What do we mean by “Chinese thought,” and how should we engage with it? This essay begins with the claim that sixiang, or “Chinese thought,” is best approached as both a mode of critical inquiry and a style of rhetorical persuasion. It argues that Lu Xun's reflections on baihua, the modern Chinese vernacular, offer important insights into the mission-encumbered language of China's present-day intellectual elite. As the critical exemplar of choice in intellectual China, Lu Xun's evocative formulations, together with his aspiration to transform hearts and minds through baihua, have been and remain a formidable rhetorical influence on Chinese critical discourse. In reading this aspiration as symptomatically expressed in diction and style, I refer to the effects of certitude in present-day Chinese critical discourse, and do so to highlight a striking feature of Chinese linguistic play: namely, the importance that the producers of sixiang place on imparting a tone of conviction and purpose to the presentation of their arguments. To draw attention to the difference between Chinese certitude and European self-reflexivity as styles of rhetorical persuasion, I include a contrastive reading of Lu Xun and Jacques Derrida on the question of language conceived of as a mother tongue. The essay also dwells on the remarkable reverence accorded to Lu Xun as well as the politics of commemorating Lu Xun in mainland China of the twentieth century and since.

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