Since the 1990s, Wang Hui has been an agenda-setting figure in the contemporary Chinese intellectual landscape. A leading representative of China’s ‘New Left’, he has been at the centre of public debates since the publication of his path-breaking essay, ‘Contemporary Chinese Thought and the Question of Modernity’, which aroused fierce and enduring intellectual controversy. Under his editorship, China’s principal journal of ideas, Dushu, became the forum of many key theoretical disputes and policy discussions. His forced resignation from the journal in 2007 ignited another debate among the Chinese intelligentsia, as readers polarized over its political line and intellectual quality during his tenure. In contrast to all this uproar, however, his magnum opus on The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, whose four volumes appeared in 2004, caused scarcely a political ripple.footnote1 Applauded by the left, and well received by many scholars of modern Chinese intellectual history, it met with almost universal silence from his political adversaries.

Silence, because this is such a massive and original book that without ample knowledge of the topics with which it deals, covering the evolution of Chinese thought across hundreds of years, no political attack on it could be taken seriously; but also because of the sheer length and complexity of the work, daunting for any ordinary reader. In what follows, I will try to overcome some of the barriers to an understanding of The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought (hereafter abbreviated as Rise), first by situating both its grandeur and its intractability in a comparative historical context, then setting out its principal themes and arguments, and finally offering a critical judgement of the enterprise of the book as a whole, and of its place in Wang Hui’s developing work.

The overarching objective of Rise is the search for the ‘seeds’ of an alternative modernity, distinct from that of the West and capable of avoiding its ailments, in intellectual legacies of the long Chinese past. As a project, this undertaking belongs to a historically well-established pattern among thinkers from the colonial, semi-colonial, ex-colonial or even just non-Western world—the political impulse to recover traditional cultural resources to resist the pretensions of a supposedly universal ‘modernization’ sprung from the West. Famous examples of this pattern stretch from Ireland to Turkey, Peru to Iran, India to Japan. In different ways and registers, Yeats and the Gaelic Revival, Ziya Gökalp and José Carlos Mariátegui, Jamal-al-din Al-Afghani and Vinayak Savarkar, Mahatma Gandhi and Kita Ikki, all shared this impulse—and the roll-call could be extended. Few movements for national liberation in the Third World have been exempt from it.

But if Wang Hui’s project can be regarded as cognate with this range of earlier ventures, by reason of historical situation it is also distinguished from them. By the end of the twentieth century, China was no longer a semi-colonial country, even if it had still not achieved full territorial unity. On the other hand, the hegemonic power of Western—American-led—capitalism was globally greater than ever before, with a quite new capacity, cultural and economic, to penetrate to the innermost pores of society in what was once the Second or Third World. Nor was this merely an external imposition, since within China itself an increasingly endogenous capitalist society was visibly taking shape. However closely inter-related, the forces to be resisted were two-fold. In this respect, Rise is in some ways closer to critical works produced within the West itself, resembling Raymond Williams’s effort to reconstruct the line of English romanticism, and its sequels, as resources for the critique of industrial capitalism in Culture and Society.

A second difference lies in the transformation in the forms of intellectual production over the intervening century, since the days of the Gaelic Revival or the Young Turks. Typical earlier advocates of national liberation appealed to pre-capitalist legends, customs, religious beliefs, forms of community or authority, in an often mythicized fashion. By contrast, Wang Hui’s Rise is a work of professional modern scholarship, answering to the protocols of accuracy and evidence of the contemporary academy. It is not, of course, alone in that—other Third World intellectuals have equally been engaged in scholarly rediscovery of the pre-capitalist past in their countries. An obvious example would be Partha Chatterjee, excavating traces of spontaneous societal rationalization in certain Indian kingdoms before the British invasion. But here China’s exceptionally well-preserved record of its pre-capitalist civilization has allowed a much more systematic attempt to recover the past, for uses of the present. Wang Hui could draw on a much longer continuous tradition of writing and thinking than any of his peers within the Third World, or indeed the West. As a codified system, scriptural Confucianism dates from the third century bc and lasted all the way down to the early twentieth century.

There then occurred—before and during the May Fourth movement of 1919—one of the most radical breaks in cultural continuity anywhere in the world, surpassed perhaps only in Turkey; followed by a second break in 1949. This intellectual terrain has double implications for Wang Hui’s undertaking. On the one hand, the ‘seeds’ of an alternative modernity could be located much further back than anything with which Western readers might be familiar: Plato, Aristotle. On the other hand, after the upheavals of the twentieth century, such traditional resources would be considerably stranger and more remote to the average Chinese reader today than anything Arab readers could find in Al-Afghani or English could find in Williams.

A third difference lies in the contemporary intellectual context in China itself. Wang Hui is not the only scholar engaged in rediscovering China’s pre-capitalist history for present use. In recent years, the economic rise of the People’s Republic has brought a resurgence of national pride at state and popular levels, among whose forms of expression have been renewed acclaim for Confucius, as a legend to be conjured with in blockbuster movies, celebrity television shows and overseas language institutes. It has also seen a significant increase of cultural confidence among the Chinese intelligentsia, many members of which have turned their eyes to the country’s pre-capitalist past to construct a prospect that differs from what the West has to offer. Two examples will suffice. Zhao Tingyang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, draws inspiration from the feudal order of the Zhou dynasty (11th–3rd centuries bc) for the conception of a new world system, which he calls tianxia tixi (under-the-heaven system), to replace Western arrangements of global power; Jiang Qing, a leading scholar in the recent revival of Confucianism, proposes a ‘tricameral’ representative system as an alternative to Western bicameral models. Most contemporary Confucian scholars tend to think that Confucian moral and political education, and traditions of civil-service examinations and consultative politics, can and should play an active role in today’s China. The Chinese Communist Party also self-consciously appropriates Confucianism to relieve its ideological poverty, although its own history of anti-Confucian revolution blocks the explicit use of Confucian language.