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  • Doing Sinology in Former Socialist States, Reflections from the Czech Republic, Mongolia, Poland, and Russia:Introduction
  • Chih-yu Shih (bio)

The study of China in each of the former socialist states has a long tradition in the humanities. Before the socialist period, the philological tradition was based largely on the legacy of French sinology. During the socialist period, China Studies adopted scientific principles in accordance with Marxist perspectives, but these were primarily superimposed without any intellectual roots among sinologists. Such was the case in Czechoslovakia, Mongolia, Poland, Russia, Vietnam, and the other socialist environments. The humanities were considered part of scientific research, thus making for a situation quite different from that in Western, primarily American, institutions of higher education, where the social sciences and the humanities were two different kinds of basic research, with their own epistemological assumptions and methodological approaches.

In the West, especially the United States, the field of China Studies is torn between the sciences and humanities, to such an extent that students of China have to choose a discipline before they embark on a research design. Intrinsic to such a decision are the methods and raw materials they will employ. If they want to be scientific, their research should not involve an in-depth reading between the lines of classical [End Page 1] texts. Rather, they should present their subject matter in a universally applicable framework that renders China’s uniqueness immediately apparent and that supplies a satisfactory explanation for such a difference. In contrast, under socialism although the humanities and China Studies were deeply concerned with the scholars’ interpretations of the original texts, the scholars themselves were considered to be scientists.

A Sinological Science?

In the socialist countries, Marxism or Marxist doctrine provided a foundation for the scientific quest. Although socialist Poland, Mongolia, the Czech Republic, and Russia have ceased to enforce the Marxist doctrine of proletarian democracy, scientific curiosity and the institutionalization of scientific research remain viable. In fact, these countries continue to operate an integrated system of science academies. Their interactions with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which have remained uninterrupted under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, still follow Soviet-era patterns. But in the post-Soviet era, the choice of a research agenda is no longer an exclusively top-down affair. The liberation of the scientific agenda from the orthodox principles of the Communist Party has expanded the scope of sinologists’ intellectual endeavors. Scientific curiosity, rather than the needs of policy makers, now drives much of the research on China. Even though many Russian and Mongolian sinologists remain closely in touch with their respective governments, sinologists at the Academy of Sciences in the Czech Republic and in Poland for the most part have resisted policy-driven research agendas. In any case, the humanities and the sciences in the formerly socialist states do not often conform to the dogma of Cartesian disciplinary differentiation that heavily defines the environment in which Western China scholars operate.

The transition to post-socialist scholarship has been smoother than would have been the case if scientific Marxism had succeeded in seriously harming the methodology of the humanities. But sinologists themselves did suffer greatly. This was because their subject matter aroused suspicions about potential politically incorrect feelings toward China during the three decades of the Sino-Soviet split. If such suspicions indeed proved to be correct, the positive feelings toward China may be the results of long-term engagement in the wisdom and imagination of [End Page 2] the classical readings. However, the sinologists’ capacity for interpreting texts was also useful to governments in need of political and social intelligence on China. Therefore, the purge of sinology as a discipline was primarily for political reasons and it did not spill over into the realm of methodology. Sinologists suffered the same fate regardless of what methodology they chose to adopt. Marxist sensitivities about the progression of history, for example, linger on as the nature of Chinese productive relationships continues to puzzle Marxist economists. China, defined either by the classical humanities or by a scientific mode of production, transcends the Cold War scholarship on a territorially fixed China. This may be the...


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