China Imagined:
From European Fantasy to Spectacular Power

By Gregory B. Lee

Reviewed by Sean Macdonald

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September, 2020)

Elderly people, or honest people, all seem to adhere to the motto “the name is guest of the thing.” But being neither an elderly person, nor wishing to immodestly declare myself an honest person, I have sometimes put more emphasis on “name” than “thing.” I feel that in many everyday experiences, a “name” is anything but ordinary.  Under appropriate conditions, it can increase the value of the “thing” it represents. On the other hand, under inappropriate conditions, no matter how beautiful, elevated, or respected a thing is, a “name” can devalue the “thing” it represents. As for myself, with regard to putting stress on “name,” I have really not understood what it’s for.–Shi Zhecun[1]

There was an obsession with graft among officials. Many regulatory and supervisory methods are outlined, with itemized punishments for specific infractions. In a typical example, punishment is exacted for the discovery of poorly maintained granaries: we learn that when it comes to the Law, three mouseholes are equal to one rathole.–Dean and Massumi[2]

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing/Through the graves the wind is blowing/Freedom soon will come/Then we’ll come from the shadows.–Leonard Cohen/Hy Zaret, “The Partisan.”

Gregory B. Lee, China Imagined: From European Fantasy to Spectacular Power London: Hurst & Company, 2018. xxi + 231pp. ISBN-13: 9781787380165.

French Sinology and American and British colonial history share a date. The Battle of Lundy’s Lane, in the Niagara Falls region now shared by the US and Canada, occurred in 1814, the same year the first “Chair in Chinese and Tartar-Manchurian Languages and Literatures” was established at Collège de France. ​​American Chinese studies emerged from European Sinology, but like the US, Britain only started professionalizing “Orientalist” Chinese studies during WWII.

Professor of Chinese at Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3 and Director of Institut d’études transtextuelles et transculturelles (IETT), Gregory B. Lee has been writing and teaching in Chinese studies since the 1980s. In 2011, Lee was elected a Fellow of the Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities. His work ranges from critical studies and translations of modern and contemporary literature, popular music and media, to recent autobiographical stories around his grandfather, an early twentieth century immigrant to Liverpool, as well as a dystopic fictional narrative of China in 2030. Lee’s writing could be described as a critique of state cultural policies in China and the West. In an earlier book, Chinas Unlimited, Lee shows the way racism created two separate British policies towards opium, one banning opium for English citizens, and one promoting the sale of opium to Chinese people.[3]

Lee’s latest book, China Imagined: From European Fantasy to Spectacular Power, is split into two parts. In Part One, “From China-Before-China to China the Nation,” Lee reads the signifier “China” within the histories of modern and contemporary China. He describes what he refers to as the “national imaginary,” constructed through historic language policies that continue to be significant determiners of the meanings of “China.” In Part Two, “China Becoming a Spectacular Power,” Lee interrogates discourses of the modern linked to Western culture. How are values conceived as Chinese or Western? Lee reveals how cherry-picked notions of modernity underlie what constitute the arbitrary delineations of Chinese and Western cultural value systems.

Lee begins from the most basic linguistic marker, “the proper noun adjective Zhongguo 中國, which translates the polity and/or territory, China” (13). China is a term and a concept; like “America,” “China” is a nation, a history, and an idea with its own trajectories.

Modern China begins with the Republican revolution of 1911 that overturned a dynastic machine in place since the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE). Under the name Zhongguo, China’s first president Sun Yat-sen would declare the modern Republic a return to pre-Manchu Chineseness even though “the state boundaries the Republic of China inherited from the Manchus exceeded anything that a non-foreign sovereign had ever ruled over.”[4] Lee shows how China is still largely defined by the territories and ethnic groups once governed by the Manchu rulers of the last dynasty, the Qing (1644 -1911).

Perhaps the most controversial moments in China Imagined are when Lee makes the case for what he terms “China-before-China,” i.e., the many narratives of premodern China, which he argues are “simply part of the imaginary of today’s really existing China” (11). Asking “What and When is China?” (13), Lee deconstructs these premodern imaginings via an interrogation of the linguistic and historical attitudes that underpin policies and attitudes in contemporary China.

Lee questions the assumptions of an abiding continuity in the language and culture of China by comparing so-called pre-modern written language, wenyanwen (文言文), to modern Putonghua (普通话) or Mandarin Chinese. Students of Chinese learn Mandarin in the classroom, and the pedagogy of Chinese is firmly rooted in this constructed version of spoken and written Chinese. Lee interrogates the assumptions behind contemporary Chinese by comparing different readings of classical texts, including simplified and full-form words, together with Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations. He invites the reader to read wenyanwen, the language once written without punctuation from top to bottom and right to left, beside contemporary Chinese, often read from left to right with modern punctuation. Comparing “the wenyanwen of China-before-China” (61) to today’s Chinese reveals discontinuities in the Chinese language. According to Lee, today’s Mandarin is “a language whose syntax resembles English more than it does the literary language of China-before-China” (66).

Lee’s discussion of contemporary Mandarin points out the deliberate standardization and domination by one dialect of Chinese over other dialects, languages, and populations in China. Lee traces the violence of National Language policies to France and beyond, when, “in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the example of the centralized nation-state became dominant.” According to Lee, “Marxist-Leninist parties would deploy this ideology to implement centralized, national cultural policies” (102), demonstrating how the standardization of language implies a totalitarian ideology.

Countering this centralizing trajectory would seem to be a Sisyphean task, but Lee finds remedies to such totalitarian tendencies in the Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul. Lee notes that as early as 1982, Ellul understood that “technical advancement and capitalist economics did not imply progress towards political liberalization” (157). Nevertheless, China is an integral part of the global technological-economy, and the West and the rest of the world cannot progress without China’s participation.

Through a critique of the Zhuangzi 庄子 commentator and chief compiler Guo Xiang 郭象 by Swiss sinologist Jean François Billeter, Lee draws on the radical critique found in the writings of the late-fourth century BCE Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi. Lee finds in Zhuangzi a much-needed trenchant critique of political power and mankind’s hegemony over nature—a critique that remains regrettably marginalized in Euro-American and other philosophical discourses. While the Zhuangzi allows for a considerable amount of open-ended interpretation, Lee shines light on its potential to help us question political power (184-188). Here and elsewhere, Lee’s book supplements our understanding of China and Chinese culture at this important juncture and contextualizes salient aspects of modern and postmodern Chinese history, providing new clues as to how we ended up here. Lee’s book inspired me to take out the Zhuangzi again and rediscover its nihilistic and comic tone.  Zhuangzi predates the Western theoretical deconstruction of textual meaning by more than two millennia.

In fact, Daoism represents a perennial tendency in Chinese thought. Pre-modern scholars could be Confucian bureaucrats during the day and wine drinking Daoists at night. The Legalist Han Feizi 韩非子 (280-233 BCE) is illuminating in this regard. Han Feizi represents a significant stream of thought that informed the worldview of China’s First Emperor and the inauguration of the dynastic tradition. In a manner similar to Western governments reaching back to ancient Greece as an origin for democracy, the CCP looks to the First Emperor as an ideal for absolute rule.[5] The curious thing is how Han Feizi employs the Daoist language of innate nature to legitimize totalitarian policies that would underpin the Qin state:

The Way, beginning of the material world, standard of right and wrong. Thus the enlightened philosopher holds to the beginning and knows the source of the material world. He manages the standard to know the principle of good and bad. Therefore, empty and still, the philosopher waits, permitting names to define themselves and affairs to resolve themselves. Empty, he knows the condition of fullness. Motionless, he knows the criteria for motion.[6]

Perhaps Lee’s most trenchant metaphor for modernity in China Imagined is the barrel-organ:

The PRC’s authorities are at the controls of a system that emits music according to a pre-established programme. It is a closed system, a technologico-economic machine which can be made to go faster or slower, but whose tune cannot be changed. The organ-grinder produces a programmed melody, where the only variable that the organ-grinder can introduce is the speed at which the handle is turned. This is a systemic instrument created by the West, like the process of Americanization’ that preceded it; it can be taken up and operated by any player ‘willing’ and powerful enough to accept the challenge. (153)

For Lee, China is now turning the handle of the Western techno-economic system. No less than the colonial West, China is now complicit in the system it once critiqued and placed itself outside of. The Belt and Road is a case in point. The CCP claims to distance itself from Western imperialism as it proceeds to prop up governments, sign unequal construction contracts in closed bidding processes (no doubt with the help of lowballing cost estimators), and develop what began as Western technologies of surveillance for its own citizens, the same practices employed by Western democratic capitalist nations for decades. With regard to surveillance, the CCP makes Orwell’s Big Brother look quaint. Lee does not bring the global spectacle to China; he shows how China has been linked to global servers of spectacle all along.

An important aspect of Lee’s critique emerges from what I would call a modernist positioning. Lee’s discussion of the status of women in chapter 4 is a reiteration of the May Fourth/New Culture critique of traditional culture. Citing Lu Tonglin, Lee draws an important contrast between two revolutionary reconfigurations of women’s social status in modern China, the May Fourth modernist-feminist and the Communist/Nationalist revolutionary-collectivist.[7] The modernist approach represents an internal critique of Chinese culture and the potential for reform emerging from the promise of social autonomy. The revolutionary approach is embedded in a national collectivity that channels the narrative of liberation within an acceptable state hierarchy. The latter approach is exemplified in Red Detachment of Women, a narrative of liberation framed around the pedagogy of proper individual revolutionary intent (revenge for the masses not for oneself).

Elsewhere I have noted a similar modernist-feminist/(communist) revolutionary collectivist tendencies in the film actor Li Lili 黎莉莉 (1915-2005), mentioned by Lee. At different times in her career and in different films, Li epitomized both revolutionary strains in modern China, a nationalistic, collective strain that Li herself recuperates in her memoirs, and what could be called a bourgeois individualistic strain associated with May Fourth/New Culture gestures of individual liberation.[8]

It is worthwhile recalling how modernist and avant-garde gestures have for some time informed discussion of modern Chinese literature and culture. C.T Hsia’s A History of Modern Chinese Fiction 1917-1957 (1961) really got the ball rolling for American readers and Western Chinese studies in general. Modernist readings have determined ideologically the type of cultural production privileged by researchers and their institutions. Interestingly, Fredric Jameson develops his critique of postmodernism in the context of reform era PRC. One wonders what audiences thought about the lists of Western artists and writers presented by Jameson in 1980s lectures at Beijing University. Tacitly emerging from an eclectic Marxist-Leninist-Lacanian positioning, Jameson’s critique also clearly partakes of high-modernist value judgements that favor particular works and traditions over others (i.e., van Goh peasant shoes over Warhol high heels). I am not dismissing distinction, so long as we are not simply questioning the “scholarly soundness” of discussions of new forms of cultural production because of our own lack of knowledge. We can still read poetry. But the digital screen has uprooted the signifier considerably.

The Situationist critique of representation (think a reading of McLuhan from the perspective of the writings of the early Marx and vice versa) runs through Lee’s work. This concern is present in the book’s title and in Lee’s discussions of Ellul. Guy Debord published his critique La société du spectacle in 1967 and Western media studies students have mined the book for fifty years. Usually translated as Society of the Spectacle, the English word “spectacle” functions more like a homonym than a meaningful translation. For Debord, post industrialization had produced a show society where appearance had become the content of debased and reified culture—culture had come to represent itself as a pointless empty image. Andy Warhol famously and unironically captured the essence of this transformation.

Lee’s situationism is significant. And although Debord’s critique of the show emerged within the postindustrial West, PRC revolutionary cultural production was coeval with this critique. Maoist politics, no less than Western, worshipped appearance, melting statistics like iron during the Great Leap Forward. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao and Jiang Qing’s Red Guards infused social relations with a violence unprecedented in Chinese history. If we cast a wider interpretive net for the Situationist show, from the outset, the society of the show in the PRC was christened with CCP characteristics. The print culture and electronic media of the revolutionary period was no less spectacular than the modernist/avant-garde inspired cultural production that followed. This is not to fetishize revolutionary art. But neither should we turn it into a quaint faint echo of yesterday.[9] Considering the heavy-handed intervention of the CCP state in contemporary society, what is the current status of terms like “postsocialist” and “postrevolutionary”?

Lee shows that with “the Chinese Dream,” we seem to have come full circle. The achievement in show production of the PRC state more than matches their contemporaries, East and West, North and South. Lee employs a hybrid language that combines that facile government slogan, the Chinese Dream, with Situationist terminology to describe a “dream spectacle of global politics” (169). Lee shows how the emergence of China as a world power is just one more player in the spectacular emergence of our digital, data driven world where everyone willingly plays their part, or at least everyone gets to imagine they are willing.

Sean Macdonald
SUNY Buffalo


[1] The Chinese text reads: 老年人,或老实人,似乎都服膺着“名者实之宾”这句格言。但在我,不是老年人,也不想自夸是老实人,对于“名”有时候是比“实”更重视的。在许多日常生活的经验里,我觉得,“名”真是不可轻忽的。在适宜的时候,它能增加它所代表的“实”之价值,反之,在不适宜的时候,却也真能贬损了它所代表着的“实”之价值,无论那“实” 之本身是怎样地完美,崇高,或尊贵。对于“名”这样地着重,在我自己,也真没有明白为了什么.  See Shi Zhecun “Ming” (名) in Collected Essays of Shi Zhecun (施蛰存散文集), ed. Ying Guojing (Tianjin: Baihua wenyi, 1994), 55.

[2] Kenneth Dean and Brian Massumi, First and Last Emperors: The Absolute State and the Body of the Despot (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1992), 36-37.

[3] Gregory B. Lee, “Addicted, Demented, and Taken to the Cleaners: The White Invention and Representation of the ‘Chinaman,” in Lee, Chinas Unlimited: Making the Imaginaries of China and Chineseness (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003), 24-54.

[4] Lee, 28. Of course, Sun would unite the nation under the banner of the first modern Republic of China, Zhonghua minguo 中華民國. Lee’s discussion employs Zhongguo as an umbrella term in a wider discussion of nationhood (21-32). Thanks to Kirk Denton for clarifying the finer points of this term here.

[5] Apparently, Han Fei is one of Xi Jinping’s favorite philosophers. See, A. Jacobus, “The Chinese Hobbes– Xi Jinping’s Favourite Philosopher.” Hong Kong Free Press (June 13, 2016).

[6] 道者,萬物之始,是非之紀也。是以明君守始以知萬物之源,治紀以知善敗之端。 故虛靜以待令,令名自命也,令事自定也。虛則知實之情,靜則知動者正。The translation is mine, but I also consulted  “The Tao of the Sovereign/Zhudao,” in The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu, trans. W. K. Liao, 2 vols. London: Arthur Probsthain, 1959 at (accessed August 25, 2020), and “The Way of the Ruler,” in Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 16.

[7] See, Lu Tonglin, Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth Century Chinese Literature and Society (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), 3, in Lee, 45.

[8]  Lee discusses Li Lili’s performance in Queen of Sports/Tiyu huanghou/體育皇后 (45). Regarding the tensions of these two tendencies in Li’s career, see my “Li Lili: Acting the Lively, Jianmei Type,” in Mary Farquhar and Yingjin Zhang, eds., Chinese Film Stars (Oxon: Routledge, 2010), 60-61.

[9] For an excellent study that focuses on image production during the Cultural Revolution, see Laikwan Pang’s The Art of Cloning: Creative Production During China’s Cultural Revolution (London: Verso, 2017). Pang’s readings are often applicable to cultural production that preceded the Cultural Revolution.