- Between Knowledge and Politics: Reflections on Reading Ming Dong Gu’s Sinologism: An Alternative to Orientalism and Postcolonialism
Having successfully invited many internationally renowned scholars in the humanities and the social sciences to give lectures to Chinese intellectuals two years ago, I toyed with the idea of inviting top European sinologists to give lectures in China. Because of their influence on China studies, this project would have been highly significant in promoting Sino-European cultural exchanges. Therefore, when I met a French sinologist at the Sorbonne, I offered him an invitation on the spot. To my surprise, he turned it down without hesitation. Considering the alacrity with which invited scholars had accepted my invitations in the past, his response made me wonder about the reasons for his refusal. Could it be that he wanted to maintain the images of China that he had formed in his mind and did not wish to see his imagined China collapse when he was brought face to face with the Chinese reality? During our conversation, I noticed that he took much pride in the fact that his scholarship had been praised by noted Chinese intellectuals. This might partly explain his unwillingness to visit China in person. After further conversation, I came away with the impression that for some sinologists like him the main purpose in doing research on China does not seem to be concerned with understanding China in the real sense but with sustaining their already formed method of knowledge production about China, which has been characterized as “Sinologism.”
In present-day China, a substantial amount of Western sinology has been introduced into Chinese academia and has exerted considerable influence on guoxue (China studies) — so much so that there has appeared a sinological approach to China studies that has been described as fanghanxue (imitative sinology). In view of the blind imitation of sinological approaches, some far-sighted scholars have warned against a “sinological mindset” among Chinese intellectuals. My encounter with that sinologist reminds me of Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism and his idea of “traveling theory”: in the process of globalization, the fluidity of scholarship not only boosts the one-way flow of Western knowledge to non-Western countries but also gives rise to the habitual acceptance by non-Western intellectuals of the Western episteme. In the unbalanced structure of cultural exchanges, one problem is at stake: what would happen to Chinese academia if Western sinology’s “traveling” should become a mass spectacle? [End Page 1273]
Recently, Dr. Ming Dong Gu, a professor of Chinese and comparative literature at the University of Texas at Dallas, published a new book, Sinologism: An Alternative to Orientalism and Postcolonialism (New York: Routledge, 2013). For me, the advent of this book is extremely timely. For on the one hand it pertains to cultural issues related to the international politics accompanying the perceptions of a “rising China”; on the other hand it brings about reflections on the impact of Sinologism from a critical point of view and provides some answers to my questions.
Gu’s book is clearly indebted to Said’s Orientalism and postcolonial theory, but it departs radically from the source of inspiration. It addresses a series of important questions in China-West studies, which include:
Why, for centuries, have the West and the world continuously produced knowledge about China that deviates from the realities of Chinese civilization? Why, since China was forced to enter the modern world after the Opium War (1839–1842), have Chinese intellectuals oscillated between exaggerated eulogies and masochistic condemnation of their own culture on the one hand, and between unhealthy fetishization and irrational dismissal of Western theories, paradigms, and approaches to scholarship and knowledge on the other? And why have some of the world’s most sagacious thinkers and most discerning critics expressed ideas of and commentaries on Chinese intellectual thought, literature, arts, and society, which border on fallacies or are downright wrong?(p. 1)
Gu argues that the existing paradigms based on Orientalism and postcolonialism cannot adequately account for the problems in China-West studies. He suggests that the misperceptions of China by the West and misinterpretations of Chinese culture by the Chinese themselves do not...