TERC - Tremplin-ERC

China's Alternative Public Spheres in the 20th century – ChinaSpheres

Submission summary

China’s 20th century history is usually viewed as a series of failed attempts to institutionalize civil society and consolidate a public sphere conducive to meaningful political debate. However, this approach often defines the public sphere in a normative and ahistorical manner. The present project takes a new empirical and theoretical approach by examining changing social and intellectual practices from a bottom-up perspective. It takes as its object publicly disseminated, literary or essayistic texts, the institutional vectors that allow them to circulate, and the reading publics or discursive communities associated with them.
Five case studies, spanning the 20th century, are chosen to examine different configurations in which intellectual and political debates took place: exilic, local, underground, transnational, and virtual counter-spheres are considered as venues for the dissemination of rational discourse and the formation of public opinion. Political discussions in Tokyo student journals before the 1911 Revolution; the debate on local culture and autonomy in May Fourth Sichuan; the exchange of letters, diaries and samizdat literature among rusticated youth in the late Cultural Revolution; Hong Kong as an offshore public sphere to debate Chinese affairs; and the sinophone internet are considered as fora for key political debates.
Centering the study of modern and contemporary China on the public sphere displaces assumptions about the central role of the state and returns agency to society. The project suggests that a non-institutionalized network of alternative public spheres served to debate the major political questions facing China about the nature of the state, the role of the individual, and the organization of society. This approach enables us to understand how Chinese society remained a locus of political agency in an illiberal environment. It also effectively dispels the idea that Chinese society is unfit or unprepared for democratic deliberation.

Interdisciplinary dimension
Investigation of the public sphere is inherently interdisciplinary. While the approach is historical, the notion of the public sphere comes from the area of political philosophy or political science. The material of the investigation is textual: literary, essayistic, and philosophical texts published in Tokyo student journals in the 1900s, in local publications in 1920s Chengdu, in underground writings during the Cultural Revolution, in the Hong Kong press and student journals in the 1980s, and online in the 2000s. Literary texts are particularly useful to escape political censorship and allow debates. All texts are examined within social fields, as well as studied from the point of view of their reception and circulation. The project should therefore be considered primarily within the fields of intellectual history and cultural studies/China studies. The EHESS, as a strongly interdisciplinary institution, combining history and social science, is particularly well-suited to host it.

Project coordination

Sebastian VEG (Centre Chine Corée Japon)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


CCJ Centre Chine Corée Japon

Help of the ANR 99,997 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: May 2017 - 18 Months

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