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The Epochal Concept of "Early Modernity" and the Intellectual History of Late Imperial China

In response to the recent historiographical interests in testing the cross-cultural tenability of the epochal concept of "early modernity," this essay ponders the usefulness of the notion in Chinese intellectual history, focusing on the historical dynamics of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century China. It does so by exploring three interrelated issues derived from the intellectual experiences of "early modern" Europe: the nature of knowledge, the sense of the past, and the claim of the ultimate grounds for ethico-moral values. The article concludes that late imperial Chinese thought displayed a historical trajectory quite different from that of Europe. It is thus problematic to dislodge the notion of early modernity from its European moorings and demonstrate its Chinese variety.