China in the World: Culture, Politics, and World Vision

Violetta Ravagnoli

Understanding the trajectory of China’s position in the world has become a 21st-century need and obsession. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, academic and popular writings about China have mushroomed, and with them the concept of “China Rise.” This is an appealing narrative that is used to describe power shifts in the post-Cold War era; however, it is one that evokes mainly a menacing presence of China in the global realm. Yet, a rising China remains a blurred notion that is insufficient to grasp its cultural and historical complexities. It is precisely to counter misperceptions and distortions linked to the “China Rise” that Wang Ban writes his latest book, China in the World: Culture, Politics, and World Vision.

“Will China rule the world or bring harmony to it?” This provocative question concludes the book, which is devoted to demonstrating that single answers to this query are impossible, and even counterproductive. Wang takes issues with scholars, journalists, or politologists that presume to predict the future of China, especially without proficiently grasping the intricacies of its culture. No learned person can determine with scientific accuracy the future of politics and world economies; therefore, Wang suggests that rather than speculate on biased conjectures, it is best to acquire profound knowledge on the subject matter. Hence, by using a great variety of sources, China in the World considers the content and the context of Chinese change in the last two centuries. Specifically, the book contains a chronological overview of how modern Chinese thinkers have approached and debated notions like nationalism, colonialism, or imperialism, among many others, which are often believed to be prerogatives of the Western world. In each of the eight chapters, these concepts are instead examined in the Chinese framework.

The first few chapters delve into texts of prominent late Qing reformers like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. Through the analysis of works such as Kang’s Datong Shu (大同书) and Liang’s Xin Zhongguo Weilai Ji (新中国未来记) and Xinmin Shuo (新民说),1  Respectively, The Book of Great Community, The Future of New China by Kang Youwei, and Discourse of a New People by Liang Qichao.  Wang shows the interconnectedness of the 19th-century world and complicates late Qing national politics. For instance, he demonstrates how ideas of nationalism and internationalism were not Western-imposed and ill-received conceptualizations of the world, but dialogic elaborations of Western and Confucian ideas. By comparing Kant’s idea of humanity and sensus communis with Kang’s descriptions of a universal logic of communication, inspired by the Confucian language of heaven, Wang argues for cultural similarities that transcend national and imperial borders. He also describes how these notions, linked to modernization and westernization, have been informed, directly or indirectly, but steadily over time, by the Confucian concept of tianxia (天下).2 Wang builds on his previous edited volume titled Chinese Visions of World Order, where several China scholars analyzed the concept of tianxia (天下), commonly translated with “all-under-heaven,” and complicated its use as an alternative view of world order, one that could potentially counter the nation-state system. In fact, Wang discusses a “modernized tianxia3 Wang discusses tianxia considering the thesis of Zhao Tiyang, a Chinese contemporary philosopher who urges to rediscover the value of the tianxia system (tianxia tixi 天下体系), where private and public morality, believed to be incompatible by Liang Qichao, become instead a transition toward modern nations. using Liang Qichao’s distinction between “public virtue” and “private morality.” In so doing, Wang illustrates the autochthonous developments of the modern Chinese nation. Wang’s analysis of the formation of the Chinese state shows theoretical overlaps with Kant’s idea of universality. The latter, disjointed from rules and concepts, would ultimately allow for a shared communication of experiences as the Confucian notions of gong (公 public virtue) and datong (大同great unity) would also promote.

In the central chapters, Wang explores the works of 1930s intellectuals of the Lu Xun Academy of Arts and captures the elaborate developments of socialist political traditions. He connects publications of renowned nationalists and cosmopolites of the late Qing era, like Sun Zhongshan, with revolutionary thinkers of the early twentieth century; then, he moves on to also find associations with Maoist thinkers of the PRC. By analyzing the lectures of Zhou Libo, inspired by a humanistic Confucian tradition, Wang shows how scholars, at the crossroads between republicanism and Maoism, argued for a combination of national and international values. Furthermore, by examining state-sponsored pieces and movies on the significance of mass mobilization, propaganda, revolution, and global communism, Wang explains how mid-century Chinese internationalism became the symbol of a shared experience among the oppressed and how it soon morphed into the popular theory of Maoist Third World-ism.4  Third World Internationalism developed in the second half of the twentieth century as an element of Chinese Marxism employed to make sense of the role of China in the world.  Wang sees the value of this interpretation and argues that in this system the victims do have a sensus communis or a datong (大同 great unity), which can potentially generate mutual understanding and international harmony.

An important contribution of the book is in the last chapters, where Wang warns readers against simplistic objectifications of China as an economic or political threat. Instead, he encourages a study of global intellectual history, which should benefit reciprocal understanding. In fact, rather than underlining hemispheric differences, each chapter analyzes and historicizes literature and cinematic productions that emphasize the powerful effects of the circulation of ideas. By examining various sources, mentioning translations of documents not often considered in Western classrooms, and focusing on theoretical interconnections, the book is an especially valuable source for teaching Chinese history, culture, and political philosophy.

In sum, China in the World is an engaging historical treatise on the conceptualizations behind the formation of a modern Chinese state. The extensive use of empirical research is an inspiration for future research that wishes to problematize and reassess the nation-state perspective of world order. The book’s main novelty is the careful consideration of Chinese intellectual works from the late Qing era onward. This methodology validates the need for a flexible and intercultural analytical perspective, able to shift between languages, disciplines, and frames of references.