Below, a fascinating talk from Geremie Barmé (author of the forthcoming Wonders of the World volume on The Forbidden City) delivered at the Australian launch of Gloria Davies' Worrying about China, a book that explores the way perfectionism permeates and ultimately propels Chinese intellectual thought:
The creation and repeated evocation of rhetorical enemies is a powerful tactic in the realm of intellectual contestation. It relies on a language rich in the vocabulary of moral evaluation, a language in which practitioners employ their ideas to give careful expression to unarticulated aims. Judgments are offered or passed by means of either positive or pejorative adjectives, adverbs, nouns and verbs. The ground for critical debates about social justice, political process, freedom of expression, diversity, openness and cultural possibility is turned into a treacherous topography marked out by confusing signs. A lazy dichotomy between left and right is constantly presented, allowing for entrenched positions with decades-long lineages to find seemingly new expression and easy advantage. In these distorting clashes among concerned individuals, issues both of the moment and the monumental rise and fall in importance. All the while the marketplace of ideas with its media outlets celebrates those whose rhetorical flights generate sales, even if they narrow the horizons of how people can think.
I could be glib and point out that this is not some prolix description of the vista of our own discursive terrain—although the long decade of Coalition rule and its intellectual legacy share some bleak similarities with the charged atmosphere of debate nurtured by China’s party-state over the past 10 or so years.
Rather, I am talking about the intellectual landscape through which Gloria Davies’s subtle yet magisterial, elegant yet demanding book, Worrying About China: The Language of Chinese Critical Inquiry allows its readers to travel and learn.
In this new book, and her other work, Gloria is critically engaged and engaged critically with a close reading of the writings of leading Chinese thinkers, the men and women who are searching for contemporary meaning in the context of the struggle for the modern in the Chinese, or Sinophone world. It is a struggle that dates back to the first Opium War in the 1840s. It is a struggle that sees thinking men and women who articulate their ideas in Chinese ensnared in a web of discursive practices that are at times profoundly familiar to non-Chinese readers, and at times powerfully different from the conduct of the EuroAmerican intellectual world. To be engaged with thinking China’s worries is to participate in them, to be enmeshed, to be tantalized, aggravated, enlightened and repelled. It is, however, a task that Gloria undertakes in a serious manner that I believe has not been attempted by any other writer working on contemporary Chinese thought, be they working in Chinese, English, or Japanese.
The result of Gloria’s painstaking—and I do mean painstaking—work, Worrying About China, will elicit unease, stir debate and produce wonderment among all of those who devote themselves to a close and careful reading of this marvelous text.
This is neither an easy nor a happy account. It is a brave intervention in the thinking world of China that helps readers understand what and how Chinese thinkers worry about China. Their worrying is not only about a nation beset for nearly two centuries with a myriad of problems, social, cultural, political and economic, but also about the future prospects of a civilization with its own means of generating value and meaning. More broadly, these are thinkers who confront the profound issues of China’s humanity and its place in the human predicament of the rest of the world. Their worrying is undertaken in a language and within a linguistic context that accentuates those worries, while creating ‘the worrier’, the writing intelligentsia, as the fulcrum of both being and change.
Gloria, like me, was trained in the multivalent pursuit that is known by the term ‘Sinology’. A word frequently derided by those who are generally ignorant of its complex history and meanings, ‘Sinology’ is itself based on a Chinese-centric approach to intellectual activity. It is one in which literature (the whole range of literary expression from prose writing to drama), history and philosophy intermingle and exchange with each other to make sense of the world. It is an approach that easily confounds those who vaunt the disciplinary narrowness of the modern academy. Gloria combines the fundaments of Sinology—although she kindly invokes my concept of ‘New Sinology’ when talking about doing so—with a guarded appreciation of the codes and practices of China’s literary language and the beguiling way its practitioners lure one towards a holistic worldview. While doing so she is keenly aware of and engaged with the protocols of contemporary international academic practice. It is this tension, one that reverberates throughout Gloria’s own intellectual history, that has created this extraordinary book, a work of profound sympathy and critical strength.
Gloria’s prose is lucid, and painstakingly balanced. She writes with intellectual precision, as well as with a measured sympathy for her notional interlocutors. It is common in theory-friendly renderings of the Chinese intellectual scene for Western-based academics—be they ethnically Chinese or not—to allow for a certain lassitude and even indulgence. Too many writers pursue intellectual agendas of the Western academy in the guise of thoughtful engagement with the Sinophone thinking world. Gloria pays due heed to these tendencies, and is ever alert to their pitfalls in her own writing. Whereas some readers—like myself—might enjoy a stronger whiff of revolutionary gunpowder emanating from the pages of her book, or less measure and empathy, it is Gloria’s aim to traverse the intellectual landscape of contemporary China along with those whose ideas and words evoke that landscape, engaging with them and allowing us to appreciate their varied travails. This is no easy task, especially as she appeals to the different constituencies of our own academy and the imperatives of Chinese intellectual engagement.
Gloria moves with grace,
finesse and a powerful understanding. This is a book that has taken years to
write and it will repay readers who approach it with due seriousness, thought
and time. Each sentence is carefully wrought and the whole demands the
attention of any who would understand the ways that meaning is generated in