Blog Post

Thoughts on Reading Joseph Levenson

Contrary to the menacing spectacle of national chauvinism associated with China today, Confucian universal values embodied by the idea of tianxia (all under heaven) stem from an ethical scheme of ritualistic empire.  This global view based on cultural improvement is a far cry from the image of modern empires bent on acquiring territories, markets and resources. 

As Joseph Levenson noted four decades ago, Confucian literati accepted cultural differences as the way of the world. Although they made a distinction between the civilized and barbarians, they were aware that “the barbarians are always with us.” The Confucian realm is supposed to be an open house: anybody can come in if they are excellent, like qualified athletes for the Olympic Games. The insiders, if they put their self-interest before the public good of “all under heaven,” should go away. Confucian universalism was “a criterion, a standpoint, not a point of departure,” as Levenson well put. Chinese left home to travel and settle in other countries, but “not one had any Confucian pretensions to be bearing out a Word,” as did Christian missionaries.

See Joseph Levenson, Revolution and Cosmopolitanism (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971).

Wang Ban is the William Haas Professor in Chinese Studies at Stanford University. He received his Ph.D. in comparative literature at UCLA. In addition to his research on Chinese and comparative literature, he has written on English and French literatures, psychoanalysis, international politics, and cinema. He has been a recipient of research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. He taught at Beijing Foreign Studies University, SUNY-Stony Brook, Harvard University, and Rutgers University before he came to Stanford. His current project is tentatively entitled China and the World: Geopolitics, Aesthetics, and Cosmopolitanism. His interests include modern Chinese literature and film, comparative literature (East and West), aesthetics, intellectual history, psychoanalysis, transnational politics and culture.