TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 3.2. Transcontinental Transfer of Literature and Arts to Transform Traditional Societies
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Hsia Adrian (McGill University, Canada)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

To Convert or Revert:
Translation and Transference of Kant-Marx into Contemporary Chinese Aesthetics

Francis K. H. So (National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan) [BIO]



Ideas travel and they easily travel far and wide in an inconceivable manner. In the 1920’s, shortly after the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China, two aspiring young Chinese students went to Europe for advanced studies. Subsequently they brought back informed understanding of western aesthetics though there were other people before them ushering notions of the same to that part of the old world. Of these two students the first one who later initiated psychological aesthetics to China was called Zhu Guangqian (朱光潛1897-1986) and he enjoyed high esteem among young intellectuals.* Zhu had studied in Edinburgh, London and Paris before his return. The other student was named Zong Baihua (宗白華1897-1986), having coincidentally the same biographical dates as Zhu Guangqian. Zong Baihua did his studies in Frankfurt and Berlin. Upon returning to China Zong developed his aesthetics based on Chinese material and sources, distinguishing it from the Western counterpart. To a large extent, these two forerunners helped the Chinese mind understand and critique the western tradition of aesthetics. Zong Baihua, in particular, left his mark of influence on the currently leading Chinese aesthetician Li Zehou (李澤厚1930--). Though Li Zehou has never studied abroad, by the early 1980’s, he was already regarded as a foremost scholar of aesthetics and is widely accepted for his assertion of pragmatic subjectivity in the field. After 1992, however, he emigrated to the United States of America, teaching at several universities, but has since been slackening down on furthering his aesthetic views though basically he did not change much on his previous stance. One thing he differs from his predecessors is that he categorically admits that contemporary Chinese aesthetics cannot do away with Marxist aesthetics. While engaging in introducing Kant to China just as some of his predecessors did, Li somehow conducted the first in-depth study of the German philosopher in Chinese (Pipan). If Zhu Guangqian is considered to have been ushering the empirical method of tackling aesthetics, Zong Baihua is taken to have appropriated the western analytical method to explicate conventional Chinese contemplation of appreciating things beautiful. Both scholars have recourse to classical Chinese literary texts for their illustrations. In like manner, Li Zehou develops his study of contemporary aesthetics. Overall, the impact of Zhu Guangqian and Zong Baihua exerted on Li Zehou cannot be slighted and has been acknowledged by the latter (Zexue wenxuan 510-18).  This article, nevertheless, attempts to chart out some of the obvious traces of European aesthetic notions (some of which have been propagated by Zhu and Zong) that have traveled to the Eastern continent and are incorporated into Li’s formulation of aesthetics wrapped up in a Marxist context of historical materialism which ironically is not entirely what Zong Baihua promotes.

Though Li Zehou intends to firm up aesthetics to be a well-rounded theory, in face of the difficulty of defining, he has to contend with only explaining the contents or rather the obvious components of it. In a somewhat elusive way, he concurs with the popular opinion that modern aesthetics is built up by a branch of German philosophy, English psychology and French art criticism (Zexue 219; Meixue 9). These have become the contents of discourse in his subsequent arguments.  In general, his aesthetics encompasses perspectives of the above three fields though there is an obvious bent on the first. These perspectives include the disciplines of metaphysics, aesthetic psychology and sociology with an irreplaceable philosophical investigation (Zexue 222; 224). In fact, Li Zehou advises those who intend to study aesthetics should begin with German philosophy, from Kant to Hegel, Marx and Heidegger. To him, such study is a man-centered, or rather anthropomorphism, philosophy which entails the sine qua non condition for aesthetics (224-25).  The fact that Marx occupies such a significant role in Li’s thinking is not because Li wants to exercise name-dropping but because he sees in the assumptions of Marx something conducive. The latter holds the opinions of “nature anthropomorphized” and “man is configured according to the rules of beauty.” The latter proposition echoes Kant’s thinking and constitutes the critique of judgment of Li’s aesthetics (301-10).  Hence, the above two propositions form the foundation of Li Zehou’s professed aesthetic theories (221).  Their admission largely represents contemporary Chinese theories since Li explicitly states in his contributing article on aesthetics to an encyclopedia that “modern Chinese aesthetics comes directly from the West and is linked up to Marx” (272-73).  This idea is reiterated from another angle when he points out that the mainstream of modern Chinese aesthetics is Marxist aesthetics (Meixue 16).  As Li stands as an influential aesthetician in China in his own right, his views become the dominating precepts among intellectuals.  Yet, despite his claims, one has to investigate what Edward Said proposes on the traveling of theory, that is, one has to query if Marx has been transformed, distorted and appropriated.  Or is the Marx so understood in contemporary China and by Li Zehou the same Marx who was established in the nineteenth century Germany? Put it this way, has Marx been properly translated, linguistically, ontologically, culturally and ideologically? Perhaps, inevitably, transcontinental transference of ideas poses a case of semantic and communicative transformation of the original thinking and the difficulty of digesting it. Even without further analysis, one will see that Li can so easily identify himself with Marx has much to do with his previous findings of Neo-Confucianism of the Song (A.D. 960-1278) and Ming (A.D. 1368-1628) dynasties that place ontological emphasis on ethics or man’s subjectivity (Zexue 127-69).  An alternative view is that Li claims that in essence Neo-Confucianism is close to Kant’s philosophy because ethics is made to reconstruct the philosophy of man (127).  At this juncture, one may say that Li Zehou indigenizes (if not naturalizes) Kant and Marx in light of Neo-Confucianism, or that he reexamines Neo-Confucian thinking through the glasses of Kant and Marx darkly. The convergence and coalition of epistemological concern supersede the differences in time, space and psychological construct. Here then, we see the complexity and sources of Li Zehou’s philosophical thinking. It stands for an obvious combination of tenets east and west and their hybrid.

When in the midst of his career developing an elaborate Chinese aesthetics, Li Zehou apparently modeled himself after Zong Baihua.  Li begins to analyze the notion of beauty (美mei) by tracing etymologically the Chinese word and comes to recognize that “beauty is when the sheep grows big” (Meixue 34; Hua Xia 5).  On the one hand Li recognizes that such a notion addresses a form that pleases the senses. On the other hand he sees the practicality and usefulness of that notion. Thirdly, he singles out the cultural consciousness of beauty that refers to incidents of every day life rather than to metaphysical speculation detached from people’s daily experience.  Such a Chinese concept should not be an abstract philosophical tenet.  If anything, beauty as a form can be perceived by everyone even in ancient societies. This sensorial approach to the issue: finding indigenous sources, linguistic data and tracing their course of development though using an explicatory frame understandable to the western mind is very much the method adopted by Li’s predecessor Zong Baihua.  Indeed, after this pragmatic concept of the Chinese notion of beauty (mei), Li Zehou borrows generously Zong Baihua’s idea of the two pillars of Chinese aesthetic judgment. These two pillars, li (禮rites or propriety) and yue (樂music) are said to have contributed to the tastes of aesthetics in Chinese society (Zong 411). They form the substantive and formalistic yardstick throughout pre-modern China.  Li (rites) represents the ancient totem dance and ritual of magic that largely prescribes one’s physiognomy, demeanor, behavioral criteria and social order. Yue connotes pleasant feelings and emotive responses that are associated with dance and songs with an ultimate quest for harmony (Hua Xia 15-23). Thus seen, Li Zehou asserts that “the root of Confucianism (and also Taoism) is ancient shamanism rationalized” (“Modernization” 1999:3).  The psychological construct of this rationalization owes much to the efforts of a single person, Confucius.  For recapitulating the efforts of strengthening the rites of the Zhou dynasty (1122-249 B.C.) in ancient China and stipulating the shamanistic functions adaptable by later generations, Li Zehou makes a reevaluation of Confucius (Zexue 1-37) in the wake of the “Criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius” movement in the 1970’s. In light of Li’s reassessment, Confucianism carries an element of play and is capable of being appreciated as things beautiful.  While li and yue forms the cornerstone of Confucian philosophy, such issues as basic views and domain, contradiction and conflicts between society and nature, emotions and forms, arts and politics, heaven and man (cosmos and homo) and the anthropomorphism of nature become core concerns of Chinese aesthetics in this non-Dionysian type of rites and music tradition (Hua Xia 41).  In light of such reality, Li Zehou speculates that it probably is due to the founding of the rites and music tradition that helps reduce the inordinate human desires so that Chinese culture can mature so early (29). With its restraint on feelings, Chinese music to the western ear sounds mild and non-passionate (29). However, Chinese aesthetics is by no means confined to the Confucian advocates.  In fact, the Confucian and Taoist views of art complement one another with the latter tradition particularly developed on nature and spirit (tao) at the creative artistic realm (Hua Xia 103-25).  Noting on the form of beauty in music, Li Zehou warns the inaccurate and erroneous generalization that western art is mimetic and eastern art is presentational.  Chinese art is not simply presentational.  It is also re-presentational, not gearing toward any specific locale and scenes but toward a cosmic and natural law, universal logic and order (31-32).  To some extent, the presentational and representational merge, consequently binary oppositions in Chinese aesthetics and arts do not exist (32).  While Zong Baihua demystifies the classical formation of a triumphant theory, Li Zehou further materializes it with historical perspective and every here and there compares it and conjoins it with western counterparts.  In that sense, Li Zehou updates Zong Baihua’s original findings with eventual western developments as his approach to modernity and his share of globalization.  Modernity, or rather modernization, means modern economy, the “determinative element of the productive force” (“Modernization” 1999:1) of present day living.  While Li Zehou dwells on factors of economy and labor of daily life, his philosophy and hence aesthetics are firmly grounded on the material life of the common people.

When Li Zehou focuses on explicating mei, he has full intention of looking at it not only from a philosophical point of view but also from that of intellectual history, a field that he has been working on for some time.  His aesthetics is therefore tinted with perspectives that often involve a large frame of reference.  This approach to philosophy actually marks his stamina and his uniqueness. If western logic is a branch of knowledge that signifies western technology, Zong Baihua uses a filter to obtain what he wants with products of fine grains whereas Li Zehou uses a sieve to screen large and evident particles of western technological ingredients to impact on the Chinese mind. Nevertheless, we have to clearly state at this juncture that Li does not desire to borrow western ideas for the mere sake of borrowing them.  He has every intention of reaching out to the west to nurture his eastern audience while persistently searching for better taxonomy and terms of identification. Though the general purport of his philosophy has been branded as belonging to the school of Neo-Confucianism he neither accepts nor denies the label but qualifies it with a tag.  He points out that the current Neo-Confucianism advocated in Taiwan and Hong Kong actually patterns after that of the Song and Ming eras and is essentially spiritualistic that has no effect on social reality.  He charges that the contemporary Neo-Confucianists who have received western education are using western technical terms to explicate the findings of scholars of the Song and Ming and do not contribute to a new era (Li, Interview 4). Ironically, he is doing just the same as the Neo-Confucianists whom he blames when he cites western sources and technical terms to enrich his explication. Nevertheless, he is convicted to render explication via historical materialism and he would have his own way of doing it. In his philosophical thinking as well as in his aesthetic “judgment” he envisions that modernization will go through a period of westernization though not to be bound by the emulative mood. While Zong Baihua reaches a second harmony with things Chinese when he tangentially touches on western precepts, Li’s westernization remains largely a historical process of Marxism.

Strictly speaking, Li Zehou does not define aesthetics. He makes an effort to review the status quo and history of that discipline, focusing on its target audience, domain and contents. He is more interested in the sociology of the field. Yet, whether it is aesthetic judgment, educational psychology or linguistic philosophy, the accepted field tends to render language signs and memory operating within the frame of daily life. Such a subjective positivistic philosophy therefore belongs to the domain of historical materialism (Zexue 202).  Similar to a previous consideration, Aesthetics to Li contains three types of studies as accepted by the West: they are metaphysics, aesthetic psychology and sociology (219) and in practicality it is a consortium of some forms of philosophy of aesthetics, aesthetical psychology (aesthetic analysis) and artistic sociology though he regrets that aesthetic psychology trails behind the other disciplines (229).  He quotes Marx as saying that aesthetics is an immature field because it cannot use mathematics as its basis (231).  Another way of saying is that if aesthetics is to be considered as a science, it has to apply something as tangible as the “golden section” to designate a sense of beauty. Such a view will inevitably be materialistic, pragmatic and utilitarian which fits the mentality of the Marxist countries including present day China.

If Marxist aesthetics has to struggle between spiritualism and materialism, in a similar vein, Li Zehou needs to confront the predominant Confucian thinking (an obvious combination of spiritualism and materialism) within a Marxist mode of aesthetics. As in other fields, Li may experience a clash between theory and practice; and the tension between scientism and pragmatism. After all, basic to the Confucian philosophy is the concept of ren (仁benevolence; humanity) which relates to all kinds of feelings, emotions, aspiration, self awareness and the essence of humanity.  Some of these concerns are definitely spiritualistic that will not fit into the Marxist paradigm.  Li, however, brings forth the notion of ren from different aspects of human life which encompasses rites and music.  Despite its abstruseness, ren lays its foundation on rites and music and claims its share on Confucian aesthetics. Li’s elaboration of this idea thereby makes up a full chapter of his book propounding on the overarching principle of Chinese aesthetics (Hua Xia 45-81). Logically, Li disengages himself from the contradictory situation of dealing with the knotty issue of spiritualism in a Marxist context.  He even places ren within the bound of ethics and social hierarchy to derive the notion of human interest (or human touch) that generates feelings in the Confucian tradition of arts. It then falls within the domain of affection and concerns of aesthetics (Hua Xia 51). Evidently Li does not deny aesthetics to include the psychological aspect of emotive responses though he shies away from discussing it in detail. He recognizes that the ren mode of compassion has its contrastive opposites in Greco-Roman mythology and epics that often exemplify the negative types of emotions and sentiments. But such negative sentiments are generally absent in the Chinese poetic and artistic works so much so that even when Goethe comments on the evil and malevolent scenes in Chinese novels he would say something nice about the positive type of emotions in Chinese fiction and society (51). Through rationalization of ren, compassion and the non-aggressive types of feelings, Confucian China justifies its positive outlook of life and its decorum prevails for several millennia thereafter.  As separately noticed by a Western observer, Li actually reinterprets Marx and traditional Chinese thought to shape up the backbone of his aesthetic theory (Cauvel 150-73).

Li (rites), yue (music) and ren (benevolence) therefore form the tripod of Chinese aesthetics with the former two representing the contents, something that appeals to the senses and the last one the form, that which pertains to the rational and the moral life.  Here then, the Confucian concept of ren opens its door to the sedimentation (jidian 積澱) or sediment of emotions, rendering them to become interpersonal dynamics of the self. Sedimentation, a keyword in Li Zehou’s aesthetic glossary, is treated as a special feature and an important process of inducing aesthetic judgment.  Conveniently, he takes this kind of aesthetic judgment to replace religion, building its transcendence on the mundane interpersonal and emotive world which shapes Chinese philosophy (Hua Xia 62).  This assumption in fact complements other similar assertion of his when he reviews the history of aesthetics in China.  He comes to the conclusion that the highest spiritual realm directed by Chinese philosophy is not religion but aesthetics whereby there is an intimate and harmonious relationship between man and nature (Zexue 272).  When commenting on Kant’s annihilating the intellectual contemplation of the coalition between thinking and existence and Hegel’s denying the absolute conception of the same Li Zehou considers that such a perspective fabricates spiritualistic mysticism. He is concerned that it will lead to beliefs, religion and God. He claims that it is not the deities, God or religion, but the practical man, the massive class of man, or rather the struggling practice of the laboring mass that makes nature to become the nature of man (304).  Like Marx, Li does not want religion or spiritual belief to play a significant role in human life; in the historical process of objectifying the world of reality, he assigns aesthetics to play a crucial part. Still on a more recent occasion, he talked about Confucian ethics which stipulates the human hierarchy and the social as well as affective ties between various classes of people.  Such connections give rise to social morals substituting religious morals for some people and hence Confucianism replaces religion in China (Interview 5).  These two types of morals should be differentiated though they can interact and influence one another. In a nutshell, aesthetic feelings are derived from accumulation and sedimentation and are achieved through the entire history of social practice (Meixue 73).  This practical philosophy thus builds on a “new type of feelings” which is the subject of human psychology, particularly man’s affection (71).  As to the meaning of aesthetic feeling, it is synonymous to aesthetic pleasure and aesthetic judgment. Only Kant uses his unique term “aesthetic judgment” (Meixue 82) because Kant thinks that the word “judgment” has a universal necessity in it and it demands the same validity for everyone as if it were a kind of rational perception (82). Li Zehou’s comment and appropriation of Kant needs to be addressed separately. Yet, on the basis of Li’s wrapping the aesthetic mode within the Confucian context of ren, we shall see first of all what he means by aesthetic feeling.

Not to forget his Marxist approach, Li assumes that social beauty (社會美shehui mei) is the essence of beauty that is outwardly and forthrightly presented (Meixue 49).  The world prevails and exists through activities of exercising material tools and their own revelation.  Man possesses and understands the world through such realistic material activities and energies.  Hence, Li asserts that beauty cannot be the symbol of freedom but a form of freedom.  This is the kind of aesthetics based on subjective practical philosophy as diverging from other kinds of aesthetical philosophy (47).  Furthermore, aesthetic feeling is treated as “sedimentation,” a term that appears in many of his articles and forms his mode of Chinese aesthetics (72, 73).  To be explicit, the feeling of the beautiful is an aesthetic awareness.  What one knows enters into the realm of what one sees, hence understanding dissolves into the visual state and turns into an imaginary world of fantasy (85).  The cognition of history and culture (i.e., anthropomorphism of nature) and the animalistic physiological pleasure together with psychological function (i.e., product of social physiology) are the premises of aesthetics (86).  During the appreciation of things beautiful, meaning relies on imagination often by means of yin (隱metaphor) and xiu (秀dawning) (89).  Aesthetic feelings, for Li, cannot be responses to or coordination with daily experiences only.  Nor can it simply be the meaningful form of the object. The former assumption, mediating with occasions of life situation and focusing on representation, neglects the fruits of “sedimentation” and man’s being capable of appreciating formalistic affect.  The latter assumption fails to explain convincingly what “meaningful” actually is and the reason why man is capable of the “pure” aesthetic feeling.  These two opinions altogether reveal the same significant factor of psychological construct in the aesthetic feeling though their outcome wavers between form and content (93-95).  Li proposes that the way scholars develop a precise form to gauge the proportion of psychological construct in aesthetic appreciation is important and there are rooms for such a development (96).  That expectation of a sub-field of aesthetics indicates his critique if not flat denial of the efforts of Zhu Guangqian who decades ago has been promulgating a poetics of literary psychology (wenyi xinlixue文藝心理學) that Li Zehou has no desire to adopt.

When Li Zehou talks about the target domain of aesthetics, he concurs that the subjectivity of aesthetics comes from the fusion of artistic sociology and aesthetic psychology (審美心理學 Zexue 252).  The latter field though having the caption psychology is obviously different from Zhu Guangqian’s studies which vary on at least two significant counts.  First, Zhu says his approach and point of view basically belongs to that of psychology and is deliberately estranged from philosophy (Zhu, “To Readers” 1).  Second, his illustration of the beautiful is based on subjective values as well as objective values, focusing on the creative process and the appreciative duration (Zhu 149-63) in stark contrast to Li’s approach.  On the first count Li has said previously that aesthetics belongs to the field of philosophy whereas Zhu Guangqian denies the overarching frame of philosophy, rendering aesthetics more like art criticism than a branch of philosophy.  The gap between the two persons is wide and the conflict is evident. Because Zhu Guangqian claims that he will use principles of psychology to conduct his study, he will not call it aesthetics; instead, he prefers to name it “literary psychology” (“To Readers” 1) which implies that there will be experiments to back up his findings.  Elsewhere, however, Li Zehou charges the dull and dry psychological experiments and remarks that they are not well-rounded enough to draw scientific conclusions.  On the second count, when the field is truly psychology Li wants it to be scientifically verifiable so that it can be interpreted by mathematics.  Though the notions of golden section and Leonardo da Vinci’s ratio of the face with the length of the body are mentioned, these data are exceptions rather than the rule. Besides, Zhu Guangqian said it himself that conditions of beauty are not the same as the essence of beauty (Zhu 151). What most probably turns off Li Zehou is when Zhu said that beauty differs from and is unrelated to the useful, the moralistic and the good (153) which at once makes Li look like an odd fellow in his promotion.  If Zhu’s opinion does not draw him close to the idea of pure form of the beautiful (somewhat similar to Kant), at least his sounds like siding with spiritualism in opposition to Li’s materialism. Yet Zhu is Li’s predecessor and Zhu’s studies preceded those of Li.  There is no way for Li Zehou to argue with Zhu at the time when the latter began to formulate his studies; nor had Li means to influence the latter. Li can only rejoin posthumously and willy-nilly he has to deny the senior aesthetician to the extent of neglecting him.  On a theoretical ground, one will see Li and Zhu stand on opposite ends and there are internal conflicts between the two though they all want to establish the nascent field of aesthetics in modern China.  Or shall we say the two use entirely different means to translate aesthetics so that it can be understood by the common people.

Though Li Zehou recognizes the indispensability and core value of aesthetic psychology he does not discuss that dimension in detail. He comments that the real kind of psychology began with experimental aesthetics using colors, lines, shapes and sounds to record their effects on man and keep statistics on them. But he does not see there can be any significant scientific conclusion (Zexue 267). He thus remarks that aesthetic psychology is a backward field that needs to be promoted in order to contribute significantly to aesthetics (Zexue 229). Even Freud is seen as biased in his libido theory that applies to the creation of art.  Jung, in his racial unconsciousness, addresses more of the historical and social factors but his theory is considered by Li to be mystical and lopsided toward religion (267-68).  The ideas of “psychological distance” (as accepted by Zong Baihua) and the transport of feelings (empathy) that have been widely accepted in China are also questioned by Li in that they are not scientific enough and are empirically unverifiable (268).  In sum, psychological approach to aesthetics is skeptically held by Li. Perhaps because of this reason similar approach used by Zhu Guangqian causes Li Zehou not wanting to go into the area which he sees will be hard for him to make a contribution. Strange to say, Li realizes that Kant has a lot to say about psychology though that field never plays an important role in Kant’s philosophy. Conversion in ideas proves to be a difficult case since Li has no trust in “non-scientific” or non-pragmatic results and neither does he want to be a disciple of Zhu because ideologically the two are incompatible. Li prefers to relapse to his customary approach of Chinese intellectual history and his appeal to Marxism.  In that sense and that sense only, Li behaves like reverting to whatever is familiar to him. Consequently he assumes that the origin of aesthetic psychology construct is derived from actions and activities and only in later stages of development do they turn to and transform into the contemplative (245).  There is always a materialistic base in Li’s propositions.

As early as in the 1950’s, when Li mentioned the dual levels of aesthetic feelings, i.e., social utilitarianism and individual intuitiveness, he actually signified this sedimentation of aesthetic psychological construct (Zexue 246). Over time and social changes aesthetic attitude as a psychological construct becomes matured and complicated and the domain of aesthetics expands. Because it is a historical product, the psychological construct of aesthetics is not an unchangeable rigid chart. Furthermore, the world of material life (including technological advancement) forces people’s mentality, mind and their structure to adapt to fluctuation. In turn, the related psychological factors also change. A varied lifestyle makes the philosophical consciousness, abstract explication and the subconscious dimension of modern art much heavier and weightier than before (246-47). On the one hand this opinion answers once and for all Li’s wrangle with Zhu Guangqian and on the other hand the idea shows the set pattern of Li’s historical materialism in interpreting his aesthetics.  Still, something more serious, one may question that while this fits the Marxist paradigm of social progress, whether it is the indigenous Chinese thinking pattern or can this be a Confucian world view?  Since previously Li Zehou has tried to prove that Confucian thinking is close to Kantian thinking, can the same Confucian be Marxist too?  In 1926, a leading writer, Guo Moruo郭沫若, wrote an essay “Karl Marx entered the Confucian Temple” (馬克斯進文廟 makesi jin wenmiao). But the essay is meant to be humorous and sarcastic. In the practical world, can this be possible? 

Time and space diverge, but ideologically can these two dimensions converge despite the different continents separating the two philosophers apart?  Kant looking at the issue from a philosophical altitude accords the origin of aesthetics to its sociability as something that cannot be slighted (Zexue 285).  To make the proposition more assertive, Li thinks education can replace social practice and this is an example of historical spiritualism (299). Despite all that Li quotes and discusses, it is Marx that he understands who transforms him most, materially, spiritually, mentally, and wishfully.

Fundamentally, Zong Baihua’s aesthetics has strong elements of Marxist fabric though he does not claim it even when China has entered into the Marxist age. Zhu Guangqian, comparatively, disregarding sociality in the eyes of Li Zehou is therefore brushed aside by Li. Besides the two senior aestheticians, Li has thoroughly studied Kant. As a result, the Kantian frame of reasoning has exerted definite impact on Li. In the course of resolving the conflict between nature and society, understanding and ethics, sensuality and rationality, Kant synthesizes these poles by providing a transition and a bridge to realize that transition.  Hence transition enters into historical progression, particularly from a man of nature to a man of moral. Yet the medium or bridge, to Kant, becomes a special psychological function which he terms as judgment (Zexue 274). The uniting of understanding (cognition) and rationality (ethics) is the capability of “reflexive judgment” which contributes to aesthetics (275) and involves a universal necessity.  This reflexive judgment is not the same as the ordinary kind of judgment which implicates cognition only.  By extension, aesthetic judgment requires universal necessity as its fundamental basis (284). In a nutshell, Kant’s concept is liked by Li because the Kantian frame has its sociality which mandates a priori concepts and has the sensuality part.  Furthermore, there is the synthesis of anthropomorphism and socialized humanity (285) and Kant also agrees that moral concepts through symbols will become affective and ultimately aesthetical.  Hence, Kant’s dictum that the aesthetical is moral symbolized (293).  Despite his criticism of Kant’s tendency toward spiritualism, Li Zehou still appreciates Kant’s assertion of the struggle between ethical moral and the power of nature that brings out the emotion and affection of the sublime (288) and the rationalization of the aesthetic.

Li’s understanding of Kant is based on his critique of the latter. His aesthetics is built on negation as well as acceptance of Kant’s thinking plus findings of the modes of aesthetics of his Chinese predecessors who have previously engaged in western aesthetics though they preferred to plow on Chinese soil.  It is easy to term Li’s philosophy as Marxist, but beyond that one sees Li flickers between the modern and classical Chinese sources before he settles on what he needs to establish his system.  Aside from the two predecessors Zhu Guangqian and Zong Baihua, Li is fully aware of two other respected forerunners of aesthetics in modern China and they are Wang Guowei (王國維1877-1927) and Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培1868-1940). On the surface, Wang Guowei borrowed Schopenhauer’s frame of mind to deal with arts. In Li’s assessment, however, the former is in fact sustaining the perception of the illusions of life as spearheaded by a renowned poet Su Shi (蘇軾1037-1101) of the Song dynasty (Hua Xia 219). Cai Yuanpei, on the other hand, picked up Kant to implement a “moral theology” to replace religion (Hua Xia 220), though his position remains basically Confucianistic.  With this backdrop of the celebrated trailblazers of the aesthetic movement in modern China, Li Zehou’s assumption becomes evident.  Like his predecessors, Li is heavily indebted to the German philosophers, especially Kant.  At the same time, Li keeps clear sight of the Chinese philosophical tradition from which he positions his unique stance.  But, whichever tradition he adopts, ideologically he is committed to the Marxist-Maoist approach that all aesthetical judgment or taste has to be materialistically based and morally convincing. Aesthetics cannot be a field of its own sake without referring it to a spirit of “communitarianism” that is upheld in contemporary China as a form of populism (“Modernization” 4).  Only then thus he sees the similarity between Confucianism and Kantian critique of aesthetics. In general, Li is more concrete, pragmatic and Confucianistic in that he employs imagery to shape his system of thinking which differs from the “pure” form of Kant.  He is not unconditionally patterning after Kant though he is basically an adherent of Marx.  From the perspective of Chinese intellectual history he has noted that there have been three stages of Confucianism.  Yet the last stage of Confucianism has already begun in the Song Dynasty around AD 1200. Ultimately because of Li’s consciousness of the unique Chinese culture that he is tackling, he comes up with a Chinese Marxist face which virtually may substitute the last era of Confucianism. This ordering in thinking makes him a converted Marxist because he is not a classical Marxist but someone reborn with a Chinese face.  This is particularly evident when he refers the root of his thinking not just to Hegalism but to the core values and concepts of Confucianism prevailing throughout the ages.  How much mental travel and criss-crossing he has made in terms of absorbing western and eastern thinking is hard to pinpoint.  But he makes no pretext to manifest the western thoughts and thinkers he has picked up in the course of developing his tenets of aesthetics.

The instituting process of Li’s aesthetics may be likened to a translation or rather transference process.  Yet unlike the ordinary type of translation wherein the translator conveys nothing new but transmits information by means of another language, Li, while transmitting the essentially Hegalian and Kantian concepts, has formulated his new China outlook.  In stark terms, the roots of Li’s concepts may be traced back to an original source but he has already departed from the original intention to establish his own mode of thinking. Still, the part of Kant that is translatable has been rendered by various Chinese aestheticians, including Li Zehou, and has acquired a face loaded with contemporary Chinese Marxist values.  To some extent, Kant has been introduced at two levels.  The first of which is through the actual linguistic translation and the second one through Li’s critique which forms its own hermeneutics and has gained popular attention.  While both Zong Baihua and Li Zehou do not appreciate the spiritualism of Kant, their opinions have set the tone of understanding the German philosopher in present day China.  To what extent does this understanding differs from that of other parts of the world is another issue but the process concurs with the general rule that in translation there are always something added, something new, something lost and something distorted.  Among other values, some difficult German philosophical concepts, including those of Kant, have been translated and transferred via transnational channels.  Though they may not be a case of globalization, they definitely boast of the Marxist economic-political concerns which are rather popular with a good number of states, communities and intellectuals. Even without the benefit of having studied overseas, Li Zehou manages to do more transferring of philosophical and aesthetical ideas than his predecessors who have studied abroad.  Yet, without the foundation laid by Zhu Guangqian and Zong Baihua, Li may not be able to enjoy the nutritious soil on which to sow his seeds and harvest his crops.  With the examples set by Zong, in particular, the ground has broken.  Li Zehou needs only to continue processing the migration of ideas and values and to refine them with a Chinese front.  Clearly as remarked by Walter Benjamin, in translation, “kinship does not necessarily involve likeness” (Benjamin 73).  Li’s kinship with Kant does not make him look like a Kantian philosopher. He takes his own path. Confucianism is interpreted by him as “not just the principle of tolerance, it is the acceptance, absorption, and, in the end, assimilation of different and even opposite ideas” (“Modernization” 3).  Through him, one not only perceives an influential contemporary Chinese aesthetic mind, but also obtains via transference of ideas, the life and “afterlife”, or the “continued life” (Benjamin 71) of Kant in China.

As has been discussed, Li Zehou has no deep interest in the psychological aspect of aesthetics; rather he keeps a close eye on the social effect and function of arts which links him up to the Marxist concern for proletarian revolution and critique. In that connection, his theories are closer to western ideas than to traditional Chinese ones.  He behaves like an expected modern Chinese intellectual, receiving the impact of western knowledge and revealing in him the impulse of his time or rather the contemporary Marxist mood.   Has he been a convert of western aesthetic values or a revert to Neo-Confucianism?  The answer is quite embarrassingly transparent: he is neither and yet he is both.


Works Cited



* Zhu Guangqian translated and introduced Hegel’s lectures on Aesthetics and derived his concepts from Nietzsche, Hegel and Croce.  See the remarks of Lin Tonghua 林同華, Zong Baihua Meixue sixiang yanjiu.  Banchiao, Taipei County: Luoto, 1987: 10-11.

3.2. Transcontinental Transfer of Literature and Arts to Transform Traditional Societies

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Francis K. H. So: To Convert or Revert: Translation and Transference of Kant-Marx into Contemporary Chinese Aesthetics - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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