Outcast, Autocrat, Believer: The Making of a
Radical in the Late Qing Biographies of Zheng Chenggong

By Keren He

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 30, no.2  (Fall 2018), pp. 267-317

This essay rethinks the formation of radical subjectivity in modern Chinese political culture by reading three late Qing biographies of Zheng Chenggong (1624–1662; a.k.a. Koxinga) that were widely circulated in revolutionary circles in the early twentieth century. Departing from the perspective of ideological interpretations, the author suggests that the birth of Chinese radicalism must be contextualized within the affective conditions during China’s transformation toward political modernity. With reference to contemporary intellectual writings, the biographical tradition of Shiji, and the rise of hero narratives in England, Germany, and Japan, the author scrutinizes the three biographies of Zheng as a camouflaged autobiography of late Qing radicals that reveals their predicament and transformation. Due to the collapse of the traditional literati world and the emerging notion of linear temporality, late Qing intellectuals experienced an unprecedented loss of communal belonging, or an affective crisis of “precarity.” In the attempt of overcoming precarity, these intellectuals further grounded their self-identity through literary and philosophical inquiries of “sincerity,” which empowered them to pledge commitment to an inner calling through violence and sacrifice. Ultimately, the article illuminates the Chinese radical aspiration as a politics greater than mere ideological struggle: it is a struggle to recalibrate the meaning of political life in both social and spiritual domains.