- Bringing the World Home: Appropriating the West in Late Qing and Early Republican China
Four decades ago, Benjamin Schwartz opened his book In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West by reflecting on the phantasmagoric nature of received wisdom about the objective status of cultural difference. He observed: "Few would claim that the West which has emerged out of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries forms an easily apprehended synthesis on any level—political, social, or intellectual. Yet when we turn our gaze outward to the non-Western world, that which has been obscure suddenly becomes clear. The West suddenly assumes the guise of a fixed, known quantity."1 Schwartz was targeting a mode of reflexive and negative knowledge that had dominated public opinion and scholarship on China, and he did so in a time when the Cold War area studies was in full swing. Have things changed much since he wrote the above? To be sure, Schwartz was neither the first nor the last to take notice of the kinds of unsettling aporia that seem to dwell at the heart of any positive assertions about the objectivity of what is known about China or the West. As recent as Harry Harootunian's book History's Disquiet, the author had to remind us again of a central irony in Asian studies: Asia does not exist by itself as an object, and whatever goes by that name is a simulacrum or a self-fulfilling prophesy of Asian studies.2
The past few decades have witnessed a thoroughgoing critique of knowledge and modernity by postcolonial scholars following the work of Edward Said, resulting in what one might call a paradigm shift in historical scholarship in North America and elsewhere. In this general climate, the field of Chinese studies has made huge strides as evidenced by the steady output of sophisticated new works in social, cultural, and literary histories that are aimed to deepen our understanding of the processes of modernity in the late Qing and the twentieth century. As confidence in our general accumulated knowledge about modern China grows, the urgency to engage with the sorts of epistemological issues that had worried Schwartz diminishes proportionately in our field with only a few exceptions. One reason for this phenomenon, I suspect, is a shared sense of boredom with self-reflection as well as a lack of inspiration for tackling the subject in innovative ways. Whatever it is, I believe it is premature to declare that we have laid the ghost of the West to rest when the mental juggling of reflexivity and negativity continues [End Page 329] to produce so-called objective knowledge about "the West" and its other, and vice versa. The West and the non-West are still very much mutually constituted simulacra in our field despite several recent attempts to dislodge them.
In his new book, Bring the World Home: Appropriating the West in Late Qing and Early Republican China, Theodore Huters makes an admirable attempt to reframe the simulacrum of the West by investigating what appears to be the mirror image of a game of reflexivity/negativity from the other side of the perceived cultural divide. The author's deep immersion in contemporary Chinese-language scholarship and its problematique has brought him to confront the enduring pressure of the so-called West on the psyche of the Chinese elite rather than shy away from it. Huters' work calls our attention to the many real risks attending on the psychic and moral well-being of a core group of writers and translators: Yan Fu, Liang Qichao, Zeng Pu, Wu Jianren, Huang Yuanyong, Lu Xun, and others, all of whom were engaged in a manner of reflexive thinking about the West in order to grasp the accelerated disintegration of their life worlds. The book provides many fresh insights on familiar authors and texts, demonstrating once again the value of close reading and textual exegesis. The main figures covered by...