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A Conceptual History of Chinese -Isms

The Modernization of Ideological Discourse, 1895–1925

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Ivo Spira

In A Conceptual History of Chinese -Isms, Ivo Spira explores the linguistic and rhetorical development of Chinese -isms, as well as the key concept zhǔyì 主義 ('ism') itself. He argues that the introduction of this concept from Japan in the 1890s inaugurated an 'Age of -Isms', in which it served as a conceptual focus for the stereotypical categorization of people and the utopian imagination of the future.
The book focuses on Chinese -isms in the formative period (1895–1925) through a close reading of key primary sources, covering linguistic, conceptual, and rhetorical aspects of their use in ideological reasoning. Spira emphasizes the combination of internal (traditional) and external (Western and Japanese) factors in the emergence of Chinese -isms.
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Ivo Spira

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Ivo Spira

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Ivo Spira

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Ivo Spira

Abstract

This last chapter starts with some reflections of the role of -isms in China since 1949 and then proceeds to a general presentation of the book’s findings. Although there are certainly parallels to developments in the West, the Chinese case of the modernization of ideological discourse is in many ways unique. On a linguistic level, this is reflected in the high productivity of words in -zhǔyì and especially their independence relative to Western models. Conceptually, the positive value attached to ‘zhǔyì’ as a key concept is perhaps the most salient feature. Rhetorically speaking, the ubiquity of zhǔyì reductionism in public discourse and the intensity of its deployment is remarkable. Although the point of gravity of ismatic discourse has shifted somewhat in in the direction of lifestyle -isms since the rise of the consumer society in the Chinese world, -isms are still very much in evidence today. The ideological optimism of the early twentieth century may be gone, but the potential of zhǔyì rhetoric is far from exhausted.


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Ivo Spira

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Chapter 5 is concerned with the linguistic, conceptual, and rhetorical details of how Chinese -isms are used in actual discourse. The chapter starts with a brief account of the morphology of words in -zhǔyì (‘-ism’) and a consideration of alternative morphological patterns. Then follows a discussion of the relationship of zhǔyì to foreign models. A few sections are concerned with the semantics of Chinese -Isms and lexical and conceptual relations between them. The last part of the chapter focuses on the rhetorical deployment of -isms in discourse, ranging from a consideration of the conceptual reductionism inherent in -isms to a concise analysis of a complete example of ismatic discourse. Here, the metaphorical use of -isms is especially important, as it enables one to reduce an entire period of history to a narrative of interacting -isms. Much conceptual and rhetorical analysis is built on a discussion of the lexical frames that can be used with words in -zhǔyì.


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Ivo Spira

Abstract

Chapter 4 offers some reflections on the philosophical aspects that underlie ‘zhǔyì’ (-ism) as a key concept. Its point of departure is the notion of principled action, that is, the idea that action should be based on rational principles that one commits oneself to as a modern citizen. From this point it is only a short way to the notion of ideology as beacon in man’s life. This chapter further documents how total and fundamental solutions came to be seen as the key to solving China’s problems. Even the problems of individual people were taken to be reducible to social categories and believed to be solvable by the reorganization of society along ideological lines: commitment to the ‘right’ -ism came to be seen as a sort of panacea. While not everyone was happy with this turn of events, hardly anyone escaped the social upheaval and repression that the resulting polarization of society brought about. Although the rise of ismatic politics had clear Western models, a traditional tendency towards optimistic voluntarism may have amplified the receptivity of Chinese intellectuals to ismatic reasoning.


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Ivo Spira

Abstract

Chapter 3 is about the Chinese appropriation of Western cultural capital and the concurrent historical events. In particular, it deals with the creation of the category of -isms (zhǔyì) based on Western and Japanese models and how it was deployed in public discourse, giving rise to a new kind of speaking and reasoning, an ‘ismatic rhetoric’. The chapter gives a chronological account of historical developments, treating social and conceptual history in parallel. From a more general discussion of the historical situation in late Qing China it turns to the importation of Western cultural capital and finally zooms in on the ideologization of public discourse and its connection to modern politics. Particular attention is devoted to how ‘zhǔyì’ (‘-ism’) became a key concept in early twentieth-century China. The final section of Chapter III explores different Chinese reactions to ismatic discourse. As a whole, the chapter documents the modernization of Chinese discourse conceptually and linguistically, all the time with reference to the historical context in which it took place.


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Ivo Spira

Abstract

Chapter 2 explores the historical background for the modernization of ideological discourse in China. It shows that while there were phenomena in traditional China that can in some sense be understood as ‘ideological’, they differ from those of modern times. The same goes for ‘ideology’, which was not an established concept. This discontinuity between traditional and modern China can largely be attributed to a difference in the perception of history: the understanding that history was cyclical and contingent impeded the development of programmatic ideals for the future. Only in the late nineteenth century did Western ideas of teleological history gain currency. This chapter first presents an outline of the different attitudes to history and then goes through a number of ideology-related cases from Chinese history, such as the question of whether Confucianism can properly be considered an ‘imperial ideology’ or if Taoist millenarian movements can be understood as ‘utopian’. The concluding section weighs the historical evidence and relates it to the conceptual repertoire of Classical Chinese.