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  • The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making
  • Aminda M. Smith
The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making. By Lydia H. Liu. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004. 334 pp. $54.50 (cloth); $22.50 (paper).

In this elegant and compelling monograph, Lydia Liu makes interesting contributions to two central and ongoing discussions in the historiography of empire and the modern world. Her more specific subject, [End Page 771] the "clash" between the British and Qing empires in the nineteenth century, allows Liu to reflect on the nature of the Sino-British diplomatic and military battles that were long cast, albeit in many different ways, as resulting from an utter incommensurability between China and "the West." This book joins those of other China historians who, in recent years, have argued against the "clash of civilizations" thesis, but Liu takes the old conversation in a promising new direction by discussing the centrality to Sino-British relations of the very attempt to create commensurability between the two. Armed with her detailed study of the Sino-British example, Liu grapples with a larger theoretical trend in the scholarship on colonialism and empire: the critique of sovereign thinking. Engaging with political philosophers who have attempted to deconstruct the "naturalness" of the sovereign will, Liu argues that a focus on language reveals particular insights about the construction of one of modernity's central "truths." Demonstrating that "the battle of words and translations" was "central, not peripheral, to the sovereign will that had driven the Opium Wars," Liu probes the notions of universality and commensurability that underlie "the problematic of sovereign rights in our rapidly changing world" (pp. 4–5).

In six eclectic chapters, Liu investigates several instances of translingual encounter in which linguistic signs acquired new meanings as they moved between languages. After introducing, in chapter 1, her theoretical framework and historical context (the long nineteenth century and the "semiotic turn in international politics" that century witnessed) Liu reconstructs, in chapters 2 and 3, the textual history of the Chinese character yi and its translation into English as "barbarian." Here Liu introduces the term "super-sign" to describe the "linguistic monstrosity" that results when, in the course of translation and translingual communication, two or more words are bound together, their individual meanings transformed by and dependent on their encounters with one another. In this case, the negative connotations that were produced when the British translated yi as "barbarian" created anxiety and anger that had tragic consequences. British indignation at the perceived insult fueled many of the fatal skirmishes that led to the Opium Wars.

Chapters 4 and 6 offer a sustained meditation on the centrality of translation to international relations, with chapter 4 arguing that translators were diplomats, both figuratively and literally, whose agency shaped the outcome of inter-cultural interactions. In these chapters, Liu explores the creation of more "super-signs," including those formed through the translation into Chinese of the English words "rights" (quan) and "sovereign rights" (zhuquan) as well as the translation into English of the Chinese words Zhongguo (China) and zi (word). She [End Page 772] argues, quite convincingly, that in an attempt to translate concepts without counterparts, translators and linguists created "hypothetical equivalencies," which not only altered the already heterogeneous meanings of the original words but also created a sense of translatability, or commensurability, between the two languages, the two cultures, and the two empires that was fundamentally constructive of the emerging notion of an international community with universal laws and rights.

In chapter 5 and her conclusion, Liu supplements her primary study on translation and empire with explorations of the connections between sovereignty, subjectivities, object fetishes, and nostalgia. Chapter 5 treats imperial gift exchange in tandem with an analysis of the female sovereign as an object of desire, examining missionary women and women's rights, the New Testament as a symbol of empire, and the complex relationship of Chinese living abroad to the Qing and European empires. Suggesting the possibility that Empress Dowager Cixi was a "symbolic counterpart" to Britain's Queen Victoria, Liu explicates the gendering of ideas about sovereignty as they were imagined, articulated, and defended...


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