Heidelberg: Awakening and Rebirth

Since the late nineteenth century, idealized representations of the European past have captured the imagination of intellectuals and political activists in China and Japan hoping to bring about a cultural “rejuvenation” or national “revival.” These ideas were not new in East Asian history: they belong to a chronotype of “awakening and rebirth” that has patterned attitudes towards the past in East Asia since antiquity. But the nineteenth century saw a deep reconfiguration of this chronotype in the aftermath of the European expansion. Appropriations of emblematic moments of the European past were among the most effective conceptual resources shaping this consequential transformation.

This subproject will study appropriations of three emblematic moments that have contributed significantly to Chinese and Japanese reconfigurations of this chronotype: the “Renaissance,” the “Reformation,” and the “Enlightenment.”  Emulating these emblematic moments promised to resolve two crucial dilemmas facing East Asian reformers, revolutionaries, and their opponents, who were either trying to maintain, if only rhetorically, continuity in times of violent social and epistemic change or searching for models legitimizing the call for sweeping changes to the social, political and intellectual order.

Following Michelet’s and Burckhardt’s pioneering works, the “Renaissance” became in European historiography a well-established name for a specific period in the history of Italy and Europe. Some decades later, the word started to be used in a typological way to include other periods in European history: the Renaissance became an ideal-type, a set of features that could be found in various periods of the European past—historians wrote no longer of one single Renaissance, but many Renaissances (Haskins 1927; critically Panofsky 1944). At the same time, in both China and Japan, the word was also invested with a typological character. To cite only two examples, in 1904, the Chinese reformer Liang Qichao (1873–1929) argued during his exile in Japan that China had gone through a Renaissance (wenyi fuxing) in the past two hundred years (Liang 2005) and, in 1934, the American trained scholar Hu Shi (1891–1962) claimed that China needed its own Renaissance and that the May Fourth movement in 1919, in which Hu played a leading role, had marked the beginning of such a period in Chinese history (Gamsa 2010). The Renaissance was thus used to explain both China’s past and China’s present; but it was also discussed as a desideratum, as something China should have, and this turned the Renaissance into a “thing” that could be possessed and that conveyed particular expectations about the future. In a related and equally well-documented process, the “Reformation,” as another emblematic moment sustaining the chronotype of “rebirth,” was used to reconceptualize historical time in a quasi-religious way: as an inevitable, cosmologically necessitated new beginning for the Chinese nation initiated by charismatic leaders aspiring to become “China’s Martin Luther.” The global career of the “Enlightenment” followed a similar path, although its “typification” and reification happened slightly later. (Conrad 2012; Chen 2014). Translations of the word “Enlightenment” (Ch. qimeng, J. keimō) were grafted onto a previously existing lexicon with similar connotations. Yet, these terms soon underwent a significant shift: both qimeng and keimō were redefined to build expectations for the emergence of a national awakening, and no longer an individual one.

The complexity of the uses of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment become more apparent when contextualized in the lexical and semantic reconfiguration of the tropes of awakening and rebirth in East Asia. Keywords shaping this chronotype in Chinese (and their Japanese cognates) included terms like “recovering the ancient” (fugu), “rejuvenation” (fuxing) or (in a transitive sense) “recovery” (guangfu): all referred to a lost time of prosperity situated in a more or less remote past and called for its urgent recovery. These terms did not cease to exist when emblematic moments from the European past were appropriated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rather they were identified with or opposed to the conceptual constellations emerging around the new or redefined words. In our studies we will therefore ask: How were appropriations of the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment deployed to reconfigure existing conceptual resources shaping the chronotype of rebirth and awakening? On which European and Asian sources were these uses based? And in how far did their history in Asia contribute to more general understandings of these moments in Europe proper?

The frontispiece of Athanasius Kircher’s 1667 China Illustrata, depicting the Jesuit founders Francis Xavier and Ignatius of Loyola adoring the monogram of Christ in Heaven while Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Matteo Ricci labor on the China mission.


Joachim Kurtz

Lorenzo Andolfatto

Lee Kyonghee

Pablo Blitstein