Utopia: Futuristic Goal or Idealistic Impossibility?

A utopia is, by definition, impossible to achieve. This may seem like a bold statement, but there is good reason behind it. Firstly, the idea of a utopia, or utopian world, must be separated into two distinct forms: religious, and political. In a religious sense, a utopia is therefore the ideal world, a perfect state which an adherent believes they will find themselves in or otherwise attain, whether during their life or after death. On the other hand, a political utopia is defined as the creation of a perfect state on earth, whether through governmental actions or otherwise. By comparing the religious utopian beliefs of the Christian Heaven or Paradise and Buddhist Nirvana or Pure Land with the political utopian goal of Anarchy, this piece will argue that the goal of a utopian future cannot ever be realised in actuality, as it must remain an impossible ideal to give hope for the future and serve as a reminder of one’s place in society and awareness of one’s circumstances.

A religious utopia, as it is understood in both Buddhism and Christianity, is the creation or realisation of a perfect state of both world and being. As Joseph Kitagawa puts it, “Every religion, every culture, and every civilization has a characteristic view of the future as well as a characteristic way of recollecting the past, which together influence its understanding of the meaning of present existence.”1 Kitagawa argues that the Maitreya, the Future Buddha, served as a focus point for the laity, and the belief in the coming of the Maitreya therefore “gave them grounds for optimism and hope”. 2 It is the last past of Kitagawa’s understanding that is the most important, that it is the present existence that shapes an individual’s perception of their world and their place in it, on a cosmological scale. In this sense, religion therefore serves as a positive influence, as believers hold on to the possibility of a better world.

In contrast, Melissa Anne-Marie Curley’s analysis is far more pessimistic, as she outlines the way in which belief in the Buddhist Pure Land ideology in Japan waned over the course of the 20th century. In her words, people became disillusioned with the idea of a better future as “modern people, embarrassed by those hopeful images from the past, are set the impossible task of working toward the transformation of reality even as they are sworn to this world as it is.”3 Her analysis shows that as a society becomes more technologically advanced, belief in a religious utopia correspondingly diminishes, as people turn away from the promise of a heavenly paradise towards the creation of a better world for themselves.

Is there a more positive outlook to be found in the political ideal, then? Curley is even more pessimistic here, pointing out that in Europe, and to a lesser extent in Japan, goals of utopia “repeatedly curdled into totalitarianism”.4 Here, she notes that prominent Japanese Pure Land figures went even further in their views, arguing that the only way to achieve religious utopia was through the total separation and withdrawal of religion from the state. 5

This is not to say that political goal of utopia were equally impossible, per se. Rather, as Arif Dirlik notes in his analysis of the Chinese Anarchist movement of the early 20th century, it largely came down to a lack of planning. Dirlik points to the goal of ‘rural utopianism’ set out by Liu Shipei, noting that revolution was “ultimately a continuing process with no foreseeable end.”6 Curley echoes this view, noting Theodor Adorno’s and Ernst Bloch’s argument that a true utopia, whether religious or political, is thus “defined only in terms of absence”, such as hunger or constraint, and, perhaps most importantly, not here, not now [own emphasis7]. In other words, a utopia can only exist ‘somewhere else’- either in the future, or in a different realm of existence. A utopia is therefore something than cannot exist in the ‘here and now’. It must remain an ideal, always tantalisingly out of reach, neither fully defined nor denied, but out there, waiting to be realised.

  1. Joseph Kitagawa, ‘The Many Faces of Maitreya: A Historian of Religions’ Reflections’, in Sponberg, Alan, (ed.) Maitreya, the Future Buddha. Reissue edition. Cambridge, 2011, p. 7 []
  2. ibid, pp. 15-16 []
  3. Melissa Anne-Marie Curley, Pure Land, Real World: Modern Buddhism, Japanese Leftists, and the Utopian Imagination, Honolulu, 2017, p. 4. []
  4. ibid []
  5. Ibid, p. 12 []
  6. Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. California, 1991, p. 100. []
  7. Curley, Pure Land, p. 4 []

Translating the Untranslatable: He Zhen and the Concept of ‘Nannu’ for English Readers

He-Yi Zhen, better known as He Zhen, was revolutionary, there is no denying that. As an Anarcho-Feminist, she was undoubtedly a revolutionary too, and nearly a century later her work still remains incredibly pertinent for the modern day. However, the early analysis of her work is not without criticism. In this piece, I argue that Liu, Lydia He, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko’s seminal work The Birth of Classical Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theories, does both He Zhen and western readers a disservice in their analysis of her created term ‘nannu’. Rather than a “mostly untranslatable conceptual totality”, I believe that the term ‘nannu’ does not need to be translated, and that efforts to do so can actually do more harm than good.1 Instead of attempting to find an accurate or comparative English translation, time would be better spent in analysis of He Zhen’s theories and their relevance for the modern day.


What is ‘nannü’? As Liu, Lydia He, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko state, He Zhen created the term as a combination of the characters for man and woman, or male and female, to create a singular compound concept that expressed “the category through which He-Yin Zhen understood her world as an always-already gendered timespace of social activity, production, and life.”2 They then go on to state that their original translation of ‘gender’ is unsatisfactory as, while it is useful in placing He Zhen’s work alongside western feminist theory of the late 20th century, doing so could “ensnare us in conceptual traps”.3 Here, they cite Joan Scott’s famous essay ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, which argued that the term ‘gender’ in its modern meaning  was not used until the late twentieth century. 4 It is this argument that I think holds the greatest weight, and one that feminist academics seem to spend an unnecessary amount of time on.


Nannü as a concept has no direct translation in English. A fair statement of fact, or a much-debated topic? Probably both. However, I argue that whether the concept itself is translatable in any way, in any language, it should not matter. ‘Gender’ may be a good starting point, especially as the meaning has grown in the twenty-first century. ‘The Patriarchy’ is a close enough concept with which to discuss social hierarchical behaviour and control, especially and particularly for women. The issue, then, is not how to translate ‘nannü’, but whether it needs to be translated at all. Is it not enough to explain the concept itself, and let the reader figure it out for themselves? The debate seems almost ethnographical at heart, and has severe repercussions for readers in all disciplines. To constantly attempt to translate and compare a foreign concept to one’s own worldview is not only ethnocentric and presentist, but runs the risk of alienating and othering ‘foreign’ history, thereby deeming it only worth studying so long as it can be neatly compared to something familiar, i.e Western.


That said, I do not suggest that all foreign terms should be left untranslated for the reader to puzzle out themselves. If a term has a direct translation, then it should of course be used, simply so long as it is able to keep the meaning and concept clear. If there is not, though, a simple explanation will suffice. In the end, it boils down to the fact that on occasion, less is more, and in the case of ‘nannü’, there is no need to tie oneself up in circles attempting to find a suitable English translation. After all, we in the west are nothing if not fond of a loanword or two, and in the endless debate over the specific terminology of ‘gender’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘sex’, and other terms, one might wonder if He Zhen herself might not regard us as unnecessarily complicating things. Nannü is nannü, and that’s all there is to it.

  1. Liu, Lydia He, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational
    Theory. Columbia University Press, 2013, p. 10 []
  2. Ibid, p. 10 []
  3. Ibid, p. 11 []
  4. Ibid, pp. 12-13. []

The Interplay of Confucianism and Protestant Fundamentalism in the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

“A fascinating example of the interplay between Chinese and Western ideas in a historical event of the first magnitude.”1 This summary, taken from the second volume of Sources of Chinese Tradition, neatly outlines the legacy of the Taiping Rebellion. This piece will argue that it is this interplay that contributed to the original success of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, due to the similarities between Confucian ideals and western Protestant Fundamentalism.

The importance of Protestantism in the foundations of the Taiping Rebellion cannot be overstated. As Thomas O’Reilly brilliantly explains, Protestantism as a denomination had come to China far later than Catholicism, and yet was quick to take hold. He points out that rather than focus on proselytising and active conversion, as previous Catholic efforts had done, the first Protestant missionaries instead devoted themselves to translation. In doing so, he argues that ‘the translated Bible constituted Protestantism’s most influential contribution to the Taiping Rebellion’. 2

However, translation alone does not account for the success of Protestantism in China. Reilly’s work, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, details how the success of the Rebellion in part came down to the inherent similarities of Protestant Fundamentalism and Confucian teachings. In particular, Reilly notes the importance laid on the hierarchical system of the Heavenly Father (God), Jesus (the Heavenly Elder Brother), and the leader of the Rebellion himself, Hong Xiquan (the Heavenly Younger Brother). In demanding complete obedience to this structure, Reilly shows that Protestantism shared much of the same core values and dogmas as Confucianism. Hong, having been extensively educated under the Civil Service Examination system, was thus deeply rooted in Confucian ideology, and it was therefore no great issue to tie in the new western religion to these ancient ideals.

This return to Confucian ideals is echoed by Philip A Kuhn, who argues that Hong’s original aim of conversion ‘could best be accomplished by reconciling Christianity with the Confucian tradition’.3 Both Reilly and Kuhn note the importance placed on the adherence to the Ten Commandments, slightly altered from the Old Testament, but retaining much of the basic tenets. As well as this, Reilly mentions that the doxologies, or songs, were more likely to have been chanted rather than sung, and, more importantly, that ‘a report from the city of Suzhou states that that the singing of the doxology in that city included 28 verses of four to five characters each’, which naturally draws comparisons with the Three Character Classics.4 Of course, there were noticeable differences, notably in the granting of land to each family unit equally and the call that no-one should own private property.5 However, this speaks more to Hong’s plans for economic reform, and were as much rooted in the dissatisfaction and hostility to the Qing dynasty’s perceived failures as in religious doctrine.

Overall, it is clear that the reason for the early success of the Taiping Rebellion was due to the similarities between Confucianism and Protestantism. For a young man having dedicated his life to learning Confucian ways and being deeply disappointed in his failures, it is it perhaps easier to understand the allure that Protestantism held for Hong Xiquan. In integrating his classical education with the newness of western religion, he was able to marry the two together almost seamlessly. In the end, it was not a failure of religious belief and unity that saw the fall of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, but military, as it was weakened by internal power struggles and fracturing. It therefore stands as one of the major events of the 19th century in China and undoubtedly laid the groundwork for the later rebellions and uprisings of the 20th century and beyond.

  1. Theodore de Bary, William, Lufrano, Richard John, Wing-tsit Chan and Berthrong John, Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 through the twentieth century, (2nd ed. New York, 2000), p. 213. []
  2. O’Reilly, Thomas, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, (Seattle, 2014), p. 57. []
  3. Philip A Kuhn, ‘The Taiping Rebellion’, in John Fairbank (ed.), The Cambridge History of China: vol 10: Late Ch’ing, 1800-1911 (Cambridge, 1978), p. 269. []
  4. O’Reilly, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, p. 127. []
  5. Sources of Chinese Tradition, p. 225. []

Lost in translation: Implications of Ogyu Sorai’s Rejection of the Wakun Method for Modern Readers

Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) is perhaps best known for his political writings, yet his attitude towards language and the reading of Chinese texts is arguably of equal importance to any reader. As Thomas Kasulis outlines, the predominant way of reading classical Chinese literature in Japanese was the wakun method, in which a Chinese text was read with Japanese sentence structure and grammar. In doing so, this created what Sorai called a ‘bizarre and contrived hybrid” of both Chinese and Japanese1 . This simple description neatly gets to the heart of one of the greatest barriers of learning and interpretation of any reader: that of translation. In order to truly learn and understand classical Chinese texts, Sorai argued for learning the Chinese readings first, thus becoming familiar with the syntax and flow of spoken Chinese, and only then could one begin to translate it into more understandable Japanese.

Sorai argued that this ‘Japanification’ of Chinese readings and forcibly altered sentence structure led to an overcomplication and loss of information. Furthermore, he argued that since this translation itself came from the Heian era, it was by the time of the Tokogawa Shogunate some several hundred years out of date, and therefore written in an antiquated, archaic style that most ordinary Japanese readers would find it difficult to understand anyway2 .

His solution was to learn the original language before one can truly begin to understand its meaning. However, this is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, Kasulis points out that Sorai had the benefit of a classical education under the Hayashi family, and had the ‘rare skill’ of being able to read and understand both Classical and modern forms. He was then able to set up his own school in order to teach this new method, dubbed Nagasaki after the area with the highest bilingual population at the time3 .

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this approach has major implications for the modern reader. Learning a language outside of state-mandated education is often time-consuming and can be prohibitively expensive, whether engaging a private tutor or using some other form, such as an online service. Thirdly, there is the issue of breadth. Sorai, being first and foremost a Confucian scholar, had only to learn Classical and modern Chinese. A difficult task, perhaps, but a singular one to which he devoted himself. For those whose interests are not quite so narrowed, it could easily leave one overwhelmed, thinking that all languages of interest must be mastered before one could even attempt to study anything of note.

Fourthly, there is the simple question of whether Sorai was right at all. The Nagasaki method came under criticism even in his own lifetime, notably from another Confucian Scholar, Arai Hakuseki, who pointed out the illogicality of the method in general, since the bilingual residents, being predominantly fisherman, had learnt Chinese from sailors and so could hardly be placed in the same linguistic realm as the Sage Kings of old4 .Taking this criticism, it would seem to rather invalidate Sorai somewhat.

The final conclusion then, would seem to be a balance between Sorai and a more favourable attitude towards translation. By all means, learning and immersing oneself in a chosen language is desirable for life-long study, or even if one simply has a great love of a particular culture. However, to enforce learning and total understanding before even attempting to study a piece of literature outside of one’s native language is simply not possible in the modern world. A better way, therefore, would be to find our own Sorai, someone who has already done the difficult task of translation, and use that instead as the basis for study. Naturally there will be errors, and one may have to change or alter a sentence to fit with the individual demands and peculiarities of a different language, but this is inevitable. To reverse the well-known saying, its not the way that you say it, but what you say that is most important.

  1. Thomas P. Kasulis. Engaging Japanese Philosophy : A Short History. (University of Hawaii Press, 2018), p. 347 []
  2. Ibid, pp. 348 []
  3. bid, p. 349 []
  4. Ibid, p. 349 []