The Rise of a New Political Horizon: the Chinese Reception of Rousseau's Of the Social Contract, 1895-1925

  • FAN, Guangxin (PI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project explores the rise of a new political horizon through the case study of Chinese intellectuals’ reception of Rousseau’s Of the Social Contract, 1895-1925. Compared with all other Western classics, Rousseau’s work was most popular among the first generation of Chinese intelligentsia. Its reception decisively changed their political horizon. According to Gadamer, “The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point.” People use their own horizons to imagine others’ to overcome the boundaries between present and past (Gadamer, 2004). While Gadamer focuses on the “fusion of horizons” within one tradition, the project uses his theory to frame dialogues between two traditions of political thought.

Rather than focusing on an individual thinker’s response to Western political thought, this project studies how a group of influential intellectuals interacted with each other as critics of Rousseau’s work. Rather than concentrating on prestigious figures, this project also scrutinizes less well-known intellectuals’ writings in newspapers and journals.

The project reveals that Chinese intellectuals’ reception of Western political thought was facilitated by at least four different horizons, whereas previous studies focus on only one or two of them. More importantly, the project shows how these horizons interplayed, contradicted, compromised and eventually fused into one unique horizon, whose formation accompanied the rise of the Chinese intelligentsia as both agents and products of modernization.

It is the synthesis of the four horizons but not particular concepts or doctrines that characterized modern Chinese political thought. The research outputs, which include a monograph and three articles, will advance understanding of the resources the Chinese intelligentsia have been mobilizing to reflect upon their past, to confront the problems of the present and to imagine a brighter future.

Furthermore, while previous studies focus on Rousseau’s influence on liberalism and statism in China, this project sheds light on a neglected aspect of the story, namely the connection between the Chinese reception of Rousseau and the origin of radical movements. Finally, the project helps understand Rousseau’s legacy in Chinese politics by uncovering various political visions evident in the Chinese writings on Rousseau.

The project combines the methods of intellectual history and political philosophy. Rather than focusing on a few concepts and phrases or paragraphs, the project performs close readings and contextual analyses of a text from beginning to end to grasp its overall arguments and the line of reasoning.
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