History of Concepts in China

Chinese Grundbegriffe and Temporalisation
2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
Room A

  • Joseph Ciaudo, “The Dao of Civilisation(s): Some Remarks on the Temporalisation of Transcultural Political Key Concepts”
  • Federico Brusadelli, “Creating Feudalism: The Temporalisation of fengjian 封建 and Its Political Consequences”
  • Stefan Christ, “The Reconceptualisation of ‘Theatre’ in Twentieth-Century China”
  • Ralph Weber, Discussant

In the introduction to the voluminous Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe dictionary, Reinhart Koselleck explained that the key concepts (Grundbegriffe) of modern German political and sociological lexicon had traversed an important period of change that he labelled the Sattelzeit (1750–1850). Since then, the possible existence of a corresponding Sattelzeit for Chinese concepts, or a period of transition (zhuanxingqi), has been an idea that has had much impact in academic works concerned with late Qing and early Republican era intellectual history. Though one can hardly deny that China experienced at the crossroad of the 19th and 20th an acceleration of change in its political lexicon and the concepts it purveyed, the participants of this panel share the belief that discussing the issue of a Chinese Sattelzeit cannot be limited to a problem of chronology framing. It should go beyond. With this goal in mind, the panellists would like to question the pertinence of a characteristics Koselleck had once identified as one of the four specific features of the Euro-German Sattelzeit: temporalisation. To put it briefly, was the renewed temporalisation of Chinese concepts carried on through processes analogous to what happened in Europe? To start engaging with this issue, the panel will proceed through a gallery of case studies focused on key concepts or networks of concepts in which temporal articulations played an important role. Our goal will be to map out modes of temporalisation in the history of modern Chinese political concepts.

Joseph Ciaudo, “The Dao of Civilisation(s): Some Remarks on the Temporalisation of Transcultural Political Key Concepts”

In past decades, much scholarship has pointed at the fact that the introduction of a western conception of civilisation affected how Chinese thought of themselves as a civilised people, and such a phenomenon triggered a renewal in the theoretical articulation of this concept. In this paper, I wish, however, to explore the history of “civilisation” as a history of a transcultural network of concepts. Setting aside the perennial opposition between traditional and modern concepts or western and Chinese concepts that have paved academic productions, I argue that by a precise analysis in the context of the multiple terms usually translated as civilisation and a meticulous investigation regarding how they articulated expectations toward the future, one can clear a new pathway in the tangled debates regarding these very complex notions. By displaying several texts from authors who dabbled on this theme and who mobilised both local and foreign historical experiences and periods, I try to pinpoint how the problem of temporality and temporalisation may have produced atomisation and diversification of the terminology put to use by Chinese scholars and intellectuals. Constructed as an introductory reflection on the problem of temporalisation of civilisation, this paper discusses several examples from the end of the 19th century and early 20th century taken from various political and academic texts in order to clarify the heuristic challenge here at hand.

Federico Brusadelli, “Creating Feudalism: The Temporalisation of fengjian 封建 and Its Political Consequences”

In the late imperial and early republican decades, facing the collapse of the Qing, a growing number of Chinese activists and intellectuals embraced the ideal of local self-government (difang zizhi 地方自治) as the keystone for a federal (lianbang 联邦) China. They were contrasting the concept of “local government” as hierarchically controlled (rhetorically, when not formally) by the centre, advocating a different model in which legitimacy would flow from the bottom to the top. Federalism, however, missed the opportunity to become a viable option for China in the mid-1920s. Its conceptual decline is reflected by the fate of the term fengjian 封建: used in the imperial age by the opponents of monarchic authoritarianism as the venerable model for a more decentralised political system, fengjian was also employed by modern federalists to anchor their project in the tradition. Under the pressure of linear and progressive understandings of history—and of Marxist teleology—the term started translating the derogatory concept of “feudalism”: it was thus negatively “temporalised” and “politicised”. The present paper will try to trace this process of temporalisation, the concurrent demise of fengjian as a “backward” concept and the subsequent negative judgement on “federal” aspirations. A special attention will be placed on how Mao Zedong changed his narrative of “localism” from a positive assessment of provincial patriotism to his praise for a centralised political order.

Stefan Christ, “The Reconceptualisation of ‘Theatre’ in Twentieth Century China”

The Chinese concept of theatre underwent a profound transformation in the threshold period of the first half of the twentieth century, shaped by more general trends in conceptual change such as temporalisation and nationalisation. New understandings of history and social change led to a distinction of “old” and “new” theatre. The New Culture Movement, in particular, wanted to replace the “old” operas with the “new” drama, in order to reform and modernise society. At the same time, attempts to define the Chinese nation led to the (re)invention of a “traditional national culture” and, consequently, to a re-evaluation of the “old” Chinese opera and the formation of the new concept of xiqu. The present paper will trace these conceptual changes, focusing especially on different aspects of temporalisation, and thereby show that not only political and social key concepts were affected by it, but also concepts related to art and aesthetics.

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Room A
Chinese Grundbegriffe and Temporalisation