The idea of the nation has been considered to have delivered political modernity from its native Europe to the rest of the world. The same applies, though more implicitly, to those paradoxes inherent to the nationalist ideology – that between universalism and national particularity and that between liberal nationalism and imperialism. This article seeks to complicate these theses by looking at the interpretations of nationalism, imperialism, and cosmopolitanism provided by Liang Qichao, one of the most influential Chinese intellectuals in early twentieth century, during his exile in Japan when increasingly exposed to the encounter between worlds. This reading also engages with the wider debates on modernity/modernities in non-Western societies through showing that neither the “consumers of modernity” approach nor the “creative adaptations” approach can be easily applied here. I argue that the various tensions, contingencies and historical situatedness in Liang's accounts of the nation-state structure represent and constitute the paradox of the structure itself. They also shed light on contemporary debates about the limits of our political imagination in the misnamed “global politics” beyond the false opposition between nationalism and cosmopolitanism.