The Hypothetical Mandarin:
Sympathy, Modernity, and Chinese Pain

By Eric Hayot

Reviewed by Yingjin Zhang
MCLC Resource Center Publication (February 2010)

Eric Hayot. The Hypothetical Mandarin: Sympathy, Modernity, and Chinese Pain. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 296. ISBN13: 9780195382495; ISBN10: 0195382498 .

Eric Hayot. The Hypothetical Mandarin: Sympathy, Modernity, and Chinese Pain. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 296. ISBN13: 9780195382495; ISBN10: 0195382498.

The Hypothetical Mandarin is an ambitious work that investigates an intriguing phenomenon in the modern Western world–namely, the reoccurrence of the Chinese in hypothetical references. Hayot’s investigation of this peculiarly hypothetical status shows that the Chinese are persistently projected into an existence plagued by natural disasters or physical ailments and thus made to function as pathetic particulars that exemplify certain universal ideas or ideals. Associated with disability, disease, and death, the Chineseness so hypothesized reveals both the particularity of the Western universalist thinking and the universality generated by the rhetoric of example-effects, both of which Eric Hayot demonstrates so admirably in this fascinating book. In what follows, I first summarize Hayot’s chapters and then situate his research in the fields of comparative literature and interdisciplinary scholarship.

In the “Introduction: The Hypothetical Mandarin,” Hayot tracks down the first appearance of the mandarin in Adam Smith’sThe Theory of Moral Sentiments (1790), where a hypothetical question is posed seemingly out of context: If the “great empire of China” were suddenly destroyed by an earthquake, how would an average European react to the news? (3). Another instantiation of the hypothetical status of the Chinese is found in a conversation between two characters in Balzac’sLe Père Goriot (1835), where the particular phrase “tuer le mandarin” (to kill the mandarin) would subsequently become so popular as to enter French dictionaries, where it is defined as “killing, with certain impunity, a complete stranger in the expectation of some advantage” (5). For Hayot, these two examples indicate the absent presence of China in modern Europe’s renegotiation with the ethics of self and other. Hayot goes on to claim: “no history of modernity will be complete if it cannot account for . . . the sustained and persistent appearance of the Chinese under the sign of sympathy, and of sympathy under the sign of the Chinese,” because “China” has for the past two centuries served as “a form of all forms of totality, a figure against which other forms of totality have been measured” (8).

Chapter 1, “Anecdotal Theory: Edmund Scott, Exact Discourse (1606); Stephen Greenblatt, Learning to Curse (1990),” begins with an obscure passage in a 1606 English text that describes in graphic, gruesome detail the torture of a Chinese goldsmith in Java. With a focus on the victim’s uncanny silence and inhuman strength through the torture, Hayot teases out Greenblatt’s specific way of reading the passage and turning it into an anecdote, a unique New Historical textual practice that at once opens the writing to history and language. For Greenblatt, Hayot observes, “the goldsmith’s silence is both a referential fact and a narrative trope, a mixed, anecdotal figure” (45). What really interests Hayot, however, is not the anecdote per se but the way it is made to illustrate the Chinese people’s incredible endurance of pain and suffering, on the one hand, and the Western reader’s sympathy vis-à-vis such an impossible event, on the other hand. Hayot locates this epistemological model: “In text after text on China, a claim about the race or nation in general is sustained by an illustrative example” (48). The anecdote of the Chinese goldsmith, therefore, serves as an example of “the colluded operations of sympathy (including Greenblatt’s sympathy), China, and the problems of the representationality of representation” (58).

Chapter 2, “The Compassion Trade: Punishment, Costume, Sympathy, 1800-1801,” is grounded in both the textualization and historicization of China. It moves from George Henry Mason’s two illustrative books, The Costume of China (1800) and The Punishments of China (1801), to the by-then sustained British cultural interest in China (e.g., tea, porcelain, etc.) during the period. For Hayot, “Mason’s books are interesting, then, not simply as instantiations of particular illustrative scenes, but as collective documents that organize for their readers an entire typology of China” (65). Referencing Chapter 1, Hayot argues that Mason’s “individual images might be said to function like anecdotes insofar as they enable the production of generality from particularity” (65, original emphasis). For instance, “death by a thousand cuts” (lingchi) verbally referenced in a caption for “A Puppet-Show” in The Costume of China would be deemed unrepresentable visually merely a year later in The Punishments of China, in which this extreme punishment was left without an illustration due, in Mason’s words, to its “much severer nature” than “The Manner of Beheading” (the latter printed as the final image in The Punishments of China). Furthermore, a speculative interpretation in the caption for “A Lame Beggar,” where the man is believed to have been “crippled designedly” by his parents, transforms a particular image into an illustration of the subordination of an individual body to the Chinese filial structure or even larger political institution. As Mason wrote, “It is also conjectured that the stability and uniformity of the Chinese character–immutable for the known duration of four thousand years–. . . is supported solely by that progressive submission which rises, gradually, from the bosom of a family even to the throne” (72). Here, as elsewhere, Hayot discerns “a prosthetic compassion toward Chinese ‘culprits’ and ‘miscreants,’ and a commensurate critique of Chinese judges and magistrates, its judicial system, and its civilization” (88). The rest of this rich chapter addresses historical issues by tracking the commercial and mediatic contexts in which Pu Qua, a Chinese painter, operated his studio in Canton and entered the circulation of a “compassion trade” between Britain and China.

Chapter 3, “The Chinese Body in Pain: American Missionary Medical Care, 1838-1852,” continues on the compassion note with Peter Parker, who operated the Ophthalmic Infirmary in Canton from 1835 to 1855 and commissioned numerous oil portraits of his patients with large abnormal tumors. Grounded on the Western perspective, Parker’s case illustrates the need for sympathy toward a potent universalism as well as the universal fact of pain and the desire for relief. Hayot thus comments on the metaphorical meaning of Parker’s surgery: “the opening of Chinese bodies not only resembling the opening of Chinese cultural life to the West, but inaugurating it” (101). Hayot proceeds from there to discuss the portraits painted by Lam Qua (Guan Qiaochang) in terms of time, realism, and artistic style. Corresponding to the typical stoic faces in these portraits, Hayot compares Parker’s written records of his patients’ reactions before and after the discovery of chemical anesthetics in 1846. Beyond the representational style pointing to “the now-classic story about Chinese insensitivity to pain,” Hayot unravels “the possibility of an actively generated representational style whose very assumptions about the proper relationship between pain and subjectivity imply a wholesale rejection of an aesthetic model predicated on the opposition between inside and outside, experience and expression” (129). In other words, Hayot sees in Parker’s case the hint of an alternative aesthetic or “an a-aesthetic”–“a violation of the classic codes of Western aesthetics” by deliberately disrupting “representation as the movement from presence to mimesis” (129).

Chapter 4, “Chinese Bodies, Chinese Futures: The ‘Coolie’ in Late Nineteenth-Century America,” brings us to American literature. Among Hayot’s examples, a 1902 American Federation of Labor (AFL) pamphlet advocated the extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act by depicting the Chinese “coolie” not just as a person but as a machine. “You cannot work a man who must have beef and bread, and would prefer beef, alongside of a man who can live on rice,” so James Blaine asserted in 1879; and this assertion on the contrast between meat and rice highlighted the urgent choice between “American manhood” and “Asiatic coolieism” (141). In the popular American perception of the time, Chinese tolerance of misery and hunger made them less human. For the AFL, as for Arthur Smith, whose Chinese Characteristics came out in 1894 and who urged his readers to “take account of the fact that in China breathing seems to be optional,” Hayot contends that the body became “the field upon which cultural difference exercised its power, the material whose form expressed most nakedly the racial logic or cultural identity that determined its relation to pain, monotony, labor, nutrition, consumption, pleasure, and morality” (145). Not surprisingly, the rampant discourse of Yellow Peril found expression in literature, especially science fiction. What is surprising is that Arthur Vinton’s Looking Further Backward (1890) reversed racial stereotypes–for the novel’s Chinese are presented as “men of high breeding and great intellectual attainments”–and plotted a successful Chinese invasion and occupation of the United States in 2020. Ironically, the idea of Chinese stasis and stagnation is turned into a beneficial trait: the novel suggests that the West lost the competition precisely because it had become too progressive and future-oriented.

First published in a special issue of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, chapter 5, “Bertrand Russell’s Chinese Eyes: or, Modernism’s Double Vision,” concentrates on the era of modernism. From Virginia Woolf’s use of “Chinese eyes” to describe her character Lily in To the Lighthouse (1927), Hayot traces a line of recent scholarship that explores the intellectual, aesthetic, and personal contacts between Bloomsbury and China and re-imagines “the possibility of thinking modernism globally or internationally” (186). Hayot reads Russell’s trips to Russia and China as an imaginary novel, taking note of the motifs of disease and pain in Russell’s writings and his list of three Chinese “defects”–avarice, cowardice, and callousness (192), the last exemplified in Russell’s hypothetical scene in which nine out of ten Chinese passersby would not show any sympathy for a dog seriously hurt by an automobile (192). For Hayot, who connects this deliberation to Russell’s and his student Wittgenstein’s theories of subjectivity and objectivity, “the categories through which Russell thought . . . were themselves already affected by some relation to Chineseness” (203). The uncanny appearance of the Chinese references in the European scene of modernism leads Hayot to this conclusion: “The ‘problem’ of China cleaves to the eyeless, earless world without subjects–the world of sensibilia generated but unperceived–that was Russell’s main contribution to Woolf’s modernism” (206). Again, the Chinese in this case is proven to function as disappearing appearance or appearing disappearance, which ultimately bears on Western aesthetics more than China per se.

Chapter 6, “Ideologies of the Anesthetic: Acupuncture, Photography, and the Material Image,” starts with Susan Sontag’s witness in 1973 of a three-hour surgical operation to remove the nine-tenths of a patient’s stomach under acupuncture anesthesia in China and contrasts it with her perturbed experience with watching a less gory operation in Antonioni’s controversial documentary Chung Kuo (1973). After going through theoretical issues of photographic images and contested ways of seeing and staging, Hayot moves to elaborate Georges Bataille’s obsession with a photograph of the death of a Chinaman by a thousand cuts–a photograph that “reproduces something of the European relation to China in the modern era,” as Hayot sees it (224). In Bataille’s case, Hayot identifies “an alternative mode of seeing through the Chinese figure in the image–a figure which represent, in twentieth century Europe, evidence of China’s connection to a pre-modern European past very much caught up in judicial violence and, thus, a pre-modern primitivity that cannot be ignored” (230). In the changing world of the early 1970s, the Chinese “primitive” acupuncture anesthesia became a sign of inscrutable modernity or what Hayot calls “modernity without modernity”: “the alternative medical modernity of the acupuncture operation crossing over to become an alternative aesthetic modernity as well” (244, original emphases). For Sontag, Bataille, and like-minded Western thinkers of the 1970s, Hayot surmises, “if vision could change . . . then perhaps the world could have modernity without pain, industrialism without the exploitation of labor (another dream of the Cultural Revolutionary era), mass culture without the deadening effects of overstimulation” (244). Alas, as is by now well-known to scholars like Hayot and others, Westerners’ understanding of the so-called “Cultural Revolution” in China and its “equivalents” in the West is often historically skewed, and the rapid development in contemporary China after the mid-1990s has proven all these one-sided projections of hope in the 1970s to be nothing but illusions or utopian dreams.

Chapter 7, “Closures: Three Examples in Search of a Conclusion,” represents Hayot’s attempt to bring a sense of closure to his book without committing to a definite conclusion. The first example comes from the Austrian writer Peter Handke’s Der Chinese des Schmerzes (The Chinaman of Pain, 1983), which has almost nothing to do with China per se and which bears the nondescript title Across for its 1986 English translation. For Hayot, this first example confirms “the nearly total emptiness of the Chinese example, even as it confirmed its vital and unrelenting plenitude” (249) in the modern Western imagination. The second example is the famous episode of a slide show of the Japanese beheading of a Chinese spy working for the Russians that Lu Xun recounts in the preface to his first collection of short stories in 1922. Lu Xun’s concern with the Chinese onlookers’ apparent lack of sympathy for the victim marks for Hayot “something like a return: the final step in a diasporic movement whereby the traveling question arrives at home and embraces, as though for the first time, its ‘native’ origins” (251). In other words, historically, Euro-American hypotheses on the Chinese character exerted a tremendous impact on twentieth-century China. However, I would caution that this second closure may carry an unintended consequence–namely, the implication of Hayot’s argument in the same Western logic of one particular example forcefully interpreted to represent a certain universal, in this case “national,” situation (indeed, this logic bears a peculiar link to Jameson’s theory of “national allegory,” whereby a particular case of Lu Xun is made to represent all third world literature). The third example is the popularity around the world since 1995 of the exhibition Body Worlds and its copycats, which have showcased plastinated human bodies to the fascination of diverse audiences. The nameless, faceless physiognomies are meant to elicit a sort of universal identification, but the universalist appeal has been disrupted by the revelation that the majority of these corpses are from China, where ten body-preservation factories are reportedly busy working to meet the global demand. Reading human rights activists’ protests in terms of wound, Hayot argues, “The nearly total woundedness of the Chinese subject in these ‘body worlds,’ now grasped as a physical allegory of the sympathetic opening to others, thus returns us to the always-deferred future of the universal human subject, whose fate it is to appear in the world always as the imperfect analogues of its ideal” (262).

Admittedly, a review like the present one cannot do full justice to the richness of Hayot’s erudite book, so I have excused myself from trying to elucidate a number of critical concepts Hayot has developed for his analysis, such as “the ecliptic” (11), which emphasizes the relationality of perspectives, and “the hyle” (231-33), which describes what is perceived but not intended. For me, what stands out in Hayot’s book is his use of the “example-effect” to capture the force of Chinese exemplarity in modern Western thought: “you can’t argue that the example matters to the idea without acknowledging that the examples you use to show that examples matter to the idea matter to the idea that examples matter to the idea” (27, original emphases). Regardless of the enigmatic or apparently tautological way Hayot expresses himself in the above quotation, he has found ample evidence for the ecliptic relation of the idea and the example, and what matters here is his conviction that, in the context of China’s historical relation to the invention of the modern human, “it matters that the mandarin is Chinese, because his being Chinese means that his being Chinese doesn’t matter. The function of Chineseness is thus, paradoxically, to force the ecliptic transformation of the instance into a universal that retains the instance in fossil form. It appears by disappearing; it disappears by appearing” (35, original emphases).

Although, as Hayot claims, “the major project of this book will have been to describe the grammar, or metagrammar, that allows ‘China’ to perform the philosophical and referential function that becomes it” (206) in modern Euro-America, his book has made other contributions to the fields of literary and cultural studies, especially in modernism studies, comparative literature, and interdisciplinary scholarship. The book belongs to the series “Modernist Literature and Culture” edited by Kevin J. H. Dettmar and Mark Wollaeger and published by Oxford University Press. Given the singular form of “literature and culture” in the series title, the series editors admit that Hayot’s book may make “the series’ founding logic somewhat strange to itself” because The Hypothetical Mandarin “is bound to unsettle comfortable visions of period, field, nation, and method” (xi). Sure enough, Hayot does not focus on an individual author or a group of modernist writers or thinkers, and his analysis does not privilege any single period or nation. Nonetheless, Hayot still makes it clear that he wants to intervene in modernism studies by charting two directions that exemplifies what he terms “double vision” (188): the first involves a recognition that “at the so-called original of European modernism, the foreign has already inserted itself,” whereas the second moves to “reconceive a definition of modernism itself that . . . would consider the entire global cultural output that has occurred under the name ‘modernism,’ which would permit an understanding of ‘modernism’ from a much larger historical and cultural perspective,” in which “various ‘other’ national modernisms would find a place not as derivative products of an origin but rather as full partners in a literary movement that continues to evolve” (187, original emphasis). Modernism, in Hayot’s vision, is as yet incomplete, historically and geographically.

Nonetheless, I see a dilemma–or even contradiction–in Hayot’s consistent grounding in the Western perspective in this book. Merely referencing Lu Xun in the conclusion and refraining from engaging a single Chinese literary or cultural text at any length, Hayot’s current book succeeds only in the first part of his double vision (i.e., identifying the foreign within the self, or China within Western modernity). How to read non-Western modernisms not as derivative but as equally creative as their Western counterparts remains a project for Hayot to pursue elsewhere. Still, it would be productive to explore the ways in which Chinese cultural and intellectual texts debate, disrupt, or disregard the Western constructions of the Chinese exemplary for some universalist ideas. Without some kind of Chinese or comparative perspective, in other words, Hayot seems to have reconfirmed rather than dismantled the Chinese status as the hypothetical mandarin that matters precisely because it does not matter. Indeed, one should be reminded that there is a veritable trend in existing comparative literature scholarship that may have discredited the hypothetical claim: China matters to the extent that Chinese aesthetics and poetics have inspired new concepts and forms of poetry and art in Euro-American modernist and postmodernist movements (e.g., Ezra Pound).

Even if Hayot does not engage comparative literature directly, I would suggest that his experiment with method makes an original contribution to interdisciplinary scholarship. With his focus on the ecliptic, Hayot no longer privileges the literary, artistic, and philosophical relations that constitute the core analysis in traditional comparative literature. Yes, a reader may wish that Hayot would have pursued, in his description, the obvious “relationships between figures marginal or central to Bloomsbury and Chinese intellectuals and writers (E. M. Forster with Xiao Qian, G. L. Dickinson and Fry with Xu Zhimo, and the sixteen-month correspondence between Woolf and Ling Shuhua)” (182). But that model of literary “influence” is not Hayot’s passion, and neither is he interested in “parallel” developments of ideas, themes, and genres in modern Chinese and Western literature, modernist or otherwise. Instead, Hayot is devoted, in the series editors’ judgment, to “a postmodern investigation of the figure of the suffering Chinese subject and its relationship to two hundred years’ worth of Western discourse about human sympathy and human rights” (xi), and in this undertaking he is conscientiously “experimental in method and form” (xi) and “deconstructive” (xii) of the Eurocentrism entrenched in much of studies in modernity and modernism, as well as in traditional comparative literature.

Again, I must say that Hayot’s method is much more nuanced than the mere labels of “postmodern” and “deconstructive” would invoke. Moving between so many examples and their illustrated ideas, Hayot has convincingly demonstrated that, even when relegated to a hypothetical status, the Chinese has come to haunt the universalist discourse of Western modernity and has disrupted any claim to the one-way cultural flow, from the metropole to the periphery, or from an advanced nation to a “primitive” society. What Hayot has deconstructed is the conventional measurement of unity and coherence around given themes and genres. To me, Hayot’s method is more than deconstructive, for he has been searching for a constructive method all along that seeks to bring together disparate texts, images, and ideas otherwise conveniently compartmentized by the disciplinary boundaries of literary, visual, philosophical, ethical, and medical studies. Through his meticulous method of the “example-effect,” the reader is treated to a wide array of texts–from a field report of torture to a science fiction novel of reversed racial stereotypes, from print illustrations of costumes and punishments to oil portraits of abnormal tumors, and from travel observations of the Chinese character to photographic images of medical surgery–and is persuaded that these non-elite literary and visual works could stand in-depth analysis and yield insights into the broad claims of human sympathy and Western modernity. To illustrate Hayot’s interdisciplinary method, I now quote from my favorite chapter in the book, where he contemplates the literary, artistic, philosophical as well as historical, political, and economic ramifications of the cultural encounter between China and the West:

The “total’ Mason, or Mason’s books as a “total” event, belongs to all of its dimensions–to the modalities of literariness that open themselves to close reading, to the modalities of ekphrasis that open relations between picture and word, to the modalities of form that arrange its typologies, to the system of international exchange that allowed Mason to purchase Pu Qua’s pictures, and let Pu Qua to paint them, and to the historical developments that link the rise of the culture of sympathy to this particular moment in England’s trade relations with China. (93)

Finally, let me end this review by recommending The Hypothetical Mandarin as a provocative, successful experiment in making the core philosophical inquiry of what we know as comparative literature, which has been repeatedly perceived as in decline, in crisis or even in danger, still relevant to contemporary scholarship, in particular in the area of modernist literature and culture in variant manifestations. Hayot does not analyze any Chinese literary texts at length, nor does he examine canonical Western literature, but his major contribution lies precisely in experimenting with a new way of reading that forsakes conventional notions of textual coherence and historical or cultural totality. As such, his method of approaching the hypothetical mandarin through the lenses of sympathy, modernity, and Chinese pain has much to offer to any serious scholar of Chinese and comparative literary, visual, and intellectual culture.

Yingjin Zhang
University of California, San Diego