Rules for Destroying Countries: China and the Colonial World in the Early 20th Century

“The Allied Armies launch a gen­er­al offen­sive on Pekin Cas­tle,” Tora­jiro Kasai (1900)

At approx­i­mate­ly the same time that J. A. Hob­son was writ­ing Impe­ri­al­ism: A Study (1902), which, for the first time, defined impe­ri­al­ism as an essen­tial­ly eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy pur­sued by the British state on behalf of “financiers,” Liang Qichao, a major turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry Chi­nese intel­lec­tu­al and jour­nal­ist, wrote a mag­is­te­r­i­al essay on what he called “the new rules for destroy­ing coun­tries” [mieguo xin­fa]. The essay was pub­lished in sum­mer 1901, just as the puni­tive expe­di­tion pur­sued by a coali­tion of the will­ing, as it were, that end­ed the Box­er Rebel­lion was wind­ing down and the final indem­ni­ty pro­vi­sions of the Box­er Pro­to­col were being ham­mered out between the coali­tion and the Qing dynas­tic state. The heart of Liang’s essay is a sur­vey of mod­ern world his­to­ry from the per­spec­tive of those who had been or were then in the process of being destroyed by it – Egypt, India, Poland, South Africa, and the Philip­pines. Read in light of the Box­er after­math – which includ­ed a mas­sacre of sus­pect­ed Box­er sym­pa­thiz­ers in Bei­jing and beyond, as well as the unequal treaty imposed upon the Qing – Liang’s essay can be seen as a dis­cov­ery of, a med­i­ta­tion on, and inter­pre­ta­tion of the mod­ern world – of moder­ni­ty one could say – as a glob­al and ten­den­tial­ly uni­fy­ing albeit mate­ri­al­ly dis­junct tem­po­ral­i­ty and uneven spa­tial­i­ty. That is, for Liang, the “rules” and “destruc­tion” informed both the ten­den­tial uni­ty and the uneven­ness of the mod­ern world from the per­spec­tive of those who are their tar­gets, even as these same “rules” – writ­ten and enforced by the strong – shape how dom­i­na­tion can and does get imposed at a glob­al and local lev­el simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Liang’s injunc­tion at the end of the essay is that the “new rules” of destruc­tion, hav­ing been exe­cut­ed in var­i­ous ways in the dis­parate loca­tions he sur­veys, pre­cise­ly con­sti­tut­ed the base­line con­di­tions and pat­terns of moder­ni­ty as defined and com­pelled by the var­i­ous strands of cap­i­tal­ist impe­ri­al­ism then con­verg­ing upon Chi­na. It was only through a recog­ni­tion of how the “rules” artic­u­lat­ed the very mod­ern tem­po­ral and spa­tial his­tor­i­cal moment in which Chi­na par­tic­i­pat­ed and was enmeshed that Chi­nese intel­lec­tu­als could ful­ly grasp their con­tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion, thus to poten­tial­ly devise strate­gies to move beyond it.1 It was only a short year lat­er that these “rules” came to be named “impe­ri­al­ism” [diguo zhuyi 帝国主义] – in Eng­land by Hob­son and in Chi­na by a vari­ety of crit­i­cal intel­lec­tu­als.

There are sev­er­al remark­able things about Liang’s essay. On the one hand, the insights and the spe­cif­ic mode of argu­men­ta­tion pio­neered in this essay were vast­ly influ­en­tial in late-Qing Chi­nese intel­lec­tu­al cir­cles across the polit­i­cal spec­trum. Across the jour­nal­is­tic and essay lit­er­a­ture of the time, the com­par­a­tive glob­al focus became ubiq­ui­tous; cita­tions to Poland, India, Philip­pines, and so on, mark prac­ti­cal­ly every essay on China’s cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in this peri­od. On the oth­er hand, it is also remark­able how wide­ly ignored this essay and its mode of argu­men­ta­tion were his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal­ly, not only in the vast schol­ar­ship on Liang Qichao, but in schol­ar­ship about late-Qing intel­lec­tu­al or mod­ern Chi­nese his­to­ry more gen­er­al­ly. What led me to appre­ci­ate this essay, by con­trast to its wider schol­ar­ly neglect, was Liang’s explic­it con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of China’s his­to­ry as inex­tri­ca­bly part of mod­ern glob­al his­to­ry, where the con­cept of the glob­al was encom­passed not by a self-ful­fill­ing dyadic West/China fan­ta­sy, but rather con­sti­tut­ed by the mul­ti­va­lent prod­ucts as well as by the messy process­es of the restruc­tur­ing of the world by cap­i­tal­ism, impe­ri­al­ism, and colo­nial­ism from the mid-19th cen­tu­ry onwards. This focus pre­vent­ed Liang – at that time, although not sub­se­quent­ly – from treat­ing Chi­na as if it were unique­ly unique even while it forces us to think the speci­fici­ties of Chi­nese his­to­ry out­side of ready-made the­o­ret­i­cal posi­tions. Rather, as Liang makes clear, con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing mod­ern Chi­nese his­to­ry as dialec­ti­cal­ly part of mod­ern glob­al his­to­ry not only helps gen­er­ate new ques­tions of and in the­o­ries of impe­ri­al­ism and moder­ni­ty, it also helps gen­er­ate new ques­tions about Chi­nese his­to­ry and the his­to­ry of glob­al rev­o­lu­tions.

Liang Qichao’s 1901 essay, among many oth­er writ­ings of the peri­od, forces us to rethink the late-Qing Chi­nese intel­lec­tu­al reartic­u­la­tion of glob­al­i­ty in terms of how these intel­lec­tu­als came to under­stand the prob­lem of tem­po­ral and spa­tial imma­nence. This prob­lem is sug­gest­ed by the glob­al optic indi­cat­ed in Liang Qichao’s essay: it is indi­cat­ed in the medi­a­tion of glob­al­i­ty by and through the col­o­nized and impe­ri­al­ized spaces of the world, whose very rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gles and immi­nent destruc­tions most vis­i­bly and vis­cer­al­ly helped define the con­tra­dic­tions of and in moder­ni­ty from a non-Euro-Amer­i­can per­spec­tive.

It is this glob­al optic that allows us to under­stand the fact that in Chi­na, from the late-Qing peri­od onwards – that is, dur­ing the extend­ed his­tor­i­cal moment begin­ning in the last decade of the 19th cen­tu­ry when the Qing was crum­bling and when what came next was still in ques­tion – com­pa­ra­bil­i­ty or com­par­i­son became an unavoid­able mode of think­ing about and in Chi­na. This is so because, at a the­o­ret­i­cal lev­el, we can observe that com­par­i­son is an impor­tant ide­o­log­i­cal tech­nol­o­gy of moder­ni­ty and a coerced neces­si­ty of the impe­ri­al­ism that pro­duced it. By tech­nol­o­gy, I do not mean a tool that can be applied; rather, I mean a way of reveal­ing (in Heidegger’s sense), not of latent essence but in the sense of mak­ing present.2 Com­par­i­son as a tech­nol­o­gy is there­fore a form of medi­a­tion. It is a form of medi­a­tion spe­cif­ic to the mod­ern world that impe­ri­al­ism wrought. His­tor­i­cal­ly, com­par­i­son is unavoid­able as a mode of think­ing because, as Liang Qichao observed with mor­dant humor and know­ing res­ig­na­tion as ear­ly as 1897: even if you are not inter­est­ed in the world, the world is still inter­est­ed in you. Liang’s obser­va­tion around the open­ing years of the 20th cen­tu­ry was sit­u­at­ed at a moment in Chi­nese his­to­ry when Euro-Amer­i­can and increas­ing­ly, Japan­ese cap­i­tal­ist-impe­ri­al­ism was “carv­ing Chi­na up like a mel­on” [guafen; 瓜分], in the par­lance of the day. Liang’s insight thus points to an impor­tant shift in China’s rela­tion to the world as well as the world’s rela­tion to Chi­na.

Fol­low­ing Liang, my claim is that, begin­ning from the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies, China’s sit­u­a­tion in this emer­gent world of cap­i­tal­ist-impe­ri­al­ist expan­sion left Chi­nese no choice but to see and nar­rate them­selves and con­tin­u­al­ly to recon­ceive of Chi­na in the world and thus com­par­a­tive­ly. Chi­na was so sit­u­at­ed implic­it­ly and unavoid­ably, by virtue of the glob­al exten­sion of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, impe­ri­al­ist (semi-)colonization, and glob­al cir­cu­la­tions of knowl­edge and ide­olo­gies; it was so sit­u­at­ed explic­it­ly and unavoid­ably because the chal­lenges keen­ly expe­ri­enced and dis­cussed by most Chi­nese intel­lec­tu­als since that time always were artic­u­lat­ed through and by com­par­a­tive think­ing, includ­ing by com­par­i­son to China’s new­ly and con­tin­u­al­ly rel­a­tivized past. In this sense, com­par­i­son as medi­a­tion is a his­tor­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy of reveal­ing the present; it is a tech­nol­o­gy of tem­po­ral and geo­graph­i­cal chal­leng­ing. The form of mod­ern medi­a­tion to which I point here is con­sti­tut­ed through and by the neces­si­ty of intel­lec­tu­al­ly and mate­ri­al­ly cop­ing with what Wal­ter Ben­jamin called the “now-time,” a tem­po­ral­i­ty that com­pris­es a strug­gle between dif­fer­ent forms of tem­po­r­al­iza­tion (past, present, future) with­in every­day life and expe­ri­ence. The “now-time” is the site of pol­i­tics, which itself con­sti­tutes an emi­nent­ly mod­ern way of being in the world, where pol­i­tics refers to a con­flict­ual mode of and in the his­tori­ciza­tion and lived expe­ri­ence of time. Com­par­i­son as mod­ern medi­a­tion is fur­ther con­sti­tut­ed through and by a geo­graph­i­cal imper­a­tive, where “Chi­na” becomes a com­pa­ra­ble and yet incom­pa­ra­ble unit of sup­pos­ed­ly con­tin­u­ous his­tor­i­cal time and space.

Pol­i­tics entered every­day intel­lec­tu­al life in the late-Qing in the insis­tence on a rev­o­lu­tion­ary over­turn­ing of state pow­er, an over­turn­ing inti­mate­ly linked to a new com­par­a­tive under­stand­ing of the world. Of course, Chi­na has always been sit­u­at­ed in a world. How­ev­er, it has not always been sit­u­at­ed in the world. What I mean in this dis­tinc­tion is that the nature of the world and its his­tor­i­cal valence – its log­ic – appeared and came to sig­ni­fy dif­fer­ent­ly by the late 19th cen­tu­ry. This is because the world itself had become, as it were, world-his­tor­i­cal, for Chi­na as for every­one else. Rev­o­lu­tion made that world, in its impe­ri­al­ist and colo­nial guise, his­tor­i­cal­ly vis­i­ble and, impor­tant­ly, nar­ra­tiviz­able.

***

In 1897, Liang Qichao wrote what is per­haps the first Chi­nese analy­sis of the rela­tion­ship between the impe­ri­al­ist expan­sion of Euro-Amer­i­ca and Euro-Amer­i­can cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion as a form of nec­es­sary nar­ra­tive rela­tion. In explain­ing the tight nexus between ide­ol­o­gy (cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion) and con­quest (impe­ri­al­ism), Liang wrote:

I read West­ern news­pa­pers and they report on…the dis­or­der of the Chi­nese poli­ty… This has been going on for the past few decades. Since Sep­tem­ber or Octo­ber of last year [1896], they have even more open­ly and brazen­ly pub­li­cized how wild and unciv­i­lized the Chi­nese are, how igno­rant and dis­hon­est, how emp­ty Chi­nese Con­fu­cian­ism is. The mean­ing is clear: they will move to elim­i­nate Chi­na at once.3

What Liang points to is that “Chi­na” appears in a par­tic­u­lar light when read through impe­ri­al­ist ide­olo­gies of supe­ri­or­i­ty and advance­ment, or through the cul­tur­al­ly pro­duc­tive bina­ry cat­e­gories of “civ­i­lized” and “unciv­i­lized” intend­ed to val­orize the for­mer in its West­ern Chris­t­ian-cap­i­tal­ist form and den­i­grate the lat­ter in its mul­ti­ple non-West­ern forms. Chi­na appears dif­fer­ent­ly, then, when seen in the light of how the ide­o­log­i­cal pro­duc­tion of “back­ward­ness” by Euro-Amer­i­can print media and schol­ar­ship for peo­ples in the world – whether in Asia, Africa, or else­where – invites and results in the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for inva­sion and con­quest. It appears dif­fer­ent­ly when we see cul­tur­al (as well as eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, and social) back­ward­ness as a pro­duced ide­o­log­i­cal form rather than an exist­ing essence. This pro­duced ide­o­log­i­cal form, as Liang lament­ed, was com­ing to be insin­u­at­ed into the quo­tid­i­an lives of West­ern news­pa­per read­ers through their dai­ly papers, becom­ing there­by a type of com­mon-sense knowl­edge. In this late 19th-cen­tu­ry moment in Chi­na – when news­pa­pers were new­ly becom­ing a mate­r­i­al-philo­soph­i­cal form for pro­duc­ing every­day knowl­edge and cre­at­ing nar­ra­tives of every­day life as a pol­i­tics of com­par­i­son by virtue of the jux­ta­po­si­tion­al co-tem­po­ral­i­ty of the paper’s spa­tial arrange­ment of con­tents4 – for the very first time, some­one as astute as Liang Qichao could real­ize, to his cer­tain dis­may, that Chi­na was not unique­ly tar­get­ed as the object of Euro-Amer­i­can deri­sion, colo­nial con­quest, and desire; rather, Chi­na was one of many so tar­get­ed, and indeed was mere­ly one part of a glob­al pat­tern of impe­ri­al­ist con­quest and ide­o­log­i­cal den­i­gra­tion that immi­nent­ly was to swal­low Chi­na in its messy embrace.

This new per­cep­tion, that cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion and con­se­quen­tial jus­ti­fi­ca­tion was help­ing pro­duce not just a new world but the new world of cap­i­tal­ist-impe­ri­al­ist-colo­nial expan­sion, was a shat­ter­ing­ly nov­el idea. It is here, then, that Liang’s afore­men­tioned “New Rules” essay must be sit­u­at­ed. Liang writes that in each case – Egypt, India, Poland, South Africa, the Philip­pines – non-state and state for­eign actors have used the mod­ern meth­ods of indebt­ed­ness, plant­i­ng advi­sors in gov­ern­men­tal roles, finan­cial manip­u­la­tions, inter­ven­tion in domes­tic pol­i­tics, and monop­o­liza­tion of com­mer­cial routes and finances as ways to insin­u­ate them­selves into a coun­try and its sys­tems, thus to facil­i­tate its even­tu­al take-over. Liang warns: one does not have to be direct­ly invad­ed by a mil­i­tary force to be wiped out; one can be eat­en away from the inside and out­side simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, and thus be “erased from the map,” as he put it.5

He alerts his read­ers that Chi­na is just then under­go­ing this type of what he calls “form­less dis­mem­ber­ment,” through the Box­er indem­ni­ties indebt­ing Chi­na to Britain, Japan, and the Unit­ed States; the accep­tance into the Qing poli­ty of for­eign advi­sors; the ced­ing of rail­way and min­ing rights for com­mer­cial expan­sion; along with the expan­sion of the spe­cial priv­i­leges accord­ed to for­eign­ers in the treaty ports and oth­er areas. In oth­er words, while Chi­na con­tin­ues to have in name a sov­er­eign gov­ern­ment – the Qing dynasty – in real­i­ty Chi­na is being wiped out.6

A land­mark essay, “New Rules for Destroy­ing Coun­tries” sees the world in its glob­al­iz­ing form, as a uni­ty-in-process under the inces­sant dri­ve of cap­i­tal­ist expan­sion man­i­fest­ed in impe­ri­al­ism and colo­nial­ism, under­pinned by news­pa­pers and cul­tur­al depic­tions. At the same time, this very same process also dis­uni­fies and cre­ates glob­al uneven­ness.

The rapid spread of the per­cep­tion that the new world was gov­erned by new rules and that the new rules defined and shaped the new world – as well as the past – led, in short order, to the wide­spread recog­ni­tion by intel­lec­tu­als that Chi­na was not excep­tion­al in this world-in-process; to the con­trary, it was soon rec­og­nized that Chi­na was but one par­tic­u­lar place sit­u­at­ed in a uni­ver­sal trend towards a forced glob­al exis­tence. The resul­tant co-eval albeit uneven tem­po­ral and spa­tial struc­tures pro­duced through and by this new world hence­forth helped shape and struc­ture the nature of Chi­nese intel­lec­tu­als’ encoun­ters with their present as well as their re-encoun­ters with (or, rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of) the Chi­nese past and their cre­ations of hopes for the future. This new world his­tor­i­cal log­ic became, in oth­er words, the basis for a cer­tain kind of expe­ri­en­tial exis­tence that was both par­tic­u­lar­ly Chi­nese and glob­al at the same time.

The then-gath­er­ing storms of anti-colo­nial and/or nation­al­ist rev­o­lu­tions became a mode of con­nect­ing the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of Chi­na to the world at large. This was a com­par­a­tive mode that not only sit­u­at­ed Chi­na in the new world of new rules – those rules of cap­i­tal­ism, impe­ri­al­ism, colo­nial­ism, glob­al knowl­edge pro­duc­tion; and the counter-rules of eth­nic-racial-nation­al rev­o­lu­tion, state build­ing, among oth­ers – but that also sit­u­at­ed Chi­na in an uneasy and con­stant­ly evolv­ing posi­tion rel­a­tive to its own cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal past. In the lat­ter regard, by the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies the Chi­nese present – in all its messy dis­rup­tion and sub­ju­ga­tion – seemed to have been alien­at­ed from its past: that is, the past could not pre­dict this present, and even less could it prog­nos­ti­cate a desir­able future. In this sense, the glob­al­ized present became the stan­dard grounds for com­par­i­son. This present thus was not and could nev­er be again an exclu­sive­ly Chi­nese present. Rather, it was a tem­po­ral order thor­ough­ly infused by and with the world his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture that had sub­or­di­nat­ed Chi­na and so many oth­ers to its dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing log­ic. Indeed, the coerced inser­tion of cap­i­tal­ism into Chi­na over the course of the 19th cen­tu­ry pro­duced by the end of the cen­tu­ry the coex­is­tence of dif­fer­ent and uneven forms of eco­nom­ic, cul­tur­al, and tem­po­ral prac­tices, with­in Chi­na and between Chi­na and oth­er places. Inter­nal­ly, these uneven­ness­es could include the “advanced” urban spaces of indus­tri­al­iza­tion, con­sump­tion, and leisure such as Shang­hai along­side the new­ly rel­a­tivized “back­ward” rur­al spaces of pover­ty, illit­er­a­cy, and bound-foot­ed women; the “civ­i­lized” spaces of the Euro-Amer­i­can-Japan­ese-Chi­nese, cap­i­tal­ist-bour­geois-com­prador order, as jux­ta­posed to the “unciv­i­lized” anar­chy of Chi­nese usu­ri­ous land­lord dis­or­der; and so on. These end­less­ly cre­at­ed and repro­duced com­par­a­tive uneven­ness­es – prod­ucts pre­cise­ly of the world his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture – were lived as the every­day expe­ri­en­tial exis­tence of Chi­nese (and oth­ers) from this time for­ward. It is for this rea­son that by con­cen­trat­ing on how this expe­ri­ence of cre­at­ed uneven­ness was actu­al­ized – in pol­i­tics, econ­o­my, cul­ture, soci­ety – we can con­clude that the log­ic of the world his­tor­i­cal in its rev­o­lu­tion­ary form after the late 19th cen­tu­ry nec­es­sar­i­ly pro­duced the expe­ri­ence of lives that only ever could be lived poly-rhyth­mi­cal­ly, as it were; lives that only ever could be lived by con­tra­pun­tal com­par­i­son. This was a nec­es­sary con­di­tion, not a con­tin­gent one.

Dur­ing this peri­od, and with ref­er­ence to attempts in the non-West­ern world to estab­lish inde­pen­dent poli­ties via rev­o­lu­tion­ary endeav­or, emerg­ing polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties includ­ed the reform or the over­throw of the dynas­tic sys­tem and the recon­fig­u­ra­tion of the Qing Empire into a eth­ni­cal­ly-homo­ge­neous (Han-cen­tered) or mul­ti-eth­nic nation-state ruled by a Repub­li­can Gov­ern­ment and a new set of com­mer­cial, cul­tur­al, and social log­ics, all of which required the rethink­ing of past socio-polit­i­cal prac­tices and ide­olo­gies, now renamed “tra­di­tion­al” and slat­ed for his­tor­i­cal obso­les­cence or nos­tal­gic, ahis­tor­i­cal recov­ery. After a decade of attempts at state reform, the Qing was indeed over­thrown in 1911, hav­ing been deemed by its oppo­nents inca­pable of embody­ing the appro­pri­ate state for a new Chi­nese nation in the new world under the new rules.

The strug­gles to secure this out­come were informed by an onrush of new philoso­phies and new knowl­edges inchoate­ly select­ed from among the var­i­ous and com­pet­ing (il)liberalisms of 19th-cen­tu­ry France, Britain and Amer­i­ca; rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­o­ries of France, the Unit­ed States, and Rus­sia; pan-Asian­ist and cul­tur­al dis­cours­es derived from a cen­tral­ized mod­ern­iz­ing Japan; nation­al­is­tic state the­o­ries of Ger­many; and, impor­tant­ly, the anti-colo­nial rev­o­lu­tion­ary prac­tices in the Philip­pines, Hawaii, Cuba, India, and South Africa, among oth­ers. These new forms of think­ing broke down the uni­ty of the pre­vi­ous sys­tems of knowl­edge and helped pro­voke a cri­sis not only in the sphere of dynas­tic polit­i­cal legit­i­ma­cy but also in the sphere of socio-intel­lec­tu­al and cul­tur­al cer­ti­tude. What count­ed as prop­er knowl­edge, as use­ful knowl­edge, as knowl­edge about the world was utter­ly trans­formed. The fore­most social phi­los­o­phy at this point, Spencer­ian Dar­win­ism, intro­duced the con­cepts of “race,” con­flict, and strug­gle as fun­da­men­tal struc­tur­ing cat­e­gories and log­ics of inter­nal social and exter­nal inter­na­tion­al rela­tions. In this new light, the world and Chi­na were rethought in terms of the nec­es­sary, not acci­den­tal hier­ar­chies and vio­lences of encoun­ters rather than in the more com­fort­ing (if already long anachro­nis­tic) neo-Con­fu­cian terms of mutu­al reci­procity and rit­u­al obser­vance. Mean­while a cer­tain coa­les­cence of ide­olo­gies and philoso­phies led to a con­vic­tion that the Chi­nese nation need­ed to be con­joined to a dif­fer­ent kind of state. Yet what pre­cise­ly that state should be and who should com­prise the nation (edu­cat­ed men? Prop­er­tied men? All men? Edu­cat­ed men and women? All liv­ing with­in the ter­ri­to­r­i­al bor­ders of the for­mer Qing dynas­tic empire now named the Repub­lic of Chi­na? Rev­o­lu­tion­ary men and women? Pro­le­tari­at and peas­ant? Cap­i­tal­ist and land­lord?) remained unre­solved and sources of ongo­ing social and polit­i­cal strug­gle through­out the ensu­ing cen­tu­ry.

This unre­solved prob­lem of pol­i­tics – at the simul­ta­ne­ous lev­els of the social and the state – took on a num­ber of dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al expres­sions. For exam­ple, one prob­lem­at­ic of nation­al­ism as an intel­lec­tu­al reori­en­ta­tion at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry was pre­cise­ly how par­tic­u­lar tem­po­ral­i­ties – local ones, that is – got marked or rec­og­nized as dif­fer­en­tial, and thus how glob­al as well as political/economic uneven­ness became vis­i­ble as a basis of com­pa­ra­bil­i­ty. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­nec­tions – real or, in the late-Qing Chi­nese case, most­ly imag­ined – made this impe­ri­al­ist/an­ti-impe­ri­al­ist com­pa­ra­bil­i­ty pos­si­ble across a large and het­ero­ge­neous ter­rain. That is, by pay­ing atten­tion to the his­tor­i­cal process of the ren­der­ing vis­i­ble of glob­al tem­po­ral­i­ty as a form of mod­ern and uneven spa­tial total­iza­tion – of impe­ri­al­ism and cap­i­tal­ist expan­sion – we can see how places and activ­i­ties as dis­parate as the Cuban or the Philip­pine rev­o­lu­tions, the incip­i­ent Indi­an anti-colo­nial move­ment, the Egypt­ian and Turk­ish nation­al­ist move­ments, and even the Boer War could be under­stood and expli­cat­ed by Chi­nese intel­lec­tu­als and the­o­rists as vital aspects in the re-artic­u­la­tion of their own dynas­tic col­lapse in a broad­er his­tor­i­cal frame. Our task today, just as the his­tor­i­cal task was back then, is to see and intro­duce social prac­tice, under­stood as mate­r­i­al expe­ri­ence inter­twined with mate­r­i­al struc­tures, into the idea of glob­al impe­ri­al­ist/an­ti-impe­ri­al­ist con­nec­tiv­i­ty. In this way, impe­ri­al­ist glob­al­i­ty and its mod­ern rev­o­lu­tion­ary premis­es can­not be under­stood pri­mar­i­ly as a ques­tion of the pow­ers and illu­sions of a con­sti­tu­tive sub­jec­tiv­i­ty that focus on the re-sutur­ing of domes­tic inte­ri­or­i­ty in the mod­u­lar form of nation-sta­tism; rather, impe­ri­al­ist glob­al­i­ty pos­es ques­tions of the local and glob­al tem­po­r­al­iza­tion of his­to­ry, for which rev­o­lu­tion is a con­sti­tu­tive ele­ment. In this sense, the his­tor­i­cal prob­lem­at­ic of impe­ri­al­ism can only be posed with­in the prob­lem­at­ic of glob­al and rev­o­lu­tion­ary moder­ni­ty, through which time and space are brought into imma­nent rela­tion­ship with one anoth­er. With a recog­ni­tion of these issues, we can recon­fig­ure how to read the pro­duc­tion of glob­al­i­ty in the texts of Chi­nese intel­lec­tu­als in late-Qing Chi­na and in so doing, we can real­ly see Liang’s mode of artic­u­la­tion and argu­men­ta­tion, and appre­ci­ate in and through it the medi­at­ing struc­tures of the colo­nial and impe­ri­al­ized world in the simul­ta­ne­ous for­ma­tion of a mod­ern Chi­nese glob­al and nation­al con­scious­ness.

This brief essay is slight­ly recon­fig­ured from a paper deliv­ered at the “Glob­al Rev­o­lu­tions” con­fer­ence, Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege, Dublin, in Octo­ber 2016. The author is grate­ful to every­one at that con­fer­ence for their com­ments.


  1. Liang Qichao, Mieguo xin­fa lun [New Rules for Destroy­ing Coun­tries], Yin­bing­shi wen­ji [Col­lect­ed Writ­ings from the Ice-Drinker’s Stu­dio – Col­lect­ed Essays], 8 vol­umes (Tai­wan: Zhonghua shu­ju, 1984), 6: 32–47. For an extend­ed dis­cus­sion of this essay in late-Qing Chi­na, see my Stag­ing the World: Chi­nese Nation­al­ism at the Turn of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry (Durham, NC: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2002). 

  2. Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger, The Ques­tion Con­cern­ing Tech­nol­o­gy, trans. William Levitt (New York: Harp­er, 1977). 

  3. Liang Qichao, “Lun baoguan youyi yu guoshi” [On the advan­tages of news­pa­pers for state affairs], Yin­bing­shi wen­ji 1: 100–03. 

  4. Bene­dict Ander­son, in his Imag­ined Com­mu­ni­ties, writes a good deal about the “mean­while,” or the co-tem­po­ral­i­ty pre­sent­ed by print media and nov­els. See Ander­son, Imag­ined Com­mu­ni­ties: Reflec­tions on the Ori­gin and Spread of Nation­al­ism (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2006). I have an extend­ed argu­ment in the Intro­duc­tion to Stag­ing the World about the prob­lem of co-spa­tial­i­ty from which the point I make here is derived. 

  5. “Mieguo xin­fa lun,” 36. 

  6. “Mieguo xin­fa lun,” 47. 

Author of the article

is Professor of History at New York University. She is the author of The Magic of Concepts: History and the Economic in Twentieth-Century China (Duke UP 2017), Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History (Duke UP 2010), and Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Duke UP 2002). She is co-translator and co-editor (with Xueping Zhong) of Cai Xiang, Revolution and its Narratives (Duke UP 2016) and (with Lydia Liu and Dorothy Ko) of The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (Columbia UP 2013).