Li Zehou


Li Zehou
b. 1930, Hankou
Philosopher, intellectual
Li Zehou is arguably the most distinguished and influential modernist philosopher of the last fifty years and one of the very few intellectual figures whose work has acquired an audience outside China. His significance for contemporary Chinese is, like that of most exiled intellectuals, complex. This is a reflection of the troubling distance between present-day hedonistic excess and the 1980s culture fever in which his work first held sway over the Chinese imagination, as well as the complexity of Li’s philosophy, variously characterized as neo-traditional, instrumentalist, romantic, historical materialist, Neo-Kantian, post-Marxist, Marxist-Confucian. He, like Liu Zaifu, advanced exceptionally creative readings of art, literature, philosophy in the creative urgency of the 1980s when it seemed that aesthetics offered the greatest prospect of redemption from China’s post-Cultural Revolution morass.
Working within the conceptual dyadic framework of subjectivity and objectivity peculiar to historical materialism, but selectively drawing inspiration from the works of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Lukács, the Frankfurt School, Lacan, Piaget and Habermas, Li deepened the problematic of the self in post-revolutionary modernism, raising his neologism ‘subjectality’ (zhutixing) to a level of respectability and debate. With zhutixing he put forward a new conception of human nature, infusing the passive subject of the audience (duifang) of Mao’s lectures on art at Yan’an with an assertive, sensuous, moral purpose, as he explained in a recent interview translated by John Zijiang Ding:
It does not have the Western sense of ‘subjectivity’ (zhuguan). I feel rather we should use a new term ‘subjectality’—even though there is no such word in the English—that means that a human person has the capacity of an active entity. Zhutixing is not a concept of epistemology; instead it implies that a human being is considered as a form of material, biological, and objective existence and an active capability in relation to the environment.
(Ding and Li Zehou 2002)
In refuting the passivity of the subject, as well as the Diamat Marxist status of its consciousness as mere mechanical reflection of the material world, Li engineered a revolution in the name of beauty and against state ideology that grounded human, as opposed to Promethean, agency in the conscious, historically conditioned, environmentally subsumed subject.
Born in Hankou but raised in Changsha, Hunan, Li graduated from Peking University’s philosophy department in 1954 and immediately assumed an appointment in the Institute of Philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1955, playing a prominent role in the founding of the journal Zhexue yanjiu [Studies in Philosophy]. He quickly entered the national currents of intellectual discourse in the aesthetic debates over socialist realism of 1956, publishing ‘Lun meigan, mei he yishu’ [On Aesthetic Feeling, Beauty, and Art] in Zhexue yanjiu, in which Li first put forward his key cultural-psychological concept of ‘sedimentation’ (jidian). For this essay, published in a tense atmosphere of literary politics dominated by attacks on the aesthetic theories of Zhu Guangqian by Cai Yi, he was branded a ‘rightist’ and, along with so many other intellectuals identified with Hu Feng’s critique of establishment literature, consigned to a work camp in Hebei.
During this lengthy detention that continued through the Great Leap Forward and for two decades afterwards, Li wrote on an array of topics in aesthetics, history, philosophy and politics, including the Studies on the Thought of Kang Youwei (Kang Youwei sixiang yanjiu), Literary Chats on Exile (Menwai wentan), Vertebrates and Prehistoric Humanity (Gu jizhu dongwu yu gu renlei). With each publication he laid the foundation for ‘a pragmatic philosophy of subjectality’ (zhutixing shijian zhexue) that would release human agency from bondage to Maoist chiliasm and scientific determinism. However, it was not until 1979–81 that this radical re-conception of the subject achieved national notoriety and scholarly distinction with the publication of Pipan zhexue de pipan: Kande shuping [A Critique of Critical Philosophy: A Review of Kant], a work he laboured to complete while undergoing another labour detention at a ‘May Seventh Cadre School’ during the Cultural Revolution.
In this book he argued that a proper understanding of the dialectical mechanisms of Marx’s epistemology was to be found in the 1844 Manuscripts, especially the discussion of estranged labour and species being, and, more importantly, in a return to Kant’s three Critiques, where one finds the most effective articulation of subjectivity, will and moral duty. This ‘return to Kant’ was an 1980s phenomenon and extended, as well, to Japan, where Kojin Karatani’s Transcritique: On Kant and Marx (trans. Sabu Kohso. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003) read Kant’s first Critique to disclose the ethical foundations of socialism. The greatest interpretive advantage of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was its assertion, in Li’s words, ‘that human knowledge is the result of the interactions of sensibility and understanding’, and further, according to Kant, these interactions ‘perhaps spring from a common, but to us unknown, root’. The perennial Kantian dilemma of ought/is occasioned by the ‘thing in itself’ is overcome in a single, materialist gesture as Li asserts that this common root is the primary practice of tool-making and tool-using by the human subject whose transcendental aesthetic and analytic are encased in the cultural-psychological formation (wenhua xinli jiegou), the locus of human reasoning. In essence Li, by his own admission, was giving Kant’s philosophy ‘a materialistic foundation’ by recovering Marx’s emphatic definition of humanity as homo faber, or what Li calls renhua ziran (humanized nature).
Understanding as he did that the greatest challenge to the modern subject was meaningful context, Li worked from his dynamic conception of a sensuous moral reasoning in action to narrate the evolution of the cultural sedimentation that formed the contemporary subject. The Path of Beauty (Meide licheng, 1981), a survey intellectual history of cultural production from the Neolithic to the Qing dynasty, is his best-known work which takes art as an evolving transcript of the psychological condition of the subject’s being in the world. His activist reconception of the aesthetic of human feeling and material form recalled the work of Suzanne Langer and was an attempt to bring Chinese thought into dialogue with world philosophy on terms that were Chinese, while also giving the experience of the Chinese subject a historicized, activist role through the neologism of sedimentation.
Because of this creative reinvention of an activist self grounded in material moral being and beyond politics, Li was one of the most inspirational intellectual figures of China’s ‘enlightenment’ (qimeng) period of 1984–9, who argued that enlightenment had begun in the 1890s but was extinguished by the dense fervour of national political parties and the fever of national salvation. At this critical second juncture of enlightenment with its unusual receptiveness to Western philosophy, especially aesthetics, Li made much of this fortuitous East/West confluence in his oft-quoted xiti zhong yong (Western substance, Chinese application), offering a myth of humans as agents of craft to a generation looking beyond the meaningless, overpoliticized bromides of state ideology. In The Path of Beauty and the subsequent Four Lectures on Aesthetics (Meixue sijiang) Li advanced a uniquely creative but not altogether consistent fusion of continental rationalism, medieval aesthetics, Marxism and traditional Chinese moral philosophy, insisting that science and technology were things of beauty, to be admired by the aesthete as products of human moral striving that might bring about the reconciliation of heaven and man (tianren heyi).
The political urgency of his revolutionary overcoming of the traditional subject was not overcome in the violent government repression of democracy activists in 1989, for throughout the 1990s Li’s conception of human agency as relatively independent of, but always acting on, the material world, became even more relevant. Yet for this original philosophical contribution, he was spurned. After the Beijing Massacre of 1989, his works were proscribed and Li was made the focus of yet another state-driven criticism campaign against ‘bourgeois liberalism’ that ran until 1992 when he ultimately bade farewell to the Communist Party and his allegiance to the state in a famous essay (written with Liu Zaifu) Gaobie geming [Farewell to the Revolution]. He was prohibited from leaving the country until 1992, at which time, with the assistance of Professor Howard Goldblatt and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, Li (along his colleague Liu Zaifu and his daughter) was brought to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he owns a home and has nominally resided ever since, occasionally assuming teaching and research appointments at Swarthmore, Colorado College, and the City University of Hong Kong. Most recently he returned to China and for the 2003–4 academic year served as an Honorary Professor at the City University of Hong Kong.
He continues to work in the space between Western and Chinese philosophy and recently published Lunyu jindu [A Contemporary Reading of the Selected Sayings (of Kongzi)], an effort to draw the classical text into modern philosophical discourse through interpretive and aphoristic annotation and Meide sijiang [Four Lectures on Beauty]. For his use of the four-character phrase, ‘reconciliation of heaven and man’ (tianren heyi), of Song-Ming Neo-Confucian metaphysics to describe the optimal future architecture of human practice, many consider him to be a ‘Confucian’ and his work a conservative twenty-first-century recuperation of this ethos; thus it is that many New Confucians (see New Confucianism) count him among their number, in spite of his conceptual indebtedness to laws of economic development and his valorization of technology.
His work, with its fluid formulations of humanizing nature and naturalizing humanity and his repeated emphasis on the ‘Chinese mind’, does resemble the essentialist, value orientation advocacy of the New Confucians with their insistence on Confucianism’s facilitation of the Chinese modern. In this way, by cauterizing the self-inflicted nationalist wounds of fifty years of socialist experimentation, Li’s aesthetic reconstruction of affirmative human agency offers yet another philosophical means of reconciling past and present, West and China, while neglecting to consider how the pragmatic rationality (shiyong lixing) of the nation’s productive forces of subjectality may be exercised at the grievous expense of the world we inhabit, leaving us buried in the sediment of our industrial humanization of nature.
Bibliography
Li, Zehou (1979). Pipan zhexue de pipan: Kande shuping [A Critique of Critical Philosophy: A Review of Kant]. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe.
——(1981). Meide licheng [The Path of Beauty]. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe.
——(1985). Li Zehou zhexue meixue wenxuan [The Collected Essays on Philosophy and Aesthetics of Li Zehou]. Changsha: Hunan renmin chubanshe.
——(1987). Zou wo ziji de lu [Taking My Own Path], Beijing: Sanlian shudian.
——(1988). Huaxia meixue [Chinese Aesthetics]. Hong Kong: Sanlian shudian.
——(1988). ‘Ting Li Zehou, Liu Shu-hsien tan He Shang’ [Listening to Li Zehou and Liu Shu-hsien discussing River Elegy]. Jiushi niandai 227 (December): 88–91.
——(1990). Wode zhexue tigang [An Outline of My Philosophy]. Taipei: Fengyun shidai chuban gongsi.
——(1998). Meide sijiang [Four Lectures on Beauty]. Hong Kong: Sanlin.
——(1998). Lunyu jindu [A Contemporary Reading of the Selected Sayings (of Kongzi)] Hong Kong: Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi.
Ban, Wang (1997). The Sublime Figure of History: Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Cheek, Timothy (ed.) (1999). ‘Subjectality’: Li Zehou and his Critical Analysis of Chinese Thought. Special issue of Philosophy East and West 49.2 (April): 113–84.
Ding, John Zijiang and Li, Zehou (2002). ‘Chinese Aesthetics from a Post-Marxist and Confucian Perspective’. In Cheng Chung-ying and Nicholas Bunnin (eds), Contemporary Chinese Philosophy. London: Blackwell, 246–59.
Gu, Xin (1996). ‘Subjectivity, Modernity, and Chinese Hegelian Marxism: A Study of Li Zehou’s Philosophical Ideas from a Comparative Perspective’. Philosophy East and West 46.2 (April): 205–45.
Jing, Wan (1996). High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics and Ideology in Deng’s China. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Liu, Kang (2000). Aesthetics and Marxism: Chinese Aesthetic Marxists and their Western Contemporaries. Durham: Duke University Press.
Woei, Lien Chong (2002). ‘Philosophy in an Age of Crisis. Three Thinkers in Post-Cultural Revolution China: Li Zehou, Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xiaofeng,’. In idem (ed.), China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Master Narratives and Post-Mao Counternarratives. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 215–54.
LIONEL M.JENSEN
Li
Approximately 1.2 million Li live in seven counties and two cities along the Wanquan River and among the Wuzhi mountains in the island province of Hainan. The region is abundant in minerals and tropical crops. The Li are closely related to the Zhuang, Bouyei, Dong and Tai (Dai) ethnic groups (see Zhuang, culture of; Bouyei (Buyi), culture of; Dong, culture of; Tai (Dai), culture of), whose languages the Li language resembles. Though a Roman script for the Li’s spoken language was introduced, Han Chinese characters are common. The Li dwell in boat-shaped thatched bamboo houses. They farm and fish, and like to eat roast meat or pickled meat mixed with rice and wild herbs.
Arica is a favourite, especially among women because the juice dyes their lips red. The Li are heavy smokers and drinkers, but they are also known for their knowledge of herbal medicine and their effective remedies for snakebite and rabies. They make their own clothes of cotton and flax, spinning, weaving, dyeing and sewing. They keep a calendar according to a twelve-day cycle, with each day named after an animal, similar to the twelve earthly branches used by the Han Chinese. On 3 March, the Li celebrate the ‘Love Festival’ to honour their ancestral couple, an occasion for offering sacrifices and holding singing, dancing and sports competitions. Of course, young people also try to find love on that day. As the Chinese government wants Hainan Island to develop tourism, the Li are making use of their location and traditions as well as tropical resources to attract large groups of tourists and investors from home and abroad.
HELEN XIAOYAN WU

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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