115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Tian-xia” and the Singular Plural: Zhao Tingyang and Jean-Luc Nancy in Comparative Focus

Sara Wilson, University of Oklahoma

This paper argues that a comparative East-West methodology is crucial to contemporary notions of social being. Where Zhao Tingyang articulates a global political system based in the smallest political unit of the family, Jean-Luc Nancy’s work reveals that even a family or other socially-configured group bears the problematic technologies of the self. Zhao in turn reveals that in China, Nancian social being is harnessed toward hegemonic statecraft, demonstrating a kind of Sino-centric co-option of plural being. 


In recent Chinese scholarly discourse, forms of community are championed as a remedy to the ills of twenty-first century multinational capitalism. Zhao Tingyang’s vision of societies premised on relation and social identity rather than individuality and borders shares ideological assumptions with French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of “singular plural” Being. Writing from different social and political contexts, Zhao and Nancy make similar arguments for a notion of being that is plural and communal in nature. Zhao has been amply criticized in a number of fields for his totalizing, utopian vision for a twenty-first century world order, while Nancy is praised as a radical philosopher. Yet they both articulate see relational being as an antidote to the atomizing effects of singular being.  When placed in comparative focus, it becomes clear that Zhao’s work should be taken seriously by western critics, not least because of the ways in which it harnesses seemingly radical ideas of social being toward the project of statecraft. Nancy, in turn, reveals a problematic essentializing of the family in Zhao’s work.

Like Zhao, Haiyan Lee is also interested in social being, but dismisses Zhao because, in her argument, China’s problematic attitudes toward alterity stem from “kinship sociality,” a family formation like that which Zhao hails as the answer to twenty-first century multinational capitalism. Because Zhao’s work takes social being as the answer to the atomization of societies and Lee takes it as the problem with contemporary Chinese society, Lee sees Zhao’s work as a utopian vision, a totalizing system that produces otherness. Both Nancy and Lee demonstrate that even a family or other social group can function with the same I-ness as the individual, creating the same conditions for alterity as does individualism. Nancy reveals that the community can function as a subject, and this community-as-subject (as seen in the idea of the family as a political unit) necessitates a bringing-forth of an essentialist communal identity. Thus, rather than serving as an antidote to western individualism, Zhao’s thesis bears some of the same baggage as western subjectivity.

On the other hand, Zhao’s work holds interesting critical implications for Nancian philosophy. While Nancy would seem to provide the west with a radical philosophy of Being that can repair the problems created by individualistic, atomized societies, Nancy’s work is rendered inert in Chinese contexts, where the desire to implement a statist notion of plural being, as in Zhao’s vision, would cause Nancian philosophy work hand-in-hand with hegemony. Nancian philosophy in a Chinese cultural context cannot perhaps do the same subversive political work that it can in western contexts, where the formulation of society and politics is based on individuality. Criticism of Zhao and praise for the work of Nancy should thus be tempered by placing the two theorists in conversation with each other:singular plural being and subjectivity should be understood in a transpacific comparative philosophical frame.