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Staging the World

March 24, 2010

Rebecca Karl. Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

Ellen Huang (2003)

Staging the World is a stimulating work of intellectual history. Based on a rich array of primary sources published between 1895 and 1911, Rebecca Karl’s book examines the formation of Chinese nationalism as an elite orientation during a time period she calls, China’s most “expansive and internationalist” moment (p. x, 26). Many other works on the history of nationalism in China focus on its imaginative and temporal aspects, and are informed by the work of such theorists as Chatterjee and Anderson. By contrast, Karl conceives of Chinese nationalism not solely as a discourse that comes to China from the West or Japan, but rather in relation to real processes as well as perceptions of globalization and inequality. By examining how elites observed and identified with the non-Euro-American and Japanese world, Karl effectively links the emergence of nationalism in China to the dynamics of global capitalist spatial relations.

The book is divided into three parts. The introduction and conclusion deal with theoretical issues; Karl highlights the importance of conceptualizing Chinese nationalism from a global perspective and being attentive to Chinese intellectuals’ views of other countries dominated by imperialism. Theoretically, she is responding to Prasenjit Duara who, she believes, unabashedly conflates the state with the nation. Separating statism and nationalism as distinct processes, she argues, allows her to discover repressed aspects of nationalism that are not assimilated into Euro-American perspectives or rooted in reified local-place identifications and notions of timeless traditional, dynastic, bounded national space (6). In each of the six historical chapters she looks at late Qing intellectual support for various nations on the periphery of the capitalist world-system. The second chapter, which has the same title as the book, consists of an interpretation of Wang Xiaonong’s Beijing opera, Guazhong lanyin, which deals with the crisis of the Polish nation. In an appendix Karl supplies the reader with a translation of the first and only existing part of the play. The rest of the chapters discuss, respectively, Chinese views about Hawaii, the Philippine uprising against the United States (1898), the Boer War, late Qing pan-Asianism, and Turkish and Egyptian revolutions (1908-1910).

Recent reviews of the book indicate that the field is ready for new approaches to the study of Chinese nationalism. Aside from noting her at times inscrutable prose, which Karl herself acknowledges (p. xi), reviewers appreciate the book for being, “startlingly different from anything that has been written,” and “unnervingly convincing” (American Historical Review, 108.1). The book was also praised as, “thoughtful,” “meticulously researched,” and based on hitherto unused primary sources (History: Review of New Books, 31.1: 41).

Karl is at her best when she uses journalistic, historical, and editorial sources from the period to trace the formation of such critical concepts as the nation, people, race, and colonization in the context of global power relations. In so doing, she shows how real semi-colonial conditions, and hence the term, came to be understood as an integral part of Chinese definitions of self, the world, and modernity. Still, Karl’s attempt to rethink Chinese nationalism by separating nationalism from statism is at times too ambitious. Her assertions that late Qing intellectuals such as Zhang Taiyan or vernacular journalist Lin Xie were not interested in state power seem stretched and unsupported by the textual evidence (p. 142, 143).

Despite these problems, which are perhaps inevitable when breaking new ground, Karl makes an important contribution by focusing on issues often neglected by works on nationalism, such as global inequality, the dynamic of capitalism and late Qing views of colonized regions. These issues are important not only for understanding the late Qing, but for understanding the proliferation of nationalisms and fundamentalisms today. Her spirited and passionate book should be of interest not only to people who work on modern China, but also to scholars who work on regional nationalisms and transnational movements.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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