AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 282

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Session 282: Beyond Cultural Essentialism: Neo-Orientalism in Chinese Studies

Organizer: Edward G. Slingerland, University of British Columbia, Canada

Chair: Longxi Zhang, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

At least two strands of Orientalism can be identified in the early reception of information about China trickling into Europe in the 17th century. A negative strand, exemplified by Hegel and Montesquieu, focused on a supposed lack of individualism, psychological interiority, rationality or sense of transcendence, all of which were portrayed as contributing to a culture mired in despotism and slavishness. The other strand, exemplified by Voltaire and Leibniz, embraced many of the same content claims about “the Chinese mind,” but put a normatively positive spin on them: the Otherness of the Chinese was a portrayed as a sorely needed corrective to some of the flaws plaguing “Western” thought. The purpose of this panel is to document the continued presence of this positive strand of Orientalism--dubbed "neo-Orientalism"--in contemporary Chinese studies, explore its motives, questions its principle claims, and suggest why it is desirable to move beyond such cultural essentialism. One of the papers (Brown) juxtaposes a long-standing theoretical debate in China concerning statecraft with the claim that there is “no theory outside the West,” two (Slingerland, Goldin) focus on the myth of Chinese mind-body “holism,” and one (McDonald) examines claims concerning the supposedly unique nature of the Chinese character as a mode of writing. The papers will each be limited to 20 minutes in length in order to leave a generous amount of time for audience participation Q&A, which is to be guided by a widely-respected theorist on the topic of cross-cultural comparison (Zhang).

Theory in Asia
Miranda D. Brown, University of Michigan, USA

Historians of China have long engaged the great scripts of Western social theory, using the Chinese experience as a limiting case for theories propounded by thinkers as Marx, Weber, and Foucault. Yet long before the twentieth century, China had a long tradition of interrogating empires, which is often referred to as the debate between junxian (the imperial) and fengjian (feudal). Such a tradition engaged the most sophisticated and empirically-informed thinkers of China between the Han and Tang, as well as theorists of state from Japan and Korea, who saw junxian and fengjian as providing a universal framework of analysis. In this paper, I ask why have historians overlooked the analytic value of junxian and fengjian. Is it because the debates of junxian and fengjian fail as theory? Or perhaps can we trace the exclusion of Chinese critical traditions to larger tendencies within European and American social thought. In making a case for the latter, I not only illuminate the potential pay-offs of engaging Chinese theorists, but also call attention to the role played by conservative European theorists who formulated the notion of ‘No theory outside of the West’ in reaction to the Orientalists of their day.

Who’s Afraid of Chinese Ghosts?
Paul R. Goldin, University of Pennsylvania, USA

In the study of traditional Chinese philosophy, the very suggestion of a mind-body dichotomy has attained the status of a taboo. This is because the most authoritative textbooks, insofar as they discuss the issue at all, agree that no such problem ever haunted Chinese philosophy, and that reading it into the Chinese context represents an unwarranted imposition of Western concerns. In the present paper, I shall challenge this view by considering the metaphysical status of ghosts in classical Chinese traditions, especially through references to spirit possession. Assessing such sources poses interpretive challenges; for example, in the well-known “impersonation” rite, amply documented in the canonical Odes, one must decide whether the “impersonator” (shi) is truly understood as receiving the ancestor’s spirit within his body, or whether the rite merely recreates what the ancestral spirit might say if given such an opportunity. Although it is impossible to settle this question without being able to enter into the minds of the ancient Chinese themselves, a consideration of contemporary ritual practice will show that a conception of disembodied spirits who can—and do—invade people’s bodies is by no means out of place in early Chinese religious consciousness.

Neo-Orientalism and the Myth of Chinese Holism
Edward G. Slingerland, University of British Columbia, Canada

This talk will focus on a particular trend in the contemporary study of Chinese thought that could be termed “neo-Orientalism”: classically Orientalist in content, but novel in the sense that the normative valuation is flipped from negative to positive. Chinese holism is positively contrasted with alienated Western dualism; Chinese collectivism is held up as an antidote to the fragmented anomie of modern Western life; “organismic” concepts of causality or ontology are favorably contrasted with Western reductionism or abstraction. The talk will argue that, while there is a kernel of truth to all of the claims that can be classified under the rubric of “holism,” in their extreme form they obscure, rather than illuminate, both our view of early Chinese thought and the potential contribution it can make to contemporary debates, and are moreover based upon extreme forms of social or cultural constructivism that are both internally incoherent and empirically implausible. This will be illustrated by debunking one particular claim about early Chinese holism—the claim that the early Chinese lack any sense of mind-body dualism—by focusing not only on archeological and textual evidence, but also on relevant evidence from cognitive science. The talk will conclude by suggesting that both classic and neo-Orientalism are symptoms of a deeper problem in the humanities that can be ameliorated by adopting a more consilient, vertically-integrated approach to the study of human culture.

“Character Fetishization” in Chinese Studies
Edward McDonald, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Debates on the nature of the Chinese writing system, particularly whether Chinese characters may or may not legitimately be called “ideographs,” continue to bedevil Chinese studies. This paper considers examples of what are referred to as “discourses of character fetishization,” whereby an inordinate status is discursively created for Chinese characters in the interpretation of Chinese language, thought, and culture. The author endeavors to analyze and critique the presuppositions and implications of such discourses, with the aim of defusing the passions that have been aroused by this issue, and showing the way toward a more comprehensive and grounded understanding of the nature of Chinese characters, both as a writing system and in relation to Chinese culture and thought.