China in the World:
Culture, Politics, and World Vision

By Ban Wang

Reviewed by Julia Keblinska

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2022)

Ban Wang, China in the World: Culture, Politics, and World Vision. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022, xi + 215 pp. ISBN: 9781478010845 (paper).

Ban Wang’s China in the World: Culture, Politics, and World Vision examines how the nation of China was imagined in political discourse and cultural practice vis à vis “a broad spectrum of international outlooks”—that is, conceptions of “the world”—throughout the twentieth century (7). More than a mere history of such worldly outlooks, be they late Qing reformulations of Confucian social concepts of tiānxià 天下  and dàtóng 大同 (“all under heaven” and “great unity,” respectively) or later iterations of socialist internationalism, Wang offers a serious and urgent critique of Chinese Studies and a call to political awareness at a moment when Cold War logics threaten to flatten the nuance and complexity of our field. In accomplishing this task, China in the World is an elegantly efficient volume. Coming in under 200 pages, the text is comprised of an introduction and eight chapters, the initial six of which are devoted to focused historical case studies of literary and cinematic works, while the final two are more polemical, urging an interrogation of the state of the Chinese Studies classroom and articulating the imperative to critically “use the past to understand the present” (170).

To these ends, Wang frames his material historically and theoretically with a nexus of related terms: nation, (Chinese) empire, and (Western) colonialism. Indeed, the book’s political stakes lie in understanding China’s modern history as a negotiation of these three terms, rather than the simple capitulation to Western political models that the author finds deployed too often in China scholarship. Wang asks readers to think seriously about how Chinese thinkers and cultural producers—early reformers and socialists alike—engaged with and offered alternatives to hegemonic conceptions of the world. Kang Youwei’s 康有为 early (re)articulation of Confucian universalism, here explored comparatively—and compellingly—in relation to Kant’s aesthetics of human sociability, serves as the book’s first case study. In this initial chapter and throughout the book, Wang argues that Chinese cultural discourse is both au courant with and, at times, sympathetic to Western and international texts and ideals, but that Chinese thinkers continually articulate alternatives to the oppressive worlds created by colonial and neoliberal capital.

In the first two chapters, Wang explores how Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao 梁启超 contended with the legacy of Chinese empire, the liberal cosmopolitanism of colonial projects, and the imperative to transform China into a nation state. Rather than posit nation and internationalism as purely oppositional terms, Wang argues here and repeatedly in the rest of the book, that the tension in this binary contributes productively to the discourse of China’s being in the world. In order to participate in an ethical and humanist internationalism, Chinese reformers argued that China would first have to be articulated as a strong and moral nation. Internationalism, then, is not opposed to the national, but rather, can only truly exist within a community of nations that have extricated themselves from colonial oppression. For example, we learn in one of many granular close readings enriching Wang’s text, that the protagonists of Liang Qichao’s unfinished novel The Future of New China (新中国未来记; 1902-1903) find sympathetic resonance in Byron’s verse, and by extension, the poet’s concern for Greek independence. Here and elsewhere, the author underscores the broad repertoire of international texts that inform Chinese cultural and political imaginations of the world.

Although the first two chapters artfully demonstrate how Chinese thinkers negotiated China’s brutal entry into the world system, Wang’s text reaches its most strident analytical ground in the following section of the book devoted to the socialist internationalist imagination. In chapter 3, we reencounter the cultural project of Mao’s Yan’an through the figure of Zhou Libo 周立波, here presented as a teacher and literary theorist of world literature at the Lu Xun Academy of Arts (鲁迅艺术学院). As in preceding chapters, Wang argues that literary texts create the horizons for possibility of both national and international revolutionary projects. Rather than foreclosing on the possibilities of class-based internationalism in favor of Chinese nationalism, the Yan’an arts project is shown to foster new potentials for working-class cosmopolitanism. By “strategically appropriat[ing] indigenous as well as cosmopolitan resources and render[ing] them into the service of building a new nation-state,” Yan’an literary culture forged a nation and a people capable of understanding their working-class peers across borders (77). Once the new nation was established, the terms of this internationalist cultural discourse emerged in a new medium—cinema, the primary object of cultural analysis in the book’s next three chapters.

Cold War alliances and the Third World emerge in the fourth and sixth chapters, which deal, respectively, with the Korean War and the geopolitics of development in the global 1960s. In both cases, Wang demonstrates China’s robust embrace of socialist internationalism in the face of the postcolonial Cold War maneuvers of the West. In dealing with China’s role in the Korean War, Wang identifies two modes of filmmaking, one focused on “Realism, Patriotism, and Technology,” the other on “The Politics of the Spirit” (each phrase being the heading of a subsection of chapter 4). The first mode is exemplified in the war film Shanggan Ridge 上甘岭 (dir. Sha Meng 沙蒙 and Lin Shan 林杉, 1956), which Wang demonstrates is representative of both the “new realism” and the growing patriotic pride of the early PRC as it took its place in the family of socialist nations. The war is fought and won with the judicious use of modern hardware, allowing the strategically savvy, but underdog, communist coalition to defeat the imperialist American forces. By the 1960s, however, emphasis on technology and realism gives way to a new techno-aesthetics, the “spiritual atom bomb” of Mao’s “military romanticism.” This style, Wang argues, fuels cultural exchange in Third World internationalism in the era following the Korean war. Rather than focusing on technological expertise, Heroic Sons and Daughters 英雄儿女 (dir. Wu Zhaodi 武兆堤, 1964) rearticulates China’s Korean experience through the politics of the spirit. Scenes of spectacular battle such as those featured in Shanggan Ridge yield to displays of song and dance performed by military cultural troupes in Heroic Sons and Daughters. Wang argues here that the focus on military strategy and modern weaponry in Korean War representations recedes from attention in favor of the moral virtue of Chinese internationalism (decoupled from Soviet models, which were perceived by this time to converge with Western Cold War imperialism).

This final iteration of socialist internationalism, which emerged in the cultural production of the mid 1960s, presages both the domestic politics of the Cultural Revolution and the promotion of a Maoist developmental model in the Global South. In chapter 6, Wang argues that Cultural Revolution China was not a hermetic state, but rather that Maoist socialist development in this period challenged dominant modernization paradigms at home and abroad. The mutually constitutive logic of nationalism and internationalism again comes to the fore of Wang’s argument. The representation of foreign aid in the model play On the Harbor 海港  (1973), for example, resonates in Wang’s text with domestic concerns about technocratization, self-reliance, and reemergent class structures in films like Spring Shoots 春苗 (dir. Xie Jin 谢晋, 1975), Breaking with Old Ideas 决裂 (dir. Li Wenhua 李文化, 1975), and The Pioneers 创业 (dir. Yu Yanfu 于彦夫, 1974). Echoing the socialist internationalist ties described in chapter 4, Wang also invites readers to consider the developmental narrative of the 1971 North Korean film The Season of the Apple Harvest (translated into Chinese as 摘苹果的时候). But the import of alternative developmental models is not only felt in the socialist world; a portion of the chapter examines Maoism’s transformative impact on the French thinker Alan Badiou. This vibrant sketch of the potentials of global Maoism, the author suggests, shows that despite its admitted “errors and disasters, the socialist experiment offers valuable lessons for projecting a different path for an alternate future” (139).

The contemporary relevance of China’s socialist project is likewise prominent in the book’s fifth chapter, an examination of the PRC’s relationship with its ethnic minorities. Responding to analyses that critique Chinese majority-minority relations in postcolonial terms, Wang argues that the socialist project’s minority policy ought to be understood in terms of a slightly reimagined binary—nation and interethnic unity. The “world” imagined by Chinese socialists beyond China’s borders in previous chapters is echoed in the cultural construction of the PRC’s interethnic nation project. Wang writes: “In socialist China, the general aesthetic attitude was to treat ethnic difference as fascinating and refreshing rather than as signs of otherness, because ethnic difference is integral to and constitutive of the transethnic and unified People’s Republic of China” (110). These aesthetics are most precisely described in the chapter through a reading of Five Golden Flowers 五朵金花 (dir. Wang Jiayi 王家乙, 1959), an interethnic romance and musical comedy of errors. Wang argues that standard Western theories of comedy, predicated on satire and subversion, fail to account for the utopian aesthetics of laughter in the film. Humor in Five Golden Flowers stems from errors born of the interethnic couple’s excessive commitment to collective labor. By laughing, viewers thus appreciate them as models and aspire to the “common project of economic, social, and moral progress” propagated by the film (122).

Chapters 1 through 6 comprise what I consider the book’s “historical” narrative; the two concluding chapters turn to postsocialist China and contemporary Chinese studies. Wang’s political stance, evident throughout the text, becomes clearest in this last section of the book. Concerned with the limited and problematic presentation of China in the popular press, in the depoliticized post-60s field of Chinese studies, and ultimately, among his own students, Wang warns against viewing China through reductive Cold War logic. The prominent New Left thinker Wang Hui 汪辉 emerges here as one of Wang’s primary interlocutors (he appears also in a blurb on the book’s jacket). Along with Wang Hui, the author asks us to consider the “synthesis of ‘imperial legacy, the nation-state, and socialist values’” of socialist China carefully and seriously in our academic work and in our teaching (175). Equally critical of contemporary Chinese cultural politics that favor neoliberal capitalism, Wang nevertheless agrees with Wang Hui that, “socialist value works as an ‘internal restraint’ on state reform and market agenda, and the Chinese leadership has to conduct a dialogue with this tradition” (185). There is, in other words, still value in the socialist legacy, and it must not be negated in a facile effort to subordinate Chinese history to a singular Western liberal model.

Although China’s contemporary image in popular American media and the popular imagination is undoubtedly dangerously simplistic, recent academic monographs suggest that Wang is not alone in his clarion call. Titles such as Nicolai Volland’s Socialist Cosmopolitanism (Columbia UP, 2017), referenced in China in the World, Edward Tyerman’s very recent Internationalist Aesthetics (Columbia UP, 2021), as well as Julia Lovell’s massive Maoism: A Global History (Penguin Random House, 2019), for example, are all rigorously researched and argued texts that consider various socialist internationalist projects and their legacies. Indeed, one of the most exciting aspects of reading Wang’s book is its resonance with lively debates and questions articulated formally in academic publishing and, more informally, among academics themselves. At a moment when “Cold War logic” is often levelled as a critique of scholarship on China, Wang’s book reminds academics to be wary of easy binaries suggested by the West’s current relationship with China. Happily, important and innovative recent scholarship avoids such area studies traps. This work grapples as seriously with the socialist past as Wang does, though not all of it is as insistent on the redemptive potential of these legacies.

I expect some readers will bristle against the explicit politics of China in the World while others will readily embrace it. Regardless, all readers will agree that Wang’s call to understand Chinese political culture in its historical specificity and difference is an important one for the field. The book’s engaging style and efficient structure allow for a quick read, but the scope of the project described by Wang, synthesized in conversation with many leading thinkers, inspires lengthy intellectual consideration. I am left thinking about how to mobilize the book’s argumentation to understand China’s most recent self-understanding “in the world.” Wang’s last chapters do engage with the contemporary Chinese situation, but they do so with less specificity than his historical case studies. Mao figures prominently at the end of the book, appearing in the book’s last paragraph alongside Deng Xiaoping, who is described as an architect of China’s contemporary development. Xi Jinping, however, is present only by implication. Considering how prominently the Chinese president looms in the global imagination as a hegemon and dictator, I would be eager to read an analysis of the cultural aesthetics and politics of Xi’s China and his Belt and Road world written in the vein of Wang’s book. Undoubtedly, the Chinese state is in dialogue with its socialist tradition, but this conversation has taken new, at times alarming, forms in recent years. China has moved beyond its first embrace of the neoliberal world in early postsocialism; this new historical phase deserves granular attention. Indeed, analyzing the aesthetics and cultural politics of the most recent moment may help answer the questions with which Wang ends his book—will China “rule” or “bring harmony”? Ultimately, this strikes me as a difficult question from which we have little critical distance, but I agree with Wang that it’s an important query to keep open since the tension between these two options is a productive site of analysis. The book raises this and other questions that will inspire a lively conversation among scholars of China. I enjoyed reading the clearly articulated arguments and histories presented in China in the World, and I look forward to following the conversations it inspires.

Julia Keblinska
The Ohio State University