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  • When Cosmopolitanisms Intersect:An Early Chinese Buddhist Apologetic and World Literature
  • Alexander Beecroft (bio)

The role played by East Asian literature in contemporary discussions of world literature can be contentious at the best of times; models developed in European contexts and/or for the postcolonial moment in the non-Western world may or may not apply as effectively in the particular cultural and political environment represented by East Asia and especially by the ongoing and robust influence of earlier literary traditions. Thus, for example, the work of Franco Moretti on the diffusion of the novel from what he sees as its Anglo-French heartland via the combination of European form and local content has been criticized as insufficiently attentive to the significance of existing novelistic forms in Japan and in China.1 Similarly, the work of Pascale Casanova on the république mondiale des lettres goes as far as to suggest that Asia and Africa as a whole were unable to enter into literature per se until the era of decolonization following the Second World War (and then only precariously).2 Theories of world literature, then, are in fact frequently theories of European literature and only secondarily of the ways non-European literatures find themselves integrated into the European world system, leaving little room to discuss, for example, inter-Asian literary relations, which from the perspective of the world system are seen as minor links between peripheries. The matter becomes still more complicated when we turn to the periods prior to modernity, where European models in which cultural diffusion is a by-product of political or commercial hegemony are completely inadequate to explain, for example, the spread of classical Chinese language and literary practices across East Asia. Clearly, new models are needed to account for the practices of cultural diffusion and circulation found [End Page 266] in premodern East Asia and to link these practices to larger global patterns. In earlier work, I have attempted to sketch a very general model for thinking in a more worldly fashion about "world literature"; in what follows, I try to begin fleshing that model out.3 I start by supplying some general intellectual context and background, after which I examine in detail a text I believe to be especially interesting from the perspective of premodern world literature and in particular for demonstrating the intersecting realms of premodern cosmopolitanisms.

I open with a brief look at the work of the Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock, especially his notion of "cosmopolitan" literatures. Pollock's cosmopolitanism is related to that featuring in contemporary debates in political philosophy but is nonetheless a distinct concept, derived as it is from the circulation of Sanskrit language, literature, and culture in the period from 300 to 1300 AD.4 As Pollock interprets the phenomenon, Sanskrit emerged during this period as the linguistic medium for the aesthetic representation of political power in a region stretching between the modern-day nations of Pakistan and Indonesia, forming in the process a "vast zone of cultural interaction" that cannot be accounted for in terms of conquest, colonization, trade, or any of the other usual models of cultural appropriation, domination, or exchange.5 Sanskrit is not alone, Pollock suggests, in having established such an ecumene; he notes at various points Greek, Latin, Chinese, Persian and Arabic as possible candidates for this "cosmopolitan" status. This list could be expanded, perhaps, though not by much; the status of Sumerian and/ or Akkadian in the ancient Near East and that of French in eighteenth-century Europe, for example, would seem analogous in many respects. By their nature, however, cosmopolitan languages must be relatively few in number. Crucially, while political and economic forces often reinforced the power of these languages, the cosmopolitan status enjoyed by each must be understood to at least a certain extent as having been secured prior to the emergence of their political and/or economic power or as having been more enduring than or different from this power.6

Certainly, the role of classical Chinese language, literature and culture in premodern East Asia would seem to fit Pollock's paradigm, the diffusion of classical Chinese through Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and elsewhere having had comparatively little to do...


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