Telling the China Story: Introducing my CURF Project

Hello and welcome! My name is Esther Lui, and I am a current senior at the University of Pittsburgh. This spring, I’m hoping to graduate with a double major in Chinese and Public and Professional Writing, minor in Korean, and certificate in Asian Studies. For these last few months at Pitt, I am more than excited to continue working with Dr. Kun Qian to complete my research project in modern Chinese intellectual history.

Modern China is a sprawling, diverse, and complex organism. My project will focus on making sense of and relating a single China narrative in a cacophony of competing voices. When we picturetoday’s China, with its towering high-rises and high-speed railways, many roots of its modern transformation go back to the 1980s and 1990s, during China’s period of “reform and opening-up.” This occurred after the culmination of the Cultural Revolution, a movement spearheaded by Chairman Mao Zedong and that resulted in the death of millions and a massive destruction of social and cultural capital. When Mao passed away in 1976, Deng Xiaoping and his supporters’ rise to power led to an era of economic reform that transformed the Chinese economic landscape in mere decades.

My CURF project approaches this period of transformation through an examination of intellectual trends and debates in the 1980s and 1990s. From the development of the so-called “New Enlightenment” movement to its eventual disintegration into liberal and New Leftist groups, I seek to sketch out a unifying—or civilizational—narrative of China[KQ1] . Hence, in my project, I adopt the lens of tianxiaism to describe this narrative. The Chinese term tianxia originallytranslates to “all-under-heaven,” and in its classical usage, it referred to the geographic locality that was subject to the authority of the Chinese ruler. In its modern adoption, Tianxia-ism is a relatively new intellectual theory that argues for an all-encompassing, universal world order with civilizational China at its center. Finding the roots of tianxia-ism in the context of reform-era intellectual discussion is significant for paring down the outer layers of ideological difference to shed light instead on the commonality shared by Chinese intellectuals; this holds  this sets the stage for increasingly overt Chinese nationalistic mentality.

Specifically, I apply distant reading methods to deconstructing the 1988 documentary He Shang (River Elegy). Produced by a group of young liberal intellectuals, this work is largely seen as a representative example for Western veneration in 1980s liberal thought. From the documentary transcript, I will use word frequency and semantic network analysis to uncover evidence for the underlying civilizational framework for intellectuals’ view of China.

Through the CURF, I’m looking forward to reflecting on, documenting, and sharing my research experiences in the coming months. As I look to life after Pitt, currently I plan to attend the Graduate Institute of International Human Resource Development at National Taiwan Normal University in the fall.

(Image source: Miss Rein, [Shanghai nightscape], “city of angel,”

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