Humanistic Spirit

Humanistic Spirit
‘Spirit of the Humanities’
(Renwen jingshen)
Intellectual debate
The ‘Spirit of the Humanities’ debate is an umbrella term for a variety of cultural topics that engaged the literary elite in the mid 1990s. While the ‘cultural discussion’ (wenhua taolun) of the mid 1980s focused on theoretical questions first posed in the West regarding subjectivity and enlightenment, the 1990s debates delved into China’s literary and intellectual heritage in order to salvage a lost ‘spirit’. The debate originated in a dialogue among Shanghai scholars published in Shanghai wenxue [Shanghai Literature] in 1993. It was continued in the journal Dushu [Reading] which serialized discussions over several months in 1994, causing instant controversy. That same year the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences sponsored a discussion on the ‘Spirit of the Humanities’ in preparation for a 1995 national meeting on the subject.
Zhang Rulun, Wang Xiaoming, Zhu Xueqin, Chen Sihe, Li Tiangang, Yuan Jin, Gao Ruiquan and Xu Jilin, young professors in Shanghai, identified and criticized the loss of the humanistic spirit in contemporary Chinese intellectual life. A spiritual poverty, they asserted, was manifest by a money-grubbing trend recently pervasive among intellectuals, as a phenomenon associated with China’s globalization. In the long run, the poverty was due to official domination of humanities fields since the mid-twentieth century, or even earlier, to China’s loss of tradition a century ago. The discussions concluded with an urgent call for re-establishing a faith in intellectual pursuits, or in a new role of criticism. In response, Wu Xuan, Wang Gan, Fei Zhenzhong and Wang Binbin in Nanjing agreed to rebuild a Chinese humanistic spirit and yet looked forward to the opportunities provided in the new global situation. As they held, this rebuilding requires intellectuals to play a role in the new order, such as the currently blooming mass culture, to rediscover their vitality and creativity, rather than high-mindedly seeking to return to a May-Fourth style elitism.
One focal point in the debates was how to evaluate the rise of mass culture in the 1990s. Critics such as Wang Xiaoming and Chen Sihe (see minjian) harshly assessed the contemporary cultural climate and considered works by the novelists Wang Shuo and Jia Pingwa and the films of director Zhang Yimou to epitomize the current spiritual depravity in their failure to address ‘ultimate concerns’ (zhongji guanhuai). Works by Zhang Chengzhi, Shi Tiesheng and Zhang Wei, by contrast, were seen to exemplify the ‘Humanistic Spirit’. In response, Wang Shuo and others published articles defending their artistic and occupational choices in the new market economy. Critics such as Wang Meng, Zhang Yiwu and Chen Xiaoming celebrated the ‘post-modern sensibilities’ exhibited in the criticized works (see postmodernism (houxiandaizhuyi) and ‘post-ism’ (houxue))
Wang Xiaoming (ed.) (1996). Renwen jingshen xinsi lu [Thoughts on the ‘Humanistic Spirit’]. Shanghai: Wenhui chubanshe.
Xu, Ben. (1999). Disenchanted Democracy: Chinese Cultural Criticism after 1989. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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