The Invisible Republic of the Spirit — Preface to Spectres & Souls

For every plain there is a slope, 無平不陂,
For every going there is a return. 無往不復。

Hexagram XI, I Ching
周易 泰掛繫辭

We quoted this line from the I Ching in ‘On Heritage 遺’, an essay composed as the formal rationale underpinning China Heritage, an e-journal launched on 1 January 2017. This pithy maxim is well-known in the Chinese tradition and it serves well as an epigram for China Heritage Annual 2021, the full title of which is Spectres & Souls: vignettes, moments and meditations on China and America, 1861-2021

In the 2021 issue of China Heritage Annual, the chapters of which will appear throughout the year, we posit that many of the spectres and shades, as well as the enlivening souls and lofty inspirations, that assert themselves both in China and the United States in 2021 may present an even more compelling aspect when considered in the context of the 160-year period starting in 1861. In November that year, the successful Xinyou Coup 辛酉政變 at the court of the Manchu-Qing dynasty that had ruled China for two centuries ushered in a short-lived period of rapid reform, one that, in many respects continues to this day, even as it falters. In February 1861, seven slave-owning states broke with the Union that had been established under the Constitution of 1787 resulting in a four-year civil war. The successful conclusion of that war saved the Union, but the failure of the subsequent era of Reconstruction had profound ramifications for the state of that union. The successes and failures of that era are, in January 2021, more relevant than they have been for 160 years as a new president appeals to ‘the better angels’ of the nation, echoing the words of Abraham Lincoln who, in his first inaugural address, delivered at The Capitol in Washington on 4 March 1861, declared:

‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’

In 2021, there are even some who believe that the ‘better angels’ both of America and of China may usher in a period of concord, if not amity. Readers of China Heritage will, however, be familiar with our view that simplistic yearnings for positivism ignore human nature and human history.


Spectres & Souls does not presume to offer a new or alternative history to the bilateral relationship between China (that is, the Qing Empire, the Republic of China and the People’s Republic) and the United States of America. Rather it is hoped that its chapters will, by evoking the varying shades of the past in the context of historical incident and inflection points, as well as in the form of analogies, aspirations and failures, help cast some light on some uncanny parallels in the history of the two places, while also distinguishing their glaring, and ever-increasing differences. Some of the chapters will offer accounts in which such similarities and contrasts are noted; others shall juxtapose ideas and personalities in an attempt to articulate an argument that militates against the dogma of exceptionalism that is willfully, and exhaustingly, promoted on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. I would note that we do so from a considerable physical remove — this journal is produced in rural New Zealand — as well as from a perspective granted by what Stefan Zweig called ‘the invisible republic of the spirit’.

Further details of the background to Spectres & Souls will be offered in the formal introduction to the series.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
18 January 2021


About China Heritage Annual

China Heritage Annual is a series produced by China Heritage, the online home of The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology 白水書院. Along with the China Heritage Journal it is a successor to China Heritage Quarterly, an e-publication produced under the aegis of the China Heritage Project from 2005 to 2012.

The first installment in the China Heritage Annual series, which took Nanking 南京 as its focus, was launched at the 2017 Shanghai International Literary Festival at M on the Bund on 14 March 2017.


China Heritage Annual:


The Preamble to Spectres & Souls

In late 2020, we published an extended preamble to Spectres & Souls in the form of four interconnected chapters:

The Invisible Republic of the Spirit


‘The invisible republic of the spirit, the universal fatherland, has been established among the races and among the nations. Its frontiers are open to all who wish to dwell therein; its only law is that of brotherhood; its only enemies are hatred and arrogance between nations. Whoever makes his home within this invisible realm becomes a citizen of the world. He is the heir, not of one people but of all peoples. Henceforth he is an indweller in all tongues and in all countries, in the universal past and the universal future.’

 Stefan Zweig, Romain Rolland:
The Man and His Work
trans. Eden and Cedar Paul
New York, 1921, p.355

In our inaugural essay ‘On Heritage 遺’, we also quoted ‘Letter to Shan Tao’ 與山巨源絕交書, a famous epistle by Xi Kang (嵇康, 223-262CE, also pronounced Ji Kang), one of the celebrated Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove 竹林七賢, in which Xi terminated his friendship with another member of the group.

In that letter, Xi Kang declared that his:

‘… taste for independence was aggravated by my reading of Zhuangzi and Laozi; as a result any desire for fame or success grew daily weaker, and my commitment to freedom increasingly firmer. In this I am like the wild deer, which captured young and reared in captivity will be docile and obedient. But if it be caught when full-grown, it will stare wildly and butt against its bonds, dashing into boiling water or fire to escape. You may dress it up with a golden bridle and feed it delicacies, and it will but long the more for its native woods and yearn for rich pasture.’


trans. James Hightower

Like Xi Kang eighteen hundred years ago, our taste for independence was also aggravated early on by reading Laozi and Zhuangzi, among others; since then, the allure of golden bridles and delicacies has been but slight. We declared that through China Heritage, and after long years spent in tertiary bonds, rather than seek release in boiling water or fire, it was time to return to native woods and rich pasture. (We would also note that the character 遺, used as the leitmotif of China Heritage, is taken from a hand-written version of Xi Kang’s letter by the Tang-dynasty artist Li Huailin 李懷琳.)

Since August 2018, China Heritage has been home to the work of Xu Zhangrun (許章潤, 1962-), a noted scholar of the law cashiered by Tsinghua University in July 2020. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Tsinghua scholars Wang Guowei (王國維, 1877-1927) and Chen Yinque (陳寅恪, 1890-1969, aka Chen Yinke), exemplified what is celebrated as the ‘Independent Spirit and Unfettered Minds’ 獨立之精神, 自由之思想. Xu Zhangrun is a contemporary paragon of those qualities, and it is for this that he has been persecuted by the Chinese authorities.

As Chen Yinque wrote in his encomium for Wang Guowei in 1929:

‘The future cannot be known; indeed there may come a time when this Gentleman’s work no longer enjoys preeminence, just as there are aspects of his scholarship that invite disputation. Yet his was an Independent Spirit and his a Mind Unfettered — these will survive the millennia to share the longevity of Heaven and Earth, shining for eternity as do the Sun, the Moon and the very Stars themselves.’


from ‘The Two Scholars Who Haunt Tsinghua University’
China Heritage, 28 April, 2019


In the ‘Envoy’ of his biography of Romain Rolland, published in 1921, Stefan Zweig wrote:

‘Strange has been the rhythm of this man’s life, surging again and again in passionate waves against the time, sinking once more into the abyss of disappointment, but never failing to rise on the crest of faith renewed. Once again we see Romain Rolland as prototype of those who are magnificent in defeat. Not one of his ideals, not one of his wishes, not one of his dreams, has been realized. Might has triumphed over right, force over spirit, men over humanity.

‘Yet never has his struggle been grander, and never has his existence been more indispensable, than during recent years; for it is his apostolate alone which has saved the gospel of crucified Europe; and furthermore he has rescued for us another faith, that of the imaginative writer as the spiritual leader, the moral spokesman of his own nation and of all nations. This man of letters has preserved us from what would have been an imperishable shame, had there been no one in our days to testify against the lunacy of murder and hatred. To him we owe it that even during the fiercest storm in history the sacred fire of brotherhood was never extinguished. The world of the spirit has no concern with the deceptive force of numbers. In that realm, one individual can outweigh a multitude. For an idea never glows so brightly as in the mind of the solitary thinker; and in the darkest hour we were able to draw consolation from the signal example of this poet. One great man who remains human can for ever and for all men rescue our faith in humanity.’

 Zweig, Romain Rolland, p.355

A century after these words were first written, we echo them here both as an accolade for the ‘Independent Spirit and Unfettered Mind’ of Xu Zhangrun and as an inspiration for the present work.

— The Editor

Red Lion Road, Unionville, PA, 2020. From the series ‘PA Pastoral’, ©️Lois Conner


On 26 June 1919, the day on which the Versailles Peace Treaty was signed, bringing a formal end to the hostilities of World War I, Romain Rolland published his Déclaration de l’Indépendance de l’Esprit, translated into English as ‘Declaration of the Independent Mind’. It was, in part, a response to what he castigated as the dereliction of duty by the intelligentsia of Europe, about which he had said in March 1918:

‘The part they have played in this war has been abominable, unpardonable. Not merely did they do nothing to lessen the mutual lack of understanding, to limit the spread of hatred; with rare exceptions, they did everything in their power to disseminate hatred and to envenom it. To a considerable extent, this war was their war. Thousands of brains were poisoned by their murderous ideologies. Overweeningly self-confident, proud, implacable, they sacrificed millions of young lives to the triumph of the phantoms of their imagination. History will not forget.’

from ‘On Behalf of the International of the Mind’
The Forerunners, 1920, p.185

It is a condemnation that rings with an unsettling clarity today as members of the self-confident, proud and implacable intelligentsia, be it in the People’s Republic of China, the United States, or further afield, poison minds anew with their murderous ideologies.

Stefan Zweig believed that Rolland’s was a clarion call that summed up the recent past and offered a warning to the future:

‘In a world falling to ruin, it was to be the cornerstone of the invisible temple, the refuge of the disillusioned.’

— from Zweig, Romain Rolland: The Man and His Work, p.351

The Versailles Treaty had disastrous consequences, not only for Europe, but for peoples around the world, not least of which was those in the nascent Republic of China, it also helped pave the way for American interventionism. Today, in 2021, Rolland’s century-old appeal to the hearts and minds of thinking men and women resonates still in plangent tones as once more barriers have been thrown up and frontiers closed once. His manifesto was also a challenge that in part reflected the ideas of the sage Ramakrishna, who spoke of the ‘limitless infinite, effulgent ocean of spirit’, and it gives voice to what he expressed as an ‘oceanic feeling’.

Both Romain Rolland and Stefan Zweig believed in the mutual regard among people of conscience, intellectuals and humanists. As Clive James observes, however:

‘The natural state of affairs between exponents of the humanities is one of tension, suspicion, rivalry and, all too often, enmity. Only a catastrophe can bring about, among its survivors, any degree of the mutual regard that Zweig dreamed of so fondly. A great deal of creativity arises from conflict between the creators, and it tends to be annulled when they are driven to make peace by supervening circumstances.’

Clive James, ‘Stefan Zweig’ in his
Cultural Amnesia: Necessary
Memories from History and the Arts
New York: W.W. Norton, 2007, pp.836

As James also notes, Zweig ‘was always looking for concrete, tangible realizations of a coherence that can exist nowhere except in the spirit.’ And so it is that, in 2021, we too seek solace in the invisible republic of the spirit.

— The Editor


Déclaration de l’Indépendance de l’Esprit

Romain Rolland


‘Brain workers, comrades, scattered throughout the world, kept apart for five years by the armies, the censorship and the mutual hatred of the warring nations, now that barriers are falling and frontiers are being reopened, we issue to you a call to reconstitute our brotherly union, but to make of it a new union more firmly founded and more strongly built than that which previously existed.

‘The war has disordered our ranks. Most of the intellectuals placed their science, their art, their reason, at the service of the governments. We do not wish to formulate any accusations, to launch any reproaches. We know the weakness of the individual mind and the elemental strength of great collective currents. The latter, in a moment, swept the former away, for nothing had been prepared to help in the work of resistance. Let this experience, at least, be a lesson to us for the future!

‘First of all, let us point out the disasters that have resulted from the almost complete abdication of intelligence throughout the world, and from its voluntary enslavement to the unchained forces. Thinkers, artists, have added an incalculable quantity of envenomed hate to the plague which devours the flesh and the spirit of Europe. In the arsenal of their knowledge, their memory, their imagination, they have sought reasons for hatred, reasons old and new, reasons historical, scientific, logical, and poetical. They have worked to destroy mutual understanding and mutual love among men. So doing, they have disfigured, defiled, debased, degraded Thought, of which they were the representatives. They have made it an instrument of the passions; and (unwittingly, perchance) they have made it a tool of the selfish interests of a political or social clique, of a state, a country, or a class. Now, when, from the fierce conflict in which the nations have been at grips, the victors and the vanquished emerge equally stricken, impoverished, and at the bottom of their hearts (though they will not admit it) utterly ashamed of their access of mania — now, Thought, which has been entangled in their struggles, emerges, like them, fallen from her high estate.

‘Arise! Let us free the mind from these compromises, from these unworthy alliances, from these veiled slaveries! Mind is no one’s servitor. It is we who are the servitors of mind. We have no other master. We exist to bear its light, to defend its light, to rally round it all the strayed sheep of mankind. Our role, our duty, is to be a centre of stability, to point out the pole star, amid the whirlwind of passions in the night. Among these passions of pride and mutual destruction, we make no choice; we reject them all. Truth only do we honour; truth that is free, frontierless, limitless; truth that knows nought of the prejudices of race or caste. Not that we lack interest in humanity. For humanity we work, but for humanity as a whole. We know nothing of peoples. We know the People, unique and universal; the People which suffers, which struggles, which falls and rises to its feet once more, and which continues to advance along the rough road drenched with its sweat and its blood; the People, all men, all alike our brothers. In order that they may, like ourselves, realise this brotherhood, we raise above their blind struggles the Ark of the Covenant — Mind which is free, one and manifold, eternal.’

R. R.
Spring, 1919



  • Originally published in L’Humanité, 26 June 1919, and included in The Forerunners, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920, p.209

When Liberty Becomes Conscious of Itself

Hegel once said that neither a people nor its government could learn much from history. Had he lived to see the twentieth century, he would have found his belief confirmed after World War I, when the victorious powers, pooling their wisdom in the conference at Versailles, carefully laid down the conditions to ensure that the catastrophe which they had barely survived would be soon repeated. There were observers — John Maynard Keynes was one — who guessed what would happen next. But even among them, few were prescient about the scale of the horror. Thinkers who had seen a million soldiers die concluded that the enemy was war itself. They didn’t foresee that millions of innocent civilians would die next. They thought that peace could be made a principle. But peace is not a principle: merely a desirable state of affairs. The only answer to Hitler was a contrary violence. There were intellectuals who refused to believe it. There were still more intellectuals who refused to believe that in the Soviet Union the real enemy of the people was the Communist Party: the enemy of its own people, and of any other people living under democratically elected governments. It would be wrong to conclude, however, that there was something about being an intellectual that precluded the seeing of the truth. There wasn’t then and there isn’t now. For all but the born prodigy of common sense, opinions are arrived at by the sifting of opinion. The process might occasionally lead to error, but ignorance will lead to error always. So we seek out the best of what is said on weighty matters, and naturally assume that the very best resides amongst what is said well.

… …

How will we know if our earthly paradise is coming to pieces, if we don’t know how it was put together? It was the human mind that got us this far, by considering what had happened in history; by considering the good that had been done, and resolving to do likewise; and by considering the evil, and resolving to avoid its repetition. Much of the evil, alas, was in the mind itself. The mind took account of that too. The mind is the one collectivity that the free individual can thrive in: which is lucky, because live in it he must. Even within ourselves, there are many voices. Hegel, when he said that we can learn little from history, forgot about Hegel, author of the best thing about history that has ever yet been said. He said that history is the story of liberty becoming conscious of itself.

— Clive James, Cultural Amnesia
pp.848-849, 851


周易 · 泰掛 Hexagram XI, I Ching