Thinking beyond Nation and Geography

An inquiry into an aesthetic tradition seems obliged to attend to the cultural and national difference of a particular body of ideas. To study Kantian aesthetics one must trace the genealogy of thought in the Enlightenment of eighteenth century Europe and attend to the particular Prussian context. To discuss the Chinese thinker Kang Youwei (1858-1927), known for his vision of world community, one must consider his innovations within the Confucian tradition in response to China’s encounter with the modern world. Together with his student Liang Qichao, Kang was one of the first literati reformers in modern China who attempted to transform the imperial order of the Qing Dynasty into a modern nation-state. Confronted with the crisis of Confucian China, Kang and Liang rallied over 1300 examinees of the imperial civic examination in 1895 to launch a campaign, endorsed by emperor Guangxu, to modernize China’s political, social, and economic system. Engaging Western ideas and critical of the new international system, Kang Youwei, in his best known work Datong shu (The great world community), envisioned a cosmopolitan world of harmony and sociality beyond the narrow confine of nation-states. The Chinese thinker’s cosmopolitan vision compels us to explore affinities between two thinkers who are geographically and historically far apart.

For all the distances and differences, can we speak of an aesthetic that matters both to Kant and Kang Youwei and that makes sense to China and the West? Can we speak about a common culture while attending to specific traditions? In the current talk of a world literary republic, distinctive cultural difference is to be superseded in order to attain to an overview or superstructure that transcends national and historical distinctions. I beg to differ with this breezy view. Although the aspiration to a worldwide culture may go beyond the boundaries of a national tradition, the quest for the universal has to work through the particularity of a specific culture in order to access a common ground. While access to the common world seems more dream than reality, the road to the commons must begin from home: it is to engage one’s native culture reflectively and creatively. Far from an inward turn toward an authentic, entrenched essence, the dialectic is to look out and in: to ascertain how a particular culture grows by engaging universal values and absorbing the normative ideas from within a particular tradition. 

This quest for the universal through the particular or the growth of the particular via universal is especially poignant in Chinese writers who thought about China’s place in the world. Speaking about Kang Youwei’s notion of world community, Hsiao Kung-chuan identified three ways for Chinese thinkers in approaching the West. The first is the outright dismissal of the need for “learning from the barbarians” in a conservative insistence that China, boasting five thousand yeas of civilization, already has the best. The second view claims that China is ill-equipped for modernity, and that a partial or even total embrace of Western civilization is the way to move forward. But Kang Youwei follows a more synthetic path: like many Chinese thinkers who thought human knowledge is a common property for all under heaven, Kang assumed that “differences between East and West were more nominal than basic” (Hsiao 413).  To transform “China’s outmoded political, economical, and educational systems was not Westernization but in reality universalization—bringing Chinese culture up to that stage of civilization to which all mankind should do well to attain” (413). Deeply embedded in the Confucian tradition, this normative claim evolved as a prominent doctrine in the Song dynasty. Its motto is that “the truth permeates all under Heaven” and that the same principle holds good for all.

Like thinkers with ecumenical visions, Kang Youwei worried about China’s past and new crises by engaging universal values sharable by different national traditions. When new forms of knowledge or insights arise they stem not only from the appeal to a deep-seated logic dubbed “Confucian” or “Chinese,” but derive primarily from common concerns of humanity. Only on the basis of sharable and mutually intelligible values can a Chinese writer speak beyond China and catch the ear of the world public, thus transcending the parochial traditions and taking on the universal significance of all under heaven.

Joseph Levenson raised the similar prospect of bringing Chinese history into world history through a hermeneutical exercise that is at once immanent and transcendent. World history is not something given and fixed, but an open-ended, ongoing conversation aimed at mutual reading and interpretation among individual nations and interlocutors. Rather than a grand narrative of Western modernity, a triumphant story of capital globalization or the rootless individual as the globetrotting last man of history, world history is a discursive process of reading in sympathy, imagination, and understanding. In recent years Chinese history, on its outward face, may be packaged by the media to display a slew of cosmopolitan features: a hybrid medley of identities, multi-cultural fashions, a showcase of aesthetic surfaces and oriental frills, mediatized heritages, customs, foodways and curiosities---a spectacle that Levenson dubbed “museums without walls” (2).  Eschewing all these ahistorical images, Levenson opted for a way of understanding China and the West in the spirit of rooted cosmopolitanism, projecting a worldly China as firmly grounded in its own history yet eminently conversant with the world:

An historian bringing China into a universal world of discourse, helps to unify the world on more than a technological level . . . I saw a world made when an understanding of Chinese history, without violence to its integrity and individuality, and an understanding of western history reinforced each other. The two histories belong together . . . Because minds of observers can transpose the problems (not transplant) of one into the other. And Chinese history, then, should be studied because it can be seen to make sense in the same world of discourse in which we try to make sense of the West. If we can make this kind of sense, perhaps we help to make this kind of world. (xxviii )

Crucial to this vision of world history are culture, ideas, and imagination. I suggest that the discourse of the aesthetic contributes to this transposing, cross-fertilizing process, capable of projecting a vision of an international society composed of civilized humans.

The Aesthetic as the Way of the World

In the vision of world history, the aesthetic is aligned with a politics of cosmopolitan aspirations. In common parlance, “aesthetics” refers to a discourse or discipline but the adjective form “aesthetic” opens up the inquiry to diverse qualities and connections, including artistic design, subjective impressions, sensuous, emotional life, personal taste, artistic style, forms of everyday life, and cultural patterns. In the West and China, the aesthetic has been granted an important role in socio-political formations: it bears the burden of activating rituals and maintaining values, shoring up the polity, sustaining social cohesion, and legitimizing the ideological apparatus. All these are supposed to happen by way of ritualistic, experiential immersion in emotion, corporeality, pleasure, intersubjective relations, images, and arts. From Plato and Aristotle through Kant, Hegel, Schiller, and Burke to Marx, the aesthetic is a branch of philosophy not separate from ethical and political concerns. Instead of an analysis of sense and sensibility, of art, poetry or music, the aesthetic is expanded to be the vital lifeline of social cohesion, character formation, and political legitimacy. In the Chinese tradition, the aesthetic, understood as ceremonious, ritualistic activity, poetics, and the arts, is meant to maintain social and political order. Poetry, music, and song, for example, are the affair of the state in regulating moral profiles, ideology, family values, and communal cohesiveness. The aesthetic experience is integral to the becoming of the virtuous personality.  Studying classics, playing instruments, and ritual participation map out a trajectory of self-cultivation and socialization akin to Bildung in German Romanticism. In this process the individual builds up his character and attains that status of civilized social member committed to the common good and devoted to the moral decrees.

The nexus of aesthetics and politics in the West is not limited to a nation’s domestic sphere and republican citizenship. A child of the Enlightenment, aesthetic thinking goes beyond civil society to take on a language of humanism and cosmopolitanism, invoking presumptions of rights of man and the possibility of world community. In Kant, the aesthetic may be read as a cultural venue whereby cosmopolitan thinkers envisage a community of feeling subjects in hopes of harmonizing antagonistic states. In the classical Chinese way, Kang Youwei also made an aesthetic-ethical case for a vision of world order. From Confucian classics Kang re-invented a language of Heaven as endowed with universal reason and as the highest moral authority. For both Kant and Kang, this aesthetic-political vision arose in response to the world torn asunder by geopolitical forces, colonialism, and competitive nation-states. 

In what follows, I discuss Kant’s aesthetic notion of sensus communis in relation to Kang Youwei’s vision of world community. Kang Youwei’s aesthetic notions of sympathy and understanding resonate with those of Kant. While Kant is keen on generating a cosmopolitan ethic, Kang Youwei seeks to address the question of how a cross-cultural sympathy could be attained by way of the aesthetic.

Aesthetic Community of Sense and Sensibility

One historical context for the rise of the aesthetic is the disintegration of religious, unitary world order. From the ruins of the theocratic, ancient regime emerged the market and civil society in Europe, but modern society was constantly torn asunder by rival interests. The divided feelings and conflicted sentiments were rampant among individuals and states. Kant diagnosed this fragmentation and disharmony with a blanket term, “unsocial sociability” (44). By this he meant the paradoxical tendency of individuals to associate with others socially while simultaneously competing with each other in the pursuit of private interest. Social members were “bound together with mutual oppositions that threaten to break up the society” and each individual pursues private agendas detrimental to others (Political Writings 44). Expounding this term in his cosmopolitan essay “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” Kant extends this antagonism from domestic society to the international arena composed of mutually opposed, self-serving states. Although in Kant’s day increasing global commerce and transportation facilitated interaction among peoples worldwide and a sense of interdependence was in the air, interstate relations were conflicted because of the parochial agendas of each state. In the face of this antagonism, the aesthetic, which envisaged a shared plane of sense and sensibility over and above geopolitical conflict, seems to offer an attractive solution to bridge the constant schisms. Aesthetic experience in culture and the arts may gesture toward a vision of rationally conceived society, where intersubjective feelings resonate and a picture of harmonious community seems tantalizingly close. Kant writes:

Beautiful arts and sciences, which by means of a universally communicable pleasure and an elegance and refinement make human beings, if not morally better, at least better mannered for society, very much reduce the tyranny of sensible tendencies, and prepare humans for a sovereignty in which reason alone shall have Power. (Critique of the Power of Judgment 301)

The aesthetic is a gateway of sense and sensibility leading to reason and understanding. Humans, sunk in their private spheres and sensuous needs (“the tyranny of sensible tendencies”), and engrossed in material gains and survival, are bound to antagonize each other in the struggle for self-preservation like barbarians. The aesthetic elevates humans to a higher level of culture and morality. Aesthetic judgments point to a common ground of social interactivity over conflict, a platform captured by the idea of sensus communis. Rather than crudely sensuous life and instinctive drives, the notion of “sensus communis” claims the achievable ability to transcend one’s private, particular sphere, a capacity of putting oneself “into the position of everyone else, merely by abstracting from the limitations that contingently attach to our judging (Critique 173). The outreaching sense and sensibility requires a broad-minded subject able to set “himself apart from the subjective private conditions of the judgment, within which so many others are as if bracketed” and to reflect on his own judgment “from a universal standpoint” (Critique 175) by putting himself into the vantage point of others.  The individual of enlarged mind will suspend his own narrow-mindedness and rise above his subjective conditions.

In aesthetic judgments sensuous experience contains pleasure common and sharable with all humans. Aesthetic experience has the power to forge sensuous, affective and imaginary bonds conducive to reciprocity and sociality.  It works in a social setting where interaction and mutual sympathy take place. Aesthetic taste fosters the capacity to behave in refined but sociable ways. Rather than fraught with rivalry and conflict, civil society is now re-imagined as a public space for experiencing sharable pleasure in arts and refined ritualistic activities. A human being with aesthetic taste is sociable rather than self-indulgent, outgoing rather than inner-directed: such a subject is inclined to communicate his pleasure to others and derives little pleasure from an object until he is able to feel his satisfaction in unison with others.

Thus, the public sphere is pitted against the private sphere, social against asocial behavior, broad-mindedness against the egotism of “asocial sociability.” Aesthetic experience is able to deliver humans from this entrapment. Aesthetic activity enables us to “realize the ideal world of moral freedom in the given world of egoistic strife and unsociability through culture”; it minimizes “our bondage to our natural bondage” by promoting humans’ potential for moral improvement and purposive action (Cheah 96).

Terry Eagleton argues that Kant’s sensus communis proffers a comforting fiction of the universal embedded in humanity’s aesthetic existence.  A key figure in Kant’s aesthetics, taste must be universal against private and self-interest: aesthetic taste “cannot spring from the object which is purely contingent, or from any particular desire or interest of the subject, which is similarly parochial” (96). Since the rational is universal and the cognitive structure is supposed to be common to all individuals, the sharable pleasure we take in the aesthetic is “the knowledge that our very structural constitution as human subjects predisposes us to mutual harmony” (96). To be human is to engage in aesthetic activity of shared pleasure and to be ready to share with others the beautiful illusion of a “consensus where we find ourselves spontaneously at one” (96) without necessarily even knowing what, conceptually, we are agreeing on.  Each of us partakes of this pleasurable communication, mesmerized by the prospect of “a universal solidarity beyond all vulgar utility” (96). Thus by sensus communis Kant offers a symbolic solution to that fragmentary, divisive jumble of prejudices, custom, and parochial habits of mind.

Linking sensus communis to the notion of aesthetic humanity, Sankar Muthu elaborates on the cosmopolitan implications of aesthetic judgment. Despite the troubling tendency of unsocial sociability in a market society, the impulse toward a relation of cultured interaction was becoming a norm among human beings raised above the level of survival and labor. The widespread communicative practices in the eighteenth century, as in salons, public places and arts inspired Kant with a notion of aesthetic humanity. By engaging in arts and literature, by rising over and above the interests of self-preservation and pressure of survival, individuals are able to share pleasures, communicate judgment and taste, leading to a community of empathy and mutual feeling. From a broad humanistic perspective, Kant states,

Humanity [Humanität] means both the universal feelings of sympathy, and the ability to engage universally in very intimate communication. When these two qualities are combined, they constitute the sociality that befits [our] humanity [Menschheit] and distinguishes it from the limitations [characteristic] of animals. (qtd. in Muthu 148)

Underlying the notion of aesthetic humanity is a broader idea of human beings as cultural agents. The cultural agent is a figure who wields aesthetic power and  practically remakes the existing world in pursuit of political freedom. The cultural agent is an aesthetic actor and refers to the aesthetic capacity of humans to inscribe the world with human values and transform man’s natural drives and external objects, thus humanizing the world with aesthetic forms (Muthu 144). The humanized world, rising above creaturely needs and material wants, in its turn conditions and appeals to humans’ aesthetic sensibility. 

This normative view of the cultural agent is a far cry from the familiar essentialist, relativist view. The concept points to a bridge between universal and particular. The idea that all humans are equally endowed with the ability to reflect on and to beautify their own inherited situation honors the commonality of humans, whereas the specific travelled trajectories show the influence of circumstances, customs and regions. Although actors of diverse histories cannot choose where they are born, they can choose to reflect upon and transform the world they are born into—therein lies agential aesthetic humanity. By this logic the cultural agent should grant equal respect to all historical traditions and achievement as continuous, ongoing products derived from common human rationality. On the other hand, aesthetic communication, based on equal regard for the rationality and validity of different contexts, may lead to a mutual appreciation of a particular aesthetic taste bound up with a specific historical tradition.

Cosmopolitanism, Aesthetics, and All Under Heaven

If Kantian aesthetics is founded on universal reason accessible by way of the aesthetic, Kang Youwei resorts to a Confucian language of Heaven and nature to assert the universal basis for aesthetic communication. Kang Youwei’s thinking arose in a traumatic confrontation with the modern world system of nation-states. The modern world eroded and broke up the Chinese worldview embodied by tianxia.  Literarily meaning “all under heaven,” the tianxia concept refers to a moral and political order sustained not by legal system and coercion but by ritual, music, moral values, tributary networks, administrative hierarchy, and reciprocity among East Asian regions. The concept denotes a sphere of culture and values to be internalized by all individuals and groups. In radical opposition to the interstate conflict characteristic of the Warring States in the early dynastic history and more recently to the Westphalian system of nation-states, tianxia has been invoked in recent decades as a radically different vision of world order.[1] Deeply entrenched in Confucian political culture and collective unconsciousness, tianxia, as Joseph Levenson said, describes a world “whose values were Value, whose civilization was Civilization, a transnational antithesis to barbarism” (20).  But confronted with the modern crises of colonialism and imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century, Kang realized that the ancient tianxia order was cut down to size. China was dragged into the forest of nations by Western powers.  As he notes in the book The Great World Community (Datong shu), now that “the globe is completely known, what was called the central empire (zhongguo) and adjacent territories are but one corner of Asia and one-eightieth of the world” (54, 80).[2] In the encounter with the West, the moral order that had woven human and social relations into stable communities was in tatters.  Relations between China and other nation-states were no longer based on ritual, tributary networks, commerce, and family ties under the aegis of the Confucian cultural sphere, but were increasingly driven by ruthless competition, conflict, and domination.

Against the slaughter-bench landscape of interstate conflict, Kang Youwei attempted to re-enact certain stands of the Confucian worldview. As pragmatic reformers, Kang and his student Liang Qichao engaged with the Qing government and devised strategies to implement modern reforms in political system, education, economy, social and gender relations. Apart from these practical matters, Kang Youwei also addressed the ethical and aesthetic problems in China’s encounter and engagement with the world at large. In his book The Great World Community, Kang raises the question of how the sensibility of one person can and must connect and resonate with another in a world divided by boundaries and conflict, and how a far-reaching moral sensibility can be articulated. In a world of suffering and conflict, how can moral sensibility enable one individual to commiserate with another? What forms of aesthetic culture might foster this far-reaching sensibility?

In Kang Youwei, the aesthetic lies in learning from and immersing oneself in diverse cultures in a way that involves all senses and the soul. Learning allows us to have intimate access to others and fosters sympathy and shared appreciation of pluralistic cultural forms. The way to a unitary world is through aesthetic enjoyment and circulation of cultural traditions across national boundaries:

I have drunk deeply of the intellectual heritage of ancient India, Greece, Persia, and Rome, and of modern England, France, Germany, and America. I have pillowed my head upon them, and my soul in dreams has fathomed them.  With the wise old men, noted scholars, famous figures, and beautiful women of all countries I have likewise often joined hands, we have sat on mats side by side, sleeves touching, sharing our meal, and I have grown to love them. Each day I have been offered and have made use of the dwellings, clothing, food, boats, vehicles, utensils, government, education, arts, and music of a myriad of countries, and these have stimulated my mind and enriched my spirit. Do they progress? Then we all progress with them. Are they happy? Then we are happy with them.  Do they suffer? Then we suffer with them. It is as if we were all parts of an electrical force, which interconnects all things, or partook of the pure essence that encompasses all things. (3-4)[3]

This passage presents a vignette of long-distance learning and interaction by way of far-reaching sense and sensibility. The “I” as an aesthetic subject is broad-minded and sensitive, intellectually embracing several civilizational heritages across the globe. The approach to foreign cultures is sensuous and embodied but also intellectual, involving five senses, imagination, and the soul. The lessons and wisdom to be had are highly revered--the best that has been written and thought in a tradition and is preserved by “old men, noted scholars, famous figures and beautiful women.” Beautiful women here function as an erotic-aesthetic metaphor for cross-cultural experience. Rather than dry and pedantic, learning is rendered pleasurable by the sensuous, sublimated charms of beautiful women. This fascination for femininity is fleshed out in intimate experiences of touching, joining hands, sharing meals. Moving from body to soul, the aesthetic experience is to expand the spirit and enhance shared happiness. The parallel progress and shared happiness imply a common, world-historical path, a universal measure of civilizational advancement. The “I” projects a normative standard to be derived from as well as to measure the specific value of each heritage. A narrative of human progress is posited: cross-cultural learning is an educational as well as maturing project, a process akin to the program of rationally and aesthetically inspired Bildung in German Romanticism. While Bildung seeks to build up through aesthetic cultivation a character of civic virtue purged of “unsocial sociability,” Kang’s moral progress aims at the cultivation of noble virtue of intercultural proportions. An expanded sense of moral norm comes from one’s far-reaching sensibility and sympathy.

This cross-cultural reciprocity, extensive yet intimate, stems from the Confucian idea of qi, the “electric force” in the quoted passage. Running through all boundaries of race, states, regions, qi is an embracing process and cosmic substance, at once physical, biological, spiritual, and moral. It permeates heaven and earth, flows and circulates through humans, animals, and plants. Similar to the Western concept of ether, qi drives and facilitates our perception and sympathy with everything and everybody outside of us, fostering knowledge about them. Kang writes: “I have a body, then I share with coexisting bodies that which permeates the air of Heaven, permeates the matter of Earth, permeates the breath of Man” (Kang, 2-3; Thompson 64). The body is but a link in the all-flowing stream of qi. Rather than a socially and historically conditioned body, the qi-filled body is heaven endowed under the cosmic rubric of tianren 天人 and is equivalent to another body, be it man or woman, high class or low.  In the Book of the Great World Community, this heavenly endowed body functions as an equalizing principle and a source of critique against all divisions of gender, class, ethnicity, and nation-states.

The cosmologic and moral meaning of qi is further premised on the Dao, the ultimate moral authority. Rather than a mere disembodied truth, qi is bodied forth by perception, sympathy, and benevolent social feelings under the sign of ren (benevolence, compassion, love).  The bodily and perceptual qi is imbricated with ethical concepts of compassionate connectedness with others regardless their station and identity. In this sense qi-based perception and compassion is as aesthetic as it is morally empathetic. 

The book’s first chapter begins with the act of perceiving in the title “Rushi guan zhong ku,” entering the world and observing the sufferings of multitudes. The Chinese character guan means observing but also empathizing and compassioning in the attitude of Goddess Bodhisattva. Evoking the mind’s capacity to empathize with the sufferings of humans, Kang goes on to list a series of sufferings, which are routine occurrences in the modern world system and in China at the turn of the twentieth century: wars, invasions, exploitation and mutilation of human bodies, and class divisions. The principal cause of these sufferings is the unsocial sociability between nation-states and related antagonistic relations. Against this situation, Kang floats the possibility of an extensive aesthetic sensibility motivated by the notion of ren, benevolence. And this sensibility is to be fostered by aesthetic, cultural exchange between peoples divided by their cultural traditions and geographies.

Wondering about the individual’s habitual indifference to the suffering of others, Kang believes that the lack of sympathy is due to the absence of a far-reaching sensibility. Kang recalls reading about the well-known massacres in China’s Warring-State period and the burning of France’s city Sedan by Bismarck in Europe. As a young reader he remained tone-deaf to those horrendous events. A sign of the waning of qi, of the broken web of sensibility connecting all persons and objects, the child’s lack of sympathy is linked to the inadequacy of humanity, since human beings are supposed to be brothers of “the same womb” (3; 65). Humanity means sensitive awareness and outreaching compassion. “Hence, if men sever what constitutes their compassionate love, their human-ness will be annihilated, and return to barbarism (3; 64).

Qi-based perception is driven by the moral principles drawn from the Confucian classics. Envisioning an ethically constituted modern republic, Kang Youwei goes beyond Kant’s political view to rethink the ethico-political doctrine of benevolent governance. Linking aesthetic perception to the Confucian notion of ren (benevolence), Kang extends this connection to relationships with other cultures and nations in search of a vision of humane political community. More than an experience of intersubjective resonance, benevolence is institutionalized in the Confucian vision of the Kingly Way--benevolent governance.  Based on a capacious sensitivity to people’s pain and suffering, the Kingly Way operates on the Mencian principle of commiseration captured by the motto “All men have a mind which cannot bear [to see the sufferings of] others” (人皆有不忍之心). 

The Works of Mencius illustrates this principle with a poignant scenario. When an ox was being led to sacrifice, King Xuan of the state of Qi saw it and could not bear to see “its frightened appearance, as if it were an innocent person going to the place of death” (Book 1, Chapter 7). The king immediately ordered that a sheep should replace the ox. Mencius advised the king that this was an example of his “unbearing mind” and if he could only apply this mindset to the governance of his state, he would attain the Kingly Way and orderly governance. The king replied that he could not do this, because, like any other selfish man, he loved wealth and female charm. To this Mencius replied that all men had similar desires, but if the king understood that other people’s desire was as valid as he knew his own to be, he would take measures allowing people to satisfy the same desires. This would achieve the Kingly Way, which is nothing but benevolence put into practice.

A political order based on benevolence is not an administrative or legal entity, but primarily a moral one. As we saw in Kant, aesthetic experience may facilitate social cohesion and sustain political order.  Benevolent government is based on ritualistic, aesthetic bodily experience, sensitivity, and compassion. The object of benevolent governance is the human body in all its creaturely, sensuous, and emotional attributes---the fulcrum of political culture. As Terry Eagleton observes, the aesthetic concerns “nothing less than the whole of our sensate life together—the business of affections and aversions, of how the world strikes the body on its sensory surfaces, of that which takes root in the gaze and the guts and all that arises from our most banal, biological insertion into the world” (13). Aesthetic inquiry presumes a close fit between the wellbeing of a private body and that of the political, governing body in the conviction that no political order could flourish that fails to take care of the lived experience of the bodies of the multitude. 

To satisfy the substantive needs and alleviate the plight of a population has been a significant tenet in the Confucian idea of benevolent governance. But benevolent government is not simply about material wellbeing and care of the population. Its aesthetic aspect lies in the efforts to promote shared pleasure and seal the bonds of emotional solidarity. Kang Youwei resorts to Mencius’ notion of shared aesthetic experience as the basis for the Kingly Way, which is well illustrated by a scenario in Works of Mencius. Worried about his indulgence in the excessive pleasure of music, King Lianghui of the state of Qi expresses his concern to Mencius and received a reassuring answer. Mencius advised: “if the king’s love of music were very great, the kingdom of Qi would be close to a state of good government.”   But it makes a huge difference whether the king indulged in music on his own or with a select few, or shared music with the majority of people. In the former case people would complain that the king, absorbed in self-pleasures or confined to a small circle, ignored their distress, needs, and families. Similar aesthetic privileges, like the beauty of the king’s plumes, horses and entourage, would be greeted with frowns and grievances from the disadvantaged strata of the population. But if the king shared music with his people, and if the high and the low collectively enjoyed music in concert, people had a chance to enjoy it as much as the king.  The people would then rejoice in looking at the majestic beauty of the king’s carriages and pleasures (Legge, Book II, Chapter 1).

Shared joy in music and art is a medium by which bodies and hearts are connected into an emotional empathy and solidarity, a step toward moral social relations, toward respect for each individual, because each is endowed with Heaven-given humanity and deserving of emotional well-being and dignity. This moral bond shores up a unitary political community and is well illustrated by Mencius’ famous remark, “Treat with reverence the elders in your own family, so that the elders in the families of others shall be similarly treated; treat with kindness due to the young in your own family, so that the young in the family of others shall be similarly treated-–do this, and the empire may be made to go round in your palm” (Legge 143).

This ethical sensibility informs an unbroken chain of being extending from person to family to community and government, all the way to all humans. Kang depicts a rising scale of obligations from the narrower human unit to the broadest one:

Master Kang says, being that I am a man; I would be uncompassionate to flee from men, and not to share their grief and miseries. And being that I was born into a family, and [by virtue of] receiving the nurture of others was able to have this life, I then have the responsibilities of a family member. Should I flee from this [responsibility], my behavior would be false . . . And why would it not be the same with the public debt we owe to one country and the world? Being that we are born into one country, have received the civilization of one country, and thereby have its knowledge, then we have the responsibilities of a citizen. If we flee from this [responsibility] and abandon this country, this country will perish and its people will be annihilated, and then civilization will be destroyed. (Kang 48; 65)

By this widening gyre of sympathy, imagination, and obligation, Kang Youwei claims that the member of a local community could become a citizen of the world.  Increasing allegiance to higher and higher political units broaden the mind and virtue of the citizen, taking him out of unsocial sociability, the evils of competitive society and interstate conflict.

World Literature and Aesthetic Bonding

Ever since Herder, literature has sunk its roots in national traditions and languages and is marked by distinctive traits. But the humanist premise of the aesthetic sensus communis suggests that world literature is possible between different national traditions. Rather than a consecrated universal structure that transcends national boundaries, world literature can be conceived as a space of mutual reading and shared sense and sensibility between one national context and another. As Fredric Jameson notes, the nation-state persists in globalization and world literature cannot bypass national boundaries. Rather, the vision of world literature offers a space of communication and resonance between national situations. An aesthetic hermeneutics allows the concern of one national situation to “achieve contact with the text of another nation by way of mediation of the relationship between two national situations” (5-6). We already glimpsed such possibilities in Levenson’s quote earlier about bringing China into world history by transposing significant motifs from one nation to another. Literary affinities may arise between nations and peoples trying to stand on their own on the world stage. This nation-based notion of world literature hinges not on the denationalized, top-heavy aesthetic capital of hegemonic powers but stems from multiple origins among different but autonomous national peoples as cultural agents.  Different nations may make a common cause in the shared campaign to claim equal rights to world literary space. The authentic voice, the deep-seated tradition, and the cultural roots of a people may become intelligible and translatable to others. Rather than barriers, one’s national heritage may be a source of inspiration for another nation, inviting learning, sympathy, and admiration and engendering solidarity.  During European Enlightenment, the German Romantics identified with English culture and Shakespeare, and deployed other nations’ literature as useful sources to affirm Germany’s independence.  On the other hand, “the critical assessment of Shakespeare by the German Romantics was used by the English to claim him as the chief repository of their national literary wealth” (Casanova 79).

In the aesthetic view of literature, this nationally situated world literature becomes eminently possible. Finding a similar aesthetic empathy at the heart of the political, Terry Eagleton writes, “At the very root of social relations lies the aesthetic, source of all human bonding” (24). Kantian aesthetic disinterestedness does not mean self-centeredness and taking no interest in morality and politics. Aesthetic detachment means indifference, it is true, yet indifference not to others’ interest, but to one’s own. The aesthetic subject is detached from his own narrow sphere and self-absorption, from unsocial sociability.  Eagleton speaks of the aesthetic implications of Rousseauian civic virtue in a way that resonates with Kang Youwei’s ideas about sympathy, benevolence, and governance. Civic virtue is a “passionate affection for his fellow citizens and for shared conditions of their common life” (24). The aesthetic sensibility stems from the pity we feel for each other in the state of nature and is based on the empathetic imagination. This empathetic imagination makes us capable of “transporting ourselves outside ourselves, and identifying ourselves with the suffering animal, leaving our being, so to speak, in order to take his . . . Thus no one becomes sensitive except when his imagination is animated and begins to transport himself outside himself” (24).

The aesthetic is thus the enemy of unsocial sociability: to judge aesthetically means to “bracket as far as possible one’s own petty prejudices in the name of a common humanity” (Eagleton 39). Aesthetic empathy involves a suspension of one’s individual being, a forgetting of one’s circumstances, a decentering of the self-seeking subjectivity, “subduing its self-regard to a community of sensibility with others” (Eagleton 30).

Civic virtue, in connection with aesthetic sensitivity, agrees with Confucian benevolence in the way Kang Youwei presents it. Mediated by far-reaching sympathy and understanding, the aesthetic harbors the possibility of fostering a civic, public virtue in the articulation of a cosmopolitan spirit. The aesthetic enhances the possibility of globally imagined and shared sentiments among different peoples.  In the contemporary era, aesthetic activity is not simply political theater or spectacle, but part of social, populist movements for unconnected, disadvantaged people and subalterns.  Speaking of global democratic movements of multitudes, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have developed similar ideas through the concept of "immaterial labor" of biopolitics (66).  Immaterial labor refers to the production of ideas, information, affects, and social relations, which are not subordinate to the production of commodities and profit.  In the age of digital information and communication, rather than functioning as a mere ideological apparatus, the incessant production of images, emotion, and ideas has the potential to become dissociated from economic utility and authoritarian control, forging ahead as a force that is at once aesthetic, social, and political. Aesthetic production is nothing less than making change with a vision of a more just, livable, and socially connected world as envisioned by Kant and Kang Youwei. The individual can feel global by cultivating imagination and sensibility, by learning about different cultures, and by nurturing a sensitivity to commiserate with all misery and suffering of the world.



[1] See Ban Wang, ed., Rethinking Chinese Visions of World Order, forthcoming.

[2] The second page number refers to the English version of Kang’s book, entitled Ta T’ung Shu: The One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei, translated and introduced by Laurence Thompson. I use the English version with my modifications. Further references to Kang’s book will be in the text with two page numbers.

[3] I use Jonathan Spence’s translation of this passage (see Spence 66).


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