Eric Hayot: China, Middlebrow to Highbrow
In the last decade economic historians like Ban Wang and Kenneth Pomeranz have demonstrated that the Chinese economy dominated the planet from about 500 to 1500 CE, creating the world’s first global economic system. The possibility of China’s return to that position of dominance—and here I ask all readers to call up a mental image of a sleeping dragon awakening—is what has folks on both sides of the Pacific trembling, in fear or glee, for the “Chinese century” to succeed the American one. “China” is thus one of the names of the global future as we imagine it.
China is also, therefore, an intellectual and social problem, for everyone. What is China to us today—assuming the “us” includes (and how could it not?) the wide variety of people who think of themselves as “Chinese”? What kind of place is it? What must we know to comprehend its nature (if it has one)? What would it mean to recognize ourselves (again, the first person plural includes the Chinese) as people who want to know what China is, and who are willing to work hard, as authors and as readers, to understand it? How will such an understanding return us, like fiction, to a new vision of the world we have known until now?