Telos 199 (Summer 2022): China and the West is now available for purchase in our store. Individual subscriptions to Telos are also available in both print and online formats.

The comparison of China and the West is in the first place a cultural problem to the extent that it requires a knowledge of both traditions and the ways in which they have related to each other. There has been a long history of interaction that has shaped the global economy from the times of the silk routes to the early modern push to find an alternative trade route to China in the European age of discovery and conquest. But the cultural comparison between China and the West today is inevitably overshadowed by a political dynamic in which the opposition reveals a rivalry that no longer exists, for instance, between Japan and the West. Indeed, the “West” in the opposition between China and the West could even be interpreted to include Japan or Taiwan. While the political opposition between China and the West may be reduced to the difference between authoritarianism and liberal democracy, this political dichotomy leads to cultural differences that result from the incompatibility between the two public spheres. While different public spheres will always manifest inconsistencies in terms of the problems and concerns that structure discussion and debate, China’s contemporary restrictions on free expression have separated it from the rest of the world in a more fundamental way by establishing an alternative version of historical facts. China’s alternative reality is not a consequence of its grounding in its distinctive cultural tradition but of the political decisions that have cut it off from the rest of the world. The attempt to compare China and the West must therefore take into account this politically enforced disjuncture.

It would be a mistake, though, to see China and the West as polar opposites or competing civilizations, separated by their opposing political interests on the one hand and by the history of each of their cultural traditions on the other hand. Even if they had separate long histories, the recent past has seen many more opportunities for interaction and orientation around common projects and problems. Moreover, since the past is always a projection from out of the present, the idea of a clash of civilizations is not a legacy but a project. An alternative endeavor would be to conceive of the relationship between China and the West as existing within a larger totality. The definition of such a totality must occur within a particular perspective, however, and therein lies the problem. China and the West are clearly competing to define the framework of global order. Consequently, any attempt to consider the relationship between the two must look to the vision of universality that each side is trying to establish against the other. This issue of Telos considers a variety of ways of defining the overarching perspective from which the comparison between China and the West makes sense.

Comparison requires a basis, and this requirement provides a methodological starting point for considering the opposition between China and the West. Sijia Yao develops a method of third term comparison in which the comparison of two works of literature from different cultures depends upon the establishment of a mediating concept upon which the comparison can be based. Recognizing that a cultural bias will always color the view of the past, she does not attempt to criticize such a bias. Instead, her solution is to embrace bias by making it explicit and mobilizing it as the basis of a comparison. She uses the example of cosmopolitan love as a twentieth-century project that appears in both the Chinese and the British traditions, and this term allows the differences between the two traditions to come into focus through the differing reactions to this project. Rather than using the common third term as a way to link the two traditions directly, her method involves the analysis of how the cosmopolitan love project manifests itself differently within each context. The third term becomes a tool for mapping the distinctive landscape of each tradition. Rather than imagining an objectively universal unity, her method illuminates the specificity of each tradition through the link to a common point of reference, and this reference point structures the analysis. Since a truly objective universality is an impossibility, the solution is to make explicit the basis for a particular vision of universality. Each term in a comparison can then be measured against this basis.

Xudong Zhang also approaches the comparison of China and the West as a way of thinking about cultural differences that are more fundamental than in the older comparisons between European cultures such as those of France and Germany. Because comparison becomes an intellectual-political problem in which the challenge is to find bases of commonality across cultural horizons, Zhang proposes a method of focusing on a single thematic problem, such as death in literature, that could provide the point of reference with which to conduct a comparison of disparate contexts. As with Yao’s method, this thematic focus can narrow the scope of the comparison yet also allow for the differences that separate literary traditions from each other. Zhang couples this thematic focus with a sense of a common ground, a common humanity, that makes the comparison possible but is also given by what we think of as a world order. The political nature of this common ground indicates that it is not simply a prerequisite but also a result of the comparative process. This process defines the comparable and incomparable in such a way as to illuminate the conceptual landscape of cross-cultural interaction, resulting for Zhang in glimpses of a totality beyond the particulars of conflicting cultures. In contrast to Yao’s depiction of this totality as the result of a conscious bias, Zhang imagines an objective, all-encompassing perspective when he characterizes the totality as a universal one.

Huimin Jin at first describes the particular character of an overarching totality for interpretation by depicting Western studies in China as an example of how Western texts that are interpreted in China become embedded within a Chinese public sphere that integrates those texts into the local culture’s problems and concerns. As a result, Western studies in China already engage in a kind of comparison to the extent that those Western texts are being measured in terms of the Chinese tradition and contemporary problems. Even if Westerners do not engage with this research or with Chinese literature, the Chinese reception of Western texts already forms part of a dialogue between the two traditions. Jin compares this situation with that of Western Sinology, which, though structured by Western concerns, can still reveal something to Chinese scholars about China. Similarly, despite the way in which each public sphere forms its own context for discussion, Jin hopes that the work of China’s scholars of Western culture can find its way into Western discussions, thereby closing the loop of a dialogic relationship. The question, though, is whether such a reception in the West of Chinese scholarship about Western texts would really constitute a dialogue within a single global public sphere. Would the American scholar of Melville consider the Chinese interpretation to be part of global Melville studies or primarily of interest due to what it would indicate about China’s public sphere? It may be that a global public sphere would only be possible within a global space of sovereignty. Without such a world sovereign, the discussion of Melville may have to exist within one national public sphere or another.

Ban Wang’s essay attempts to overcome this situation of different public spheres by appealing, like Xudong Zhang, to an overarching universality. He rejects the idea of a clash of civilizations because it presumes that different cultures are categorically separate when in fact every culture is itself not even identical with itself and exists in constant interaction with other cultures in a process of transformation. He describes both the Chinese universalism embedded in principles of tianxia and datong as well as the Western universalism of ideals of freedom and equality. Wang emphasizes that even the anti-colonialist impulses in the Haitian Revolution and the rise of communism in China could only oppose European rule by appealing to Enlightenment-based universal values. Wang sets this universalism against a “divisive multiculturalism” that establishes rigid cultural identities and promotes conflict.

Haun Saussy, lamenting the political origin of the dichotomy of China and the West, nevertheless recognizes the influence of such political considerations and provides some examples of China’s image of the West and conversely how China has been imagined by Europeans. While Europeans during the Enlightenment had a simplified version of China as a land of good order and obedience, the image that the Chinese developed of Europe from Jesuit missionaries was also of a peaceful confederation of sovereigns who consistently looked to the Pope as the basis of all authority. In spite of the misunderstandings engendered by these simplifications, Saussy notes that the common attitude that both sides had of the other was that they were both civilizations to be contrasted with the supposed barbarians that make up the primitive cultures of other lands. In that sense, the opposition of China and the West suppresses the reality of a multiplicity of cultures that are either suppressed within both China and the West or that, in places such as Africa or the Americas, are not deemed to exist on the same plane of civilization. Saussy imagines a more nuanced perspective that would emancipate the complexity of interactions between multiple cultures from the polarities of political power.

Pursuing a similar project that attempts to affirm a liberal universalism that would avoid the influence of political power, Karen Thornber describes work that she has done in decentering the opposition of China and the West by looking at networks of relationships within East Asia, for example, the core-periphery relationship between Japan and different East Asian cultures, including China, Korea, and Taiwan. Her subsequent work has continued to compare multiple cultures, including texts from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Oceania, by focusing each study on a specific problem: literary depictions of ecological degradation in one book, narratives about health and healing in another book, and issues of gender justice and climate justice in forthcoming projects. The focus on a specific problem allows her to canvas a variety of cultures to assess the commonalities and disparities across cultures in the reactions to each issue.

While Saussy and Thornber can be thought of as arguing for a liberal internationalism that would subordinate cultural differences to a common discourse, Yingjin Zhang, Ning Wang, and Min Zhou, in accepting the idea of a universal culture, attempt to bring Chinese writers and concerns into this global space.

In his attempt to establish the parameters of a universal culture, Yingjin Zhang defends the project of world literature against those critics who see it as an Anglo-American-centered project that forms the cultural pendant to globalization. He argues that world literature is in fact a space in which a variety of cultures can gain acknowledgment and an audience beyond their own borders. He casts the critics of world literature in the same position as those critics of globalization who thereby seek to suppress China’s rise as an economic power. Yet he complains of the inability of many Chinese writers to make it into the canon of world literature and suggests that scholars of Chinese literature play an important role in promoting such writers.

Ning Wang maintains a similar understanding of world literature as an overarching universal culture in his consideration of the way in which Western literature has become defining for the development of contemporary Chinese literature while Chinese literature does not seem to have had a corresponding influence outside of China. He attempts to correct this situation by introducing several contemporary Chinese writers, such as Yan Lianke, Yu Hua, Jia Pingwa, and Ge Fei, whose novels have been inspired by writers such as Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, and Jorge Luis Borges.

In her similar attempt to appeal to a universal culture, Min Zhou argues for a shared community of mankind as a replacement for thinking of different cultures in conflict with each other. She describes the way in which Canada moved from a multiculturalism that fragmented culture into separate cultural enclaves toward an interculturalism in Quebec that recognized French Quebecois culture as the basis of a common public sphere in which everyone might be able to participate. In this model, however, the basis of the common culture lies in a particular French-speaking tradition, suggesting that a shared human community will also be organized around the dominance of one cultural tradition. While one might imagine international negotiations and treaties regarding climate change goals, the prospect of a cultural unity of the world raises questions about the basis of this unity that remain unarticulated in the idea of a shared community of mankind.

The biased character of a universal culture becomes a key issue in my review of Shaomin Li’s The Rise of China, Inc. Li argues that the Chinese Communist Party has established a mafia-like control over the Chinese economy and society. Running China like a corporation in which all decisions come from the top, the Chinese party-state has also subverted the rules of global trade and world opinion in order to protect its power. With an extensive propaganda apparatus that co-opts Western scholars by engaging them to promote all things Chinese while steering clear of issues such as suppression of rights in Xinjiang or Hong Kong, China’s party-state has been attempting to subvert global discourses to promote its own goals. Within this context, it is difficult to endorse the idea of a universal totality without wondering about the terms of this totality and its underlying biases and purposes. The CCP’s promotion of a shared humanity cannot be separated from the attempt to transform global economic and political institutions to undermine free trade, the rule of law, and free expression.

If the Chinese party-state is attempting to remake global institutions and discourses to support its own view of the world, the Western promotion of tolerance as the basis of liberal internationalism presents an alternative, more benign attempt to establish the parameters for global discourse. Since such tolerance is unable to replace substantive ideologies like nationalism, it is unclear how liberalism has been able to maintain itself. In his consideration of the ideal of tolerance, Tomáš Sobek argues that tolerance is a second-order attitude that reacts toward more primary attitudes. He defines tolerance as the suppression of one’s disapproval of something else. As a result, tolerance is not necessarily a virtue when the suppression of disapproval leads to the acceptance of actions that should not be accepted. It would not be considered virtuous, for example, to tolerate murder or torture. At the same time, toleration of characteristics such as homosexuality that should not be disapproved of may be better than intolerance, but the best attitude would be to not disapprove. Tolerance is most desired when there are conflicting judgments that coexist within the same society. As Sobek points out, someone who disapproves of abortion might tolerate it in order to maintain friendly relations with people who do not disapprove of abortion. The goal of the tolerance would be to maintain a coexistence with someone with whom you disagree, and the desirability of tolerance would depend on the degree to which one should suppress one’s disapproval. But if one considers abortion to be a form of murder, then such tolerance may not be appropriate. As a basic part of liberalism, tolerance implies the ability to maintain several visions of truth within the same public sphere without a descent into civil war. It is unclear, however, whether this liberal tolerance, which promotes the rule of law and freedom of belief and expression, would be considered a neutral stance with regard to each substantive value system or whether liberalism constitutes its own substantive first-order value system. If liberalism must be considered as a second-order phenomenon that establishes tolerance between religions as the prerequisite for political stability, liberalism may not exist on the same level as positive religions. Rather than replacing them, it establishes a structure for managing relationships between them. It would only exclude those religions that refuse to tolerate alternative ones.

Brian Wolfel’s critique of liberalism sees it as both a neutral perspective and a replacement for positive religion that emphasizes material rather than spiritual concerns. In this view, liberalism, as a neutral perspective, is unable to prevent conflicts between positive religions from deteriorating into civil war. Wolfel consequently looks to Thomas Carlyle’s vision of transcendentalism as a form of post-liberalism that rejects traditional religions yet sees the world as an expression of spirit. But in imagining a universal transcendentalism to replace both liberalism’s materialism and all religions, Carlyle develops a form of transcendentalism that, in rejecting the neutrality of liberalism, makes it into another religion among many. By imagining an imageless spirituality, this transcendentalism, though claiming to be all-encompassing, ends up as an attempt to replace all other religions. Transcendentalism becomes a substantive, rather than neutral, version of liberalism, thus returning to the liberal quandary of how to avoid positive content yet still maintain a set of values.

Liberal internationalism is being challenged on a global level with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the first of three essays on the status of world order after the invasion, Tim Luke sees an opposition between the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric that Russia uses in order to justify its actions and the idea of an international consensus around a world order that supports the just treatment of all peoples. As his summation of the history of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine from the Middle Ages demonstrates, the idea of a clash of civilizations misrepresents the political and cultural history of the region in order to justify Russian domination. Mark G. E. Kelly by contrast has more sympathy for the idea of a civilizational bond between Ukraine and Russia, blaming Ukrainian ultranationalists for creating a civil war in Ukraine that has led to the polarization of Ukrainian from Russian elements. Rather than seeing Russia as a transgressor against a world order that promotes the rule of law and self-determination of peoples, Kelly interprets the invasion of Ukraine as Russia’s logical step in countering the great power ambitions of the United States to establish the hegemony of its brand of liberal internationalism all over the world. My own essay argues that Russia’s invasion has set up a shift of global politics away from ideological conflicts over communism or liberal internationalism and toward a confrontation between neo-imperialism on the one hand and a global order based in nation-state sovereignty on the other.

This issue ends with three book reviews. Mark S. Weiner reviews Tim Luke’s The Travails of Trumpification, arguing that as disruptive as Trump’s populism has been, its underlying message of popular sovereignty and self-rule still deserves to find adequate expression in American politics. Mark Wagner reviews two biographies of Edward Said, chronicling how his work led to the establishment of identitarian perspectives in academia. Finally, Steven Knepper describes how Byung-Chul Han’s The Disappearance of Rituals critiques modernity for abandoning the closed and contemplative character of rituals in favor of the openness and informational quality of a functionalized online life.