Wang Hui – Interpreting Modern China

Wang Hui – Interpreting ‘Modern China’

One of the pleasures and advantages of living in London is having the chance to listen and learn from some world renown thinkers and speakers. In October, I had the privilege to hear Wang Hui, marquis Chinese intellectual historian from Tsinghua University at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. Wang gave two lectures on his ongoing work on the challenges of interpreting Modern China today and also on the decline of political representation in China and what this bodes for the future. Both talks were splendid. Having lived and worked in China, hearing a top notch historian unsparingly connect contemporary China with its ‘modern’ and pre-modern past was invigorating. Conceptions of what ‘China’ is today has been constantly framed and reframed through different modes – government, politics, society, etc. all connected to the nation’s trysts with imperial rule.

The critical issue to be considered insofar as contemporary China is concerned is continuity between empire and the nation-state, though there was a huge rupture following dynastic to republican rule but through that, certain continuities prevailed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this continuity became more important given China’s unique role in the world and its ongoing tryst as a homogenous nation state unified on the outside but littered with problems and issues on the inside. Scholars of Chinese history have misgivings of western theories to interpret China and its ‘modern’ existence as these paradigms do not offer useful interpretations given the complexity of change that has enveloped China through various political upheavals.

Wang underscored three sets of antithetical concepts that have been used time and again to understand and interpret China. First, concepts of the empire and the nation-state that have been largely western constructs but used by scholars to understand imperial rule in China. Concepts of centralized administration have also been utilized to understand political power in China, especially through the rupture. And finally, scholars have deployed existing rites and institutions (secularized functions) to understand modern China, especially its governance practices. Rites and music were crucial concepts in the Confucian order.

Wang commenced with rites and music (institutions) and understood them as overlapping political categories used since the Song dynasty (10th century); confucian scholars used rites and music mainly to describe history. During the early days, these rites and institutions were critical to confucianism, extending their ideational dominance within the first three dynasties. The differentiation of rites and music became a political topic since they were used to signify the centralized administrative state and their incumbent political practices and visions. The Song confucians strove to develop such practices that also led to the system of civil service examinations in Imperial China. This was critical since this before the emergence of these rites and institutions, the aristocracy held power but following the promulgation of these bureaucratic codes and examinations, power accrued to civilian officials giving them the writ to govern China.

Most traditional interpretations of Confucianism are rather conservative but looking further, we can find that they were rather critical of themselves and of reality. Although the Song confucians gave priority to esoteric concepts like ‘heavenly principle’ and the way of heaven, the historical narrative of rites and institutions clearly allude to the political values embedded within confucian thought in the Song dynasty that resonated through the development of abstract philosophical and ethical categories. Times of the Song dynasty were seen as the period where several conceptual breakthroughs were made insofar as abstract philosophical concepts are concerned. This was the first time period where indigenous ‘Chinese’ thinking came into being! Another important development or product of this particular dynasty was what Wang referred to as the ‘propensity’ of time or the notion that time was not linear or dynamic or part of a certain telos but was mutually constituted in and off itself. The Song confucians were rather particular of ideational currents due to their rather unique awareness and conceptualization of time, which was essentially static.

The second conceptual divide amounts to the division between empire and nation state, however porous that line may be. The rise of the Song dynasty effectively led to greater theorizing of the rise of the nation state refracted through imperial practices and customs. With the decline of the aristocracy and emergence of bureaucracy and centralised administration alongside growing trade and commerce spawned newer conceptions of territoriality, which eventually bred nationalism. And these impulses gave way to the initial understandings of what is ‘China’ and also modernity in China and the subsequent creation of a proto nation state in the middle kingdom. As dynasties evolved, these political practices and customs led to variant understandings of the ‘nation’ – China was being constructed for different eras and different purposes. With that, successive narratives of modernity were also being forged, relative to and in conjunction with modernity in Europe. Ritual politics became critical to political power and political legitimacy with continuity between dynasties being reduced to intended and unintended moments of historical fabrication. As Wang mentioned earlier, this made understanding China through linear temporal frames redundant as one dynasty after another appropriated legacies to solidify their political authority. Empire therefore is a reality and not just a historical legacy, it’s central to governance in and of China for centuries. Continuity is clear and pervasive between imperial rule and the modern nation. The politics of empire was channelled through the politics of ambiguity, leaving enough space for concomitant episodes of legitimation. As a result, notions and conceptions of China today cannot be grasped or made intelligible without understanding empire and imperial rule in the middle kingdom.


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