Sinology and the rise of China today

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Author: Wang Gungwu, NUS and ANU

The first Sinologists I met in the 1950s were Europeans working in the Orientalist tradition. They had inherited two centuries of scholarship on the languages and cultures of North Africa and Asia but were by this time primarily interested in China. There were very few scholars in the field and some of their work served the needs of European imperial powers. The best of them enriched our knowledge of the Eurasian continent.

A woman wearing a face mask walks on the Qianmen pedestrian street in the morning after the extended Lunar New Year holiday caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak, in Beijing, China 10 February, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins).

A woman wearing a face mask walks on the Qianmen pedestrian street in the morning after the extended Lunar New Year holiday caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak, in Beijing, China 10 February, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins).

During the 19th century, Western admiration for Chinese civilisation gave way to condescension and curiosity about how it became irrelevant so quickly. Most Chinese scholars rejected this Orientalist perspective, maintaining that their heritage was invaluable and that lessons from the past could help them deal with present challenges.

Sinology dominated Western studies of China until shortly after World War II, when a new communist China was seen as an enemy during the Cold War. The United States began providing new funding to encourage US social scientists to collaborate with sinologists, not least to find out how China’s past was relevant to its modernisation ambitions.

Where the European powers saw their modern achievements establish universal standards for civilisation, China’s political elites felt their country’s future still depended on key parts of their distinctive value system. That faith was tested when civil war and Japanese invasion came together to destroy the Nationalist regime. Efforts to develop a modern Chinese scholarship came to nothing. Instead, the past was rewritten to fit a Marxist-Leninist framework and the study of China entered a state of confusion.

Deng Xiaoping’s reforms after 1978 promised a fresh start. The resumption of academic exchanges abroad enabled PRC scholars to explore new methodologies. There was even recognition that the Chinese who had settled abroad could provide alternative perspectives on China and what being Chinese meant.

A more pluralist Sinology began to emerge in the 1980s. During this time scholars in the PRC were given more space to broaden their interests, and conferences in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland on Hanxue–Sinology made it possible to talk about ‘International Sinology’.

Of particular interest was a 1991 conference at the National University of Singapore, when China scholars in a multicultural setting invited scholars from the PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan to share their experiences with a new kind of Hanxue. The location was neither Western nor Chinese, and the presentations showcased many different ideas about Sinology. Some saw it as an inseparable partner of China studies, while others saw Guoxue, the mainland-Chinese equivalent, as a set of distinctive approaches parallel to the new paths of Sinology.

China is now studied in several different ways: as an ancient civilisation rising again after a spectacular fall, as a rising power that is challenging Western dominance and as an exceptional kind of modernising nation-state ambitious to regain the respect it once enjoyed. These perspectives reflect the pluralism that followed when China studies became increasingly globalised.

There are now at least three levels of cooperative effort that scholars of China can draw on: the best work of generations of Sinologists, modern Guoxue scholarship in China and the new Sinology that includes the work of social scientists.

The first turning point came when Guoxue scholars saw value in the work of sinologists, in particular the archaeological skills they introduced to China.

The second turning point came when Chinese scholars, whose Guoxue heritage was rooted in the jingshi tradition of serving the state, began to see that modern social science represented the Western equivalent of Jingshi knowledge that was directed towards current problems of material progress. This led to the realisation that strict training in modern academic disciplines was also essential for China’s future progress, notably in new subjects like economics, law and administration, sociology, geography and psychology.

When classical scholars within and outside China became familiar with the methodologies of the social sciences, they extended the depth and breadth of China scholarship. This also enabled the modern Chinese state to connect with its past and build on its continuities.

But there is another dimension of this plurality that calls for concern. China is now seen by the United States as a threat to its supremacy. In such a context, the knowledge gathered by pluralist Sinology could serve as a weapon for self-defence or for intelligent offence. Even as international Sinologists try to work together, they are travelling on a road with many danger signs.

Sinologists will have to learn how to wield their knowledge to defend the integrity of their profession and to help put out the fires that are set alight by policy-determined biases. That task will always be difficult. But it remains an unshirkable responsibility for pluralist Sinologists to confront the challenge.

Wang Gungwu AO CBE is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and University Professor at the National University of Singapore.

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