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Telos 180 (Fall 2017): Cosmopolitanism and China

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In Western as well as international academia today, along with the acceleration of globalization more generally, humanities scholars have constructed a sort of theoretical discourse of globalization. In doing so, they have found it useful to refer to the old-fashioned philosophical concept of cosmopolitanism, which is very close to the theoretical construction of the discourse of globalization. Although it has previously been discussed over the history of Western philosophy, cosmopolitanism is once again a cutting-edge theoretical topic. The term nowadays frequently appears in the works of political philosophers and sociologists, and it is increasingly being taken up and debated by literary and cultural studies scholars as well, particularly with regard to the rise of world literature as the highest phase of comparative literature. Obviously, most of their work interprets and deals with cosmopolitanism from the perspectives of political philosophy and culture, while touching to some degree upon literary and cultural production and criticism. Moreover, most of the scholarship dealing with cosmopolitanism only occurs within a Western context. In this respect, the present special issue of Telos may well fill a gap in international cosmopolitanism scholarship. The recent interest in world literature in the field of comparative literature is undoubtedly associated with the rise of cosmopolitanism in the contemporary era. In the articles collected here, cosmopolitanism will mainly be addressed from literary and cultural perspectives, and, more importantly, they will move beyond the limits of Eurocentric or West-centric ways of thinking and modes of research by dealing exclusively with cosmopolitanism and China: its parallel relations with ancient Chinese philosophy, its impact on modern Chinese literature and intellectual thought, and its recent significance to China’s modernization and globalization.

Shaobo Xie’s essay provides a general survey of the beginnings of China’s cosmopolitan elements in its ancient philosophy and offers a genealogical critique of the Chinese tianxia guan (worldview), which is parallel to cosmopolitanism in ancient Greek philosophy and which could engage in dialogue with the latter. But after detailed analyses of various views on this controversial concept, Xie cautions us not to equate tianxia guan with cosmopolitanism; instead, he urges us to see it as an aporia in that it points to cosmopolitanism and parochialism at the same time. Thus, he astutely sums up the internal tension of this concept. David Pan’s essay not only discusses tianxia guan in detail with regard to the current debate in China but also deals with its metamorphosis in the Chinese context through translation. What is most impressive is his discussion of Walter Benjamin’s views on translation. For Benjamin, as much as the original is being honored in the translation, it is ultimately the target language of translation that exercises interpretive power over the original. Since ancient China was always viewed as the so-called “Middle Kingdom,” it might well easily stimulate Chinese people’s identification with a sort of cosmopolitan worldview. Pan correctly observes that since cosmopolitanism, as an English term, is also already in dispute, translation does not solve this problem but exacerbates it. After a detailed comparative study of these two terms, Pan concludes that “the question of cosmopolitanism is a different one for the Chinese as compared with the U.S. English context, and each context of questioning contains its own set of trajectories.” But as we know, the translation of this term into other languages might well bring about something new, which in this sense would be positive. Yifeng Sun’s essay goes into detail in an attempt to distinguish cultural translation from ordinary word-for-word translation. To Sun, when people from different cultural environments produce translations, they are actually mediating among different cultures. The translation he discusses in his essay has already transcended the level of linguistic rendition and deals with the issue of translation in a broader cross-cultural context.

It is true that cosmopolitanism should first be regarded as a political philosophical concept, whose ethical aspect is very strong. That is why it is closely related to literature and culture as well in the current global era. Its fundamental meaning is that all human beings, no matter their ethnic group or affiliation, belong to a single large social community. This is very close to the contemporary construction of the discourse of globalization, according to which all people live in a vast “global village,” sharing a fundamental ethics and rights that transcend individual nations or countries.

According to Craig Calhoun, cosmopolitanism has different meanings on different occasions. It refers to the world as a totality rather than individual places or communities. It also indicates that those holding this belief feel quite at home in a diverse community, and in this sense it mainly refers to a person’s inclination. Sometimes, it is even used to describe the unique characteristics of a city, such as “New York or London, contemporary Delhi or historical Alexandria.” If we start from a Chinese perspective, we can easily add two more cities: Shanghai and Hong Kong. In this issue, two essays, in analyzing literary and scholarly works, focus on two cosmopolitan cities in China: Melody Yunzi Li’s essay deals with Hong Kong and its literary works as special cases, while my essay exclusively analyzes the cosmopolitan elements in Shanghai, one of the most cosmopolitan metropolises not only in China but in the world. But there are still some differences between these two world cities in China. For Li, Hong Kong is a “special model of cosmopolitanism” with no definite cultural tradition; it is a sort of “homeless” or “rootless” cosmopolitanism. As it has “a strong sense of preserving local culture and engaging in other various cultures, Hong Kong citizens share a double identity of local and cosmopolitan.” In contrast, Shanghai’s cosmopolitanism is undoubtedly a “rooted” cosmopolitanism, for it serves as a bridge linking China to the world, as well as a window through which people all over the world can see China. Although Calhoun does not extend his discussion to cosmopolitanism in other regions of the world, he has certainly left some space for us to develop our discussion further.

All of the essays in this issue deal with China’s cosmopolitanism as an alternative cosmopolitanism: how it originated in Confucius’s doctrines without being communicated with their European counterparts, and how it was conscientiously translated and received by intellectuals in modern China when nationalism was dominant over old China. Some essays attempt to address this issue through detailed analyses of literary works and their authors. Both Sheldon Lu and Lisa Chu Shen discuss the modern form of cosmopolitanism in twentieth-century China. Although they developed their essays separately, they both focus on a very important Chinese author, Zhou Zuoren, who was seldom discussed in the past but who has provoked enthusiastic interest among domestic Chinese scholars as well as overseas Sinologists. In his essay, Xiaoping Wang tries to rediscover the cosmopolitan value of Xu Xu, who is seldom dealt with by either domestic Chinese scholars or overseas Sinologists but whose works certainly anticipated Chinese cosmopolitanism today.

While the different cosmopolitanisms before the nineteenth century remained only on the level of philosophical assumptions and debates, cosmopolitanism since that time has gradually come to be realized. Many cosmopolitan philosophical assumptions are practiced and developed by the ambitious. Since the discovery of the Americas in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, one of the earliest cosmopolitans in action, the capitalist expansion and absorption of weak countries’ national industries, along with the formation of new international divisions of labor, have prepared for the process of globalization. In their Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels described the market capitalists’ practice of breaking the boundaries of the nation-state and expanding their own forces. As a consequence, production and consumption are not limited to their own countries but rather extend to distant countries and even across continents. For Marx and Engels, cosmopolitanism is an ideological reflection of capitalism, not only politically and economically but also culturally and intellectually. The birth of world literature is one such consequence.

As revolutionary thinkers with a broad cosmopolitan vision, Marx and Engels not only explored the “cosmopolitan” characteristics of capitalist production, but also believed that the proletarians of various countries shared fundamental characteristics and common interests. Furthermore, Marx himself was a cosmopolite, and his Jewish ancestry and later communist beliefs determined that he would travel and settle everywhere as a citizen of the world and work in the interests of all mankind. The First International and Second International, founded under the influence of Marxian thought, were characterized by his cosmopolitan tendency and his political and organizational practice. But the Third International, or “Comintern,” founded by Lenin, was finally dissolved largely because of the rise of nationalism and the increasing independence of individual communist parties. In the history of the Chinese revolution, the Chinese Communist Party was at first viewed as a branch of the Comintern, and hence the Chinese revolution was considered part of the world revolution. It was largely due to the outbreak of World War II that such a universalist view was given up, and the Chinese communists have succeeded in finding their own forms of revolution and modernization.

In the years when nationalism dominated people’s thoughts and actions, we find that cosmopolitanism would decline. Today, in the age of globalization, the sovereignty of individual nations is challenged and global governance has become more and more effective. Thus, cosmopolitanism has once again attracted scholarly and critical attention, and debates and discussions on the issue have flourished in Western and international academic circles. Indeed, the contributors to this special issue all have different national and cultural backgrounds, so a sort of dialogue effectively takes place regarding a common topic: cosmopolitanism with literature and culture as case studies. In this sense, the two fields, world literature studies and cosmopolitan studies, are closely related.

Although cosmopolitanism has not yet attracted enough attention from Chinese academia, it is not so unfamiliar a topic in China. Apart from its parallels to Confucian doctrines in ancient times, it also appealed to some young Chinese intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s, including such eminent figures as Chen Duxiu, Cai Yuanpei, Lu Xun, Mao Dun, and Zheng Zhenduo, all of whom once enthusiastically advocated cosmopolitanism. In literary circles, Ba Jin and Ye Junjian were once interested in anarchism, another form of cosmopolitanism; both learned Esperanto, and Ye even wrote his works in the artificial language, which drew the attention of international Esperanto circles.

In the current era of globalization, enthusiastically promoting Chinese culture and helping it to move toward the world cannot be done without the intermediary of English, as it is the lingua franca of the world. Since very few scholars from China have published internationally on cosmopolitanism, we have organized this special forum with the support of Russell Berman and David Pan. With the help of the hegemonic power of English, Chinese scholars’ work on cosmopolitanism and world literature can be highlighted internationally. It is with this aim in mind that we present this discussion of cosmopolitanism and its relations with China with regard to world literature.

Since the issue’s contributors are mostly literary and cultural studies scholars, or more specifically comparatists, what they focus on is how different versions of cosmopolitanism are represented in literary and theoretical works, and how literary creation and criticism are impacted by these cosmopolitan ideas. Through these discussions and debates, cross-cultural dialogues are carried out on the level of globalization and cosmopolitanism.

Note from the Editor

In addition to its focus on cosmopolitanism and China, this issue of Telos includes essays by Aryeh Botwinick on weak messianism and liberal political theory, and by Eduardo Sabrovsky on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and the event of modernity. The issue concludes with a note by Michael Marder, who reconsiders the place of phenomenology in Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala’s Hermeneutic Communism.

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