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“The Specter of the Nineteenth Century”: Reconsidering Currents of Humanism (rendaozhuyi sichao) in 1980s China

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This article posits a genealogical account of humanism as discursive constructs that are historically contingent. Humanism is thus conceived as ideology—“a system (with its own logic and rigor) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts).” Specially, it reconsiders the Chinese discourses of humanism in the “New Era” (the 1980s) against the ideological backdrop of the Mao era as well as China’s shifting political economy. Complicating the common assertion that the 1980s discourses of humanism inaugurated the second “May Fourth,” it argues that the process in which humanism in the “New Era” arose largely hinged upon a constant excavation of 19th century Euro-Russian literary and philosophical legacies, the influence of which was already present in the Mao era. By analyzing literary works such as Dai Houying’s Human, ah, Human! (Ren a, ren!) and philosophical-aesthetic discourses by figures like Li Zehou and Gao Ertai, the article traces the discursive practices and subject positions of Chinese intellectuals and writers in the 1980s as they appropriated Western narratives and concepts of humanism and Romanticism when dealing locally with practical issues such as political change and cultural wounds. Ultimately, it suggests a historical approach to humanism as a discursive formation whose ideological underpinnings should be grasped in the context of the 1980s.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Peking University ; 2: Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Stanford University


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