China and Inner Asia
Scholars have long considered intellectuals as an elite social group playing a leading political role in China’s long 20th century. However, the questions of who qualifies as an intellectual, what acts of knowledge production Chinese intellectuals engage in, and what the historical significance of the category of “intellectual” might be remain open ended. Four recent books, spanning the late-Qing, Republican, Mao and Reform eras propose to rethink the role of intellectuals, considered as a socially inclusive, politically constructed, and historically evolving category. From the late 19th to the early 21st century, intellectuals have played a variety of roles as knowledge producers and cultural actors, enabling different political agendas and legitimizing different types of social knowledge.
Robert Culp explores how late-Qing literati, foreign-trained academics, and low-ranking “petty intellectuals” leveraged industrial publishing to transform modern Chinese culture and establish their own cultural authority and social status, which they were able to preserve into the 1960s thanks to the PRC government’s reliance on publishing.
Eugenia Lean argues for broadening the idea of the intellectual to include entrepreneurial figures of the Republican era who promoted science, penned social commentary and advocated political action. Earning the wrath of contemporaneous highbrow intellectuals, some not only wrote for a profit, but also leveraged their literary skills and cultural resources to succeed in the world of industry.
Eddy U suggests that seeing the intellectual as a classification of people can foster new understandings of the Chinese socialist revolution. The rise of the Chinese Communist Party extended the classification eventually to every level of society. The extension coincided with the normalization of political reeducation, mass surveillance, and other organizational tactics, and therefore particular forms of social division.
Finally, Sebastian Veg argues that in the aftermath of 1989, the relevance of the intellectual as an elite proponent of enlightenment or member of a political avant-garde was profoundly challenged and new forms of citizen (minjian) knowledge appeared “among the people.”
Fa-ti Fan will chair and moderate the discussion, which will particularly focus on ways to broaden the category of intellectuals and investigate the constructed nature of knowledge in different historical contexts.