The Straussian Reception of Plato and Nationalism in China

By Weng, Leihua | The Comparatist, October 2015 | Go to article overview

The Straussian Reception of Plato and Nationalism in China


Weng, Leihua, The Comparatist


Peking University opened its center for Classical Studies on November 15, 2011. Because Peking University is considered to be China's preeminent institution for the liberal arts and humanities, the opening ceremony was something of a "media event." According to the media reports on the internet, this center for Classical Studies, situated in the Department of History at Peking University, has more than ten faculty members of different disciplinary backgrounds. (1) In December 2012, the first conference of Chinese Comparative Classical Studies (bijiao gudianxue) was held at Sun Yat-sen University in Southern China with participants from seven academic disciplines. The Association of Chinese Comparative Classical Studies was considered to be the first interdisciplinary and cross-cultural academic association in China. Seemingly, Chinese readers have acquired an unprecedented interest in Western classics in the past decade and are eager to support the academic discipline of Classical Studies.

The establishment of the discipline of Western Classical Studies in China in the past decade was largely kindled, promoted, and supported by the reading of Plato in contemporary China since 2000. There was a boom in translating and interpreting Platonic dialogues in the Chinese language since 2000. This revival of interest in Plato included a translation of Timaeus by Xie Wenyu in 2004, and a complete translation of Plato's dialogues, edited by Wang Xiaochao in 2002-03 (Cheng 120). However, the most noticeable translation of Plato in the early 1990s was Liu Xiaofeng's translation of Symposium, best known by its Chinese title Huiyin (Symposium). Huiyin became the first translation of a comprehensive series titled "Hermes: classici et commentarii." The book series "Hermes" includes translations, commentaries, and interpretations of Platonic dialogues as well as of other Western classics and came out over the past decade as a systematic project. The translations of Plato's work in the "Hermes" project were formerly published in a sub-series titled "Platonis opera omnia cum commentariis." As suggested by the Latin words "opera omnia," which mean complete works, the translations and interpretations of Plato into Chinese under "Hermes" started with an ambitious goal and a systematic plan. However, the "Hermes" project to date has succeeded in translating only a small portion of Plato's works from Greek to Chinese. These successes include: Symposium, Apology, part of Republic, Ion, and collections of interpretative essays on a particular work of Plato, such as a collection of essays on Republic. (2) Meanwhile, the name of Plato and many Platonic concepts have been referenced in many books, journal articles, online forum discussions, as well as commentary essays on popular culture. Plato has been serving as the backbone of discussions across disciplines, and his work has even reached general audiences to become part of popular culture. For instance, Liu, in a lecture given at the School of Film and Television Art and Technology in 2008, criticizes the immorality in Ang Lee's film Lust, Caution by introducing Socrates's concept of philosophical freedom as in opposition to public morality. Liu's accusation of the immorality in Lust, Caution, which so far only exists in a transcript of his lecture, is largely an expression of the recurrent theme in the "Hermes" project, i.e., the tension between philosopher and society, with the premise that democratic society tends to ignore differences among human beings in terms of knowledge, intelligence, and virtue, and society as such does not respect the philosopher's freedom to live a philosophical life. Even in Liu's lecture to a general audience untrained in philosophy, Plato and Socrates are mentioned not as names with remote relevancy but rather as rubrics of thoughts on political philosophy and as an attempt to address certain social realities in China with a particular view on philosophy and politics. …

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