On Comparative Studies in Sinology

How Much of a Chimera is Comparability? Reflections on Comparative Studies in Sinology

Whenever I tell someone in Chinese Studies that my doctoral dissertation is about the relationship between Zhuangzi and two twentieth-century French writers who were fascinated with ancient China, I would see an expression of surprise, and sometimes, a good-naturedly skeptical look. I would then hasten to explain that I am not doing an anachronistic parallel comparison or a cause-and-effect literary influence study, and instead I am examining conceptual and theoretical interactions, i.e. to what extent the writings/thought of these French intellectuals who read about Zhuangzi and China could be understood through Zhuangzi’s perspective.

Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Talking Shop” series on Dissertation Reviews, where scholars reflect upon the practice of research. To propose a “Talking Shop” piece of your own (in any of the fields listed here), please email dissertationreviews@gmail.com

This clarification takes quite some time and words — as my previous long sentence already shows — and usually my listener would nod and comment by using terms such as “reception” and “comparison.” On one occasion, a scholar bluntly stated that he did not like “comparative literature” in Chinese Studies. However, I would like to call my research “interactive literature” instead. But this is all okay, as a research student you would certainly be open-minded enough to accept that not everyone will like your research or understand it as you do. In fact, the doubts people cast on your research projects often help you find the glaring or latent problems that need to be ironed out, as well as some misleading assumptions that should be debunked — and this is what happened to me. The doubts about reading an early Chinese text like Zhuangzi with French writers whose works are approached through criticisms totally soaked in (post-)structuralist theories, as well as the insistence in Chinese Studies on historical context and the tradition of textual commentaries that refuse to gel with the free-flowing pan-nutritional fluid of Western literary theories, have made me think more than ever about what “comparison” precisely is, how comparability is important to it, and why it is a particularly difficult issue in Chinese Studies done in Western academia.

I would like to start with a few observations on Sinology and its suspicion that comparison proposes an all-too-easy cross-cultural communication. “Sinology” may be a slightly old-fashioned and, for some, an inappropriate term for “Chinese studies.” It may imply an emphasis on pre-modern studies with an Orientalist ring. But the term “Sinology” still has the crucial function of flagging out that it denotes Chinese Studies in a non-Chinese (especially Western) cultural context. Because of this Sinology is, from the very start, inherently cross-cultural. There are probably few Sinologists who are not aware of their non-Chineseness, i.e. the difference between the Chinese culture that they are studying and their own culture. If you read the works of Sinologists (regardless of whether they were written before or after the “enlightenment” brought about by twentieth-century anthropology and post-colonial theory), you will almost always find a huge emphasis on how different Chinese culture/China/the Chinese are from the Western/Indo-European cultures, how inappropriate it is to use Western terms and conceptual schemata to understand China, and so on. These views can only be conceived when a comparative logic is already at work. After all, for centuries, Chinese men of learning have been commentating and studying Chinese culture within its own tradition, without bothering much with discussing how China differentiates itself from other cultures. The very possibility of studying a culture other than one’s own is already founded upon an awareness of how this foreign culture compares and contrasts with one’s own culture.

In contrast, Chinese Studies in China is called guoxue 國學, “National Studies,” and the specific term for Sinology is of course hanxue 漢學 — applied to those who are non-Chinese or who study China from outside China. Chinese academics usually either study China within its own tradition or, after the major inflow of Western ideas in the late Qing, study China in comparison to other cultures (especially Indo-European). More often than not, they would argue for a commonality or similarity of thought — sometimes happily called “singing two different tunes with equal skill” (yiqu tonggong 異曲同工) — rather than difference. For instance, Heidegger was all the rage in the past decade for doing comparative philosophy in China. This led me — despite the fact that Heidegger gives me a headache and I try to avoid him as much as possible — to consult references such as a PhD thesis completed at Suzhou University on the similarity between Heidegger’s Dasein and the Dao in Zhuangzi. But the more I read the works of contemporary Chinese academics, the more I felt that the people who are least bothered about difference and the specificity of Chinese culture seem to be the Chinese themselves. Of course, the ideological context is a main determinant, especially when someone is trying to show that Chinese culture is as great as its European counterpart. A good example would be the “rehabilitation” of the pre-Qin thinkers such as Mozi and Gongsun Long as “logical” thinkers, in order to show that logic existed in ancient China just as it did in ancient Greece. I will pass over the question of whether these approaches are appropriate or successful. My point is to show that Sinology, understood as studying China from a non-Chinese position, has always already been inherently comparative. Objections to comparative studies such as incommensurability, specificity, context sensitivity, doubtful “common ground” seem to be missing the point, since to me the problem is not about using non-contextual language and methods to understand the China of the past, but about how impossible it is to not use non-contextual language and methods in any analysis or interpretation.

Let me explain what I mean. I have so far used repeatedly the terms “Chinese” and “China,” but in fact I am not sure what they mean. Is it not anachronistic to bunch up the Warring States with the term ‘China’, or ethnically-insensitive to say that Qing Dynasty culture was “Chinese”? At a seminar in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge, a professor pointed out it has been suggested that the misleading term “Chinese” should be abandoned when discussing the Han Dynasty and the pre-Han periods. And since I started my graduate research, which involves studying Zhuangzi and other pre-Qin texts and their historical and cultural contexts, I have been wondering if I could properly call this plethora of ancient cultures and language “my culture” — as most Chinese people would proudly assume to be the case. To me, a Chinese person who grew up in the PRC in the nineties, knowing Mandarin and two modern dialects, the pre-Qin period and its culture seem more foreign and inaccessible than any of the European countries I have visited or lived in. Despite the relative continuity of the written Chinese language, the thought and language in these ancient texts are not the modes of expression of any modern Chinese person. So is the approach of using Chinese theories to understand Chinese literature or using Chinese terms to explain Chinese thought really more privileged or superior, given that these theories and literary texts, these terms and the thought they are supposed to elucidate are usually, almost inevitably, not of the same idiom and context? An interesting anecdote to illustrate this: a professor told me that, at a conference on ancient Chinese studies, a Chinese academic was advocating the view that ancient China should only be discussed in Chinese rather than any other language. Then an European academic asked: “Why do you not speak ancient Chinese?”

I think that is probably enough on the notion of a “Chinese” context for studies of China. I very much doubt that the terms “Chinese” and “China” will really be abandoned. After all, classificatory terms — even “misleading” ones — facilitate academic communication and administration, and are functionally necessary. But there is no need to be essentialist about them.

* * *

Now, with regard to the context sensitivity that Sinologists hold dear, much of the skepticism about comparative studies centers upon the notion of comparability. Comparability is usually understood as the very raison d’être of any comparative study. And that involves the crucial questions of: (a) how to (and how not to) establish comparability, and (b) what this comparability consists of. If you browse through the existing comparative studies involving Chinese culture, you will find that the vast majority of them tend to focus on contemporaneous periods or the same kind of texts (such as comparing philosophy with philosophy, poetry with poetry rather than medical texts with novels). Contemporaneity and the sameness of genre seem to be obvious standards of comparability that justify comparison. But this left me wondering how exactly they do actually justify comparison.

To begin with, there is the problem of how to understand and justify temporality, i.e. why should the contemporaneity of time periods be a justification for the comparability of two cultures? Given that different cultures may have different “stages” of development and understandings of what is considered “development” and whether it is desirable at all, what does a specific time measurement like contemporaneity say of any two cultures? It does not seem to say much more than simply that these two cultures coexisted simultaneously. If these two cultures had little or no awareness of each other, can they be said to be “contemporaneous”? It seems very easy to forget that time has a history too — well, “histories” rather, since different cultures had different time scales and conceptions of time. In this sense, the simultaneously-existing Warring States China and Classical/Hellenistic Greece can be understood as “dyssynchronous,” given that the Chinese and the Greeks had little or no knowledge of each other, nor had a common measurement or conception of time and history to relate to each other. To tell a hypothetical Chinese thinker living in 460 BCE that somebody else in a city called Athens — which he had no notion about — was doing this and that would probably make little difference to him than being told that somebody in a city called Sparta — which he had equally no notion about — was doing this and that in 660 BCE. Because, although 460 BCE Athens was very different from 660 BCE Sparta, they did not relate historically, culturally, or geographically to any known experience of this Chinese man, and therefore could not hold significance to him as they would hold for us living in 2012 CE, with the global map and calendrical time imprinted on our minds.

I would argue, in fact, that the mutual awareness that two cultures have of each other, the contact between them, sometimes even the one-sided knowledge of one culture of another are more important than their simply simultaneously existing in the same or different spaces. In this sense, it is not absurd to say that the Warring States are more vivid, more meaningful and contemporaneous to us — in the field of knowledge that encompasses different times and spaces — than to the ancient Greeks. And if we can talk of anything like the “revival” of Confucianism in contemporary China, we would already be thinking in terms of a cross-temporal and cross-spatial comparison between what being “Confucian” meant in the pre-Qin states, and what it means now in the PRC, thus showing perfectly that disparate times and/or spaces do not necessarily pose problems for comparison — and that homogeneous time and/or space do not necessarily guarantee comparability.

The problem of conceptual and literary categories such as genre also bedevils comparative projects, particularly because comparison within the same field is usually assumed to be more justifiable than across different fields. But, to take literature as an example, do texts grouped in the same genre necessarily share more in common with each other? Liezi, for instance, includes a substantial and sophisticated discussion of the classification of dreams and their methods of divination. But Liezi is categorized within the “philosophical” Daoist classics and does not even appear on the lists of books or manuals on dream divination (zhanmeng占夢). Moreover, who decides that certain texts are of the same genre? And does not every taxonomical system depend upon certain principles that are more or less challengeable? For instance, is Zhuangzi philosophy, or mystical/religious literature, or poetry/fiction, or myth/fable, or all of the above? And is Zhuangzi “Daoist”? We know that Zhuangzi was classified under the “Daoist school” by Sima Tan, most probably because Sima Tan could not find a more appropriate school into which Zhuangzi could fit. All the critics who have touched upon the thorny issue of classifying Zhuangzi have remarked that the text is so heterogeneous and fluid in composition and style that the notions of genre, the distinctions between philosophy and poetry, and the labels of “Daoist” or “philosophical Daoism” do not really straightforwardly apply. Yet if one looks up the entries for comparative studies on Zhuangzi, one finds that criticism of the text still predominantly focuses on the conventional taxonomy of genres and disciplines, including philosophy and religion.

To give some more specific examples, Zhuangzi has been compared to Wittgenstein and Derrida on the issue of language and reality, to Nietzsche on affirmation and freedom, to Kierkegaard on mystic (anti-)rationality, to Heidegger on the ungraspable/unsayable, and to Aristotle on ethics. Among the comparisons within Chinese culture, there is abundant literature on Zhuangzi and Daodejing, on the contrast between Zhuangzi and Confucian ideas on society and morality, and on Zhuangzi’s perspective on fasting of the heart-mind (xinzhai 心齋) and Chan meditation. All these approaches are absolutely fine and sometimes give real insights into important problems, but the choices of comparison show how critical views are still constrained by artificial categorizations. Why not more on the aesthetics of Zhuangzi versus Ji Kang 嵇康, or on the uses of myths and animal imagery in Zhuangzi and Shanhaijing? Why not a study comparing the eccentric poetic language and startling images of Zhuangzi and the Tang poet Li He 李賀? Why not explore the issues of imagination and iconoclasm in Zhuangzi in comparison with the Dadaists and Surrealists — who were by no means ignorant of Zhuangzi, with Tristan Tzara even saying that Zhuangzi was in spirit a Dadaist? (This is, by the way, very similar to my dissertation topic, since the French writers I am examining are more or less surrealistic, though not of the Surrealist canon.)

Although comparative studies is probably the field that is most open-minded in regard to interdisciplinarity, cross-cultural, cross-temporal and cross-spatial explorations, it has not always been so efficient in breaking down rigid categorical boundaries nor so radical in challenging the established norms of literary and historical criticisms. I suspect that the fear of being attacked on the grounds of establishing a commonly accepted “comparability” —such as shared conceptual or linguistic frameworks, contemporaneity and genre, which I have just argued to turn out to be bubbles that burst upon some serious poking — has stunted the ideas of many a comparatist, resulting in that comparative studies is often less radical, innovative or interesting than it could have been.

* * *

Having said this much about the problems I encountered in assumptions about temporal and generic comparability, I would like to turn to a third — and even more thorny — approach, which is “genealogical” comparability. Now the genealogical approach is based upon the question of influence, and can and usually does sidestep the limitations of temporal and generic frameworks. It also gives concrete evidence of cross-cultural contact such as textual transmission and translation, as was the case with European intellectuals like Eliot and Yeats who read (about) the Bhagavad-Gita and were inspired by its philosophy. That the cross-cultural contact between a modern writer A and an ancient text B of some foreign culture should make a strong case for comparing the thought of A and B was something taken for granted in the early phases of comparative studies. As we know, in early twentieth-century France, the rapports des faits (i.e. genealogical influence) were the sine qua non for doing comparative literature. Nevertheless, I think that the step from cross-cultural contact to determinable influence — such as saying that because writer A read text B, and because the former’s idea C is similar to the latter’s idea D, we can conclude that C is the result of D’s influence and can be genealogically traced back to D — is far too risky. All literary and artistic ideas are hybrid, since the writers and intellectuals who conceived them have all read so widely that their knowledge structures have fused different ideas and influences, and become so eclectic and complex that to pinpoint an influence would be like leaping into a blackhole of speculation.

The causal model of genealogical influence reads intellectual history in a too rigid way of action-and-reaction, and I do not think I need to elaborate further on it because this approach is already considered old-fashioned (just as the “true-to-the-author” approach). I discuss it simply to point out that although solid facts such as cross-cultural contacts do indeed form a favorable background for carrying out a comparative study, they are neither guarantors of comparability nor the focus of comparison. It is the ideas and issues in writer A and text B that are compared, not the contact between writer A and text B. Thus the comparative focus is actually on conceptual affinities between A and B, or how they present different versions and/or solutions to the same problem and so forth. The contact between them simply serves as an argumentative means to support contextually the findings of the comparison. In this case, would it not be more appropriate to say that conceptual affinity and the comparatist’s chosen point of departure (for instance, such as choosing the framework of the idea of nature to compare Spinoza and the Daodejing) say more about comparability than influence? Moreover, contact and influence are sometimes overrated, just as causality is usually assumed to be more meaningful than coincidence. Can two people never hit upon the similar ideas although they never knew each other? And somehow is it not more interesting if they do have similar ideas despite the fact that they never knew each other? Does not a coincidental encounter of complementary ideas and issues require a more probing and complex exegesis than simply giving the causal reason of contact and influence?

So now it seems that neither temporality, genre, or genealogy is a firm ground for establishing comparability. But I would like to ask if comparability is indeed the necessary condition for making an argument in comparative study rather than part of the argument itself. First, to think that comparability must set up some a priori frameworks or notions upon which a comparative project can rest is very much a false impression. Of course, the very choice of comparing Spinoza and the Daodejing already shows a pre-existing concept and application of comparability, since nobody starts with a zero ideological apparatus, and any comparatist’s existing modes and structures of thought would influence his choice. The presence of some prerequisite criteria for a comparative study — well, for any study in fact — has always already taken place, and often “unconsciously.” But I do not find it so interesting or important to focus on trying to figure out what this pre-existing idea of comparability is, or how to establish a consensus about what this comparability should be. That is like demanding to know thoroughly a person’s background before deciding whether you could hold an interesting conversation or make friends with him. The very idea that comparability is the starting basis, i.e. a pre-existing condition for a comparative project is already idealistic, since it implicitly abstracts the similarities, differences, and dialogical correspondences of the inter-relationships between the texts and issues of comparison as something that exists independently of and externally from them. Rather than the starting point or a priori condition, comparability is very much the end goal of a comparative project. In other words, comparability is, rather, the argument that needs to be made, including the viewpoints that can only be established after analyzing the specific connections between the problems of comparison.

For example, in my doctoral research I found that the notions of nature and fate are almost interchangeable in Zhuangzi and the texts of French writer Antonin Artaud, so I decided to make an argument about nature based on various related ideas about the numinous, fate as something naturally given (such as a mandate from tian/heaven), and fate as an organic growth in a certain direction (such as the Nietzschean “become what you are” that well illustrates Artaud’s view). But if I were to do a comparative study of, say, Zhuangzi and Nicholas de Cusa, then I would not make nature and fate as my focus but rather the idea of infinity and the understanding of paradoxes such as coincidentia oppositorum and “ignorant knowledge”/“knowledgeable ignorance” (zhi zhi wei zhi, bu zhi zhi zhi 知之不知,不知之知). As well as changing the issues of comparison, I would approach Zhuangzi and Cusanus from the viewpoints of cosmology and its related issues such as space and mathematics, rather than from imagery and poetics as I would do for Zhuangzi versus Artaud. And if I were to compare Zhuangzi and Guo Xiang’s canonical commentary of it, then I probably would not concentrate on conceptual affinity at all but turn to how Zhuangzi was transmitted down to Guo Xiang and to what extent the latter’s intellectual and political context helped formulate his understandings which were in certain aspects, as has been pointed out by numerous commentators, almost antithetical to the “original” text. These different approaches and foci of examination all show that each comparative study deals with different texts and issues that have their own characteristics and particular contexts to take into account, and it is in fact reductive and universalizing to think that there should be standards of comparability such as “common ground” or “basic biological facts” that can justify every comparative study. Comparability as the a priori condition is very much a chimera.

* * *

Now I would like to propose two methodological notions — namely, “site-specificity” and “interaction,” which I think are more precise and less misleading than “comparability” and “comparison.” “Site-specificity” first emerged as an idea and practice in contemporary art, basically meaning that the site-specific artwork is conceived according to the characteristics (and their internal relationships) of the environment where it is supposed to be, and can only exist qua an artwork on that very spot and/or during that specific time. Thus transporting a site-specific artwork elsewhere (such as a museum, a less controversial site), or drastically changing its environment (such as erecting a new building) would simply destroy it. Famous examples are Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in Federal Plaza, New York, which was eventually dismantled; or Robert Smithson’s land-art projects on sea beaches where the tide would wash the sand/stone artwork away. I think that this idea of site-specificity is transposable to the field of comparative studies, in that every comparative project is necessarily “site-specific,” i.e. the comparatist needs to conceive of the comparative project by considering what internal relationships two texts or issues have, and by finding out the comparable issues that are pertinent to and revealing of them. In this way, the site-specific comparatist would not begin with the idea of a common standard of comparability — just as the site-specific artist does not begin with the assumption that his artwork can be put on show in any museum — but would adopt an approach tailored to his project. And if this site-specificity is made clear to the reader from the start, then much more attention could be paid to the concrete problems under examination and the arguments that stem therefrom, rather than going through the preliminary hassle of wading through a pool of abstract theories in order to defend one’s own approach to justifying comparability. Anyway, comparative methodologies are in fact constantly expanded and created in the process of each new comparative study, so each “site-specific” study would need and create a framework most appropriate to itself. There is no need to insist upon an overall justificatory criterion before exploring what exactly is at stakes in the study in question. Therefore, by suggesting the idea of site-specificity, I argue that comparability is not so important to comparative projects, at least less important than conceptual relationships, interaction, shedding light cross-textually or revealing some bigger issue. The focus on comparability in comparative studies could well be shifted to site-specificity.

Following the problematic notion of “comparability,” the term “comparison” is no less misleading in that it makes people think immediately about similarities, and then (albeit with less emphasis) differences, and usually in a parallel rather than intersecting form. But comparative projects are in fact much more than that. It is not really enough to state how ideas, attitudes and pragmatics are similar to or different from each other, what is more important is what these similarities and differences say about the texts or issues that cannot be revealed without comparing them to each other. In other words, what the compared elements do to each other — be it shedding light on some obscurity, complementing mutual understanding, revealing some larger problem, expanding our ways of thinking — are far more interesting and important than simply pointing out their resemblances and discrepancies. This is why I think that terms like “interaction” or “dialogue,” which are less bogged down by expectations of “common ground” or problems of genealogical influence, better describe the nature of comparative projects. To hold a dialogue and to interact with each other already imply the very important notion of transformation that is much less evident in “comparison.”

Someone who has read, say, Kant on ethics and the Analects would surely have a different and more heterogeneous concept of morality than someone who has only read Kant. However different the texts, historical backgrounds and languages may be, once they are juxtaposed together within the mind of a reader, they can no longer remain autonomous and impermeable spheres but will more or less penetrate and transform each other. For me, this is precisely analogical to a comparative study, i.e. juxtaposition or comparison of different elements so that these elements may elucidate each other as well as be better understood in themselves. After I started my graduate program, it did not take long for me to realize that simply mapping out points of similarities and contrasts under thematic frameworks such as non-rationality and cosmology between Zhuangzi and my French writers was not convincing enough, as this allowed the texts remain relatively unconnected to each other. What interested me far more was how to set up a contiguous relationship between the texts, for example, how does the complex and syncretist composition of Zhuangzi, which frustrates the critical attempt to thread out an overall consistency or construct a system of arguments — make us rethink the rationalist demands that criticism makes on an author’s works? Take Artaud, one of my French writers, as an example, his writings span some twenty years and are notably hybrid and messy. The later works, written while he was in psychiatric hospitals, often contradicted Artaud’s earlier views. The heterogeneity of Artaud’s oeuvre is similar to Zhuangzi, except that we still have one single name “Artaud” to label these works — and authorship is quite fictional in terms of the inner coherence of views, since every writer changes and not all of his ideas develop continuously or in one go. Therefore, having learned from the approach to reading Zhuangzi, I saw that to explain away Artaud’s inconsistencies, however cleverly, would not really do justice to the text. This kind of relating different texts by analogical borrowing of methods or conceptual complementarity is precisely what a lot of comparative studies have been doing, just that they are still flagged out as “comparative” rather than as “interactive” and “relational” studies.

To sum up my reflections above, I think a considerable part of the skepticism about comparative methodology is attacking a straw-man. Of course there are serious problems of appropriation, normative thinking, being influenced by one’s own cultural habitus when considering other cultures. (Having said that, is it possible to be “uninfluenced” by one’s own culture or ideological constructions of any kind?) But these problems seem to be common to any kind of hermeneutics and not particularly the patent of comparative studies. Again, the notion of “comparability” and the label “comparative” are being taken in an all too inflexible and definitive sense. Writing in a time when all kinds of different approaches, theories, and cultural paradigms are floating in the research atmosphere actually means that it is very hard to be totally non-comparative!

Xiaofan Amy Li
Department of French
University of Cambridge

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.


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  1. Michael Schoenhals

    Wonderful piece! In its sophistication comparable, in my view, to Michael Mantler’s long “Communications #11”.

  2. Jenny Zhao

    Congratulations Amy for such an illuminating piece, in which you have targeted the pre-conceived notions of ‘comparative studies’ in its rigidity and shown us how comparative studies can take a plethora of forms that are useful to the researcher in terms of broadening viewpoints and developing new ways of thinking. Thank you for clearing up some misunderstandings of the subject, which is much needed in the current academic climate…

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