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Doctoral Project

"Conservative-reformist visions of rural self-governance in East Asia in the interwar period"
Kyonghee Lee (M.A.)

I propose to look at two concepts involved in conservative-reformist ideas of the early 1930s in and about East Asia to reform rural villages into self-governing political units. While my study draws its inspiration from a project led by one Chinese philosopher, Liang Shuming, my aim is to situate him in the context of the wider East Asian intellectual sphere as a place with the continuities of shared thought traditions, as well as an actually lived world of various localities, rather than to present an intellectual biography.

The focal points of my analysis will be two concepts. These are, first, that of self-governance, and second, the concept of the rural village community, assumed to be a significant political unit. The thinkers to be considered note that the first concept, the idea of self-governance comes from the West. By this they mean a system of local administration with a legal and structural basis as is found in the West. In order to arrive at a concept of self-governance practiceable in contemporary China, they look to various sources while making use of many other such new concepts of the Western origin. Investigating the conceptual resources that went into the idea of self-governance understood and constituted by the two thinkers will be one of my major concerns. With the second concept, with the idea of an agricultural, self-contained village, we get a stronger sense of continuity with the past and the present. The village as a political unit has some moral philosophical significance, with strong precursors, in the Confucian-Taoist intellectual tradition of East Asia. In the 20th century, we have seen in East Asia modern traditions of initiatives revolving around the rural village, traditions of the intellectual kind as well as one of state-driven, top-down projects.

In this study, I intend to shed more light on conservative-reformist visions of the society and the self and to do some justice to what had been noted by some contemporaries to be “a traditionalist decade”. Second, I will underline the importance of transcultural dynamics in the process of making the old anew, by looking at various conceptual resources that the thinkers in question drew on for the purpose of retaining as well as rejuvenating local traditions. Lastly, I wish to come up with a better contextualized regional history, by dealing with the concepts of self-governance and the rural village as elements of an intra-regional commonplace, with a broader analytical scope that brings the wider East Asian intellectual landscape into view.