Embodying democracy in Chinese thought

 Gloria Davies

What does Chinese thought as sixiang do? What is its purpose? Chinese thinkers no doubt have different answers to these questions but it is my contention that sixiang, as a discourse, is inextricable from a will to instruct people on how to live. The idea that intellectual inquiry should improve society is commonplace enough across cultures and the basis of political philosophy in the West. In China, this idea has served as the raison d’etre of scholarship for centuries, such that the discourse of sixiang was and to a large extent remains oriented around moral and pedagogical goals.

The fact that sixiang relies on rhetoric that involves the whole person, as opposed to the mind alone, provides a useful clue as to how it operates as a discourse. In short, sixiang is embodied thinking. It produces discursive possibilities framed around projects of self- cultivation and the improvement of others (whether conceived of as “the masses”, “the people” or “society”). As such, it privileges insight over analysis and persuasiveness over precision. The paper discusses three influential Chinese articulations of democracy – two from the late 1910s (by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao) and one in 1940 (from Mao Zedong’s essay On New Democracy) – to explore the consequences for “thinking people” (you sixiangde ren) of a discourse preoccupied with ascertaining the correct attitude to life and learning.

About the Speaker

Gloria Davies is a literary scholar, historian and translator whose research covers a range of areas: Chinese intellectual and literary history from the 1890s to the present; contemporary Chinese thought; comparative literature and critical theory; and studies of cultural flows in the digital age. She was trained in modern and classical Chinese at ANU where she completed her Honours degree. As a graduate student at the University of Melbourne, she read literary theory and worked on modern Chinese literary history.

She is Professor of Chinese Studies at Monash University where she is a member of the research network, Literary and Cultural Inquiry, Faculty of Arts, and a member of the Monash Asia Institute’s advisory board. She teaches, supervises and engages in collaborative research across several areas in Asian cultural and media studies. Her recent and current research deals with issues in contemporary Chinese thought and public culture on the Chinese Internet. She is also working on a collaborative project concerning Chinese ways of thinking in the global digital age. A book on contemporary Chinese thought is underway, as is a monograph on digital dissent in China.

She co-edits the China Story Journal and Thinking China on the CIW’s China Story website.

The ANU China Seminar Series is supported by the China Institute, the Research School of Asia and the Pacific, and the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University.


Gloria Davies

Dates & times

Thursday, 26 February 2015

4.00pm - 5.30pm


Seminar Rooms, China in the World Building (188), Fellows Lane, ANU

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