China and the Human
Social Text, Vol. 109, No. 1, 2012
29 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2012 Last revised: 29 Sep 2016
Date Written: February 1, 2012
China is everywhere in the news. Most stories seem to fall into one of two categories: accounts of China’s astounding economic development, and reports of equally astonishing human rights abuses in China. Paradoxically, as it turns into a global economic powerhouse, China’s relationship to political freedoms and rights appears to stand in an almost inverse relationship to its economic success. To make sense of the contemporary political moment, this essay examines the politics and histories of China and the human. At the same time, it constitutes a critical introduction to a special double issue of the journal Social Text on the same theme. The special issue, consisting of eleven essays and a visual dossier, considers the problematic conceptual, political, historical, and cultural relationship between Chineseness and humanity. By juxtaposing “China” and “the human” as two discrete categories, this introductory essay does not assume either concept as a pre-given object of knowledge. Rather — together with the other essays in the volume — it examines both China and the human as set of relational, differential, and contrapuntal events, in specific historical and geopolitical contexts.
The introductory essay provides a conceptual and historical map for this inquiry, in a comparative context that examines Euro-American, Chinese, and transnational itineraries of the human and their global crossings. It analyzes China’s potential to undo the universalizing claims of Western idealized norms of the human, while refusing to re-essentialize a Chinese otherness as an alternative perspective. More specifically, the essay interrogates the domination and limitations of the universal human while tracing alternative cosmologies and discourses of Chinese humanism and anti-humanism, informed by Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, as well as other religious and political traditions. It also examines Marxist and Maoist conceptualizations of the human from transnational perspectives, and finally it considers the status of the human in contemporary China, defined increasingly as a bearer of a set of political and legal rights. What humanity means in China today — and in the world — and what it will mean in the future, is part of an ongoing struggle over the meaning of the past and the politics of the present. This essay offers “China” as a methodology in itself, rather than simply an object of inquiry.
Keywords: China, human rights, Eurocentrism, Sinocentrism, humanism, Confucianism, liberalism, postcolonial theory, Marxism, Sinophone, Maoism
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