Conference: “The China Experience and the Making of Sinology”

Sinology as an academic discipline or a delimited research field has a rather short history. Apart from a few more or less exceptional professorships in the early 19th century, it is only from around the beginning of the 20th century onwards that academic units specifically devoted to studying Chinese history and society started being rather common in European and North American universities. Even though travelling to China was not as frequent and convenient as it is today, during the last decades of the Qing dynasty and the ensuing Republican period many Westerners did go to China to pursue intellectual or academic projects and spent substantial time there to study, teach or do research. A few countries also established permanent research institutes or schools in China serving the need to study language and culture in situ, such as the Centre franco-chinois d’études sinologiques de Pékin (1940-1953), the Deutschland Institut (1931-1945) and the College of Chinese Studies (1910-1945). Moreover, we also see first examples of collaborative research projects, like the Sino-Swedish expedition to Northwestern China (1927-1935) with both Chinese and foreign participants. The Republican era was also the period in which modern Chinese universities came into being, inspired by various Western models and allowing for a thriving Chinese academic community to take shape, which led to ample opportunities of interaction between Chinese and Western scholars.

This conference wants to shed light on those Europeans and North Americans who came to China with the primary purpose of better understanding its history, culture and society. The focus is on the concrete and discursive aspects of the interactions these men and women had with their Chinese counterparts that is scholars, writers, publicists, academics etc. – be they learned persons committed to keeping alive traditional fields of knowledge, or modernized intellectuals coping with the challenges of the time. How did these representatives of the learned worlds in China and the West perceive each other? In what ways did they interact or collaborate? To which extent were their relationships unbalanced or harmonious, biased by fascination or mutual respect? How did these relationships change over the period in consideration? The issue at stake is not whether their views of each other and their respective cultures were “right” or “wrong”, but rather what impact did the experience of staying in China along with fieldwork discoveries have on the intellectual programs that framed research on China, especially regarding the self-conception of “sinology” as a specific field of research? And conversely, what impact did the time these Western scholars spent in China have on the development of the humanities there?

Program (as of Sept. 13, 2019)


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