China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

4 - Antagonistic Collaboration: The Athenian Tradition in 1920s China

Thursday, March 22
7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Location: Johnson, Mezzanine Level

This paper explores the transplantation of the classical Athenian tradition of rationalism to China against a contesting literary and cultural context of the 1920s. During China’s New Cultural Movement, two intellectuals belonging to opposite camps borrowed this specific aspect of Greek civilization, in order to critique the contemporary state of China and to envision a different future: Zhou Zuoren, a leading figure of the New Youth group,  promoted Athenian rationalism as a model for the modern culture that he and his colleagues were trying to create; whereas Wu Mi and his Critical Review group—a culturally conservative school consisting of Irving Babbitt’s former students—turned to the Athenian tradition in order to rectify what they saw as the rootlessness of the modern culture invented by the revolutionaries of the New Youth. Combining textual analysis and intellectual history, this paper seeks to answer: Why and how was the Athenian literary and philosophical legacy reformulated, re-accentuated, and repurposed in the configuration of a new Chinese culture? How did both sides of China's 1920s cultural war manage to make use of different aspects of this legacy? The conspicuous antagonism and subtle collaboration between Zhou and Wu, and their respective groups, echoed both the contestation between the sophists and Socrates in Athens that gave birth to classical Western philosophy, and the debates between the rival schools of John Dewey and Irving Babbitt that accompanied the emergence of American Neo-Humanism.

Jingling Chen

Middlebury College, Vermont

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