Skip navigation
The Australian National University

New Sinology

Geremie R Barmé

First published in the Chinese Studies Association of Australia Newsletter
Issue No. 31, May 2005

In March of this year [2005] I launched with my colleague Dr Bruce Doar a web-based publication, China Heritage Newsletter (Online Quarterly) [now renamed to China Heritage Quarterly]. Located at The Australian National University, this online publication is part of the China Heritage Project. In the description of our Project—which is still very much in its infancy—I coin the term 'New Sinology'.

The concept behind this rather nebulous expression, 'New Sinology', is a simple one, and one that to many colleagues who are engaged with things Chinese will not appear to be particularly 'new'. For the description of the China Heritage Project, I speak of 'New Sinology' as being descriptive of a 'robust engagement with contemporary China' and indeed with the Sinophone world in all of its complexity, be it local, regional or global. It affirms a conversation and intermingling that also emphasizes strong scholastic underpinnings in both the classical and modern Chinese language and studies, at the same time as encouraging an ecumenical attitude in relation to a rich variety of approaches and disciplines, whether they be mainly empirical or more theoretically inflected. In seeking to emphasize innovation within Sinology by recourse to the word 'new', it is nonetheless evident that I continue to affirm the distinctiveness of Sinology as a mode of intellectual inquiry.

It is sobering to note that it is nearly a quarter of a century since Pierre Ryckmans (writing as Simon Leys) observed in his rather pointed comments on Edward Said's book Orientalism that he had recently heard the word 'Sinology' used as a term of abuse when visiting the John K Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University.[1] Naturally, I am aware of the unsettling history and much-discussed limitations of area studies in post-WWII Anglophone academic institutions, and in particular the history of 'Oriental Studies' at The Australian National University.[2] 'New Sinology' supports an approach that is alert to the complex—and often disturbing (as well as disturbatory)—issues at the heart of much of what is understood today by the term 'Sinology'. By this I mean that I am fully cognizant of and, more importantly, many scholars like myself have become critically engaged with the historical circumstances that led to the rise of various kinds of Sinology in the past, as well as 'Chinese Studies' in more recent decades.[3]

My approach—again, one that I would aver many scholars (academics and students) pursue—is one that recognizes an academic and human relationship with a vital and voluble Sinophone world that is not just about the People's Republic, or Taiwan, or Chinese diasporas. It bespeaks an involvement that is part of the intellectual, academic, cultural and personal conversations in which many of us are engaged, not merely as Australians, but as individuals, regardless of our background, individuals who are energetically and often boisterously interconnected with one of the great, complex and lively geo-cultural spheres of the world.

Implicit in the inquiry of 'New Sinology' then is an abiding respect for written and spoken forms of Chinese as these have evolved over the centuries. 'New Sinology' can thus also be described as an unrelenting attentiveness to Sinophone ways of speaking, writing, and seeing, and to the different forces that have shaped the evolution of Sinophone texts and images, as well as Sinophone ways of sense-making. Textually, the interests of a New Sinology range from the specificities of canonical and authoritative formulations in both the classical language (or rather the languages of the pre-dynastic and dynastic eras) and the modern vernacular to the many inventive bylines that have emerged more recently in our media-saturated times. In regard to the visual, my own academic writing, my involvement with audio-visual media and the internet,[4] as well as my efforts as the editor of East Asian History, have emphasized the commerce in meaning between text and image, attempting thereby in some small way to engage with traditional forms of scholarship and relevant disciplinary fields while also essaying a measure of innovation. 'New Sinology' is an approach that will support such efforts by other scholars and students as the forms and styles of intellectual entwinement with the Sinophone world evolve.

In terms of Australia's 'national engagement' with what is now dubbed merely 'the Region', there has been an understandable, and inevitable, emphasis on trade and economic weal. The reasons for this are self-evident, and require no rehearsal here. Along with the ever-increasing weight placed on the pecuniary, however, there have been a number of intellectual and academic 'turns' that have seen an emphasis on a 'Chinese Studies' or other forms of intellectual pursuit that deem traditionally-situated scholarship to be somehow fustian or irrelevant. While this erstwhile fashionable attitude still holds currency for some, the age of revivals and rediscoveries of the past in mainland China (from the dynastic past, to the more recent Republican era), and the pursuit of historical and cultural particularism in Taiwan, have meant that those who are unlettered in the basic histories, languages and ideas of the last few centuries will be only ever semi-literate in the culture, thought and even language of China today. Those of us who continue to subscribe to the notion that rigorous textual analysis (kaozheng) is a necessity can invoke numerous precedents from the different eras and realms of Sinophone, Anglophone, Francophone and other 'dialects' of scholarship. Indeed, even the late Jacques Derrida, whose heterodox scriptings are generally viewed with suspicion by those of a more positivistic bent of mind, consistently emphasized the necessity of close reading as a requirement of critical engagement.

This is more true and pressing for students of China today than many may realize. Indeed, if we fail to insist on linguistic competence in Chinese as a necessary requirement for precise and rigorous engagement with Sinophone texts and images, our students may ultimately fail to make their own sense of what it means to be studying China. It should be noted here that in his critique of contemporary Chinese intellectual praxis, the Beijing-based literary historian Chen Pingyuan has remarked poignantly on the revolutionary May Fourth exhortation "don't read old books" (budu gushu) and the call by progressive thinkers for all traditionally-bound books to be thrown into a cesspit. He says it is a catchphrase that continues to command a certain authority in the present-day Chinese intellectual world. The problem Chen declares, however, is that contemporary Chinese intellectuals "really don't have much to worry about, as we simply haven't read many old books at all."[5]

My views as outlined here have grown from the basis of my undergraduate education at the ANU, where my mentors were Pierre Ryckmans and Liu Ts'un-yan (among others), and further developed as a result of my long-term engagement with China (mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan) as a student and as a writer in Chinese,[6] as well as through conversations with colleagues over the years, in particular with Gloria Davies, Bruce Doar, Richard Gordon, Carma Hinton, John Minford and Claire Roberts.

Other scholars active today may remember mentors who, while perhaps comfortable with classical studies of a country that was long ago and far away, were not particularly engaged with the contemporary. The reasons for this are numerous, some political, others personal, and this is not the place to review them.[7] However, I do believe that many members of my cohort who have been and remain involved in focusing on aspects of what John Minford and I referred to in the mid 1980s as the 'Chinese commonwealth', or what Wei-ming Tu would later call 'cultural China', and have not in general experienced such a sense of distance. Indeed, many of those of us who are active in Australian academia have had an embodied involvement with the Sinophone world from our teenage years, or 20s at the latest. Thus, our critical engagement with China goes against the grain of 'seeing' China as merely an object of professional academic inquiry. Quite to the contrary, our critical engagement is with a language and a 'culture' that has already altered our Anglophone habits of mind: an 'Other' that haunts us from within, in the sense of a common humanity that Pierre Ryckmans evocatively affirmed, using the phrase "we are all Chinese"; or which Benjamin I Schwartz spoke of as part of the enterprise to "bring the experience of the entire human race to bear on our common concerns."[8]

Within this preliminary articulation, I should also admit to an element of 'national competitiveness' (a key expression in the past, and one that retains certain less-than-melodic resonances today) in all of this. For I am proud of the education in things Chinese that I was given here at the ANU by teachers from diverse backgrounds. Furthermore, I am grateful for the life-long education that I have and continue to receive as a result of an involvement with China. I also do believe that there are aspects of the 'Antipodean approach' to the region in which we live that are differently accented to those of colleagues in the rest of what is called the 'Asia-Pacific region', as well as in the northern hemisphere (in particular in Euramerica and Japan). There are things that are perhaps a result of a particular regional temper and a certain intellectual freedom afforded by our distinctly non-great-power but nonetheless developed-nation status; there are also elements of creative tension resulting from robust encounters with overly hide-bound disciplinary approaches. Moreover, there are matters of individual quirkiness that are treated with a certain lassitude, and there are also things that belong to the realm of the ineffable and the aleatory.

In regard to institutional history and practice during the 1990s, like many colleagues, I was witness—and actively opposed—to the prodigal undermining of our China-related heritage in terms of education, research and, crucially, library resources. It was, in particular, a time during which ill-conceived corporatist objectives were pursued by ardent academo-crats. Of course, that is not to say that the animating animus for their 'project' is now a thing of the past. The for-profit nature of the contemporary university and the lure of narrow professionalization within industrial-scale academia remain a constant challenge to engaged humanist educators and thinkers.[9]

In recent years, however, a somewhat more appreciative attitude regarding research and the importance of quality pedagogy has belatedly overtaken my institution. Equally, in relation to an estimable physical heritage–of which we are but the present custodians–is receiving some of its due share of attention and care. Thus, to an extent I feel that it is possible for me and my colleagues to be unabashed in advocating a scholarship that, while mindful and respectful of quality education in Sinology (and within that importantly a competence in classical Chinese, and Republican-era written Chinese), is engaged also in constant and equitable conversations with the Sinophone world. It is for this reason that I am both hoping to take advantage of the changed institutional atmospherics, and also to have some small hand in rebuilding (and redefining) Sinology here at the ANU academically. While doing so, I hope that as many of our colleagues both here, and throughout Australia and New Zealand, as well as in the wider region and internationally, will see the ANU as an open and welcoming place for their work and interests.

From another perspective, it is obvious that the buzzwords that attract attention in Australia are 'national security' and 'economic benefit'; and applications to national funding bodies are invariably couched in terms of scholars providing a 'better understanding of our region'. It is while acknowledging all of these concerns (both real and spurious) that I talk with some certainty of the value and benefit of a broader intellectual and cultural engagement, one that rests upon a bedrock of intellectual community, academic value and, most crucially, shared humanity (that is, as opposed to what Wlad Godzich has evocatively critiqued as "the Procrustean bed of a common measure"[10]), something that I believe was at the heart of so much of the extraordinary work done by Sinologists in the past.

There are also very pragmatic reasons behind my advocacy of 'New Sinology' here in Canberra at the ANU, now in the new millennium. It is essential to safeguard and develop the wealth of resources in our care and to ensure that the range of China-related studies be possible here and be supported at other Australian universities. One of the ways this can be done is to demonstrate in as many ways as possible the engagement and achievement of Australian-based scholars of China, and to encourage students of all backgrounds to appreciate the diverse approaches to all things Chinese that we here in Australia can enjoy. The China Heritage Project and the 'New Sinology' are but part of a meagre attempt to provide some focus for such an endeavour.

The New Sinology is thus also a promotional device, one (among many) aimed at securing the legacy of work on the Sinitic world at the ANU, one aimed at protecting and enhancing the major China-related library resources in Canberra (both at the ANU and at the National Library of Australia). It is also aimed at inculcating among those concerned with the future of Australia's engagement with China (or the global Sinophone world, or simply 'things Chinese') diverse scholastic approaches, a respect and encouragement of traditions of linguistic, cultural, historical and philosophical learning, and an active support for the diverse, the different, as well as of the heterodox.


My heartfelt thanks to Gloria Davies, long-term collaborator and friend, for her comments on and additions to this essay. My thanks also to John Fitzgerald for asking me to clarify what I mean by a 'New Sinology'. This essay was first published in the Chinese Studies Association of Australia Newsletter, No. 3, May 2005.

  1. See Simon Leys, 'Orientalism and Sinology', in The Burning Forest: essays on Chinese culture and politics (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985), p.95. Not surprisingly, Pierre's essay has not itself gone without comment. For a recent, and rather typical, critique, see Gregory Kulacki, 'Area Studies and Study Abroad: The Chinese Experience', Frontiers, Vol.6 (Winter 2000).
  2. In this regard, see the important essays by my colleagues: Dani Botsman, 'Deconstructing the past to redefine the future: a history of Japanese Studies at the Australian National University', in Japan and the World: Proceedings of the Seventh Biennial Conference of the Japanese Studies Association of Australia, vol. 3; and, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, 'Anti-Area Studies', in Communal/Plural, Vol.8, No.1, 2000. See also Elizabeth Perry, 'The PRC and American China Studies: Fifty Years', Harvard Asia Quarterly (Autumn 1999).
  3. An excellent overview of the history of Sinology in Euramerica, Japan and China can be found in Harriet T Zurndorfer, China Bibliography, A Research Guide to Reference Works About China Past and Present (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), pp.4-44.
  4. See, for example, the films and related websites 'The Gate of Heavenly Peace' and 'Morning Sun'.
  5. Chen Pingyuan, 'Chaoyue guize', in Luo Gang and Ni Wenjian, eds, Jiushi niandai sixiang wenxuan (Nanning: Guangxi renmin chubanshe, 2000), Vol.1, p.17.
  6. Some details of this are given in the semi-autobiographical introductions to two of my books: In the Red: on contemporary Chinese culture (New York, 1999); and, An Artistic Exile: a life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975) (Berkeley 2002).
  7. Even Ravi Arvind Palat, a scholar who is no friend of contemporary area studies, has recently pointed out that, "... though the pioneer scholars may not have been sensitive to the issues of knowledge/power, gender, or colonialism, they were deeply immersed in the cultures they studied and had accumulated a wealth of knowledge that is still very rewarding." See his 'Area Studies After 9/11, Requiescat in Pace', paper prepared for a conference on 'The Question of Asia in the New Global Order', Duke University, 1-2 October 2004.
  8. Benjamin I Schwartz, 'Presidential Address: Area Studies as a Critical Discipline', Journal of Asian Studies, 40 (1980), p.25.
  9. In this context, see Lindsay Waters, 'Babel and Babylon', Context.
  10. Wlad Godzich, The Culture of Literacy (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1994), p.24.

Further Reading

Updated:  4 March 2013/Responsible Officer:  Director, China in the World /Page Contact:  China in the World