaluation in this Mencius excerpt shaped Confucian scholarship cum statecraft across the centuries. The expectation of attaining moral clarity through the proper assessment of others
the discourse of modern philosophy, that we can bring about a regeneration of traditional Chinese philosophy that will enable its exuberant life force [wangsheng shengmingli] to reemerge.” In this regard, Yu also makes plain that what he means by this entirely new mode of interpretation, is “not merely a kind of renewed understanding or renewed knowledge but, more importantly, it constitutes a form of historical continuation [yizhong lishi yanxu] or indeed, a form of civilizational creation
goes so far as to say that “any self-respecting argument for a Chinese postmodernism necessarily becomes an effort to bridge the opposites [i.e., between China’s “economic reality” and “its image or self-image”] dialectically, to mediate between existing but ultimately distorting frameworks of experience and thinking in order to articulate something qualitatively new out of them.”83 This progression of the dialectic to a guiding concept that now partakes of different idioms (whether to accord