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The West in the East: Max Weber’s Nightmare in ‘Post-modern’ China


Don S. Zang

This article examines reception (or the lack of it) of Max Weber in China’s legal field from the 1980s to the present. It divides the reception into two historical periods. The first was from 1985 to 1992, when Weber was introduced into China in the middle of its enlightenment movement known as the ‘Cultural Fever’ in the 1980s. Starting from a 1985 symposium on Weber, the reception of Weber by the Chinese intelligentsia became part of the broader modernist project in China. The second period was from 1993 to the present, characterized by efforts among leading intellectuals to re-read Weber, or to put it in more crude form, the increasing accusation of Weber as an orientalist. In contrast with the 1985–1992 modernist vocabulary, the 1993–2013 critiques of Weber were often colored by ‘post-modernist’ jargon.
This ‘reception’, however, was a tragedy for the academic study of Weber. In the first period, despite Weber’s prominence in sociology and among cultural study circles, China’s most influential scholars in law somehow missed him, though most likely for accidental reasons. But the real tragedy for Weber, or his nightmare, comes in the second period, when China’s legal theorists turned against him by treating him as an icon for Eurocentrism. China’s rise at the turn of the century is accompanied by its increasing nationalism, promoted and encouraged by the State/Party apparatus. Thus, this article argues, the second period is essentially an anti-modern project camouflaged in postmodernist terms. If this is true, the tragedy for Weber himself (so to speak) is not that he was misunderstood or misinterpreted by China’s intellectuals; the real tragedy, or the nightmare, is that if Weber were to wake up in China today, he might find what’s going on in China looks rather familiar.

Don S. Zang 1

1 Don S. Zang is Associate Professor of Law, Director of Asian Law Center, University of Washington School of Law, Seattle, WA 98195. S.J.D., 2004, LL.M., 1996, Harvard Law School.

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