Empire of the Sun and the DaTong: Two Chinese(?) Utopias

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Kang Youwei: A fascinating figure from early 20th Century China.

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Empire of the Sun: A fascinating duo of Australian electronic musicians.


 

 

  

Introduction

Kang Youwei, the Early 20th Century Chinese reformer, formulated much of his political philosophy in a book entitled “The One World Utopia of Kang Youwei.  Empire of the Sun,” the 21st Century electronica band, melds its own vision of utopia into an audio-visual experience transmitted on-stage, through radio waves, and via the internet to a worldwide audience.  Although, on the surface, these two utopias would seem to have very little to do with one another, I propose to do a comparative study of these two visions of ‘one world’ utopias – both linked with China, but each presented and ‘enacted’ in a starkly different way.  Although Kang’s Datong Shu (translated under the title “The One-World Utopia of K’ang Yu-wei” by Laurence G. Thompson) was not published until after Kang’s lifetime, it certainly informed his political actions in the years leading up to the Republican Revolution.  On the other hand, “Empire of the Sun,” is the name of the indie/electronica band that represents the collaborative work of two Australian nationals – Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore.  The band appropriates its title from a 1987 Spielberg Film – in turn based on a novel by J.G Ballard – about the Japanese occupation of Shanghai witnessed through the eyes of an English boy.  Although the band may not possess the sophistication of philosophy that Kang’s utopia does, they do preach a message of an ideal one-world, related loosely to the idea of reverence for the sun in cultures across the world.  As Littlemore describes the band as ‘something more’ than a musical project: “It’s a lot grander than that. It’s more based on trying to make a civilisation, an empire… an army of colour, if you will.”[1]

Though the two sources might seem – at best – tenuously related, they pair well for shared subject matter (utopia, China) as well as for their differences of approach.  Kept in a diary, out of the public eye, Kang’s vision merely informed his personal political actions until it was published eight years after his death.  “The Empire of the Sun” on the other hand, receives a great deal of attention from the public gaze, creating images of the ‘one-world’ through their lyrics and their eclectic amalgam of visual styles – hence Littlemore’s description of “an army of colour.”

Paradoxically, each of these visions of the boundless meets a set of concrete boundaries; both limitless philosophies are packaged within distinct limits. Both are ideologically universal, but practically contained.  Kang’s utopia arises out of the author’s studies of Western philosophy, and Confucianism – amongst other sources – each influencing and influenced by Kang’s own thought.  In addition, his utopia meets the boundaries of his own influence and readership.  Not published in its entirety until after Kang’s death, it was able to influence Chinese society only through the pragmatic reforms it inspired its author to make.  Currently, due to its position outside of the gaze of popular culture, the document most likely influences a small population of specialists much more than the broad audiences that would inhabit Kang’s “Age of Complete Peace-and-Equality.”

“Empire of the Sun” also meets limits of its own.  Aside from a select few Google queries that direct a few unwitting individuals from the Spielberg film of the same name to the fascinating webpage of this band, the ‘consumers’ of “Empire of the Sun” buy an audio-visual experience with utopian suggestions encoded in its periphery.  The influences and flows that contribute the band’s images and philosophy are as concrete as Kang’s, but often lack the scrupulous attributions of scholars and specialists like those who have created extensive footnotes for Kang’s writing.  A mixture of Electronica, Indie, movie fandom, and vague suggestions of the I Ching, orientalist intellectual history, and sun-worship coalesce in the public statements, lyrics, music videos, and visual performance of the band.  Like Kang, “Empire of the Sun” preaches of a limitless utopia, but does so through very limited media; cultural flows, radio airwaves, music videos, live performance, and web traffic all determine the bounds of this utopia.  Not to mention, their critics are at least as harsh as Kang’s were.

The Origins of Kang’s Utopia

Upon first reading the Datong Shu (大同书), a reader familiar with Confucian texts cannot help but find parallels between Kang’s description of ideal family relations and the filial piety integral to many of the Confucian classics.  Similarly, a reader familiar with Buddhist thought could not help but see a parallel between liberation of suffering in Kang’s utopia and liberation from Dukkha in Buddhist texts.  A reader of the Dao would likely also find some familiar elements in Kang’s relentless references to the “Way” and the studies of the art of immortality that await the inhabitants of his utopia.  The synthesis of these three schools of thought should come as no surprise’ these ‘Three Teachings’ (三教) have frequently been melded together throughout the history of Chiense religious and political thought.  Strangely, though, these teachings are placed within a progress narrative that sets human society on a course that leads toward absolute unity.  For readers more familiar with ‘Western’ philosophy and politics, this element perhaps brings to mind the teleology associated with Marxist-Leninist thought, utilitarianism, or social Darwinism.

This complex intermingling of ideas has had a great number of readers to classify Kang’s Datong Shu as either ‘traditional’ or ‘modern,’ either as ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’ – or in some other position along these dichotomies.  In the introductory chapter, Kang admits (with some degree of hyperbole) his aim: “Now, I have gathered up five thousand years of Chinese culture…; and I completely absorbed it. I also brought together [whatever] was fundamental and best in the various wisdoms of East and West in the [modern age], when the earth is [all linked together by] intercommunications, and the ten thousand states coexist; and I drank the full of it.”[2]  Veiled within this heavily exaggerated proposal to take the ‘fundamental’ and ‘best’ from thousands of years of culture in the East and in the West and ‘absorb it’ for the sake of a greater philosophy, lies a more nuanced composition than Kang would take credit for.  Unlike those ‘modernists’ such as Ezra Pound who essentialized foreign and domestic cultures into singular ideologies and poetic styles, Kang earnestly sought to create a hybrid philosophy – a utopian vision that combined the languages and thoughts of writers and thinkers who spanned both continents and centuries.

A few passages of his language make this hybridity immediately clear.  The most immediately obvious emblem of the Confucian influence in Kang’s philosophy appears in the very title of the book – 大同 (Datong) – which appears repeatedly in the text itself in descriptions of “the age of complete peace-and-equality.”  The phrase comes directly from a passage in the “Book of Rites”[3] that describes an ideal age in which rectification of the mind in turn rectifies personal life, then the family, then the state, and finally the world – all along the 大学之道 – translated here as “the way of learning to be great.”  In an interesting passage in the introduction to his utopia (from the chapter titled “Entering the World”) Kang combines this conception of the 道, leading toward the age of 大同, with what appears to be an Epicurean or Utilitarian framework that privileges pleasure as a highest ideal: “Therefore in human life there is only suiting and not suiting.  What does not suit is pain.  What suits and suits again is pleasure.  Therefore [the nature of] human life depends upon what men consider to be the Way; [what] depends upon man’s Way is simply pain and pleasure.  What is schemed for by men is simply to abolish pain so as to find pleasure.  There is no other Way.”  His writing not only combines these disparate languages, but also their ideals and schools of thought.  His aphoristic insistence may not be the most convincing kind of language in a contemporary academic milieu, but I find the dexterity with which he manipulates these languages (of the Way, of pleasure and pain, and of a progress narrative) into a convincingly hybrid philosophy.  The words and phrases do not appear foreign or unrelated to one another.  As such, they compose a footbridge between seemingly incompatible modes of thought.

Elsewhere, when writing about gender, Kang refers to the Daoist conceptions of ‘yin and yang’ to argue that “women are not different from men; men are not different form women.  For this reason women are equal with men in their ability to handle the occupations of agriculture, industry, business, and commerce.”  Rather than rely on ‘Western’ formulations of gender equality – like John Stuart Mill’s – Kang ‘finds’ them in the ‘traditional’ writing that comes from the ‘five thousand years of Chinese culture’ he describes in his opening passage.  Instead, Kang states, “Now, because in nature there are odd and even, yin and yang, there are then male and female birds and animals.”  Kang then goes on to don an air of objectivity and claim that there is no discernible difference between these two.  His statement recalls the conclusion of the Song of Mulan, which uses a nearly identical argument to conclude that there is no significant difference between men and women.  Whatever original source from which Kang drew the inspiration to argue for gender equality, he utilizes this formulation of Daoist language to argue for the gender equality that was considered an integral part of the modern era.[4]  Interestingly, he finds this ‘modern’ conception, within a ‘re-tradionalized’ philosophy.

In an article titled “Talent, Virtue, and the Nation: Chinese Nationalisms and Female Subjectivities in the Early Twentieth Century,” Joan Judge argues that gender equality was a heavily nationalized issue in early 20th Century China.  About many of these reformers of gender equality, she writes, “They traced the rise of Western feminism to the decline of the ideology of good wives and wise mothers in the West following the introduction of John Stuart Mill’s ideas of natural rights and equality of the sexes. As the last bastion of this gender ideology in the world—and a Confucianized version of it at that—Japan presented conservatives with the only appropriate model of feminine modernity for China.”  Such a conception, she argues, both served as a vehicle of agency for those women and as a limiting factor.  After all, if women were liberated merely for the sake of the nation, they were not actually ‘liberated’ at all.  In Kang’s Datong Shu, we see not only women, but all sorts of peoples, classes, and races both liberated on the vehicle of ‘traditional,’ ‘modern,’ ‘Eastern,’ and ‘Western’ philosophy – as well as limited by the preconceptions his audience has about those schools of thought.

The Limits of Kang’s Utopia

Coupled with descriptions of the ideal utopia of mankind, Kang’s Datong comes packaged with acknowledgements of the pragmatic situation in which he writes his utopia.  In one moment of comic humility, Kang acknowledges that his utopia probably will not ever extend to the unknown kingdoms of the stars.[5]  Although modern astrologists would most likely agree, Kang’s statement is reflective of an era in which space travel was a distant fantasy rather than a scientific possibility.  In addition to this one strange reservation, Kang also acknowledges that the current “Age of Disorder” is currently far removed from the “Age of Complete Peace-and-Equality” and “One World” he envisions.  To bridge this gap, he attempts to prescribe reforms and actions that can lead mankind along the teleology of this Marx-esque progress narrative.

Also within this gap comes one of the harshest criticisms he dealt with.  One of his biographers writes: “He daily commended desistance from killing [animals and meat] and yet he daily ate meat; daily he acclaimed monogamy as just and yet he took a concubine because he had no son [when he was forty sui]; daily he talked about equality of the sexes and yet the [female] members of his family did not enjoy independence; daily he discoursed on equality of all men and yet he liked to employ female slaves and man servants.”[6]  The divide between theory and reality, for Kang, represents a significant hurdle.  As this criticism pointedly remarks, Kang’s actual behavior often completely contradicted the ‘ideal’ utopia he taught and wrote about.  This criticism seems particularly effective because a central tenet of Kang’s philosophy is that it is inherent in the jen (compassion) that is an integral part of human nature.  Although he does acknowledge that there are several ‘sufferings’ that have gotten in the way of mankind expressing jen, one must wonder how he concludes that they will ever fulfill themselves in the “Age of Complete Peace-and-Equality”

In another passage, Kang makes a strange response to just this kind of criticism: “I am a man dedicated to universal love (jen). I preach desistance from killing.  At one time I desisted from killing [animals by refraining from eating meat].  But at the end of a month I found this impracticable under present circumstances… The world of Ta-t’ung will be a world of absolute love; only in such a world would man be able to desist from killing.”[7]  Kang’s own writing about his utopia comes packaged with a counterargument against those who would wish to make ad hominem attacks on his behavior.  Because the Datong has not yet been achieved, practical everyday behaviors are permissible substitutes for those associated with complete realization of jen.  Kang buries those possible boundaries for his utopia within a cloud of time; the temporal boundaries of his teleology are those that will disappear through the progression of the ‘three ages.

A comparison with a more ‘conservative’ reformer further highlights this divide between the ideal and the practical in Kang’s thoughts and actions.  In his Chronological Autobiography, Kang Youwei details his efforts to reform the Chinese education system, specifically targeting “eight-legged” essays as an outdated relic that needed to be abandoned entirely.  Although he uses strong language and refuses to compromise his position, his stance itself seems remarkably similar to the so-called ‘conservative’ reformer, Zhang Zhidong.  Zhang’s own language expresses much more reservation than Kang’s, but he too wished to de-emphasize some elements of ‘traditional’ Chinese learning and to place greater emphasis on ‘Western’ subjects like politics, technology, and history.  Though their political strategies and rhetoric differ markedly, their basic stances on the issue of educational reform bear remarkable semblance to one another.

Amidst Kang’s account of his educational reform efforts, there exists a tension between the idealistic reforms he wishes to implement and the “conservatives” who hamper his progress.  In fact, the autobiography occasionally reads something like an action novel, with the “conservative faction” humiliating Kang with “malicious slanders and conspiracies”[8] while Kang valiantly strives toward reform.  Armed with progressive memorials and edicts from the emperor, Kang attempts to apply his idealism directly to the political world he inhabits.  Although he strove to remove “eight-legged” essays from the examination system entirely, he must concede, “there was no change in the annual examinations of the students.”  When the essays are finally abolished, Kang rejoices that he has “removed an evil which had stultified the mind of the people.” (Emphasis mine)  His text realistically describes the struggles he encounters, but nonetheless describes his obstacles with such an ideologically charged word as “evil.”  One does not even need to dissect his rhetoric in order to point out the ideals that clearly circulate behind it.  The world ‘evil’ makes abundantly clear the way Kang conceptualized his efforts.  In his Datong Shu, this idealist bias makes itself even clearer.  Kang laments about the educational system of China: “It is a great pity when persons of high ability are confined to low positions.”  Here he speaks not only of a reform in the structure of China’s national exam, but of a fundamental problem when men and women are treated unequally by the educational system.

Zhang Zhidong most certainly would not have cited the same ideology as the basis of his own educational reforms.  He too targeted the civil-service examination system, but stressed the equality of Chinese and Western learning, rather than the elimination of “out-dated” elements.  His “ti” and “yong” system stressed the equal importance of both new and old.  Instead of ideologically charged rhetoric, however, Zhang utilizes a language of caution.  Speaking about a parliamentary system inChina, Zhang states, “if this republic is inaugurated, only the ignorant and foolish will rejoice.  For rebellion and anarchy will come down upon us like night and massacre will seal our eternal grave.”  His language is rife with powerful admonition and even fear.  Though the two men both strove toward a sort of “shibian” or “drastic reform,” their methods differed starkly, earning Zhang the title “conservative,” and placing him at odds with the younger Kang.

After all, Kang was not the only writer or philosopher of his time to attempt a synthesis of ‘Eastern,’ ‘Western,’ ‘Traditional,’ and ‘Modern’ elements.  What sets him apart from those like Zhang Zhidong, who proposed a careful mingling of these systems, is a radical ‘modernization’ of ‘traditional’ bodies of thought like Confucianism, combined with a ‘re-traditionalization’ of ‘modern’ concepts like Social Darwinism and Communism.  Not only that, but Kang ‘Easternized’ these ‘Western’ concepts while ‘Westernizing’ the ‘Eastern’ three teachings.  In fact, these dichotomies become so convoluted in Kang’s writing that they become practically useless descriptors – unless, of course, one wishes to criticize the unorthodoxy of his exegeses.  In fact, just this sort of criticism formed one of the harshest boundaries for Kang’s ‘boundless’ utopia. Ye Te-hui, for example, called Kang “a barbarian at heart” under the thin guise of a Confucian.[9]  In Kung-Chuan Hsiao’s book about the history of Kang’s thought, he spends several chapters making the argument that Kang was a Confucian, but of a revisionist variety that differs starkly from the common Confucianism practiced in “the rigid state orthodoxy.”[10] Such arguments, while they might feel inane to those outside of a society that reveres or despises Confucian thought, reflect a careful positioning that made Kang, alternatively, “admired by some and condemned by many.”[11]

The Origins of “Empire of the Sun”

Whereas Kang Youwei formulated his utopia by interweaving the languages and ideologies of the ‘East’ and ‘West’ in a ‘modernized’ or ‘re-traditionalized’ vision of utopia, Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore, the two members of “Empire of the Sun,” create a utopia that is also, undoubtedly, some kind of combination of these elements of the ‘East’ and the ‘West,’ and the ‘modern’ and the ‘traditional,’ but they do so through a variety of ‘cultural flows’ that include the ‘ideoscape’ as only a small part.  The band members describe their utopia as one related to their name, “We love the name because it is such a big thing, you know. We never wanted to be compared to a band. We’ve had bands before and we’ll probably have bands again but this is not a band project. We’re not going to stand up there with guitar, bass, drums and a keyboard player and just play our songs out in a merry Indie kind of way. It’s a lot grander than that. It’s more based on trying to make a civilisation, an empire… an army of colour, if you will.” Their philosophy certainly does not possess the depth of thought that Kang’s does, but in some sense, as performers and musicians, the genealogy of their philosophy seems almost completely arbitrary.  If we examine their presence through the framework of a scholar like Arjun Appadurai, who argues in “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” that cultural flows play out on a variety of landscapes – including the technoscape, financescape, ideoscape – we might conceptualize Empire of the Sun as a projection into these various cultural landscapes as well as a product of the band members who have amalgamated them into the image, music, and ideology of their band.  Like Kang’s, their aphoristic statements about one-world utopia pay tribute to a variety of cultural precedents.  Unlike Kang’s, the tribute they pay takes a variety of auditory, visual, and ideological forms.

Most noticeably, their name makes reference to the Spielberg film, “The Empire of the Sun,” which, in turn, is based upon the eponymous novel by J.G. Ballard.  The band underplays any meaningful link between this film and the band itself, stating, “Well, the name comes more from the idea of (and you’ll see this in the ongoing videos) the fact that we’re travelling around the world going to all the places of empires of the civilisation where the sun has been a theme of worship. It’s not based on the Ballard novel nor the Spielberg film of the same name.”[12] [13] First of all, their statement is a gross oversimplification ignoring all those who reject theism, worship a monotheistic deity unrelated to the sun, or even exalt the moon. It reflects a philosophy that possesses little of the depth of someone like Kang Youwei.  Second, although they may downplay the link between the film’s name and their own, the parallels between the two ‘Empires’ are striking.  In an early scene in Spielberg’s film, the British protagonist stares out of the back windows of his parents’ car, witnessing the Chinese residents of Shanghai preparing to evacuate before the Japanese invasion.  We see images of poverty, unrest, and of a culture that differs starkly from the one represented by images of wealth and comfort associated with the boy’s home on Amherst Avenue.  These sights drift slowly past the camera, each transposed over the image of the boy’s shocked face as reflected in the car window.  As the movie progresses, this visual image of a race, class, language, and cultural barrier between the boy and the Japanese/Chinese ‘other’ become accentuated with narrative discord that repeatedly places him at odds with the non-white inhabitants of Shanghai.  By the end of the movie, the boy begins to bridge some of these gaps by learning the Japanese language and by befriending a Japanese boy over their shared interest in airplanes.  As if to drive home the impossibility of true cross-cultural connection, however, the Japanese boy is cruelly murdered by misunderstanding Americans, leaving the film with a closing shot of dead bodies drifting in the water off of the coast of Shanghai.  Far from an idealistic utopia, any inklings of unity we have begun to imagine are crushed in the images of WWII’s destruction – presented in the visual images of film that seem, as a medium, to portray pragmatism and reality far more grounded than the lofty ideology of any utopia.

In the Ballard novel upon which the film was based, we also see reflections of a ‘missed utopia’ – of ideal cross-cultural interactions and freedom that are destroyed in the process of the plot.  In an article about utopia in Ballard’s novels, Warren Wagar writes, “The freedom of the camp was the freedom to live dangerously, to be bombed, to be starved, to live outside the norms and constraints of the ordinary bourgeois existence and dare to face the kairotic moment. The Empire of the Sun is not so much a utopia as a kit of building materials for the construction of future utopias.”[14]  In the wake of such ‘missed utopias’ the band Empire of the Sun seems to engage in ‘the construction of future utopias’ with either prescience or complete obliviousness to the genealogy that informs their own name.  Recall again Littlemore’s comment that “we love the name because it is such a big thing.”  Whether he refers to some kind of historical China or Japan remains uncertain.  What is certain is that these images of the ‘East’ make bizarre manifestations in their clothing and visual style.  A reviewer from Triple, Zan Rowe, writes about the Empire of the Sun live performance, “, when Luke Steele hit the stage his world of dreams exploded with him and I witnessed one of the most stunning live performances ever.”  Whatever ‘world of dreams’ he refers to, it is clear that the band’s ‘utopia’ manifests itself to a large degree in the visual component of their art.

In fact, in their artwork posted on the internet and in the music video for “Walking on a Dream” (that has received approximately 5.5 million views on youtube) prominently displays two white Australian nationals dressed in clothing that pays homage to a mixture between sci-fi, Ming Dynasty Chinese, and South American clothing styles.  All the while, they stand against the backdrops of futuristic cities – or, as in the case of the music video – they dance in front of Shanghai cityscapes.  Their styles of dress and locales for filming make deliberate attempts to create a similar kind of hybridity to that reflected in Kang’s philosophy.  What would be considered traditional Chinese clothing melds with futuristic seas of stars and decidedly ‘modern’ shots of Shanghai’s space needle and the rest of the city’s landscape.  Shots of the music video vacillate between the insides of temples, public squares with heavy traffic, and encounters with people in markets.  The band dances for the camera and the audience, never interacting explicitly with their ‘foreign’ environment.  Like Kang’s utopia, Empire of the sun appropriates symbolic elements from all sides of the East-West and Traditional-Modern dichotomies, but in their appropriation, the band uses these elements as periphery to highlight their own stardom.  Rather than a realistic attempt to progress toward ‘One-World’ they create an imaginary artistic utopia that exists primarily to be consumed as an audio-visual experience.

The Limits of “Empire of the Sun”

Unlike Kang, who readily admits the fact his utopia cannot ever reach the kingdoms of the stars – “In the international wars now going on among the people of Mars, how many millions of li of blood have flood, how many billions of lives have been lost, I do not know.  I have pondered deeply how to rid all the stars and all the heavens of war, but could not [solve the problem].” – Empire of the Sun completely eschews this ‘interstellar’ boundary.  The band circulates images (via their website and album art) of science fiction backdrops and celestial formulations that seem readily accessibly – even touchable for the band’s members.  In several photographs, the band members either seem to hold stars, to exist outside of the atmosphere, or to dwell in futuristic cities.  Such instances point toward another realm of their ‘utopia’ that simultaneously acts as a boundary and an extension for that utopian vision.  The Empire of the Sun – which they have described in opposition to the ‘usual indie thing,’ as ‘something bigger than us’ and as an ‘army of colour,’ is an ‘empire’ that also extends quite obviously beyond the realm of scientific possibility – even beyond logic.  This feature both expands and limits the territory possible for Empire of the Sun.  One the one hand, it extends into an imaginary world not possible in this one.  On the other hand, though, such obvious fantasy and neglect for the rules of reality has earned the band the mixed critical remarks of those like Martin Robinson, reviewer for NME who calls their first album “silly but their songs demand to be taken seriously, just like Prince, Ultravox and Bowie.”  Coupled with such a review is the refusal to ‘play’ with the music without any sense of shame, but to take it seriously in some half-hearted sense.  Even worse, critics have explained it terms of drug abuse or confusion; the Pitchfork reviewer Mike Orme writes that it most likely, “inspired by untold numbers of late nights and acid trips.” As such, the band is not only in terms of reality, but from a position on the legal and social fringes of that reality.

Without the teleology of Kang to place the utopia within a time-frame that rationalizes it as the possibility of a distant future, and also unlike the fantasy worlds of those filmmakers like Jia Zhangke, who insert fantasy into a documentary-like depiction of reality, Empire of the Sun presents that fantasy variously as an album, as hybrid fashion, as science-fiction artwork, as the lights-displays of live performances, and even in more bizarre media: as the ‘sun wagon’ and as cut-out figures of the band’s members.  Such imagined worlds in such mixed media are reflective of the techno-animism and polymorophously perverse play described in Anne Allision’s book about Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination.  Rather than children’s toys, these media are those with which an adolescent, young adult, or even middle-aged person might interact.  Fans of Empire of the Sun can engage in ‘play’ with the imaginary utopia associated with the band simply by logging onto their website, attending a live show, or even constructing cut-out characters.  The boundaries exist in the willingness or unwillingness of the people to engage the material as imagination or as utopia.  For those less inclined to this kind of play, such as Mike Orme, the reviewer for music magazine Pitchfork, who states “Steele and Littlemore both seem incapable of diverging from their relentless quest for epic Meaning, but while some material is about as sublime and immediate as anything either has done, just as much crashes and burns,” Empire of the Sun represents nothing other than the standard modes of consumption by which we interact with music, video, and other audio-visual experiences.  The measurement for ‘meaning’ and the ‘sublime’ boils down to a review of the musical qualities themselves.

Bound in by both the limits of plausibility and the limits of the media they use as vehicles, Empire of the Sun creates a utopia that is scarcely convincing as anything other than an ‘army of colour.’  Who, after all, would prefer to have Luke Steele wax philosophical about his pseudo-understanding of world culture and philosophy, as opposed to subjecting oneself to the vast ideological flow that crystallizes in Kang’s Datong Shu.?  On the other hand, the band enacts an audio-visual experience that combines the ‘races of the world’ much more convincingly and tangibly than does Kang’s strange chapter about erasing racial boundaries through selective breeding.

Concluding Remarks

In an article about Kang’s Datong Shu, Shri Ghosh writes that the book is important, “Not only as an example of China’s intellectual response to the challenge of the West, but, much more important, as a freeing and liberating work which widens our horizons and makes us think on an altogether higher level of historical consciousness than is common even today.”  For such readers, Kang provides an imaginative utopia that is at once international and simultaneously highly nationalized.  By positing the work as that which exists in a competition between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ he underlines the perceived ‘Chinese-ness’ of the text.  Somewhat ironically, a realization of Kang’s utopia would entail a destruction of that very ‘Chinese-ness.’  Regardless, the sources and language he uses place his work at the crux of the ideological flows between these imagined entities.

Similarly, Empire of the Sun melds together media and images from a film, a novel, various musical styles and of imagined ‘Easts’ and ‘Wests’ into a utopia accessibly chiefly through the medium with which it enacts itself.  Far from the solution to a global problem or an ideological treatise, the band transmits its message primarily through a vast network of cultural flows such as the one Arjun Appadurai describes in our contemporary world.  Each utopia crystallizes out of various flows of thought and culture and each similarly transmits itself out to be re-appropriated, translated, ‘glocalized’ or placed in dialogue in some other way.[15]  Somewhat paradoxically, these projections of worlds without boundaries each arise out of very concrete flows and enact themselves on very concrete flows of their own.


[1] Nick Littlemore in an interview with Linda McGee. “Empire of the Sun Interview” via RTE Entertainment at www.RTE.ie.

[2] Kang Youwei, Thompson, Laruence G. (Tr.) The One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-Wei, 61-2.

[3] Wing-Tsit Chan (Tr.) “The Great Learning” from A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy.

[4] Cf. the introduction to Japanese Sports by Guttman and Thompson.  The authors cite equality (of social class and gender) as one of the key markers of a ‘modern’ sport. The authors neglect a discussion of these markers as social constructions, but their rubric nonetheless shows how such philosophy might be construed as ‘modern.’

[5] Cf. The One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-Wei, 80: “Then my One World, my jen can extend [only] to [this] earth.  Can it deliver all the stars? [Since it cannot], then wars will never cease.  I have pondered deply how to rid all the stars and all the heavens of war, but could not [solve the problem].  Hence I am only going to consider how to do away with this calamity of war in the world in which I was born.”

[6] LuNai-hsiang and Lu Tun-k’uei, K’ang Nan-hai hsien-sheng chuan, 47a; translated in Kung-Chuan Hsiao, A Modern China and a New World: K’ang Yu-wei, Reformer and Utopian, 1858-1927, 32.

[7] Ta-t’ung shu, 434, translated in Kung-Chuan Hsiao, A Modern China and a New World: K’ang Yu-wei, Reformer and Utopian, 1858-1927, 32.

[8] Kang Youwei’s “Chronological Autobiography” via Jung-Pang Lo, (ed. And tr.), K’ang Yu-Wei: A biography and a Symposium, 102.

[9] Kung-Chuan Hsiao, A Modern China and a New World: K’ang Yu-wei, Reformer and Utopian, 1858-1927, 42.

[10] Ibid. Ch 3-5

[11] ibid, 17.

[12] Nick Littlemore in an interview with Linda McGee. “Empire of the Sun Interview” via RTE Entertainment at www.RTE.ie.

[13] Nick Littlemore in an interview with Linda McGee. “Empire of the Sun Interview” via RTE Entertainment at www.RTE.ie.

[14] Wagar, W. Warren. J.G. Ballard and the Transvaluation of Utopia from Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), 53-70.

[15] Although they are disparate materials, separated by nearly 100 years from one another, in some sense even this essay places them in an ironic dialogue.

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About T Anderson

I am a graduate of Amherst College. I taught for a year in Harlem and now teach in Brooklyn.
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