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Reflexive exceptionalism : on the relevance of Tocqueville’s America for modern China
Journal of Classical Sociology
  • Hon Fai CHEN, University of Macau, China
Document Type
Journal article
Publication Date
  • China,
  • civilization,
  • Confucian religion,
  • exceptionalism,
  • power,
  • reflexivity,
  • study society movement,
  • world society

In this paper I argue that a reflexive type of exceptionalism was articulated by the reformist elites in late imperial China as a cultural strategy to confront and appropriate the hegemonic representation of modern democratic power and Occidental civilization that was articulated on the basis of Tocqueville’s exceptionalist image of America and imposed by Western imperialism. By delineating the temporal and normative structure of this reflexive exceptionalism and reconstructing the quasi-religious meanings of its myths and rituals, I propose that the motif of ‘Confucian religion’ in the reformist study society movement should be understood in terms of its intent to produce and discipline a social power that could be mobilized for China’s ideological and political competition with the West. While the movement ended in failure with the rise of a fundamentalist reaction, the fate of Chinese exceptionalism under the changing power structure of contemporary world society can be properly understood with reference to its historical origin and transformation.

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Citation Information
Chen, H.-F. (2009). Reflexive exceptionalism: On the relevance of Tocqueville's America for modern China. Journal of Classical Sociology, 9(1), 79-95. doi: 10.1177/1468795X08098978