Madrid: Recurrence and Return

The subproject traces the mapping of real and mythical moments from European pasts onto the chronotypes of “recurrence” and “return” in China and Japan. It does so by examining representations of several emblematic moments of the European past in historical and literary materials from the 17th to the 20th centuries. This is the area covered by the expertise of the PI (Chinese history and fiction) and the postdoctoral researcher (Japanese intellectual history).

From the 18th century, scholars and officials in Tokugawa Japan and Qing China increasingly tapped the trickle of information about Europe and its past. The default position of those who came into contact with reports of the European world past and present was the moral idiom of a universalized “China” and the recurrent patterns of its history. Mapped onto this pre-existing conceptual grid, which was shared across the Sinosphere, the European world emerged in Japanese texts as a new “China,” albeit in different guises. Thus, intellectuals mapped European history either as a recurrence of the normative China of the partly mythical Three Dynasties (Watanabe 2010)—the locus of universal value—or as the ominous return of the fragmented China of the Warring States era in the first millennium BCE—the set precedent for a geopolitical struggle of survival and domination. From these building blocs of Chinese and European pasts, both the quest for “civilization” and the 19th-century ideologies of Japanese and Chinese proto-nationalism were simultaneously constructed. Contrary to the conventional paradigm that posits the “West” as an irreconcilable alternative to the “East,” we will show that the normative China imaginary served as the key mediating filter for processing and appropriating the West both before and after Japan’s Meiji revolution in 1868.

To examine the processes by which intellectuals appropriated Europe as a return of the already-known, the subproject will first trace the transmission and uses of published and unpublished texts—for example, those that originated in 17th-century China as missionary reports, entered into 18th-century European debates of universal history, and then resurfaced in early-19th century Japan via the Dutch as intelligence about international affairs. These texts were instrumental in the rendering of European pasts (including the record of the imperial expansion of the European dominion overseas) into positive or negative narratives assimilated under the authoritative Chinese idiom.

A similar process is under way in the career of the biblical idiom in Chinese, the focus of the second part of the subproject. The story of the adaptation of biblical language in Chinese is an instructive example of how multidirectional cultural mediations produce new meanings beyond the immediate intentions of the actors. Early Jesuits made extensive use of the classical Chinese lexicon to lend authority to the Christian message. Even in their naming of the Holy Scripture as Shengjing, the word jing was taken from the standard designation of the Confucian and Buddhist canonical texts, while the term sheng adapted a traditional term of reverence for the Confucian sages and kings; both acquired a new relationship with sacredness and divinity in their Christian usage. In turn, this raised the question of the equivalence between sheng and Christian saints now described in Chinese by the same epithet. Such terminological issues, reported back to Europe, fed into controversies over the exclusive nature of the Revelation and its absolute status vis-à-vis sophisticated non-European societies. Thus, while the Ming and Qing Chinese audiences were ostensibly exposed to the transformative Christian message of redemption, Europe was transformed by the consequences of that message’s encounter with non-European histories, which contributed to the crumbling of the Bible as a frame for mankind’s universal history.

By the early 20th-century, the need to rephrase the Christian message by returning to the authoritative moral idiom of high Confucian classics was gone, along with the socio-political foundations of the authority of the canon. Yet even during the War and in the completely new circumstances of the communist state, biblical tropes have continued to be surprisingly productive in Chinese fiction. Even today, references to Genesis and Exodus and to the Gospels abound as tropes for the return and recurrence of stock situations and dilemmas. (Xu 2003)

In these ways, the subproject examines the multiple lives of missionary reports originating from China—both in the realm of negotiations over the “sacred” and in the realm of intelligence about the secular world. We show how nominally “European” moments of real and mythical pasts acquired a life not implied in their uses in their place of putative origin. Whatever we henceforth say of their careers need not start with their European birth certificates.

“Discussing The Divine Comedy with Dante” by Dai Dudu, Li Tiezi, and Zhang An, 2006.

Team members

Taciana Fisac

David Mervart

Daniel Sastre