The Uses of Chinese Texts in Post-Sinocentric Japan

Michael Facius (University of Tokyo)
David Mervart (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)
Niels Bader (Freie Universität Berlin)
Ivo Smits (University of Leiden)
Bloco 1, Piso 0, Sala 0.09
Start time:
31 August, 2017 at 11:00
Session slots:

Short abstract:

Japanese intellectuals harnessed Sinitic writing for a wide range of work. Questioning the artificial modern/premodern divide, the panel showcases influential texts from various genres - poetry, stylistic primer, political treatise -, their intertextual webs, and their cultural and political impact.

Long abstract:

Until quite recently, most historians would have planted Sinitic writing in Japan firmly on the premodern side of the epistemic rupture of the mid-nineteenth century. The waning power of the Qing empire and the superiority of Western science, or so the story went, relegated the Sinitic textual tradition to the fringes of intellectual production. This panel questions the utility of this divide. It presents Japanese case studies of Sinitic texts whose intertextual webs, lines of transmission, and currents of intellectual engagement did not adhere to simple periodization schemes. Some of them were written in Japan, others based on Jesuit sources, yet others harking back to Tang China. What they share is that they left their mark on the Japanese intellectual landscape: A collection of Sinitic poetry often praised as embodying the best of what the form could do; a geopolitical handbook that circulated among foreign policy experts; an edition of medieval prose masters that served as a paradigm for good writing for almost a century. Through these examples, the panel brings out the many purposes that Sinitic writing could fulfill before and after the advent of Western science or the naturalist novel. It argues, in fact, that the usefulness of Sinitic writing in a time of dramatic social, political and epistemic transformations was not accidental. It aims to show in concrete terms the various factors that contributed to its continuing relevance and adaptability. At the same time, it is undeniable that Japanese actors continuously reflected on and reconstrued the Sinitic tradition. From the early nineteenth century onward, scholars were exploring new syntheses between Dutch (later Western), Chinese and indigenous modes of knowledge. And in the later twentieth century, many intellectuals began to see classical Chinese literature and philosophy as ultimately a thing of the past. The panel will also engage with these changing claims and perceptions.