London: Timelessness and Permanence

How have specific moments of the European past been transformed into permanent features of “humanity” as an object of “universal knowledge” in East Asia? Indigenous attitudes towards timelessness and permanence had long structured intellectual and political debate in the region:  the establishment of feudal territories by the Zhou kings in the pre-imperial era of the first millennium BCE was repeatedly referenced as a timeless model of political authority; and the creation of writing by the mythical sage Fu Sheng in prehistoric times was also routinely invoked as an eternally valid justification for the advancement of Chinese civilization. But by the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these indigenous chronotypical resources sat awkwardly with European histories of knowledge. Disciplinary categories such as “philosophy,” “history,” “politics,” and “art,” were promoted by European thinkers as capturing timeless and universal human activities, and were often taken as eternal, trans-historical forms of knowledge with necessary internal stages of development from primitive to advanced. The existence of such timeless forms of knowledge in East Asia was assumed a priori, even as East Asian variants posed a threat to the self-sufficiency of these discursive fields.

This subproject will examine how East Asian thinkers inscribed their own systems of knowledge into modern disciplinary categories and interrogate the tensions arising from the effort to adopt a purportedly timeless, global knowledge. We will focus on how those categories were associated not only with a reformulation of the chronotype of timelessness that previously existed in East Asia, but also with a reformulation of the same chronotype in Europe itself, where “philosophy,” “political science” or other disciplines were given a perennial status in human history. We will show how the constitutions of these “western” disciplines imply particular readings of the past, often in the form of thresholds of knowledge development, that in turn shape the chronotype of timelessness and permanence as a narrative of constitutive stages enabling universally legitimate and therefore timeless knowledge in the present. In the late Qing and Republican periods (c. 1840–1949), the process of locating the chronotype of timelessness was diverse and contested. By the late Qing, Chinese thinkers such as Liang qichao had already criticized the organization of standard Chinese histories by dynastic reign, and urged the writing of “general histories” (tongshi) to include the social and economic activities of broader numbers of people. In doing so, he and others organized Chinese history by events that mimicked European stages of “ancient,” “medieval,” and “modern” pasts (Liang 1994; Tang 1996). He joined colleagues who were already decontextualizing key figures of the Chinese past to render them founders of Western disciplines in Chinese settings—such as the use of Sima Qian (d. 86 BCE) as a Chinese forerunner of economist Adam Smith (Liu 2011). Radical voices in the New Culture era (c. 1915–1927), including Chen Duxiu (1879–1942) and Hu Shi, saw the Chinese past as a long period of stagnation, which needed to be rescued by a European-style Renaissance upon which could be built European political and literary institutions (see Subproject 1). By establishing putatively universal European precedents on Chinese soil, Chen and others believed that China could join Europe in building a shared, lobally identical future.

The Chinese Renaissance By Hu Shi

Such encounters did not settle questions of how and why East Asians fitted into universal historical trajectories, but rather raised questions about the timelessness and universality of European categories of thought. We therefore ask how these engagements confirmed or unsettled presumptions that human intellectual activity exhibits timeless, transhistorically relevant features. Do such activities always converge on a uniquely correct path? If not, what EAU-TBC 9 are the conditions for formulating compelling, legitimate “East Asian” alternatives? To answer these question, the London team will examine how East Asian intellectuals invoked real or imagined historical connections to European chronotypes to make claims to timeless truth, as well as how they may have resisted European historical patterns as a means of legitimating knowledge.


Leigh Jenco

Jon Chappell