- Sinologism: An Alternative to Orientalism and Postcolonialism by Ming Dong Gu
In his new book, Sinologism: An Alternative to Orientalism and Postcolonialism, Ming Dong Gu critically discusses the process of knowledge production about China and Chinese civilization. As a distinguished scholar of humanities, Gu is well versed in a great variety of scholarly disciplines that deal with this subject, and his book is therefore an important contribution to those interested in academic approaches to China. The word ‘Sinologism’ is Gu’s coinage of what is deficient in such approaches. As an alienated variety of Sinology, and like scientism, Sinologism appears when scholars display prejudices, biases, and other unwanted cultural hierarchies in their work regarding China and Chinese civilization. At the end of the book, Gu defines Sinologism as
an undeclared but tacitly administered institutionalization of the ways of observing China from the perspective of Western epistemology that refuses, or is reluctant, to view China on its own terms, and of doing scholarship on Chinese materials and producing knowledge on Chinese civilization in terms of Western methodology that tends to disregard the real conditions of China and reduce the complexity of Chinese civilization into simplistic patterns of development modelled on those of the West.(pp. 218–219)
There is, in Gu’s words, a “cultural unconscious” at work in China scholarship, where China is being forced, somehow or other, into the categories of Western scholarship in terms of epistemology and methodology, and Gu painstakingly points out numerous fields and subjects where this happens, mostly in the humanities and social sciences.
However, Gu is careful not to point a finger too much at Western scholars, and is adamant that many Chinese scholars fall for the same trap, employing Western categories to understand China. Gu is also careful to distinguish between Sinologism on the one side, and Orientalism and postcolonial discourse on the other. While he [End Page 997] acknowledges that Sinologism shares some characteristics with these two, it is the academic orientation that separates Sinologism from the more political orientation of Orientalism and postcolonial discourse. Sinologism is primarily concerned with criticism of academic practices, but of course Gu realizes that politics and ideologies play a large role in the distortion of good academic practices.
Gu’s book is an attempt to formulate, via the uncovering of the prejudices and biases in China scholarship, a different, alternative theory for such scholarship that would take China “on its own terms.” However, this theory does not really come from the ground, as Gu spends most of his time uncovering the Sinologistic tendencies in other scholars’ works. He does this eloquently, but often in a repetitive fashion. For example, there are numerous passages throughout the book that deal with the difference between Sinologism and Orientalism and postcolonialism in much the same way, making the same point again and again that Sinologism is mostly academic, whereas the other “isms” are mostly political in nature. Gu has rightfully felt the need to distinguish these in detail, but the price seems to be that the effort to develop his alternative theory gets stranded in the reiterated and undoubtedly right claim that good scholarship should be objective and disinterested so far as this is possible.
But this claim is exactly what seems to be problematic, as Gu acknowledges that scholarship, especially in the humanities and social sciences, is never really such. To solve this problem he employs Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s hermeneutics to advance his alternative theory. Gu’s form of hermeneutics acknowledges that theories are never fully objective, and, in line with postmodern criticisms on such claims to objectivity, Gu argues eloquently that continued refinement and modification of the “prejudices” that are inevitable will lead to better interpretations of China. But in the end what this boils down to is really not much more than a call for the return to the ideal of scholarship in general. His discussions of the proposed alternative theory are limited to a couple of pages in the middle of the book...