- Why China Did Not Have a Renaissance–And Why That Matters: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue by Thomas Maissen and Barbara Mittler
In 1907 a young D. T. Suzuki described the Song Dynasty as a "renaissance," when after a "long slumber of one thousand years" Buddhism "stirred up the [End Page 220] Chinese nerve to respond to the new stimuli."1 In poetically reattaching the concept to other cultural, and sometimes social, movements, such inventive scholars have made the "renaissance" do heavy labour, often far from home. Rebirth gets reborn, again and again.
Although the half century after Jules Michelet brought the Italian "renaissance" into our professional lexicon saw its casual use in a variety of contexts (such as Robert Brown's 1894 reference to an "African renaissance" fuelled by imperialist "philanthropy, greed, and a love of science"),2 renaissance production reached a new professional stage with the American historian Dana C. Munro's 1906 essay proposing a "Renaissance of the Twelfth Century."3 If we look at English, German, and French works, by the 1930s the Byzantine, Carolingian, and (American) Southern Renaissances were commonplace in historical scholarship, and pioneer entrepreneurs had brought the concept to Provence, Scotland, the Yiddish, and the Ottonians. In 1914, William Nesbit could not resist the "Sumerian renaissance," when the Mesopotamia of the twenty-first century b.c. rediscovered the Mesopotamia of the twenty-third century b.c.4 Since then the concept has found new footholds in the wider world and in more recent historical periods: We have had Renaissances described as Bengali, Tamil, American, Arabic (Al-Nadha), (European) Neo-, Nepal Bhasa, Harlem, San Francisco, (British) Urban, Native American, and Maori.
With that professionalization and proliferation came reflection, and sometimes doubt, embarrassment, or insistence, about the re-purposing of the term for contexts so far from Alberti's Florence. A 1918 article refers to the "Hawaiian Renaissance, whatever that may be."5 Thirty years after the first appearance of the "Timurid renaissance," Jean Aubin questioned both words: "Mais, au fait, renaissance de quoi? Et en quoi timouride?"6 Even that first essay by Munro had anticipated the doubt and offered a defence: His "twelfth-century Renaissance" was "misleading" in the "narrow sense" of classical revival, but "justified" in its "true," wider, "meaning of new life."7 Robin Cormack concluded his chapter on "Middle Byzantine Art" by calling for a "clear vision" of the "renaissance" concept's "strengths and weaknesses as a frame for understanding."8 In one science-fiction novel, a cardinal in the Borgia Apartments in the thirty-second century still insists that "we are in the midst of a renaissance every bit as real" as the original.9
This volume, the first in a new series of "Critical Readings in Global Intellectual History," is striking in a variety of ways. It is history, philosophy of history, and history of the philosophy of history. It is a dialogue—one well aware of the intellectual and rhetorical importance of dialogue in Chinese and Western traditions—between a sinologist and a Renaissance historian. The cover illustration is a collage of Foyin and Aristotle in dialogue, a radical juxtaposition of two philosophers some 1,300 years apart, and two images some [End Page 221] 450 years apart. This is a book well chosen to launch this series on its quest for debates from different regions, and for new genres. Beyond the titular question, it asks how to do global history in a way unobstructed by Eurocentric norms, and how to use dialogue as a new old way to think through intellectual problems.
I had picked up Why China expecting an investigation of Chinese history that searches for Renaissance-approximate periods, evaluates whether they count, and explains why in social, cultural, and economic terms. Such an enterprise would complement a recent Journal of World History article arguing that many of the "breakthroughs" associated with the Italian Renaissance were anticipated in China by...