Ge Zhaoguang, of Fudan University in Shanghai, is one of the most learned and the best translated historians of China and Chinese intellectual history. Like Qin Hui from Tsinghua, he has written across historic periods and dynastic boundaries, and ranges between disciplines. In an era of deeper and deeper specialisation, this is welcome. His work illuminates by making connections and putting pieces of the vast jigsaw puzzle that is Chinese culture and identity together. He should be more widely known and understood outside of China, not least because he is the authentic voice of contemporary intellectual engagement in the modern People’s Republic, and belongs to the same lineage as Hu Shi, and Qian Zhongshu.

There is one question of piercing clarity in `What is China?’ (Harvard University Press,,  a collection of essays derived from lectures that Ge gave in the early 2000s, which really repays attention. `Why,’ he asks, `then is Europe the “universal” and China the “particular”?’  He goes on , `Perhaps the history of the formation of the Chinese nation state was an equally rational and natural process.’ (p 59) Irritation at the universalist claims of Enlightenment European powers has increased in modern China. It’s climax can be seen in the fierce resistance to proselytizing for what is somewhat loosely called `western values’ in the China of Xi Jinping. But Ge’s point is mercifully free of the politicised posturing of other formulations, and throughout this book he proves a consistent, and forensic, critic of what he calls the statism and nationalistic agendas of some of those working in the fields of archaeology or academia. For him, the deeper, and more valid target for enquiry is how best to describe and encapsulate this complex, valid, and often shifting, relationship between the physical entities that have occupied the current geographical space occupied by the People’s Republic today, and the identity of what has now come to be called Chinese culture and civilisation.

In his discussion of this vast, problematic issue, he ranges across questions about the relationship between physical space and territory, the meaning of borders, ethnicity, and the interpretation of history.  All of these are massive issues, and ones that his deeply informed, elegant discussions help to grapple with. Ge’s discussion offers lessons not just for those outside of the cultural and political context that he is addressing, but also for those within it. Chinese exceptionalism these days seems to be reaching fever pitch. The country under Xi Jinping is acquiring something close to a messianic notion of its semi-divine destiny to be a great, strong nation again, restored to a place of mythical centrality it once thought it occupied in the past. ‘All under heaven’ and other formulations try to capture this vague, largely spiritual sense of special destiny. But as Ge sharply comments, `It need not be the case that, because we are Chinese people, we have to heap praise on Chinese culture and feel that every aspect of the culture is good.’ (p 137). To exemplify this he brings in a host of European, American and Japanese writers to illustrate the points he makes, referring at one point to Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, and his very helpful work on the malaise of modernity’ from the 1990s. Ge in this book shows the uses of comparative material and studies, and the ways that they can be entirely respectful of the particular (in this case, the longevity , plasticity and complexity of Chinese senses of identity) but also take heed of the universal (what the role of common notions of nationalism has been playing in modern China as the nation state of the PRC has grown, matured and developed.

For anyone thinking about tackling the question, `What IS China?’ this book is a wonderful start. Ge’s `Intellectual History of China’ has also just been issued, but that is a far longer, and much more expensive work. This is more accessible, and, importantly, more affordable.


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