What do China researchers mean by 'the Sinology trap '?

As a researcher working in China, what I will call “the sinology trap” is the risk to deal with China as a completely remote object, to the extent that I will take as a postulate that it is worth creating a new scientific domain.

The problem with a “science of China” is that it naturalize the idea of a single and eternal China. This prevents analytical reasoning and proper historical inquiries. When you start a research based on far-fetch or imaginary visions, you end up using tricks to make it meet reality. This usually accounts for bad or sloppy research, but not when you study China - China is so complex, you know.

The main idea of sinology is that you need to study “China” instead of
let’s say economics, society or urban planning. Personally, my research
questions are not : “what is so special about China ?”, but more likely
“what does China have in common with other places ?” or “ what is an interesting fact or place in China for a study that could benefit to the whole world ?”.

Honestly, the question “what is different between China and the West?” can only develop in your head if you have never set a foot in China. This is what happened historically.

Sinology is inherited from the Western tradition of orientalism and emerged at a time where China was not easily accessible. Most of the researchers learnt about China in books and artefacts brought back by “adventurers” from their trips. Very few researchers could actually speak the language, despite having learnt to read ancient Chinese. They had very few interactions with Chinese people, if any.

The corollary of this is that during the 20th century many people wrote books about a mythical China that they saw in books, but they often lacked historical and cultural materials for deeper understanding. After the cultural revolution, many sinologists went to China, expecting to find a gigantic cult of nature and ancestors, but were extremely disappointed. The ancestral civilization they had perceived had been replaced by a bunch of crazy communists which just smashed half of the sacred temples and traditions.

It was an enormous shock. Since then, there is a gap in the literature with almost no continuity between the mythical China of the ancient books and what is seen as modern China - and often as a disgrace to Lao Zi itself. It still extremely rare to find books that discuss the role of China’s philosophers in political history, despite them often being state men. People prefer to write about the so-called “Chinese wisdom”.

Sinology to a large extent has reinforced the idea that China is the exemplified “otherness”. Plus, China loves to present itself as unique and different. China also loves to explain to those who have interest in China that they are very well-read people of superior intelligence.

So what is the “sinology trap” ? It is the never-ending babbling of “China experts”, while we should hear people that are competent in their field.

What is needed today in researches about China is the opposite : fresh looks and visions of China as a complex assembly of cultures, people and places that are part of a larger world. Sinology is a dead end, and the more recent term “China studies” still convey the same old idea.

We need to define common methods to study and understand people and societies on our planet, not start sterile fights about defining Chineseness. Same goes for Americanness, Frenchness… : the emergency is to find common places, not to fence our cultures.

This text was originally published in quora.

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