There have been many worries about China since the 1990s, and as many books expressing them. But worrying about what? About the potential worries China may have on its way ahead? Or about the worries the rest of the world—particularly the West—should have about China? These two could potentially cancel each other out, for China’s worries could mean freedom from worry for the West. But others may think that China’s worries could spell worry for the world. The latter is the theme of Gloria Davies’s book.footnote1

Worrying about China offers an account, and analysis, of the language Chinese intellectuals have used in recent years in thinking about China. It is a substantial and serious study of their ‘critical vocabulary’, that concentrates on Chinese intellectual life since the early 1990s—i.e. since the country’s economic ‘take-off’—and its relations with Western thought. Davies identifies the central theme of the period as youhuan, which she translates as ‘worrying’, though its meaning is actually closer to something like ‘worrying on behalf of the nation’, and argues that this preoccupation is particularly Chinese. She locates its origins, not surprisingly, in a time-honoured tradition of Confucianism, which has only been reinforced in modern times. No previous work on China has looked so carefully at its contemporary critical thought. Davies displays an impressive range and depth of research, into not only the critical texts themselves, but also the background of the protagonists.

Though she describes her object as ‘Sinophone’ critical inquiry, the term is somewhat misleading, since her focus is on writings in Chinese by mainland intellectuals within and outside of China, whereas in normal usage—consonant with terms like Francophone or Anglophone—‘Sinophone literature’ also includes writing in Chinese produced in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the diaspora, or even by non-Chinese—Tibetan authors would be an example—writing in Chinese. This is a minor caveat, however. What Davies’s book provides us with is a set of detailed accounts of the many different, heated debates among mainland Chinese intellectuals in recent years, pitting traditionalism against cosmopolitanism, liberalism against new leftism, modernism against postmodernism, neo-Confucianism against neo-Enlightenment, radicalism against neo-conservatism. The fierce disputes among and between all these -isms and post-isms, native or imported, have made the Chinese intellectual scene at once fascinating and highly confusing to outsiders. Davies’s reconstructions of them are consistently informed and insightful, and for this feat alone she is entitled to our admiration and gratitude. So far as the information is concerned, her book is a must for anyone interested in the Chinese intellectual scene.

Worrying about China also, however, contains a second theme. Devoting substantial space to the reception by Chinese intellectuals of contemporary Western thought—figures like Derrida and Habermas, Strauss and Schmitt feature prominently—Davies argues that their appropriation of such thinkers has often been highly problematic, typically involving a great deal of misinterpretation. A convincing case in point is her demonstration of the metamorphoses undergone by the ‘Chinese Derrida’—whose message can become ‘confidence in the transparency of language in communicating a truth’—and of the virtual absence of any ‘linguistic turn’ in China. Similarly, she notes that though Popper is frequently cited in China, ‘the Popperian distinction between scientific and metaphysical propositions . . . is generally elided when a set of formulations about “what China needs” are offered as would-be true propositions’. Such misperceptions, she suggests, stem not so much from any special Chinese inability to understand Western thought, as from the very definition of intellectuals in China. What, then, sets these apart from their Western counterparts, or from intellectuals in general? Davies is unequivocal: it is the ‘pervasive moral burden’ of worrying about their country. The implication must be that should Western intellectuals face the same problems in their own countries, they would not worry so much, or at least not let such worries affect their philosophical preoccupations. Chinese intellectuals are thus of a particular kind, i.e. worriers.

In developing this thesis, Davies leans for support on the controversial Sinologist Thomas Metzger, who claims to have identified eleven contrasting features that distinguish Chinese intellectuals from their Western equivalents—among others, epistemological optimism versus epistemological pessimism, objectivism versus relativism, grounded ‘oughts’ versus indeterminate human goals. Eleven differences might well seem too many and Davies wisely desists from citing all of them. Yet she also adds to Metzger’s dichotomies a couple of further contrasts discovered by herself. One is an Anglophone emphasis on the necessary opacity and self-reflexivity of any theoretical language, as opposed to a Sinophone ‘preoccupation with discovering or forging new vocabularies with the specific aim of distilling an essential truth about China and/or foundational principles’. Another is the ‘non-nationalistic character of Anglophone (and more broadly Euro-American) critical perspectives’, as opposed to the Sinophone practice of ‘distinguishing between good and bad or between merits and flaws’. A couple of labels are then ready to fall into place: Chinese intellectuals remain positivist, essentialist and foundationalist, however hard some might try to adopt trends in recent Western thought. This incorrigible, dyed-in-the-wool rationalism in Chinese intellectual inquiry, Davies suggests, has deep roots in the tradition of Confucianism, with modern reinforcement from Marxism.

The sweeping contrasts made by Metzger and Davies certainly provide food for thought, however contentious they may seem, and however discouraging they might be to Chinese intellectuals eager to catch up with the latest developments in Western critical theory. As a Chinese who has lived and taught both in the West and in China, I can personally attest to the accuracy of at least one of their descriptions: typically, at the back of our minds there is indeed a sense of moral obligation to concern ourselves with the future of China, which very often dilutes our urge to serve the nobler cause of benefiting humanity or pursuing the purer goal of satisfying our curiosity. This could in the long run restrict the country’s cultural contribution to the world. For this simple reason, I fear that China is likely to remain, for the foreseeable future, a dwarf in the field of critical inquiry, even if it is destined to become the largest economy in the world and a political giant in the global power game. Chinese intellectuals feel their foremost duty is to care about China, and they are in no mood to compete with the philosophical adventures of Western thinkers, no matter how much they may decorate their own discourse with scraps of this or that Occidental theorist who happens to be in fashion at the time.

This practical way of thinking has a long tradition in China, which will not be easy to change. C. T. Hsia, in his pioneering work A History of Modern Chinese Fiction (1962), called it the ‘obsession with China’ that runs through modern Chinese literature—an earlier version, as Davies acknowledges, of the foibles of China’s current critical discourse. According to Hsia, Chinese writers habitually ignored ‘the state of man in the modern world’, treating ‘the conditions of China as peculiarly Chinese’, and so exhibiting ‘a certain patriotic provinciality and naïveté’. Hsia, an expatriate scholar from mainland China via Taiwan, had a large following among Taiwanese and Hong Kong students who flocked to the us in the 1960s and 1970s, but his admonitions were of little effect. The influential movement of Liuxuesheng wenxue (‘Students-abroad literature’), which arose among them not long after Hsia’s well-known condemnation, proved to be even more unabashedly China-obsessed than the fiction he was writing about. Since he wrote his major works in English, Hsia was not a ‘Sinophone’ scholar according to the definition in this book. But his warning was very similar to that of Davies, both seeking to free a particular Chinese mentality from its excessive introversion. The two warnings have a further affinity, in limiting their targets to writing in modern China.