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Toward the Fragility of Sovereignty: A Reading of Ye Shengtao’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”

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For a long period Ye Shengtao’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” has been read as a simple fairytale along with his other fairytale writings. Its politico-philosophical implications thus is blurred by students’ focus on the “historical context” of the 1930s of China, when Ye Shengtao’s fairytales were composed. This essay argues that Ye Shengtao’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” could be dealt with as a politico-philosophical text, despite or because of the historical context of China at that time which does not provide a political reality corresponding to what is called “sovereignty” in its classical sense in the field of political science. By interpreting Ye Shengtao’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” from a perspective of conceptual analysis by reading it together with other two stories about the same topic written by Hans Andersen and Juan Manuel, this essay also attempts to read the story against the grain of the history of modern Chinese literature, taking it as an allegory of sovereignty and its fragility, staging it theoretically with philosophical thoughts on sovereignty in the works of, for example, Hobbes, Spinoza, Jacques Derrida, and Giorgio Agamben. While Manuel’s story first puts forth the problematic of sovereignty, Andersen’s version pushes to the extreme the logic of self-legitimation carried out by the narrative of sovereignty. Ye Shengtao’s rewriting, in this textual context, deconstructs this logic and points out a possibility of the politics of democracy.


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