The Sublime Figure of History: Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China

By Ban Wang | Go to book overview
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Writing China: The Imaginary Body and Allegorical Wilderness

. . . contracted a chill while singing and roistering; saw an abyss in heaven. In all eyes saw nothing; in hopelessness found salvation.

-- Lu Xun

One of the cruel ironies that modern history has visited on China is the emergence of the study of aesthetics. Modern aesthetics is often taken to be about art, beauty, taste, and grace and conjures up the image of the eighteenth-century English gentleman in his cultured leisure or scenes of witty conversations in the French salons. Yet this discourse of the emerging eighteenth-century bourgeoisie was seized on by Chinese thinkers and writers at the turn of this century, after the ancient empire had suffered repeated humiliations by the Western powers. 1 It is true that we can talk about a Chinese aesthetic tradition in the pre-modern dynasties, but the notion would refer to latent, unspoken assumptions and motifs inferable from critical comments and the actual practices of art and literature. As a self-conscious cultural pursuit, aesthetics emerged in China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As an intellectual inquiry and a mode of thinking, feeling, and representation distinct from other orders of discourse, aesthetics is indeed a matter of China's encounter with the West. Despite attempts to see modern Chinese aesthetic thought as a scholarly pursuit pertaining to the arts, literature, or literary criticism, historians of Chinese aesthetics are often inclined to see the growing interest in aesthetics at the turn of the century as an attempt at self-strengthening and self-defense. Aesthetics was seen, along with Western tech

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