- Bringing the World Home: Appropriating the West in Late Qing and Early Republican China
When young men abandon their medical studies and become fiction writers, in order to do something useful for society, we know that "writer" has for them a privileged status. The famous Lu Xun (the pen name of Zhou Shuren, 1881–1936) did just that in the first years of the twentieth century. But he was not the only Chinese writer to perceive literature as a route to modernization and as a weapon against imperialism. Indeed, in fin-de-siècle China, translators, novelists, and essayists entered directly into the political fray. New ideas had to be conveyed [End Page 498] to the general public—but using what vocabulary, and in what style? Theodore Huters's Bringing the World Home: Appropriating the West in Late Qing and Early Republican China offers a masterful exploration of this topic, from the late nineteenth-century translations of Hubert Spencer into Chinese by Yan Fu (1854–1921) to Lu Xun's sardonic stories, such as "The True Story of Ah Q" with its beggar-man antihero. Indeed, as Huters makes eloquently clear, China's literary revolution was not a dinner party. Rather, it was a complex, multigenerational argument concerning the necessity of forgoing Chinese cultural traditions in exchange for an often bitterly criticized Western (or Japanese) standard.
To be sure, Chinese modernization (or the modernization of any non-Western, colonized, or semicolonized nation) is not a new topic. Nor are well-known historical figures such as Yan Fu and Lu Xun underrepresented by scholarly research. Indeed, Huters engages with a long genealogy of China scholars who have examined the demise of traditional cultural practices and the painful adoption of foreign ideas, often at the barrel of a gun. Relatively new, however, is Huters's exploration of a modernization that is both localized and contested. Drawing upon the work of Lydia Liu (translation of the foreign as an active process of selection and judgment), Judith Butler, and Homi Bhabha, Huters shows how both well- and less-known intermediaries between China and the outside world were involved in an active process of critique, along with accommodation.
Huters opens his study by recounting an early instance of this clash of civilizations, embodied in the late Qing "China as origin" idea. Its proponents asked, reasonably enough, what exactly is foreign about Western learning. Weren't many of its elements familiar to, if not derivative of, Chinese innovations? (The notion that China's "four inventions"—paper, gunpowder, the compass, and printing—were at the root of Western modernization, is a recent incarnation of this concept.) "China as origin" made it possible to esteem Chinese traditions while still adopt foreign ideas. After China's defeat in the 1895 war with Japan, however—China lost control over Taiwan and the Liuqiu islands, among other territories—modernizers like Yan Fu wanted more radical change, even at the cost of denigrating China's traditions. Yan Fu, who translated Hubert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, and Adam Smith, was the "first enunciator of a new discourse of anxiety," attempting to reconcile the "unquestioned assumption of the simple superiority of Western ideas" with respect for China's traditional practices (p. 58). Two decades later, after further humiliation by imperialist powers, the [End Page 499] relative merits of East and West were revisited in a series of journal articles published by rising young intellectuals, what Huters labels the "Contest over Universal Values." Was China struggling in the modern world because of the intrinsic weakness of its culture, or was the country experiencing problems that affected the entire world to some degree?
The meat of Huters's work is his examination of how the China-versus-the-West dilemma revealed itself among a range of genres. Belles-lettrists grappled with the very word for "literature" (wenxue) and debated the relative merits of ancient, medieval, and more modern prose forms. Yan Fu, aiming for simplicity and transparency, translated Spencer using an archaic style...