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China and the world: beyond exceptionalism

The work of an erudite Chinese writer of the 20th century, Qian Zhongshu, is an antidote to the idea of absolute "difference" between cultural worlds.

Kerry Brown
8 June 2015

A primary motif of Chinese politicians in recent times has been reference to the greatness of China's traditional culture, used as a means of promoting modern China and its right to be regarded as a world power.

In particular, the two ideologues-in-chief of the current generation of leaders - Xi Jinping, China's president, and Liu Yunshan, the propaganda czar - make speeches dense with allusions to ancient poets, writers and thinkers. They are not averse to asserting that they themselves are, in some senses, the inheritors of this "great tradition": a tradition they wish the outside world to understand better, and which - through entities like the Confucius Institutes - they have put resources into promoting across the globe.

An ostensibly revolutionary party promoting a fairly conservative outlook on what the essence of Chinese culture might be is among the prominent paradoxes of modern China. Yet after all the Chinese high leaders' strong words about Chinese culture, its importance and meaning, a nagging question remains: what are they actually talking about? The resort to stereotype - statues of and presentations on Confucius, and the like - can take things only so far. More meaningfully, the truly distinctive aspect at least of literary Chinese lies in its vast written corpus reaching back thousands of years. This gives access to a detailed historic collective memory that shapes Chinese thinking to this day. The continuity of this culture is something truly special.

This "specialness" raises the question of what approach someone from outside this cultural tradition should adopt when trying to engage with it. There is the temptation, perhaps even danger, of a kind of dual focus: namely, using one set of values and critical standards regarding the person's own culture, and a different set when he or she is dealing with the Chinese.

Yet such apparent inconsistency also seems appropriate to many people, both inside and outside China, who never tire of saying that China is, indeed, "different" - and therefore needs an entirely separate set of tools to get to grips with and understand it. In fact, I suspect this sort of thinking might suit very well the politicians in Beijing currently singing the praises of China's traditional culture. China's "exceptionalism" is a discourse they increasingly subscribe to, and often employ when pushing back at outsiders who are critical of justice and values issues in China, or sceptical about the sustainability of its governance system. "Judge us by our own standards, not by your imposed ones", is the response (see "China, the limits of exception", 19 November 2014).

A world entire

This exceptionalism clearly carries dangers of its own. And a stupendous antidote to it can be found by paying attention to the figure who, of all those in the 20th century with a claim to being deeply versed in both "traditionally European" and "traditionally Chinese" cultures, surely has the best claim of all: Qian Zhongshu.

Qian Zhongshu, who died in 1998 at the age of 88, produced (just before 1949) the single most important novel in modern Chinese literature: Cities Besieged. But his most profound work is the vast collection of short essays he was able finally to publish just after the cultural revolution in 1979. A selection of these were issued in an English translations in the late 1990s with the title Limited Views: Essays on Ideas and Letters.

Qian was far more than a polyglot. He had read widely and in depth far beyond his native Chinese - in English, Spanish, Latin, German and French. The essays testify to this, with their copious references from Henry Fielding and Christopher Marlowe to Goethe and Giuseppe Ungaretti, while reaching across the full range of Chinese authors: from the earliest recorded poet Qu Yuan, down to the Han dynasty poet of the supernatural, Ruan Ji, and Lin Yutang from his own generation. There is nothing paraded or ostentatious about this display of learning, however. The most striking element is how, in essay after essay, Qian is able to draw parallels between distinct cultural traditions in ways which, while never underestimating their difference, also reveal profound similarities.

A fairly typical example of this occurs in the essay Saddened by a Height, where Qian writes about the melancholy felt and expressed by a range of Tang and Song dynasty poets when they reach a mountain peak. Remarkably, he finds a parallel to exactly this emotion in Fielding’s 18th-century novel Tom Jones. He develops the idea of a common emotional grammar in classical Chinese sources and western ones through a series of essays describing complex emotional states, such as sadness, joy, and corruption of sentiment. The cumulative effect is overwhelming.

Qian composed a substantial number of these essays during the cultural revolution. The testimony of his wife, Yang Jiang, reveals that during this period they shared the humiliating experience of being reduced to working as attendants in a canteen in one of the work camps set up then to "reform" intellectuals. Their son-in-law committed suicide at this time. But nowhere in Limited Views are there are any personal references to these events; the testimony amply given is instread of someone vastly well read, and conversant across various intellectual traditions. Miraculously too, the essays are free of any hint of politicisation or note of reproach or blame. For that reason alone, they are the most epic monument to a humanism that transcends time and boundaries, and one that wholly refutes the notice of a specific nation’s exceptionalism.

Every curious reader would benefit from attenting to Qian's great work. But it offers an additional value in answering that question of how to engage with the wide canon of traditional Chinese culture, especially at a time when Beijing's political leaders and their proxies are so energetically and dexterously seeking to annex this tradition for their own purposes.

In the end, Qian Zhongshu's writings testify to the values of a shared humanity, not one that can be limited by being described as solely Chinese or Asian or European. That this work was produced under such cruel circumstances is little short of astounding. It stands as one of the most heroic testaments of scholarship and faith in humanity, and one that any culture should be proud of celebrating. As many as possible should celebrate the fact that China in the 20th century was able to produce such a wonderful voice, and that they too can read, enjoy, reflect on and learn from Qian’s extraordinary work, in the process understanding more not only about China, but about themselves, their own culture, and a world in common.

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