Chinese Literature in the World an Interview with Ban Wang

By Zhu, Ping | Chinese Literature Today, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Chinese Literature in the World an Interview with Ban Wang


Zhu, Ping, Chinese Literature Today


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Stanford Professor Ban Wang has written on a wide range of subjects from early Chinese modernism to contemporary literature and beyond. His work has had a strong influence on the field of modern Chinese literature. Here, in conversation with CLT Deputy Editor Ping Zhu, Wang discusses his latest research projects, his first book, The Sublime Figure of History, and his long-term engagement with the work of Walter Benjamin.

PING ZHU: Professor Wang, first allow me to thank you on behalf of Chinese Literature Today for your willingness to take this interview with us. I hear that you have just returned from a research trip in Asia. Could you tell us a bit about your new research project?

BAN WANG: Thanks to generous support from National Chung Hsing University, I stayed at that campus for three months last year during my sabbatical in Taichung. I completed a book by writing new chapters and revising old papers. Tentatively entitled China in the World: Geopolitics, Aesthetics, and Visions of World Order, the book addresses the ways Chinese thinkers and writers have engaged and interacted with the international system of nation-states since the late nineteenth century. In Joseph R. Levenson's apt phrase, China goes "against the world by joining it." The book traces a difficult and productive trajectory of China's national pursuit and international engagement. While it is imperative for China to attain nationhood and to become a player in the Darwinist competition for survival, writers and thinkers were reluctant to see their country embroiled in the ruthless cycle of domination and subjugation. The national project-the drive for wealth and power in virtue of modern political institutions-is only a means to attaining a higher spiritual and moral end. At work alongside the foray into geopolitics is the ancient dream of tianxia ... ("all under heaven"). Tianxia is an attempt to think about the world as a moral community rather than a conflicted realm of interstate power struggle. As a moral discourse it has modern avatars in internationalism and cosmopolitanism, which transcend the narrow vehicle of nation-state and present a counterweight to the Westphalian world order rooted in realpolitik.

The project begins with Kang Youwei's ... Datong shu ... (Book of the Great Community), which traces China's attempts to enter the world by learning from the West, and how that national project was constantly infused with an international outlook. The international vision taps into the classical sources of tianxia and humanistic values from the West. I examine the infusion of imported notions of politics and aesthetics in social and moral reform, inspirations of internationalism and socialist humanism in forging an image of world literature in the revolutionary era, and the matrix of individual rights and popular sovereignty in social movements. Taking on cultural formations and visual products in the Cold War and decolonization, I examine how Chinese cinema addressed revolutionary cosmopolitanism, third world development, and internationalism. The last part of the book deals with images of China over three decades of reform and capitalist globalization. The general thrust of the book is to draw a trajectory from China's initial entry into the world to its ambition to reshape the world. With deepening involvement arose an impulse to articulate worldly visions in order to reset the world order. Learning from the precious knowledge of other nations breeds a desire to contribute to the world of humanity.

PZ: Your scholarship is highly interdisciplinary, often freely shuffling among historical, political, aesthetic, philosophical, literary, and cinematic analyses. How did this interdisciplinary approach come into being?

BW: Years ago a student in my course on modern Chinese literature asked me what I was really teaching in this literature class. Is it politics, philosophy, sociology, critical theory, or psychology? …

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