Cosmopolitanism in China, 1600–1950

by Minghui Hu and Johan Elverskog


*This book is in the Cambria World Sinophone Series
(General editor: Victor H. Mair)

In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the ethno-nationalist turbulence it unleashed, there arose two distinct but interrelated scholarly enterprises. One aimed to explain these eruptions by investigating the categories and creations of various ethnic and national claims, while the other, with much the same goal in mind, explored these fissures and juxtaposed them with the paradigm of cosmopolitanism. Both approaches—which at times were in dialogue with each other, and at times not—produced a great wave of new and exciting scholarship across all the disciplines of the academy.

In the case of China, for example, the first of these approaches was instrumental in shaping the New Qing History that has radically transformed our understanding of late imperial China. However, for various reasons, scholars of the Qing did not take up the challenge of exploring the theoretical implications of cosmopolitanism in regard to China. The aim of this study is therefore to address this oversight not only by shedding new light on China from the Qing’s founding to the early years of the Republic but also to bring these realities into dialogue with the broader discourses about cosmopolitanism.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution and the Cold War in 1971, the historian Joseph Levenson made the astute observation that China used to be cosmopolitan on account of Confucianism. At that time, the notion of China, much less Confucianism, as somehow being cosmopolitan may have surprised many of his readers, especially because so many conventional ideas about China—ranging from its “kith and kin” social structure to its purportedly eternal and monolithic state structure—seem to reflect a society that was the very antithesis of cosmopolitanism.

Indeed, even now, or perhaps even more so now on account of growing Chinese nationalism, Han chauvinism, and global fears of a rising China, the idea of Chinese cosmopolitanism may strike many as ill conceived. This supposition is well borne out by the fact that one can largely search in vain the last four decades of scholarship on China to find again the three words China, Confucianism, and cosmopolitanism combined in any meaningful way. It is not only scholars of late imperial (or early modern) China who have failed to pursue Levenson’s idea; China is also woefully absent in the burgeoning scholarship in the movement known as the “new cosmopolitanism.” But Levenson, as with so much of his scholarship, was clearly on to something important. In fact, in the current academic climate it seems almost irresponsible not to address this. This volume is therefore a pioneering attempt to explore the implications and possibilities of Levenson’s potent observation regarding China in relation to the growing scholarship on cosmopolitanism around the world.

The first, and perhaps most obvious insight of this study, which is also invariably its most important contribution, is that China was in fact cosmopolitan. Of course, what that actually means and how it actually manifested is the focus of each chapter. The book is thus organized into four sections, which examine particular articulations of cosmopolitanism over the course of three centuries. The first section explores how the early Qing state and its policies were shaped by cosmopolitanism and thus enriches our understanding of both Manchu rule and the parallel practices found in other early modern territorial empires. The second section builds on this new cosmopolitan vision of the Qing empire by exploring how it intersected with the intellectual debates of leading scholars during the High Qing, such as Gong Zizhen, who changed the discourse of the literati on account of his pluralist and cosmopolitan vision. The third section expands the focus by exploring how Qing cosmopolitanism in turn shaped the interactions between Chinese scholars and politicians with their colleagues in Korea and Japan in the nineteenth century. The fourth and final section explores how Chinese intellectuals grappled with the fall of the Qing and the rise of nation-states while continuing to hold onto new forms of cosmopolitanism. Individually and collectively, these chapters provide new and important ways of conceptualizing cosmopolitanism in China and beyond.

Cosmopolitanism in China, 1600–1930 is an important intervention in both the current scholarship on modern China and the scholarship on cosmopolitanism in its global articulations.

Read excerpts from each chapter of Cosmopolitanism in China, 1600–1950


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