Reading and Writing the Chinese Dream: introducing a project

As of January 2016, the Thinking China section of The China Story has introduced several aspects of contemporary Chinese thought and debate under three headings: key intellectualskey articles and currents of thought. We have been particularly interested in the interplay of intellectual and official perspectives on a range of pressing social and political questions.

Thinking China forms part of the overall approach of the Australian Centre on China in the World which we call New Sinology, first articulated in a short essay a decade ago, in May 2005. Since then, we have expanded our work in this area and founded a major research centre which attempts to put some of its motivating ideas into practice. We have been fortunate in that we launched The China Story in 2012 only some months before China’s new party-state-army leader, Xi Jinping, declared how important it was for China to ‘tell The China Story well’ 讲好中国的故事, and before it became evident that Xi himself was an unwitting advocate of the New Sinological approach to engaging with modern China.

In our work, be it through the research work at CIW, our China Story Yearbook, via this website, or in our public activities, we emphasise the importance of engaging with the broadest spectrum of Chinese ideas and concerns. In the digital age, officials, state propagandists, academics, journalists, people of conscience, and members of the general populace are co-creators of Chinese thought and public discourse. To better understand how ‘China’ thinks, we must heed those ideas and writings that have attracted significant interest among Sinophone readers, incited controversy or that, over time, have proved to be influential.

We are delighted to introduce a major new undertaking by colleagues in Canada, China, Australia and England to read, understand and translate key texts produced by leading Chinese thinkers.

The China Dream Project, the full title of which is ‘Reading and Writing the Chinese Dream: A Collaborative Research, Reading and Translation Project’, was initiated by Timothy CheekDavid Ownby and Joshua Fogel in Canada. The three project directors are joined by collaborators at other institutions. They are: Liu Qing 刘擎, Gloria Davies, Michel Hockx, Liu Jing, and Jonathan Sullivan. Due to illness in 2014-2015, Geremie R Barmé was unable to participate formally in the project, but through his work for The China Story he is helping to introduce some of the work generated by The Chinese Dream.

To date, Thinking China in The China Story has featured the following work from or related to The Chinese Dream Project:

The Practice of History and China Today
The Last Refuge of the Patriot
Everything Old is New Again
Hong Kong: China’s Other
Carl Schmitt in China
Wang Gungwu on Living Chinese History

The following project description was provided by Timothy Cheek. — The Editors


This is a collaborative project that examines the published work of reform-era Chinese intellectuals (1995-2015) who are re-reading the past and re-writing the future in light of China’s emergence as a great power. The project is based at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver and is funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. It is built on collaborations between a number of Canadian scholars, Chinese scholars and colleagues in Australia and the UK and is led by the project directors and project collaborators named above. This five-year project began in 2014 and will continue until 2019. Two meetings in 2015, one in Shanghai in May and one in Vancouver in August, have set the collaborative work in motion.

The public conversations and debates in China that we study range over many topics but they reflect a common aspiration to secure China’s future through interrogating the status quo and asking what lessons the past has to offer. This intellectual discourse is distinct from yet intimately related to the official China Story presented by the Communist Party state. The fact that senior Party officials and the state media have frequently reiterated the importance of ‘telling China’s story well’ 讲好中国的故事, since Party General Secretary Xi Jinping first issued this directive at the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference in August 2013, makes the alternative stories being told in the Sinophone public sphere all the more important. We propose to analyse the efforts of China’s public intellectuals over the past twenty years to fashion a livable, marketable Chinese dream.

Our subjects are academic public intellectuals — scholars who have chosen to use their specialised knowledge and status to engage with the public conversation on the Chinese Dream. The historians among them are re-examining China’s past to uncover themes, practices, forgotten traditions and missed opportunities that might fill the void at the core of China’s current political/ cultural identity and help to create China’s future. These debates are subtle, varied and wide-ranging, and they suggest a breadth and sophistication rarely hinted at in media discussions of China’s intellectual world.

The goals of our project are:

  1. to analyse and make available the knowledge production of these Chinese intellectuals who debate China’s history, future, and place in the world, for the benefit of Canadian/ Western scholars, policy-makers and citizens; and,
  2. to build a style of academic work and training to produce transnational knowledge about China through collaboration with Chinese academic partners with the goal of training a generation of ‘new-style scholars’ who work with Chinese and non-Chinese colleagues to study China and the world. Thus, the ‘product’ of this project is both a process of scholarly knowledge production (that also provides graduate training) and the resulting texts (scholarly articles and translations) created by it.

The initial meetings have addressed some of the following questions:

• What are the basic contours of intellectual agency for university professors and public intellectuals in China? What can they argue about with impunity, and in what settings?

• To what extent does politics remain at the forefront of intellectual life in China, and how should we understand the content of intellectual politics? The main textbook division of reform-era Chinese intellectuals has been into the categories of Liberals, New Confucians and the New Left. Are these categories adequate?

• What ‘public‘ do China’s ‘public intellectuals’ address? How should we understand the ‘directed public sphere’ of post-Mao China? Why, for example, is Liu Xiaobo in prison and Han Han still on Weibo?

• What are the economics of intellectual life in today’s China? Does an intellectual get rich from a best-seller? What are the economics of a successful web site and Weibo following?

• How do China’s public intellectuals understand the life of ideas in contemporary China? What are the most prestigious journals? Publishing houses? Web platforms? What are the strategies employed by intellectuals who want to get ahead? Have an impact? Stay safe?

• How do political pressures make themselves felt within the worlds of public and less public intellectuals?

We have chosen collaborative translation as the method to achieve these goals. Pairs of Chinese/ non-Chinese young scholars collaborate in selecting and translating texts from notable intellectuals under the supervision of the project directors and collaborators. These seminars are text-focused and led by senior scholars. They serve the dual purpose of producing both readable (and annotated) translations and training ‘new-style scholars’ among young Chinese and non-Chinese academics through their working together to address the particularities (linguistic, historical, contextual) of Chinese texts that make translation and understanding difficult yet enriching. The project will also involve graduate students in Translation Studies who will contribute both to the work of translation and to our understanding of translation techniques and key differences between English and Chinese styles of writing and argumentation.

We began with a schema outlining public intellectual life, based on the changes we have seen in Chinese discourse over the past fifty years and with a preliminary ‘intellectual topographical map’ produced by Chinese intellectuals themselves. Chinese intellectuals under Mao resembled Chinese scholar-bureaucrats during the dynastic era in that they served at the state’s pleasure and defined themselves and their roles accordingly. Literati in dynastic China and intellectuals in the Mao era served as moral and professional exemplars: their technical knowledge and their intellectual mastery were seen as being secondary to their roles as exegetes of classical Confucian or Marxist-Maoist knowledge and administrators of a society in constant directed transformation (jiaohua 教化 under the dynasties; xuanjiao 宣教 under Mao).

All of this began to change in a fundamental way in the 1990s, after Deng Xiaoping’s reaffirmation of reform in his ‘Southern Tour’ of 1992. Although the post-Mao regime maintained its commitment to basic socialist principles, ideology lost its preeminent role under Deng and his successors (Xi Jinping may be changing this…); the ‘Four Cardinal Principles’ and similar ideological underpinnings often played a secondary role to pragmatism, economic growth and market forces. At the same time, China opened up to the international world in ways unseen since the 1920s and 1930s. ‘Knowledge’ became multiple rather than unitary, secular rather than sacred; it included scientific and technical discourses as well as a wide range of social science and other theories Chinese scholars were quick to explore and import from the 1980s.

The impact of these changes on Chinese intellectuals has been profound. Although the state has hardly disappeared — instead it has erected a ‘directed public sphere’ with significant rules and protocols — reform-era China has developed markets for books, ideas and intelligence that could not have existed under Mao. In addition, the state has invested significantly in education, and in the process it has given considerable status to those who have studied and worked in the West. As a result, Western (and neoliberal) university models of professionalism and career management have come to compete with older Chinese modes of loyalty and factionalism, and Chinese scholarly life has developed its own dynamics which are, to some degree (but only to some degree), independent of party-state control. The Internet added important new facets to the scene beginning in the 1990s, allowing writers, scholars and other intellectuals to reach a large public particularly through social media (the present favoured medium being weixin 微信/WeChat) without having to deal with the complexities, and political dimensions, of the book and journal publishing industries.

We began our effort to map this intellectual public sphere by adopting a widely accepted Chinese division of the world of public intellectuals into three ‘lineages’ or ‘clusters’ (see Gan Yang’s Tong san tong《通三统》, 2007): Liberals, the New Left and New Confucians. Our use of this Chinese taxonomy of intellectual ‘lineages’, ‘clusters’ or ‘types’ is, however, critically motivated. We see it as a useful classificatory scheme but we are more interested in exploring the politics that have informed (and continue to inform) its production. We ask if this current taxonomy has created or exacerbated divisions within mainland intellectual circles. Does the taxonomy have the effect of excluding intellectual positions that fail to accord with one or another designated ‘type’? We are also interested to see the extent to which texts labeled as ‘Liberal’, ‘New Left’ or ‘New Confucian’ do or do not conform to the prescribed attributes.

We naturally draw on the work of international scholars, for instance, from Merle Goldman and Joseph Fewsmith to Geremie Barmé, Gloria Davies and William Callahan. New work on knowledge production in Republican China (up to 1950) led by Robert Culp and Eddy U provides one useful baseline as many Chinese intellectuals in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were similarly engaged and independent.[1] We embrace this historical-comparative perspective. In addition, a project led by Leigh Jenco looks at Chinese thought for what it can contribute to general social theory, and provides a vocabulary for comparing Chinese knowledge production with Western examples, particularly in the context of political philosophy.[2]

Our approach builds upon this research by giving priority to Chinese voices over Western frameworks and by working with Chinese scholars in collaborative translations and interpretations of these vital contemporary debates over the Chinese dream. We take as our inspiration New Sinology, an approach advocated by Geremie R Barmé of The Australian National University, and which combines both theory and method.[3] New Sinology is grounded in respect for Sinophone discourse, and insists that research on China be based on a deep knowledge of Chinese sources, both literary 文言 and vernacular 白话 texts. Classical Sinology focused largely on the formative texts of China’s traditional civilisation, while the New Sinology extends its focus to modern and contemporary Chinese discourse and their political and social contexts. This theoretical/ methodological perspective in no way excludes mainstream historical and social science approaches, but it demands that scholarship on China be grounded in Chinese-language sources and that today’s New Sinologists work ‘with Chinese’ rather than simply ‘on China’. What this means is that we are engaged in collaborative research with Chinese colleagues to investigate problems of shared concern while coming to appreciate more fully our differing standpoints and interests.

The collaborative translation seminars are running in 2015 and 2016 with preliminary reports being posted here or on our project webpage.

For further information, contact the project directors:

Tim Cheek: [email protected]
Josh Fogel: [email protected]
David Ownby: [email protected]



[1] Robert Culp, Eddy U and Wen-hsin Yeh, eds, Knowledge Acts in Modern China: Ideas, Institutions and Identities, Berkely: University of California Institute of East Asian Studies, 2016.

[2] Leigh Jenco, ed., Chinese Thought as Global Theory: Diversifying Knowledge Production in the Social Sciences and Humanities, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2016; and, Michaelle L Browers, Democracy and Civil Society in Arab Political Thought: Transcultural Possibilities, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006.

[3] Geremie R Barmé, ‘On New Sinology’, 2005; and, ‘Worrying About China and New Sinology’, 2008. For these essays, and related material, see the New Sinology section of The China Story website.