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Cosmopolitanism and Alternative Modernity in Twentieth-Century China

Sheldon Lu’s “Cosmopolitanism and Alternative Modernity in Twentieth-Century China” appears in Telos 180 (Fall 2017), a special issue on Cosmopolitanism and China. Read the full article at the Telos Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue in our online store. Individual subscriptions to Telos are now available in both print and online formats.

My essay joins the revisionist project of rewriting modern Chinese intellectual history. The historiography of modern China usually foregrounds the theme of nationalism in the grand narrative of China’s arduous struggles for liberation, anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, and anti-capitalism. Radical breaks from the Chinese tradition or from the outside world have occurred in the form of a series of earth-shaking revolutions throughout the twentieth century: the Republican Revolution that overthrows the Qing Dynasty in 1911; the Communist Revolution that leads to the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949; the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976); and so forth. Amidst the fiery rhetoric of revolution, the voice of a conciliatory, non-revolutionary, mild cosmopolitanism could be easily muffled. This essay attempts to re-examine the discourse and practice of cosmopolitanism in twentieth-century China. I will revisit the formation of a cosmopolitan public culture in Shanghai in the first half of the twentieth century, and then review two prominent writers: Zhou Zuoren and especially Lin Yutang, as two representative figures of cosmopolitanism in modern China. Their alternative proposals for dealing with the mounting cultural problems of modern China are often dismissed as conservative, backward, bourgeois, or decadent. However, with the benefit of historical hindsight, we hope to have a more nuanced understanding of Chinese modernity and a more balanced assessment of the thought and writings of China’s modern thinkers.

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