Chen Jitong and Cosmopolitan Possibilities in the Late Qing World


A Review of Fin-de-Siècle Diplomat: Chen Jitong (1852-1907) and Cosmopolitan Possibilities in the Late Qing World, by Ke Ren.

In 1923, Liang Qichao (梁啟超 1873-1929) wrote an article to celebrate the 50th– anniversary of the birth of Shenbao (申報), in which he summarizes that, since the late nineteenth century, Chinese elites have undergone a process of deepening self-reflection of China’s inadequacy in comparison with the modern West. This self-reflection began with technology and material production (器物), extended to political institutions (制度), and eventually entered culture (文化). In this retrospective remark, China’s self-understanding vis-à-vis the modern West is regarded as a source of growing anxiety among Chinese elites over their inherent values. The late intellectual historian Joseph Levenson, who wrote his first book based on a study of Liang Qichao, echoed Liang on the significance of China’s encounter with the West in modern Chinese intellectual life. However, Levenson took one step further than Liang in theorizing the role of Western influence into a causal explanation of China’s modernization. As Levenson’s famous thesis goes, China’s modernization could be understood as its painful rebirth from a Confucian empire into a modern nation-state, and along with this process the Confucian view of the universal had to be abolished in order for China to successfully identify itself as a part of the world now defined by the Western conception of nationalism.

Ke Ren’s dissertation questions the teleological nature of the Levensonian thesis. It asks whether it is entirely meaningful to conceptualize China’s encounter with the West, a significant and complex historical process in its own right, as something destined to result in Chinese elites’ radical self-negation as the only way for China to engage with the modern world. In order to fully examine the meanings of Sino-Western interactions for modern China, Ren suggests shifting our attentions from the generation of Liang Qichao to a slightly older generation who came of age during the Self-Strengthening movement (1861-1895). For this generation, China’s encounter with the West was important, but its importance was understood differently. For the Self-Strengthening reformists, especially the literati diplomats produced by the movement, encounters with the West could be a rather stimulating opportunity to represent China to the world under its current Qing rulers as a “living empire and enduring civilization.” Moreover, interactions with the West provided many of them with an exciting cosmopolitan platform to perform literati culture rooted in Confucian learning. For these figures, China’s differences from the West were not a source of anxiety, but a cause of confidence and cultural agency.

Ren’s dissertation portrays the life of a late Qing diplomat-writer, Chen Jitong 陳季同 (1852-1907). A graduate of the Fuzhou Navy Yard (福州船政學堂) in the late 1870s and an expectant official patronized by Li Hongzhang (李鴻章 1823-1901) through most of his career, Chen was appointed the Secretary in the Chinese legation in Paris in the 1880s. During his sixteen-year sojourn in Paris, Chen voluntarily took on the role as an insider of Chinese culture and society to introduce China to Western audience. He became a “self-appointed cultural mediator,” a faithful “bearer of Chinese civilization.” As the most widely read Chinese writer in late nineteenth-century Europe and a charismatic public speaker, Chen was admired not only for his writings about China, but also for his ability to navigate freely the rich literary traditions of China and the West, his perfect French, and his exquisite mannerism as a Chinese cultural elite in his public appearance. Riding the momentum of Paris’ flourishing and newly institutionalized mass press, Chen made himself into a celebrity in fin-de-siècle Paris.

The China that Chen Jitong felt obliged to introduce to the West is an advanced civilization based on Neo-Confucian idea, which Ren often terms as the “orthodox Confucian view.” Under Chen’s pen, China is a well-functioning empire ruled by its cultural elites cultivated by their learning of the Four Books and the Five Classics. The cultural elite, namely, Confucian literati scholars, assumed responsibility for educating people and ordering local society through managing elite families and lineages. Some of them enter government through an impartial selection process, and the government, which is limited in size but is guided by righteous and learned literati scholars, is a coherent part of literati rule. In such a harmonious social-political order, culture flourishes, learning gains respect, and virtues are cultivated (chapter 2). Chen’s “China” project, as Ren persuasively argues, was central to Chen’s construction of his own persona as both the product and leader of this perfect Confucian civilization he depicted. As a graduate of the Fuzhou Yard, Chen did not have a civil service exam degree. In Paris, however, Chen embarked on the journey of becoming a Chinese literatus through his own literary construction of China. Importantly, Chen’s depiction of China was neither intended to be self-Orientalist nor apologist, but a trustworthy representation of what Chen held to be the core of Confucian values. For Chen, the values of the Chinese way could be proven by his own cultural achievements, intellectual capacity, and moral sensitivity. Insisting on presenting himself as a “lettré chinois” (Chinese literatus) in public, he hoped to remind the European audience that he was a person with many facets. He was a cultivated man, fashioned by things like his elegant Chinese calligraphy and his nearly perfect literary French (chapter 3). He was a ruling elite, demonstrated in his self-possessed public portrait in Qing ceremonial robe and official hat (chapter 3). And he was a man of intellect, nurtured by his learning and thinking, which allowed him to publish insightful observations on the Parisian life and to engage with discussions on issues such as feminism (chapter 2).

Beneath Chen’s self-confidence lay a belief that while China’s social-political values might have grown out of a particular society, they were expressions of some universally shared human ideals that his learning was profoundly identified with. By being cosmopolitan, Chen saw himself becoming a true Chinese literatus. But what were those universally shared human ideals? Ren points out two essential components of Chen’s cosmopolitanism. First, there is a shared civilizational base between China and the West, which is mainly to be found in literature and poetry, because they express common human feelings. Chen celebrated the nobility of human feelings as an ultimate ideal that civilizations ought to hold onto – just like what the Chinese elites believed in their own social-political setting, and he called for a future in which cross-cultural understanding would be realized by acknowledging the universal pursuit of love. Unsurprisingly, in Chen’s depictions of China, the most elaborated aspects are China’s literary tradition – poetry, tales, dramas, folklore, and so on. Meanwhile, the genres that Chen felt most comfortable using to demonstrate Chinese culture were also literary prose, poems, stories, theater, and even music. He often readapted well-known Chinese poems and tales in his own writings. Such a cross-cultural recreation in well-crafted French, which would reach the heart of the French audience, was in itself a morally meaningful effort. Second, for Chen, China’s lack of development in science and technology was a shortcoming, but it was nothing foundational. It was fixable, and was indeed undergoing such a transition through Sino-Western cooperation led by the Self-Strengthening movement.

Importantly, Chen’s cosmopolitan agenda achieved resonance among his diverse and sophisticated European audience. Publicly criticizing stereotypical negative accounts about China from missionaries and popular travel writers, Chen quickly collaborated with the emerging group of sinologists (chapter 2) who were committed to studying China’s humanistic traditions, and with ethnographers who valued the study of foreign cultures from the insiders’ point of views (chapter 3). What is interesting about Chen’s choice is that, as Ren shows, fin-de-siècle Paris for Chen was a cultural space, rather than a politicized battle field, and it was his responsibility as a Chinese literatus to shape people’s understanding of China and to engage actively as a cultural actor.

In Ren’s view, Chen’s cosmopolitanism, with its particular moral and aesthetic sensitivity, was essentially cultivated in his local literati life in Fuzhou during the Self-Strengthening movement. To make sense of Chen’s agenda and his success, Ren reaches back to Chen’s childhood and journeys through three major stages of Chen’s life, analyzing Chen’s cultural endeavors, social networks, and political activities in each. The first stage was Chen’s life as a young student at the Fuzhou Navy Yard from the late 1850s to the late 1870s (chapter 1). The second was his life as a diplomat-writer and cultural celebrity in Paris through the 1880s and early 1890s (chapters 2 and 3). And the third was when he lived back in Shanghai as a moderate reformer, cultural figure, expectant official, and gentry from the mid-1890s to 1907, when he passed away (chapter 4).

In Chapter 1, “Roots,” Ren intends to understand the local literati world of Fuzhou where Chen grew up. He identifies two layers of intellectual tradition key to the formation of Chen’s learning and personality. First, Fuzhou had been a lively provincial network center for Fujian’s literati scholars since the early Qing, when the provincial governor and the Neo-Confucian scholar-official Zhang Boxing (张伯行 1651-1725) built the Aofeng Academy (鳌峰书院) to sponsor learning. By the early nineteenth century, Fuzhou witnessed a rich development of literati culture with contributions from its own local elites and talent from across the province, and a focus on the Neo-Confucian line of statecraft learning, self-cultivation, poetry and literary writing. Second, this cultural atmosphere was further enhanced when Zuo Zongtang (左宗棠 1812-1885) brought the Self-Strengthening movement to Fuzhou. The founding of the Fuzhou Navy Yard, an ostensibly Western-style institution, was a part of the larger restoration of government-led Confucian learning along the lines of the statecraft Neo-Confucianism represented by Zhang Boxing in the early Qing. From the beginning, the Navy Yard was seen as an integrated part of the Fuzhou elite culture. Under the leadership of Shen Baozhen (沈葆楨 1820-1879), the administrative board of the Navy Yard encouraged its students to participate in poetry contests, study the Classics and history, prioritize their family duties when needed, and join in local festivals. They conceived themselves as a part of the greater restoration of Confucian leadership, even though they did not follow the conventional path of the civil service examinations.

Chen Jitong was one of the first products of this system. Born into a local literati family in Fuzhou, Chen gained his Confucian elementary education in the environment of a scholarly lineage and became closely engaged with Fuzhou’s poetry society. Due to his father’s death, he gave up the path to civil service exams and entered the Fuzhou Navy Yard, but he found the Yard an energetic place to continue cultivating literati learning, aside from conducting technical studies. His strong facility with French prepared him to become the secretary of an education mission that sent graduates of the Navy Yard to Europe for further study. His outstanding performance in writing, learning of history and international law, and his communication skills paved his way to the society of the European cultural and political elite. Chen soon stood out as the perfect diplomatic personality. On his first trip to Europe with the education mission, by the end of 1870s he was appointed an interpreter to the Qing legations in Paris and Berlin.

In April 1884, Chen Jitong was sent back to Paris on a mission to investigate how the French public reacted to the Sino-French conflict. Thus began his cultural life in Paris. Chapter 2, “Painting China with a French Brush,” casts the spotlight on how Chen embarked on a prolific writing career. The chapter covers a wide range of writings and translations by Chen, but the main focus is Chen’s book Les Chinois peints par eux-mêmes (The Chinese Painted by Themselves), which included eighteen articles originally published as a series in Revue des deux mondes beginning from May 1884. Responding to some missionaries’ and travel writers’ popular depictions of China as a place of “despotic rulers, oppressed women, abandoned babies, barbaric people,” Chen took an insider’s voice and an ethnographic style to describe China’s social-political institutions and culture, focusing on such aspects as the role of literati elite, family, and education. Chen’s account of China as a harmonious world based on the Neo-Confucian model became a hit, and his book was translated into English, Italian, German, Danish and Swedish.

To understand what Chen meant to achieve, Ren pays particular attention to how Chen’s choices of style and media spoke to his agenda. Ren notes that Chen’s approaches in his continuing work about China were highly interactive. Not only did he become increasingly interested in translating and compiling Chinese literary works, such as Pu Songling’s (蒲松齡 1640-1715) Liaozhai zhiyi 聊斋志异, to name one, but he also readapted themes and stories from a variety of sources, including Zhou songs, Tang poetry, Yuan drama, and Qing tales. His goal was not to introduce “Chinese literature” as a scholarly topic, but to orchestra the rich literary sources to represent the humanistic ideals that Chinese society valued and expressed through their literary art. Thus, to guide the French audience to learn about China became a task of decoding Chinese people’s expression of feelings in accurate and expressive French so that meaningful cross-cultural understanding could be reached. (He even convinced an Italian composer to write a score for a song he named “the Chinese melody,” for which he created the melody and lyrics.) In some sense, we may say this is where Chen fulfilled his own learning. It had to be someone like him, a representative of the Chinese cultural elite with excellent mastery of French and exquisite taste for Western literary art, to carry out the enterprise of cross-cultural understanding so that the universal pursuit of love would be revealed. Interpreting China in French, Chen found a way to claim his role as a Chinese literatus.

In the third chapter, “The Boulevardier in the Purple Robe,” Ren looks at Chen Jitong’s search for identity beyond his textual construction of China. In particular, he shows how Chen constructed his public persona, how such a construction spoke to his depiction of China and Chinese literati, and how Chen was received by the European audience. Making use of his facility in language, performance and communication, Chen served as an orator at various learned societies, became a frequent participant in salons, wrote prefaces for books on China by some French writers and sinologists, and published essays for newspapers discussing Parisian life from the perspective of a Chinese man of culture. Chen made sure to make use of the public media and turned himself successfully into a celebrity whose affairs would be reported in the news. He even appeared in Charles Castellani’s (1838-1913) well-known “Le Tout-Paris” panorama as one of the famous people strolling around the sites of Paris, symbolizing the boulevard culture of fin-de-siècle Paris. For the audience, he was witty, learned, gregarious, and generous; his French seemed more eloquent than that of many Europeans. Chen’s “Chineseness” was not an obstacle, but a vehicle to demonstrate his virtues as a man of cultural and political prestige. When he was involved in an authorship dispute with a French writer over his writings about China, the trust he gained from the public helped him get out of the scandal easily.

Ren particularly calls attention to Chen Jitong’s role in the 1889 Exposition Universelle because it illuminates something at the core of Chen’s agenda. In spite of the Qing government’s decision not to attend the exhibition, Chen decided to take the responsibility of representing China in a Chinese pavilion put together by French sinologists at the last minute. Well received by the audience for his wonderful introduction, Chen positioned himself as a representative of Chinese culture at learned societies and international congresses related to the Exposition Universelle. Although it seems that his official military title mattered for the public to recognize his identity, he insisted on leaving his signature primarily as a “lettré chinois.” As Ren interprets it, for Chen, who was not able to gain a real degree from the civil service exam, this was an important chance to fulfill his literatus role.

The last chapter, “Homecoming,” depicts Chen Jitong’s life back in China after a financial scandal. As an expectant official (due to his lack of a degree), Chen tried to find his niche in the vastly changing political environment in 1890s China and struggled to make use of his transnational experience. However, there really was no coherent agenda that Chen successfully developed during this period. For instance, in 1895Chen was put in the position of foreign minister for the eleven-day-long Taiwan Republic (台灣民主國). Later he found himself on a trip to Guizhou in negotiations over foreign investment in a coal-mining project, which soon failed. He also experimented with editing a newspaper entitled Qiushi bao (求是報 The International Review), following the government-led statecraft learning model and drawing on the support of people from his local Fuzhou network, at a time when nation-wide learning societies and newspapers were being created by a new generation of elites. After the Boxer Rebellion, he joined in a gentry-organized relief society to transport refugees, a conventional form of philanthropic activity by late imperial Chinese local elites. In Ren’s view, Chen’s unsatisfied searching illuminates an awkward position that Chen and Chen’s cohorts had to face. Drawing on Chen’s large number of poems from this period, Ren discovers that he still fashioned himself as a loyal late imperial literatus and official, lamenting the catastrophes in his world. But instead of reflecting on the fundamental problems of the regime, he hoped to set the Qing back onto its Self-Strengthening path. Meanwhile, Chen’s particular style of cosmopolitanism based on cross-cultural understanding met setbacks in a new era of increasingly felt national crisis spurred by intensifying imperialism and international competition.

Ke Ren’s dissertation does an excellent job reading Chen Jitong’s writings and cultural performance in the intersection of Chen’s own identity search and the complex and changing cultural landscapes of late nineteenth century China and France. He successfully explores the meanings of China’s encounter with the West by understanding what Chen Jitong, as a cultural mediator, hoped to achieve. A summary does not do justice to the fascinating sources and stories Ren has put together. Exploiting the genre of biography, Ren cuts to the chase of “cosmopolitanism” as a social-cultural identity and experience. Chen’s case not only displays an often-neglected model of Sino-Western interaction in late Qing, but also an important way of being a cultural and political elite in the era of reform.

In Ren’s view, his dissertation intends to make two contributions. On the historiographical side, Ren hopes to contribute to the ongoing re-evaluation of the legacy of Sino-Western interactions and late Qing reform, inspired by the cultural and the literary histories of late Qing China burgeoning in recent decades. On the more theoretical side, Ren hopes to speak to scholarship on the topic of modern Chinese cosmopolitanism, in light of the rising academic interests in cosmopolitanism as a corrective to nationalism. As Ren sees it, in both of these two groups of scholarship, Joseph Levenson’s somewhat teleological thesis still has strong influence. As mentioned earlier, for Levenson, China’s modernization was the rebirth of China from a Confucian empire into a modern nation-state as a part of the world defined by the West. Confucian learning had to make place for Western-style nationalism if China were to find a meaningful way to engage with the world. The mainstream scholarship often does not take seriously how the Self-Strengthening movement generation conceptualized the identity of China in relationship to the world. When scholars refer to people such as Chen Jitong, they often interpret his representations of China as a form of self-Orientalization or as anticipating the defensive nationalistic account about China that became influential after the Sino-Japanese war in 1895.

For Ren, paying more attention to the pre-1895 period will allow scholars to understand better the mentality of Chinese elites who had to figure out their global and national roles during the reform period, which will in turn enable a more rounded evaluation of the legacy of the larger transition that China had to face since the late nineteenth century. In doing so, Ren finds himself siding with a new trend of scholarship that is more willing to recognize the agency of the Qing government and its elites in shaping late Qing history. According to Ren, this new trend in scholarship challenges the postcolonial framework in studies on the Sino-Western relationship in particular. On the one hand, they focus on historical actions and actors as the locus of analysis, rather than focusing on semiotic changes. On the other hand, they emphasize the importance of understanding late Qing officials’ actions and elite’s cultural expressions on their own terms, rather than granting too much agency to the work of European imperialism in historical explanations.

Ren’s dissertation is valuable not just because it delivers a balanced account for the pre-1895 era, but because it demonstrates an effective approach to studying China’s intellectual elite as historical actors in China’s modern transition. To understand what Chen wanted to achieve, instead of asking how Chen reacted to the West, Ren asks what China’s encounter with the West meant for Chen. In contrast to the paradigm outlined at the beginning of this review, the fact that China’s engagement with the West since the late nineteenth century had been a significant factor in China’s modern transition did not mean the West had necessarily defined the way that China understood its choices. Chen Jitong’s representation of China was motivated by his seeking to become a Chinese literatus in the way that he believed to be meaningful. In this process, the quintessential universalism of the Neo-Confucian moral view provided Chen with the most tangible source for his cosmopolitan cultural agenda.

Ren’s conclusion about Chen Jitong is not only telling for understanding the literati and official circle that Chen belonged to, but also for the larger world of intellectual and cultural elites in the late Qing transition. If we take Chen Jitong’s views of elite learning and values seriously as his source for engaging with the world, then we would also need to explore better other positions of elite learning and values that loomed large in the literati world, rather than reducing the complex Chinese intellectual world into one unitary Confucian mind. Ke Ren’s project thus seeks to turn away from the explanatory mode of Westernization.

If we begin from the mode of Westernization, we will tend to look at China’s intellectual transition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a foundational rupture from Confucian learning traditions, but if we ask how China’s engagement with the world opened possibilities for Chinese cultural elites to understand and act out their roles, we will be more likely to look at the transition in a different way. We will look at it as a cumulative process with different positions and claims layering to create new contexts that later generations had to respond to. In this process, elite learning traditions were important resources that Chinese intellectual elites had at hand to inform their choices and self-understanding. In this sense, Ren’s future book would make a crucial contribution to the undergoing re-evaluation of modern Chinese intellectual history.

Wen YU
History Department
Harvard University

Primary Sources
Chen Jitong’s own writings, poems, speeches, and memorials
Private diaries of French readers recording Chen Jitong’s performances in Paris
Various nineteenth-century French newspapers and periodicals based in Paris and China, including Le Temps, La Presse, Le Figaro, Revue des deux mondes, L’ Écho de Chine (Zhong-Fa xinhui bao 中法新匯報)
Various nineteenth-century Chinese newspapers and periodicals, including Shenbao 申報, Shiwu bao 時務報, Qiushi bao 求是報, Nanyan guanbao 南洋官報, Zhen Mei Shan 真美善

Dissertation Information
Johns Hopkins University. 2014. 411pp. Primary Advisors: William T. Rowe and Tobie Meyer-Fong

Image:  Revue illustrée, April 1, 1891

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