Translingual Encounters: Freedom, Civic Virtue, and the Social Organism in Liang Qichao's Reading of Kant
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.5070/T713153436
From 1903 to 1904 while exiled in Japan, Liang Qichao (1873-1929), an intellectual and political theorist of late-Qing and early-Republican China, introduced Chinese readers for the first time to Immanuel Kant in a series of articles entitled “The Theory of Kant, the Greatest Modern Philosopher” (近世第一大哲康德之學說). Liang’s article serves as an example of what Lydia Liu terms translingual practices, its existence predicated upon complex international networks of institutional affiliations, the circulation of publications, the international movement of students, and the effects of political upheavals such as the failed 1898 Hundred Days reform that forced Liang to flee to Japan. These networks created the conditions of possibility for Liang’s article, the result of a chain of translations and interpretations traversing four languages: German, French, Japanese and Chinese. Possibly because Kant was neither a major figure in Liang’s subsequent writings nor a figure often cited as major source of inspiration by Chinese revolutionaries in the first half of the 20th century, the relationship between Kant and modern Chinese thought has been understudied. Rather than focusing on questions of accuracy in Kant’s transnational reception, this paper is instead interested in a different set of questions focusing on the productivity of Liang’s interpretation: how and towards what ends does Liang mobilize Kant rhetorically? How did Liang’s reading of Kant contribute to the articulation of ethical ideals or the creation of a new political imaginary? Drawing from Liang’s commentaries in his translations and his other articles published during this period, the paper argues that Liang’s interpretation of Kant places a particular emphasis on a conception of freedom founded upon the moral cultivation of the people that marks a fundamental break from the traditional Confucian concept of Tianxia 天下, or “all under heaven.” Liang argued that Kant’s concept of freedom, because it linked the individual to the group in an organismic whole, reconciled the needs of the individual vis-à-vis the collective state, which supported an account of ethics and politics that was committed to both universal humanist morality and nationalist politics. Liang’s interpretation of Kant therefore illuminates the historical and theoretical coarticulation of nationalism and liberalism that critiques the forms of ideological mystification which would hold these two terms in binary opposition.