Academic journal article Utopian Studies

The Utopian Vision, East and West (1). (Essays)

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

The Utopian Vision, East and West (1). (Essays)

Article excerpt

"IN THE STRICTEST SENSE OF THE WORD, utopia came into being at the beginning of the sixteenth century," thus Roland Schaer begins his introductory essay in an important recent publication on utopia. He emphasizes the historical significance of Thomas More's work and asserts that "the history of utopia necessarily begins with Thomas More" (Schaer 3). In the same volume, however, Lyman Tower Sargent understands utopia in a much broader sense and traces the theme of utopianism throughout history. "Not every culture appears to have utopias brought about through human effort that predate knowledge of More's Utopia," says Sargent, "but such utopias do exist in China, India, and various Buddhist and Islamic cultures" (Sargent 8). Whether utopia is a sixteenth-century European invention or something much larger in scope and can be found much earlier in different cultural traditions--this is the question I am concerned with in this essay. If at the most basic level, the idea of utopia suggests the vision of an alternative and better society beyond reality, then, it already implies some degree of discontent with the status quo and its critique, therefore the utopian vision invariably presents itself as a social commentary, an allegory of the desire for change and transformation. Such a desire seems to be deeply ingrained in the very nature of the human condition, as no one in any society is unwilling, if not actively trying, to make life better and achieve the optimum out of our limited resources and capabilities. The desire for utopia is thus everywhere, as Oscar Wilde puts it eloquently with his typical wit and elegance: "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias" (Wilde 28).

The desire for utopia is not only universal but also perennial, as the prospect of a better society lies always ahead, at the end of an ever-receding future in front of us, the end of a new millennium. From the biblical Garden of Eden, Plato's Republic, to the long list of literary utopias, there is a rich tradition of imagining the best commonwealth in Western philosophy, literature, and political theory. But is utopia accessible through conceptual as well as linguistic translatability? Is utopia translatable across the gap of cultural differences? Does the utopian vision manifest itself in the East, for example, in Chinese philosophy and literature? Are there expressions of the desire for an alternative and better society in Chinese texts? Such questions would have seemed unnecessary if there had not been so much emphasis on the uniqueness of cultures and the untranslatability of terms. Before trying to answer these questions, however, let us first consider utopia in the West. Where is that utopian country at which Wilde saw humanity always landing and always setting sail to? In what context did it arise, and what does it look like? We must first search for utopia and find its most salient features before we can argue with any degree of assurance whether its core concept transcends the specific boundaries of languages and cultural traditions.

Utopia and Secularism

"Utopia expresses and explores what is desired," says Ruth Levitas in concluding her study of the various definitions and approaches in utopian studies. "The essential element in utopia is not hope, but desire--the desire for a better way of being" (Levitas 191). Levitas surveys many works on utopia and argues that definitions on the basis of content, form, or function all tend to be too restrictive, while the broad definition she offers purports to accommodate all the different kinds of utopias. Her attempt at a broad and inclusive definition seems encouraging, and yet her concept of utopia is not without restrictions of her own, for she seems reluctant to ground her concept in anything that might be suspect of being "essentialist" or "universalist", such as human nature. …

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