- Do We Need to Rethink Sinology?Views from the Eastern Bloc
Why is it important to understand the sinological traditions in non-English speaking worlds, including these from former socialist countries? First, we believe distinctive lines of scholarly traditions still hold significant influence on the current agendas and future developments of the field. More importantly, a better understanding of these divergent scholarly traditions will not only provide a different view on the current status of China Studies in the English-speaking world but also new insights into potential methodological alternatives. We perceive this special issue to be a constructive first step in this direction for promoting in-depth discussion and scholarly dialogue on this issue. Below is a response paper from Professor Fabio Lanza, a historian at the University of Arizona. While highly appreciating the importance and value of these essays, he raises the critical question about the definition of “sinology” and further discusses the dualism of “sinology v.s. area studies.”
This collection of essays on the history of “sinology,” or “China studies” (I will return to this distinction later) is a very welcome and needed addition to our understanding of the global development of our “field.” For at least four decades American scholars have rightfully been engaged in extensive discussions and continuing introspection on the evolution of [End Page 155] area studies in North America, and recent new contributions have dissected Australian and European interests in the PRC during the Maoist and post-Maoist years. The essays in this issue provide a view from the other side of the Iron Curtain—when it still existed—and of the consequences of its demise for China scholars in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Mongolia, and Russia/USSR. From these contributions, we catch glimpses of the lives of academics who were, at times, secluded from the place they were studying (much like their U.S. counterparts), but who were also connected, if not in obvious and linear ways, to each other within the Eastern bloc and to their European and American peers. We receive insights into the traditions of scholarship and modes of intellectual production that, although distinctive, were continuously influenced by swings in the global political landscape and also by the resilience of certain attitudes (the old European philological tradition), by changes in public opinion (some of the work by China scholars was translation and “popularization”), and by the ideological ebbs and flows within disciplinary approaches (the Asiatic mode of production vs. “feudal remnants”). We learn, for example, that, quite surprisingly, while financial support and state attitudes toward China studies were susceptible to the vagaries in the relationship with the PRC, sinology could also offer a retreat, a somewhat safe intellectual escape, from the political winds that ravaged the Communist bloc. In a sense, immersing oneself in the intricacies of Chinese philology—an attitude that in the West has been justifiably criticized for embodying the scholar’s separation from reality—could produce a different and much healthier form of sheltering in the Eastern bloc.
Maybe it is because I was trained first as a sinologist in Italy and later as a historian of China in the United States, but it seems to me that it is precisely this disciplinary divide—and how we conceive of it—that is the intellectual crux of several articles in this collection, starting from the very terms employed. “Sinology” here is the name of a scholarly practice that allegedly unifies all the cases described in this volume. Yet that practice has also been radically criticized for decades and it seems counter-productive (if not impossible) to recover anything under that name—even as a descriptive category. As Anna Rudakowska notes in her essay about Poland, “sinology” does not have a fixed meaning because disciplinary boundaries and the production of knowledge are always shifting; but also because, I would add, the pre-supposed object of “sinology” itself (some version of “China”) is vague, undefined, [End Page 156] problematic, and ultimately unreachable. In this sense, this issue’s focus on “sinology” is an ill-defined constraint because much of what the authors are examining can be better categorized under different forms of knowledge production, ranging...