Interview with Soonyi Lee

An interview with Soonyi Lee, the author of “In Revolt against Positivism, the Discovery of Culture: The Liang Qichao Group’s Cultural Conservatism in China after the First World War,”  Twentieth-Century China, October 2019. Read the article here

Before we start into the article and your research, could you tell us a bit about your academic background?

I began studying modern Chinese history as a master’s student at Yonsei University, South Korea, where I worked with Professor Youngseo Baik. I became particularly interested in the historical meaning of socialism in China and went to the University of Oregon to pursue my Ph.D. with the late Arif Dirlik. I was lucky to transfer to New York University to continue my study from a deepened global perspective with Professor Rebecca Karl, as Professor Dirlik had resigned from the University of Oregon. During my coursework at NYU and fieldwork in Shanghai, Taipei, and Tokyo, I realized the global, philosophical significance of socialist discourses in interwar China, and I completed my Ph.D. dissertation on Zhang Junmai and Zhang Dongsun’s ideas of socialism.

Your article focuses on Liang Qichao, Zhang Junmai, and Zhang Dongsun’s vision of universal morality for the postwar world through cultural conservatism. All three are some of the most prominent thinkers in twentieth-century Chinese history. How did you choose to focus on these thinkers?

My interest in these thinkers started as I wrote my master’s thesis on the Observer Weekly (Guancha) (1946-1948), to which Zhang Dongsun was one of the most frequent contributors. From my master’s research, I found that a group of so-called Chinese liberals who gathered around Guancha shared a faith in socialism and democracy with communists, culminating in their participation in founding the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This research greatly expanded my understanding of socialism beyond its conceptual confinement to revolutionary socialism or communism to the possibility of multiple linkages between socialism and other ideas. As my interest in Zhang Dongsun spontaneously extended to his longtime friend Zhang Junmai and their mentor Liang Qichao, I decided to further explore the three philosophers’ thought for my Ph.D. project. Rather than limiting them to liberalism as a narrow concept sharply opposed to socialism, my project has been intended to unearth diverse visions of socialism, which were often products of historical intersections between socialism and other ideas, including liberalism itself, in Republican China.

Why focus on conservative thinkers?

I chose to work on the topic of conservatism because I had realized that Liang and the two Zhangs made theoretical interconnections between socialism and conservatism after the First World War. During the global, cosmopolitan moment that occurred during the immediate postwar period, as Wang Hui, Edmund S. K. Fung and others have discussed, there emerged a so-called cultural conservatism in China that critiqued Eurocentric discourses of the universal. I found that Liang and the two Zhangs’ cultural conservatism, developed as part of this trend, represents a distinctive contribution to the global revolt against positivism, especially in their recognition of the world-historical necessity to rehabilitate the postwar world by restoring universal morality, well beyond the borders of China. While discovering the overlap between their anti-positivism and the Kantian turn in world socialism, I also wanted to illuminate the global significance of their conservative discourses as part of the anti-Hegelian moment in the immediate post-WWI period.

Many intellectual histories of this period focus on the emergence of Chinese Marxist thought and the rise of the Chinese Communist Party. Does your research fit into or complicate the existing narrative?

My research illuminates the Liang group’s non-Marxist, idealist interpretation of socialism, which mounted serious challenges to Marxist historical materialism. As I show in the article, they attempted to refute the positivist foundations on which, they believed, historical materialism was philosophically based. I discuss tensions between their idealist interpretation and historical materialism in more detail elsewhere in my wider project. By doing this, my research draws a more complex picture of Chinese socialism than the familiar stories of the triumphant progress of Marxism and the inevitable (ideological) hegemony of the Chinese Communist Party. It rather tells a more contested history of leftism in China as an intellectual arena in which various versions of socialism competed with one another while being further complicated by their interactions with global trends—in the Liang group’s case, the global revolt against positivism and the Kantian turn.

How did your research into Liang Qichao change your own views of this thinker and his associates?

My study of Liang Qichao has definitely helped me to see more clearly the conservative tendencies of the two Zhangs. It has also encouraged me to see intellectual tensions among them; Zhang Dongsun maintained his ardent interest in a democratic form of socialism, which sometimes seemed not so closely tied to cultural conservatism, while Zhang Junmai remained always closer to Liang in his constant concern about Chinese intellectual traditions. This recognition has furthered my research interest in the different paths that the two Zhangs took beginning in the late 1930s, particularly how these longtime colleagues constructed the historical relationship between socialism and nationalism in similar and/or different ways.

What do you think is the significance of the efforts of Liang and the Zhangs to place Chinese philosophy in a global setting?

It is very meaningful that these thinkers repositioned Chinese culture/philosophy as a local resource of universal morality to be utilized for the global project to rehabilitate the postwar world. Rather than making a parochial claim for China’s cultural uniqueness, they placed Chinese philosophy in a global setting, thereby discovering its contemporary global value. It is also important to see that this assertion of the global value of Chinese philosophy moved their cultural conservatism beyond mere denial of the European universal to a reconceptualization of the universal itself as a global, historical project, a project to be realized through using both Western and Chinese philosophies.

How does your research into cultural conservatism in China complicate the global historical narrative that often focuses on European thinkers?

My research renarrates interwar intellectual history in terms of a global dialogue on historical issues. As my article shows, the Liang group’s cultural conservatism was indeed a historical product of their participation in the global conversation on culture, science, and morality, interests they shared with Western philosophers after the First World War. In demonstrating that these Chinese thinkers actively intervened in antipositivist critiques by formulating their own vision of universal morality, the combination between Kantian philosophy and Chinese philosophy, particularly Song Learning, my research reveals China as a vital player in global discourses, rather than a passive receiver of so-called advanced knowledge from the West.

Can you give us a bit of background on this project? Is it part of a wider research project?

This article is based on my dissertation, “Culture and Politics in Interwar China: The Two Zhangs and Chinese Socialism” (NYU, 2014), which I am currently working to transform into a book manuscript. In addition to Liang and the two Zhangs’ vision of socialism in the 1920s, my book will further address how their idealist, transnational vision of socialism developed into a nationalist discourse in the wartime context of the early 1930s.

Many would say that the world is as morally divided today as in the post-WWI period that you study. Do you see your research as overlapping with current philosophy?

In the post-Cold War era, characterized by the resurgence of religions and proliferation of cultural differences, I think that my research makes a considerable intervention in contemporary intellectual concerns, especially the question of the rejection of totalities. While highlighting that Liang and the two Zhangs denied European universalism but never abandoned the universal itself (given their deep faith in universal morality), I wanted to show that their discovery of Chinese culture and refutation of European universalism was not only not parochial but also never relativist. I believe that their cultural conservatism, which I term global universalism in this article, is quite suggestive for current efforts to acknowledge local differences without forgoing an understanding of totalities.

In what ways would you like your research to change the field of Chinese history as a whole?

By revealing China as a participant in global philosophical discourse, instead of a passive receiver of so-called advanced knowledge from the West, I hope my research will help integrate modern Chinese history into a truly global history of the modern world.

Where do you see your research going in the future?

By integrating modern Chinese history into a new global history, I anticipate that my research will contribute to the rewriting of global intellectual history, where China was a vital player. In addition, my work on diverse visions of socialism will contribute to broader scholarly inquiries into new forms of politics and social arrangements in the period after communism.

What historiography shaped this project? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?

My article has been built upon existing studies of modern Chinese intellectual history, especially Edmund S. K. Fung’s studies on Chinese liberals/social democrats such as The Intellectual Foundations of Chinese Modernity: Cultural and Political Thought in the Republican Era (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Wang Hui’s extensive work on modern Chinese thought, Xiandai Zhongguo sixiangde xingqi [Rise of modern Chinese thought] (Sanlian shudian, 2008). H. Stuart Hughes’s seminal work, Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890–1930 (Random House, 1958), has greatly helped me to understand European intellectual trends throughout the 1920s, and Sheri Berman’s The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2006) also provides a point of reference to compare with alternative socialisms in China during the Republican period. I have gained helpful insights on intellectual issues in the time of global capitalism from Arif Dirlik’s Global Modernity: Modernity in the Age of Global Capitalism (Paradigm Publishers, 2007), among others.