Discussion Group: Comparing on the Scaffold — Genetic Insights from Qian Zhongshu’s Notes on Laozi and Hegel during the Cultural Revolution

At the end of the Cultural Revolution, Qian Zhongshu, one of the most distinguished Chinese novelists and scholars of the twentieth century, was living in a former broom cupboard at the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. Believing himself to be terminally ill, and fearing yet further persecution, he set about composing Limited Views, an encyclopaedic work of literary criticism in abstruse classical prose, unintelligible to the Red Guards, that sought to demonstrate the enduring relevance and eloquence of premodern Chinese letters. At the heart of this deeply idiosyncratic work lies Qian’s reading of the Daoist classic, the Laozi, which he interprets, in concert with Hegel, to condemn the contemporary injustice of Chairman Mao’s policies. In this talk, William Blythe will explore how Qian’s unique understanding of the Laozi and Hegel developed out his experiences as a student at Oxford during the 1930s, his plight during the Sino-Japanese war, and through the early years of communist rule. By adopting a genetic approach to Qian’s notebooks, he will trace the social and intellectual conditions that shaped one of the most courageous and erudite works in all of Chinese literature.


William Blythe completed a BA in Chinese studies at Cambridge University in 2010 and an MA in Sinology at SOAS in 2019. His DPhil project, funded by the AHRC, the Clarendon Fund, and St. John’s College, adopts a genetic approach to Qian Zhongshu’s (1910-1998) encyclopaedic work of literary criticism, Limited Views. He is also interested in the history of sinology, and has written about early Latin translations of the Chinese classics. His latest article, which investigates the neglected collaboration between Qian and the English sinologist and colonial administrator, C.D. Le Gros Clark (1894–1945), will appear in the next issue of CLEAR.