The purpose of Global Space and the Nationalist Discourse of Modernity, in Xiaobing Tang’s own words, is to reassess the late Qing and early Republican scholar Liang Qichao (1873–1929) “not merely as a paradigmatic modern Chinese intellectual but also as an imaginative thinker of global significance.” The book achieves this by situating Liang’s historical thinking in the theoretical framework of the discourse of modernity, particularly nationalism as an intellectual response in non-Western sociohistorical spaces to the spatiotemporal configuration of Western modernity. With Liang as a powerful case study, Tang offers a theoretically sophisticated discussion of the spatiotemporal logic of the nationalist discourse of modernity, especially its inherent contradictions and practical difficulties, the resolution of which leads to a postnationalist concern with cultural differences and the production of “anthropological space” to complement historical time.
A brief introduction outlining the book’s main arguments launches Global Space and the Nationalist Discourse of Modernity into a detailed examination of Liang Qichao’s “continuous negotiation between a revolutionary, universal time and an equally persistent and interconnected, uneven space.” In a series of rigorous analyses of Liang’s writings spanning two decades and three “experiential horizons” marked by exile in Japan and travels in North America and post-WWI Europe, Tang meticulously follows Liang’s intellectual development to show a necessary (re)turn to spatiality in the search [End Page 1048] for a historical discourse of modernity that is sensitive to cultural differences. Underlying this analytical scheme is the idea that firsthand experiences with vastly different social realities fostered in Liang a keen sense of unevenness in global space, making possible the emergence of spatiality as a conceptual category to disrupt the “global imaginary of identity” that underlies modernist subscription to a homogeneous, unifying time of progress.
Tang’s analysis of Liang’s early delineation of a “new historiography” to project China as an equal player onto the world stage of modern nation-states usefully identifies an inherent contradiction in the nationalist discourse of modernity by juxtaposing its claim to collective identity and historical agency based on a fixed territorial space against its legitimation through subscription to the universal time-frame of progress encoded in the Enlightenment thoughts on modernity. This time-space contradiction is further elaborated in a rich discussion of Liang’s negotiation between nationalism as a universalist principle and nationalism as a mobilizational political ideology requiring definitive agency and concrete grounding in specific territory and history. Subsequent consideration of Liang’s deliberation between two European political paradigms—German liberalism and French republicanism—for China’s transformation in/into modernity brings out yet other tensions and difficulties in nationalism, among them the disjuncture between national revival and social revolution, as well as the tension between national revolution as a historical practice demanding elitist rationalism and nationalism as a universal idea celebrating populist romanticism. These complex issues are rendered vivid and tangible under Tang’s thoughtful treatment.
Beyond nationalism, Tang argues the global significance of Liang Qichao’s thoughts by tracing his development of a postnationalist perspective on modernity and history that resonates with postmodernist emphasis on cultural politics and differences. Herein lies the book’s most provocative and frustrating contention. Reading Liang’s post-WWI advancement of a cultural history project as an extension of his critique of Western modernity and reaffirmation of the native tradition as necessarily different from yet contemporaneous with the dominant forms of modernity, Tang suggests that Liang’s late thoughts transcend the Eurocentrism in modernist obsession with time to herald a “reconciliation of anthropological space with historical time [that] makes [End Page 1049] Liang Qichao abundantly contemporary with our own time, both inextricably modern and postmodern.” Insofar as Liang’s incorporation of spatiality and cultural politics into historical consciousness parallels postmodernist thoughts, pointing out his contemporary relevance is clearly productive. Yet this also raises many significant issues that require more critical consideration than currently given. For instance, what implications does the claim that a turn-of-the-century Chinese thinker developed ideas contemporaneous with “our time...