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  • Great Walls of Discourse and Other Adventures in Contemporary China
  • Henry Sussman
Haun Saussy. Great Walls of Discourse and Other Adventures in Contemporary China. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. ix–xi + 289 pages.

It takes no special virtue to share the present with China. Indeed, since Leibnitz's Novissima Sinica (1697), this is what intermediaries do best. The "coevalness" of civilizations is one of the givens of our field; it underwrites our brand of cultural pluralism. . . . Rather than a time line, with the Western present streaking away into the future, the favored figure of East-West philosophical chronology has been the intersection. Crucially, however, the intersection is the spot at which the interpreter appears. Without intermediaries, no mediation, only missed appointments. And this is where we see variation. The state of shared contemporaneity, although always possible, has to be explained through mutual explanations. It also requires some strategic manipulation of the relevant pasts and presents, so they will line up neatly with the point of convergence.


Armed with nothing more formidable than a thorough steeping in the arguments and issues surrounding contemporary critical theory and an impressive grounding in the histories of linguistics, China, and the broader global modernity, Haun Saussy emerges from Great Walls of Discourse as an authoritative commentator not only on contemporary China but on the exactions of interpretation itself. As the title that Saussy fashioned for this work indicates, he rightly sees himself as an adventurer in a long line of travelers, including Marco Polo, Matteo Ricci, and Ernest Fenollosa, who opened China to view. But for Saussy, the adventure of seeing and characterizing China inheres not so much in accessing the Great Wall, the ancient capital cities, the Classics, the histories, the system of elements, or an unbroken chain of aesthetic and artisanal productions. Saussy's adventure is, rather, a treacherous journey of cultural exegesis and engagement with the Other, even when the terms of its otherness are unknown or have been misconstrued. The trajectory of this voyage of discovery, always fraught with the dangers of ethnocentric projection, schematic oversimplification, and flat-out error, winds its way between [End Page 1274] vast spheres of cultural influence ("East" and "West") always out of tune and in skewed alignment with one another, between the margins of interpretative countertexts poised in mutual elucidation but conceived and composed under a constitutional cover of obscurity. Blindness, ambiguity, and misapprehension are preconditions of his quest that Saussy frontally addresses and incorporates into his accounts of phenomena including Fenollosa's legacy of Chinese translation, the appeal to the various "post-studies" made by contemporary Chinese scholars, and China's status during the heyday of French structuralism.

And yet, as Saussy masterfully demonstrates early on, through an acute sense of historical and cultural differences, it is possible to discern (and if need be, orchestrate) constructive and generative dialogue between the cultural spheres, as between Matteo Ricci and Yang Tinyung at the outset of the seventeenth century, in a chapter entitled "In the Workshop of Equivalences." Through the analytical and ultimately ethical work of honing claims, contextualizing past formulations, looking askance precisely at attestations of novelty (or discovery), and never taking debunkings, however admirable, achieved elsewhere for granted, astute cultural commentators do, on occasion, get their observations right, as did Roland Barthes when he read his "Empire of Signs"—Japan—as a milieu semiologically configured by a certain extremity in its representations and an absence of apology for the resulting side-effects:

The prevalence of polar schemes should always lead us to try to reconstruct the historical emergence of the antithesis and find the common basis on which it tacitly rests. (The more specifically the basis is defined, the better. . . .) On that footing, then, it becomes possible to redescribe the differences and recount their history: the poles were not always polar; they had to be polarized at some point. It is important to look for third parties, to try to neutralize oppositions by dissolving them in a larger framework, to trace their emergence or to show how artificial their symmetries are, because our previous equipment for thinking about China blinds us to such possibilities.


As Saussy characterizes and performs it, the...


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