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New Books at a Glance
From Dichotomies to Differences in the Comparative Study of China
Zhang Longxi, Mighty Opposites: From Dichotomies to Differences in the Comparative Study of China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998. 248 pp.
Following his earlier book, The Tao and the Logos (1992), Mighty Opposites is yet another attempt by the author to promote cross-cultural understanding, especially between China and the West. Despite the talk of multiculturalism and the apparent interest in global communication between East and West, there is nevertheless a perpetual suspicion of the validity of cross-cultural understanding. The dichotomy of cultures is often felt throughout history, whereas the relativist tendency in contemporary literary theory to see everything as a “text” puts the possibility of true knowledge further in question. Reaffirming the value of “lived experience” and the ethical import of understanding and interpretation, Zhang argues forcefully against such cultural dichotomies by commenting on concrete texts and events in the book’s six chapters, rounded off with a call for an open-ended dialogue across the gaps in languages and cultures.
Chapter 1, “The Myth of the Other,” traces the history of the image of China in Western imagination, from seventeenth-century missionaries to contemporary thinkers, and finds a pattern of alternately changing positive and negative images that speak more of the Western self than of China as a real country with its own culture and tradition. The moment of understanding, Zhang argues, lies in the hermeneutic “fusion of horizons,” the transcending of the self and the Other in the expansion of knowledge. Chapter 2 discusses the use of the Other in cultural critique as a strategy shared by Montaigne and the postmodernists, with the crucial difference that Montaigne acknowledged and cherished the common humanity between the self and the Other. Even though he identified strongly with the Greek tradition and saw the Brazilian cannibals as alien to the Europeans, Montaigne eventually argued for the value of humanity exemplified by the ancient Greeks and the New World natives. The third chapter, “Jewish and Chinese Literalism,” is a powerful indictment of cultural dichotomies past and present, bringing into comparison the age-old opposition between Hellenism and Hebraism, on the one hand, and the more recent East-West dichotomy, on the other. Zhang argues that differences do exist between cultures but that they are a matter of degree, not of kind, so the mutually exclusive dichotomy of cultures may have undesirable and even harmful consequences in reality.
Moving from the historical to the more recent past, the last three chapters focus on China and Chinese studies in the modern context, putting into intense scrutiny the problematic relationship between Western theory and the social and political reality in China. Zhang comments on Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, Western sinology, and the Chinese appropriation [End Page 475] of Western postmodernist and postcolonialist theories vis-à-vis the changing situation in China in the 1990s. He fully acknowledges the radical social implications of Western theories in the West, but he is sharply critical of the appropriation of such theories in China, where the radical significance of critical theory is completely lost and Western theories are turned into a sort of tamed discourse, critical of Western hegemony but silent about the injustice, violence, and repression in China. Following Said in Representations of the Intellectual, Zhang insists that the task for intellectuals everywhere is to carry on cultural critique and be socially responsible no matter what the status quo is. To some extent the debates and polemics the book engages in can be seen as embodiment of the critical spirit it advocates.