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The Job of a Humanist. The renwen jingshen debate, 1993-1995

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abstract The thesis analyses the ‘debate on the spirit of the humanities’ (renwen jingshen taolun 人文精神討論), which involved a large number of humanist scholars in mainland China between 1993 and 1995. The interpretation of the content and focus of this debate in Chinese, English, and French scholarly works varies greatly. For some, it was an elitist reaction to the rapid rise of commercialised mass culture in the country. Others contend that the central issue at stake was the self-repositioning of intellectuals in society after 1989.
This thesis adopts a new approach to the analysis of Chinese intellectual discourse. First of all, it focuses on a single, large-scale debate within a defined time frame. It primarily relies on in-depth, critical analysis of a large number of texts in order to support an original interpretation of the debate, as well as to prove its historic significance. Secondly, it elaborates on the ‘keywords approach’ to present and organise the findings of this analysis. Thirdly, this work integrates a focus on discourse with insights from a range of disciplines, including history, human geography, and sociology, thus providing a multi-faceted and original ‘contextualisation’ of the debate which is firmly grounded in the language of the debate itself. Finally, it links its topic with other concurrent debates, as well as with intellectual trends that preceded or followed the 1993-1995 time frame.
Analyses and references to the debate can be found in a number of works encompassing fields as different as literary history and elite politics, but no article or volume has been entirely dedicated to the renwen jingshen debate in English. Furthermore, critiques of the debate in the literature mostly cover a narrow selection of texts and fall short of engaging in dialogue with other existing interpretations. The great significance of the renwen jingshen debate is also widely acknowledged. In fact, the number of participants, the wide array of topics covered, and the impressive number of contributions (more than a hundred) are not the only reasons to regard it as one of the most important intellectual events of the Nineties. Even more importantly, the debate brought the reflection of China’s intellectuals about their role as academics, citizens, and mentors to the state to an unprecedented depth since 1949. This work argues that some of the questions raised in the debate – questions which are either ignored or dismissed in most of the literature – can shed new light on post-1989 intellectual life and challenge recent interpretations of modern Chinese critical inquiry, in particular those focussing on nationalism and ‘nation saving’ as its defining concern (e.g. Davies 2007).
While the renwen jingshen debate often revolved around judgements and anxieties over the consequences of market reforms on cultural life, this work identifies an undertow that runs deeper than concerns about cultural production and political stances. Based on textual evidence, the thesis interprets the debate as a mutual critique among Chinese humanists on the ethical and theoretical foundations of their own work.
This study combines the analysis of the debate’s textual substance with a multidisciplinary discussion of its context. First of all, it provides a wide picture of the time and place in which the debate originated and evolved. In particular, it focuses on political and urban change in Shanghai (i.e. the city where the debate originated) in the early Nineties. Secondly, it profiles a group of influential, yet little-known intellectual figures of the Shanghai-based intelligentsia, such as Wang Xiaoming王曉明, Chen Sihe陳思和 and Zhang Rulun張汝倫, as well as Guangzhou-based Yuan Weishi袁偉時. Interviews to these key participants will add a most valuable layer of complexity to both the analysis and the contextualisation of the debate. Thirdly, it introduces the journals and reviews where the articles originally appeared (e.g. Shanghai wenxue 上海文學, Dongfang 東方, Wenhui bao 文匯報, etc.) in a way which is relevant to the overall discussion.
This thesis aims at providing new insights on the language of intellectual debates in contemporary China. The relevance of its findings, however, will also extend to other contexts, such as literature, politics, sociology, and history. It examines the theoretical and political underpinnings of the diversification in cultural production and the profound divisions in cultural criticism which emerged during the Nineties. It adds much needed complexity to common understandings of intellectual and cultural nationalism in the Nineties and beyond. It also points at the historic significant of changes that affected not only the intellectuals as professionals and citizens, but the wider society since the beginning of the decade. When discussing these changes, it is imperative to be aware of how intellectuals in China have made sense of, and responded to them. As the social and cultural issues which elicited the debate, and the intellectual dilemma which it highlighted both remain unresolved, the renwen jingshen debate is certainly relevant for our discussions on China today.
type presentation (English)
keywords renwen jingshen China intellectuals debates politics humanities
date of presentation 3-6-2010
event Brownbag Seminars (The University of Nottingham)
citation Strafella, G. (2010). The Job of a Humanist. The renwen jingshen debate, 1993-1995. Presented at Brownbag Seminars, The University of Nottingham.