This piece is an essay review of Wang Hui's book China from Empire to Nation-State (2014), which is a translation of the introduction to Wang's four-volume Rise of Modern Chinese Thought (2004). According to the reviewer, Wang studies less the modern history of China than its historicity and does so in the context of China's transition from being an empire, inhabiting a cosmos that is the product of its own self-reflection, to being one among a number of nation-states, inhabiting a number of histories of their own, all of which are now simultaneously present. But the Euro-American terms empire and nation-state, which increasingly pervade Chinese perceived realities, lack precise Chinese equivalents. Meanwhile, the terms that the Chinese use in referring to the same historical transition, tianli (“Heavenly Principle”) and gongli (“Universal Principle”), are obscure to the Euro-American mind. The reviewer asks whether the Chinese, now facing a plurality of histories, wonder if there may be a plurality of li (principles), as well, or at least if there can be a li that is “universal” in the sense that it is common to them all. The problem here, the reviewer argues, in part derives from Wang's binaries being Hegelian, while the breakdown of the nation-state in Europe projects a postpolitical order in which human communities are incapable of state-based action or of determining their own li (i.e., Geist). The review ends by questioning whether China is capable of following this path and, in any case, whether Wang's vocabulary is able to encompass it.

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