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The Vision of New China Suggested by the Politics of Language: Liu Shipei’s Interpretation of the “Rectification of Names” and Its Utopian Moment

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image of Frontiers of Literary Studies in China

This paper focuses on the “rectification of names” (zhengming 正 名), an important and recurrent motif in the writings produced by Liu Shipei 劉師培 (1884–1919) before he betrayed the anti-Qing revolution. On the one hand, Liu has argued that the Chinese signifying system should be modified in response to the challenges posed by the West. On the other hand, he also understood that, within the prevailing imperialist world order, China’s acceptance of this universal law entailed the acceptance of an inferior position vis-à-vis the dominant world powers. Liu’s interpretation of the “rectification of names” was aimed at overcoming the boundaries between the West and China, and ultimately led him to support a radical anarchist revolution. Therefore, Liu Shipei’s approach to the “rectification of names” is representative of the way in which late Qing intellectuals responded to the great clashes between the traditional and the modern, the West and the East. One might argue that the discourse surrounding the “rectification of names” brought about a moment of “origin,”—that is to say, a moment of reconstructing the relationship between names and things—the scope of which was not limited to China. In this context, the political utopia conceptualized by Liu Shipei can be regarded as one explicit form of the “rectification of names.” Thus, the different ways in which Liu Shipei, Zhang Taiyan 章太炎 (1868–1936; also known as Zhang Binglin 章炳麟), and Lu Xun approach the problem of language suggest their different visions of the future of China.


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