Reflections on Middle Period China Conference

A major, three-day conference on China’s “Middle Period” (800-1400) just concluded at Harvard. It featured an unusual format, designed to spur more cross-disciplinary conversation than is usual, as well as to handle the large number of papers and participants who were present. I believe there were something approaching 200 folks there, from graduate students to senior scholars. The titles, abstracts, and a range of on-line comments are all available here:

Rather than having us present our papers, everyone was encouraged to read as much in advance as possible, and all paper-writers were assigned to write comments on two other papers in advance. Panels were organized thematically, chronologically, disciplinarily, and by “method of analysis”; see here. Each panel had one or two facilitators who were instructed to stimulate and guide discussion among all present.

The conference was very strong in social, cultural, and institutional history, as well as a wide range of scholars of literature and poetry, religion, and art history. There were a modest number of intellectual historians. At least among those from North America, I believe that I was the only philosopher. This may partly reflect the smaller number of people who work on post-classical thought, as compared with the classical era, but I believe that it also reflects a disconnection between philosophers and what we might broadly call sinology. Relatedly, most of the religionists were working on rituals or inscriptions, as opposed to ideas or doctrines. It was certainly an opportunity to learn a lot about what was going on in  Song China and its temporal and spacial neighbors, for which I was grateful; and I enjoyed the chance to meet some colleagues whose work I have profited from. If you want to talk philosophy, though, this group does not seem to be the place to look.

2 replies on “Reflections on Middle Period China Conference”

  1. My sense is that the number of philosophers invited to such gatherings is usually 0 or 1, whereas if you want meaningful interdisciplinary exchange, you need at least 2.

    While I attack you guys plenty, I do have to apologize for my Sinological colleagues for studiously avoiding ideas, as you observed. It’s a trend that mystifies me, and if anything it’s only hardening. The fact that we don’t always agree as to HOW to study ideas shouldn’t mean that one side gives up the study of ideas altogether.

    • P.S. I also apostrophically apologize for the hideous phrase “Middle Period China.” Don’t blame me; I would have told them that it’s an atrocity.

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