Mapping the Intellectual History of Modern China: Ideological Moments, Social Worlds and Enduring Ideas

Loading Map....

Date(s) - 12/12/2013
2:00 pm - 3:15 pm

Japanese Studies Centre Auditorium, Building 54 (next to the bus loop), Monash University, Clayton Campus

Category(ies) No Categories

School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics


Research Seminar


Mapping the Intellectual History of Modern China:

Ideological Moments, Social Worlds and Enduring Ideas


Japanese Studies Centre Auditorium,

2 -3.15 p.m., Thursday 12 December 2013


Timothy Cheek, University of British Columbia




How do we write the history of modern Chinese intellectual life and to what end? After more than a generation of excellent, detailed and focused studies how do we put together a coherent narrative? The writing of modern Chinese intellectual history raises both general problems in writing history and specific questions related not only to the subject matter (China) but also to different generations of historians and the concerns of their times. Joseph Levenson famously cast a broad narrative framework in his seminal work begun in the 1950s, Confucian China and It’s Modern Fate. He presented the master narrative of modern Chinese intellectual history (up to the 1950s) as a transition from tradition to modernity, from China “as the world” to China “as part of the world” (from Tianxia to guojia), from Confucian China to something else. His presumptions have been challenged by decades of specialised research. Is such a metanarrative, even with enriched and perhaps altered particulars, still viable? 

            I have been wrestling with these issues as I write a general history of intellectuals and public life in China’s long twentieth century. Unlike Levenson, I have produced a map and modelled a method with the goal of providing readers with tools to make their own informed narratives. The map includes “ideological moments” and “social worlds” as temporal and social lenses through which to view intellectuals and ideas of note. The method modeled makes certain fundamental analytical claims. It is guided by the idea that we must always read a text in context. Doing so, however, radically limits the extent to which our hopes (or fears) of the present can be projected back on to, say, Liang Qichao’s democracy, Ding Ling’s feminism, Hu Shi’s liberalism, or even Mao’s revolution. The lecture will review these issues in short compass with examples.


Professor Timothy Cheek, Louis Cha Chair in Chinese Research and Director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, is an intellectual historian. His research, teaching and translating focus on the recent history of China, especially the role of Chinese intellectuals in the twentieth century and the history of the Chinese Communist Party. His books include A Critical Introduction to Mao (editor, 2010), Living with Reform: China Since 1989 (2006), Mao Zedong and China’s Revolutions (2002) and Propaganda and Culture in Mao’s China (1997), as well as edited volumes: New Perspectives on State Socialism in China (1997), with Tony Saich, The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao (1989) with Roderick MacFarquhar and Eugene Wu, and China’s Establishment Intellectuals (1986), with Carol Lee Hamrin.