Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828–89) is best known for his utopian realist novel What Is to Be Done? (1863). However, he was perhaps most celebrated as a literary thinker in China as a result of the Soviet canonization of the nineteenth-century “democratic critics.” This essay discusses two Chinese critics’ engagement with Chernyshevsky’s treatise The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality (1853). Here Chernyshevsky advanced the proposition “Beauty is life.” In the 1930s and 1940s the literary theorist Zhou Yang read Chernyshevsky and produced a Chinese translation in 1942. In 1963 the philosopher Zhu Guangqian published the History of Western Aesthetics, in which he devoted a chapter to Chernyshevsky. This article explores how both Zhou and Zhu responded to Chernyshevsky’s proposition on beauty and life, with particular attention to all three thinkers’ engagement with Ludwig Feuerbach’s “transformative method” in his critique of Christianity, which sought to invert the relation between subject and predicate. Both Zhou and Zhu alighted on how Chernyshevsky’s reliance on Feuerbach led to a one-sided interpretation that needed further articulation; they marshaled the insights of Marx and Hegel to reinterpret Chernyshevsky. Finally, the essay considers the issue of transnational Bildung between Russia and China and the teacher-student relation as expressions of totality along the lines of both Feuerbachian transformative critique and Hegelian speculative retrieval.

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