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Intellectual Captivity

Literary Theory, World Literature, and the Ethics of Interpretation

Chen Bar-Itzhak


This essay concerns the unequal distribution of epistemic capital in the academic field of World Literature and calls for an epistemic shift: a broadening of our theoretical canon and the epistemologies through which we read and interpret world literature. First, this epistemic inequality is discussed through a sociological examination of the “world republic of literary theory,” addressing the limits of circulation of literary epistemologies. The current situation, it is argued, creates an “intellectual captivity,” the ethical and political implications of which are demonstrated through a close reading of the acts of reading world literature performed by scholars at the center of the field. A few possible solutions are then suggested, drawing on recent developments in anthropology, allowing for a redistribution of epistemic capital within the discipline of World Literature: awareness of positionality, reflexivity as method, promotion of marginal scholarship, and a focus on “points of interaction.”

Yi Liu

Translator Casey Lee


The ancient Chinese people believed that they existed at the center of the world. With the arrival of Buddhism in China came a new cosmic worldview rooted in Indian culture that destabilized the Han [huaxia 華夏] people’s long-held notions of China as the Middle Kingdom [Zhongguo 中國] and had a profound influence on medieval Daoism. Under the influence of Buddhist cosmology, Daoists reformed their idea of Middle Kingdom, for a time relinquishing its signification of China as the center of the world. Daoists had to acknowledge the existence of multiple kingdoms outside China and non-Han peoples [manyi 蠻夷] who resided on the outskirts of the so-called Middle Kingdom as potential followers of Daoism. However, during the Tang dynasty, this capacious attitude ceased to be maintained or passed on. Instead, Tang Daoists returned to a notion of Middle Kingdom that reinstated the traditional divide between Han and non-Han peoples.

Wen Lei

Translator Kathryn Henderson


The Abbey Celebrating the Tang [Qingtang guan 慶唐觀], a Daoist temple on Mount Longjiao in southern Shanxi Province, played a special role in the religious history of China in the Tang dynasty. Because of the myth that Laozi himself emerged from this mountain during the war to found the Tang state, this abbey was closely linked to the political legitimation of the Tang. Even plants in this abbey were regarded as the harbingers of the fate of the state. The emperor Xuanzong erected a huge stele in the Abbey Celebrating the Tang, demonstrating the support enjoyed from the royal house. Images of the six emperors, from Tang Gaozu to Xuanzong, were also held in the abbey. After the collapse of the Tang dynasty in 907, the Abbey Celebrating the Tang lost its political, legitimizing privileges, but its connection with the local community continued to develop well into the Song, Liao, Jin, and later dynasties. The creation and transformation of the Abbey Celebrating the Tang not only show the political influence of popular religion in ancient medieval China but also provide an interesting case of how a Daoist temple grew in popularity and prestige after it lost favor with the state.

Shuchen Xiang


This paper, unlike scholars who ascribe to it a copy theory of meaning, argues that the logic of the Xici is best described through “philosophy’s linguistic turn,” specifically Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms. Cassirer’s concept of the symbol as a pluralistic, constitutive, and functional yet concrete and observable form, is comparable to the symbolic system in the Xici 系辭: xiang 象, gua 卦, yao 爻, and yi 易. Their similarity is due to a shared philosophical orientation: humanism. The characteristics of the Xici—the part-whole (structuralist) relationship typical of correlative cosmology, the simultaneously sensuous and conceptual nature of its symbols, the stress on order as opposed to unity, and the importance of symbols per se—for Cassirer are characteristics that were only possible in European intellectual history after a substance ontology was replaced by a functional one. For Cassirer, a functional ontology is closely associated with a humanism that celebrates creations (i.e., language) of the human mind in determining reality. This humanism is coherent with the intellectual context—Confucian humanism—contemporary with the period of the Xici’s composition. It would thus be inconsistent to concede this humanism to the Xici without also conceding that its understanding of the symbols is akin to that of the linguistic turn. Finally, even regardless of this comparative framework, the Xici runs into a paradox if we read it through a copy theory of meaning, paradoxes that immediately dissolve if we read it through the paradigm of the linguistic turn.

Bin Wei

Translator Casey Lee


During the Six Dynasties period, the cultural landscape of the mountains underwent a transformation. Most notable among these were the appearance of monasteries and Daoist temples as well as the system of immortals’ grottos and estates that accompanied the latter. Because of this shift, mountains began to constitute a special religious and cultural space. Two factors contributed to this shift. The first was religious, specifically, the movement of Daoist and Buddhist practice into mountain retreats. The second was political, namely, how political power was shaped by new geopolitical configurations centered on the city of Jiankang (Nanjing). With these two factors at work, a new cultural form and spatial configuration emerged from the mountains that reflects the intimate relationship between the Six Dynasties politics, society, and culture.

Mengtian Sun

Chinese science fiction (sf) writer Liu Cixin (b. 1963) has constantly been dubbed as China’s Arthur C. Clarke (1917−2008) ever since he won the 2015 Hugo Award for best novel. He himself humbly states on several occasions that everything he writes is just clumsy imitations of Arthur C. Clarke. One similarity between Liu and Clarke is the obsession with the imagination of the alien encounter. But their imagination of the alien other has one major difference: While the aliens in Clarke’s sf are mostly benevolent, those in Liu’s are mostly malevolent. This essay compares the differences between their alien encounter sf, focusing on Childhood’s End and The Three-Body Trilogy (Santi sanbuqu). I will especially look at how the narrative point of view and the consequence of the alien encounter differ in the two texts. And I argue that Childhood’s End is an unapologetic justification of (British) colonialism (dressed up as the benevolent Overlords) and propaganda for colonial logics, whereas Liu’s trilogy is a representation of the colonial encounter story written from the point of view of the (semi-) colonized, for whom this experience is characterized by dehumanization. The Three-Body Trilogy could be considered as resulted from the revival of the national humiliation discourse in the 1990s.

Veronica Hollinger

The current ecological crisis is the single most pressing problem for utopian projects today. The ever-expanding intersections of technology and capital in the Age of the Anthropocene are, if nothing else, invitations to consider the possibilities for utopian thought particularly as it is embodied in the formal structures of science fiction (sf). Science fiction is a genre whose origins in post-Enlightenment industrial modernity align it with globalization’s valorization of the scientific progress and limitless economic expansion that have contributed so much to the shape of the current crisis. This introduces a significant tension into science fiction’s efforts to imagine a way out of the crisis and toward some kind of utopian future that is not simply a repetition of the present. In the context of today’s climate crisis, what are the possibilities for utopian thought that succumbs neither to the anxieties that arise in the face of inevitable and radical change nor to an optimistic “techno-utopianism” that threatens to repeat all the errors of the past? What are the possibilities for utopian thought that takes account of human beings as an inter-relational species deeply imbricated with all life on Earth? I look at a variety of twenty-first-century Anglo-American sf stories through the lens of eco-philosopher Timothy Morton’s theory of climate change as a “hyperobject” and in the framework of sf writer Geoff Ryman’s “Mundane Manifesto” (2004)—his call for a kind of science fiction that recognizes the Earth as the only home that can sustain us.