The Hypothetical Mandarin: Sympathy, modernity, and Chinese Pain

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114 Scopus citations


This book begins with two simple questions: Why has the West for so long and in so many different ways expressed the idea that the Chinese have a special relationship to cruelty and to physical pain? And what can the history of that idea and its expressions teach us about the politics of the West's contemporary relation to China, and, more broadly, about the historical development of the universal subject of modernity? Insofar as it responds to those questions, this book is a history of the Western imagination. But it is also a history of the interactions between Enlightenment philosophy, the explosion in international commerce that dates from the 18th century and goes by the name of "globalization," the theories of human rights, and the history of the idea of modernity. Beginning with Bianchon and Rastignac's discussion of whether the latter would, if he could, obtain a European fortune by killing a Chinese mandarin in Balzac's Le Père Goriot (1835), the book traces a series of literary and historical examples (including medical case reports, photographs, novels, paintings, and travellers' reports) in which Chinese life and European sympathy seem to hang in one another's balance. The representational and historical apparatus that produces these examples has organized the West's explicit relation to China and served as a crucial mode of expression for the West's most fundamental values.

Original languageEnglish (US)
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages304
ISBN (Electronic)9780199869435
ISBN (Print)9780195377965
StatePublished - May 1 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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