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  • The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making
  • John Schrecker (bio)
Lydia H. Liu . The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. xiii, 318 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 0-674-01307-7.

In this original and significant book, Professor Lydia Liu investigates how the clash between the Western powers and the Qing Empire manifested itself at linguistic and symbolic levels. Specifically, it focuses on the West's efforts to assert its sovereignty—its position of dominance—over China, while that nation worked to defend its own authority. Liu presents her material through a number of case studies, ranging from treaty making to textbooks on grammar. Her basic point—"civilizations do not clash, but empires do"—is particularly relevant today, when the political and national bases of international conflict are often vaguely ascribed to cultural clashes rather than to clear matters of politics and self-interest.

In the first chapter, "The Semiotic Turn in International Politics," Liu champions the use of semiotic theory (the study of signs) to analyze international relations, while also arguing that the two have actually interacted. She demonstrates that the field of semiotics itself owed much to the confrontation between the imperialist West and the rest of the world. Thus, the founders of the discipline (the American, Charles Sanders Peirce, and the Swiss, Ferdinand de Saussure) were influenced by contemporary advances in technology and the military. In a telling example, Liu describes the 1851 mnemonic method Samuel Morse devised for learning his telegraph code: "A" (dot-dash) was to be memorized by associating it with "ag-ainst," and "B" (dash-dot-dot-dot), by associating it with "bar-bari-an"—not a trivial choice of words at a time when the West had come to view other cultures as primitive.

Ascriptions of barbarity emerge as a central theme in the next two chapters, "The Birth of a Super-Sign" and "Figuring Sovereignty," which contain the most important new findings in The Clash of Empires. Liu shows that it was only in the era of the Opium War that England began to insist that the Chinese character yi 夷 was insulting because it meant "barbarian." Prior to the 1830s, the British had understood the word in its traditional sense of "foreigner," carrying no derogatory overtones. Connecting yi with barbarian created what Liu calls a "hetero-linguistic super-sign," a new concept that joins ideas in two or more cultures and, in turn, impacts both. China resisted the new super-sign yi/barbarian, but by 1858 Britain had enshrined it in the Treaty of Tianjin through a clause that forbade Chinese official documents to refer to the British as yi.

Moreover, to undergird her point, Liu demonstrates that the Manchus, even in the midst of the literary purges of the eighteenth century, and always sensitive to being considered barbarians, did not object to being referred to as yi. They [End Page 157] took the term as it had always been understood: people not from the traditional core area of China. The Qing also emphasized that it had united that area, the Zhongguo, with the surrounding outer areas and created a single united polity—as indeed it had.

Linking yi and barbarian displayed England's insecurities, of course, and projected its own attitudes toward China onto China. The connection served to suggest that the chief problem in Sino-Western relations was that China looked down on the West, when, in fact, the reverse was true. The super-sign has also had remarkable influence and staying power. Most of us coming of age in the mid-twentieth century were still taught that yi means barbarian. To this day the mistranslation is trotted out to argue a unique Chinese sense of cultural superiority, when in fact it emerged from issues that were not cultural at all, but matters of international power. Liu makes a similar point with regard to the epithet fan gui 番鬼 ("foreign devil") for foreigners, showing that the term came into common use among Chinese only in the face of British aggression, and not because of ageold cultural prejudices.

Given Liu's keen awareness...


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