Xiang, Decolonising Sinology

Shuchen Xiang has just published a paper “Decolonising Sinology: on Sinology’s Weaponisation of the Discourse of Race” in Social Dynamics: A journal of African Studies. Please read on for the abstract and how to access the article:

The previous generation of Sinologists were of the overwhelming consensus that race consciousness did not exist in pre-modern China. However, in recent decades there has been a revision of this consensus. This paper frames this shift in terms of Sinology’s complicity with white supremacy, imperialism and the military-industrial-academic complex. Contemporary Sinology sets itself up as exposing a colonial mentality in pre-modern China. The irony is that it is contemporary Sinology which is complicit with white supremacy and itself is in need of decolonisation. This paper will analyse the most prominent example of this sea-shift in the Sinological consensus on race in China: Frank Dikötter’s The Discourse of Race in Modern China. That such scholarship, deficient in the most basic scholarly standards, was overwhelmingly feted upon its publication, continues to be cited as an authority and to receive inordinate recognition reveals Western academia’s problematic attitudes towards China and the issue of racism. This paper will show how all of the above phenomena can be understood in terms of the “epistemology of ignorance.” By misappropriating the discourse of the critical philosophy of race, Sinology’s epistemology of ignorance universalises Western racism. Sinology has weaponised the discourse of race.

To download, please visit the publisher webpage: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02533952.2023.2220589

12 replies on “Xiang, Decolonising Sinology”

  1. Is Chinese Philosophy the next academic field to to be overtaken by activism? Is the study of Confucius and Laozi going to become secondary to decolonization and the fight against some notion of omnipresent white supremacy? The fear of being labeled a racist for pushing back against anything that claims to fight white supremacy is enough to keep me away from the universities. The intellectually stifling atmosphere is obvious and subjects like Chinese Philosophy seem next in line to be crippled by ideological zealotry.

  2. I give a more in-depth treatment of the issues raised in this paper in my forthcoming book Chinese Cosmopolitanism: The History and Philosophy of an Idea.

    Pre-order here: https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691242729/chinese-cosmopolitanism
    Available to buy September 26th.

    Trigger warning: In the book I criticize even more systematically and trenchantly colonial sinology. May cause discomfort to those that Edward Said called, in the runup to US-led war on Iraq, “orientalists who betrayed their calling as scholars.”

    • Just while I’m waiting to get access to the paper, has the author also discussed in her research the “military-industrial-academic complex” within which Japanese Sinology and Confucian studies were implicated in the first half of the 20th century? Tokyo Imperial University Sinologists sometimes acted in advisory roles to the Japanese government during the 1930’s and through the early years of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and they enthusiastically appropriated Confucian texts, and the distinction between “Middle Kingdom” and “barbarians” to justify imperial and militarist policy towards China.

      One could describe these men as “orientalists who betrayed their calling as scholars”, but it would be more appropriate to speak of a “self-orientalism orientalism” here than of “white supremacy”.

  3. I wish I could delete my comment as I have only read the abstract. However, the tendency toward problematizing everything has gotten out of control. Given that professors are screened in hiring at top US schools through ideological litmus tests, the social and professional incentives to make one’s work center around fighting white supremacy, systemic racism, and gender identity issues have made subject after subject narrow and uninteresting. It would be tragic for Chinese Philosophy to follow this phony performative road. But in fairness to the author, her work may very well be important and relevant. However, if the study of Chinese Philosophy continues to overemphasize these identity grievance topics, it would be extremely detrimental to the field and it’s contribution to humanity.

    • One of the main arguments that Dr. Xiang presents in the article is that academic sinologists need to bother to read about the history of western colonialism and racism so as to better understand the nature/reality of what western racism actually involved. If academics are interested in comparing the history and practices of these two traditions (Chinese history and European Colonialism, for example), it would certainly help scholars if they were well grounded in the relevant scholarship.
      Is that really that problematic? If you wish to compare two traditions, historically/philosophically/etc., then scholars should be familiar with both traditions.
      As scholars that actually study the history of western racism and colonialism point out, the study of that history is made much more difficult seeing as how that history has been systematically “white-washed” and erased. This is what the “epistemology of ignorance” refers to in her article. We, in the USA and Europe, have been systematically miseducated about the history and nature of western colonialism and racism.
      For example, the people of Haiti were basically the first to liberate themselves from modern slavery. They fought their “owners” (the French) and liberated themselves from being “mere property”. It is not common knowledge, though, that after the French lost their “property”, they issued a threat. Either the Haitians needed to pay the French back for all the money that was lost, or the French would come in with their military and murder/re-enslave them. The Haitians agreed to “pay back a debt” so as not to be re-enslaved. Today, in the 21st century, the Haitian people are literally still paying back that impossible debt to the French. I would hope we can agree that a historian/academic working on the history and modern reality of western colonialism and neo-colonialism is not merely “following this phony performative road” if they are trying to shed light on these issues. “Performative virtue signaling” is not the impression I get from scholars working on the philosophy of race and decolonial theory/philosophy. Racism and colonialism, both modern and historical, are far more complicated than what our culture tells us is “common sense”.
      It also seems like there is a kind of irony here. For those that have been quick to criticize Dr. Xiang’s article whilst not even having read it… this seems to realize her exact point: assuming you can talk about these issues without having done the requisite work (knowing the history and, in this instance, reading her paper).
      I assume that this is THE Willard Peterson, the Sinologist at Princeton. If it is not, and this is some guy named “Will” that is not an academic, then my apologies to the real one about this next point.
      As I think many philosophers that study non-western philosophers will agree, for those of us that study Chinese philosophy in a PHILOSOPHY DEPARTMENT, we are actively dealing with a history of colonialism. That history involves the claims that “Africa and Asia have no philosophy” and that “philosophy is uniquely western/Greek in origin”. Peter Park has a book about it.
      It might have been very comfy for you to study Chinese Philosophy in an “East Asian Studies” department. For academics that are trying to teach/study non-western philosophy in philosophy departments, we still have to deal with this ridiculous narrative and the ethnocentric philosophers that exclude non-western philosophy. Personally, I am on board with arguing that most western philosophers are “colonial”, operating within a “colonial framework”, or just racists that get to lazily benefit from the racist and colonial historical narrative that excluded the majority of the world from having written/done philosophy. Sinology is NOT the only thing that needs to be decolonized. Dr. Xiang is not “starting some kind of activism”. Many philosophers have been and are still trying to expand the philosophy canon. As I think many of my colleagues will agree, that “activism” has been happening for some time now and should not be discouraged. The narrative that “philosophy is western/Greek in origin” is just another dimension to the history of racism, colonialism and (obviously???) white supremacy. I hope that we can agree on that point.

      – Jacob Bender

  4. Just to add a footnote to this part “Many philosophers have been and are still trying to expand the philosophy canon. As I think many of my colleagues will agree, that “activism” has been happening for some time now and should not be discouraged. The narrative that “philosophy is western/Greek in origin” is just another dimension to the history of racism, colonialism and (obviously???) white supremacy. I hope that we can agree on that point.”
    Examples of collective effort to expand the philosophy canon so we can get out of the bird cage of epistemological ignorance below:
    Bryan van Norden, Taking Back Philosophy, Columbia UP, 2017
    here’s a list of biblio for those interested in expanding the philosophy canon, by van Norden, http://www.bryanvannorden.com/suggestions-for-further-reading

    Jay Garfield, Engaging Buddhism: Why it Matters to Philosophy, Oxford UP, 2015

    of course, there are many more. but these two monographs and van Norden’s biblio are a good start.
    Not sure when calls to produce better scholarship became “activism,” but recalling an earlier moment when feminist philosophers called on the field to do better were also dismissed as “activism.” actually their works are still called by some as activism. somethings never change.

  5. I am not Willard Peterson. If my comment was unfair to the author, I apologize. But the trend is undeniable. Every subject in Higher education is affected negatively. This is well documented in hundreds of books and articles. And looking at the titles of articles in most journals, we are by default ignoring all that is interesting and relevant to pursue an absurd obsession with looking for offense. That is my personal opinion. Systemic racism is the least interesting topic in Chinese Philosophy yet focus on it and similar topics of patriarchy, gender identity, etc are how most professors show their administrations and their 18 year olds students that they are sufficiently committed to “anti-racism” to keep their jobs. A lot is at stake here. I have watched every institution, organization movement that I have found meaningful and important being hollowed by the need to show ideological conformity to a narrow-minded reductionist view of the world. And I’m seeing it in Chinese Philosophy. Maybe this isn’t the particular post to address this on, but since the conversation has begun, please forgive me for this one last comment.

  6. Sorry I just read the last comment. The idea that previous or current philosophy teachers who do not share our enthusiasm for Chinese Philosophy or those who believe that Greek Philosophy is unique in its insight and importance makes them white supremacists is horribly unfair. Showing the world that non-Western philosophies have more to offer than has been previously recognized does not have to be a vindictive effort.

  7. @Jacob Bender

    I think you’re confusing a few different issues, and also directing your praise and blame to unproductive ends.

    Let me emphasize at the outset that I absolutely do not subscribe to the view that “philosophy is Greek in origin.” I’ve encountered that kind of dogma, and it’s one of several reasons why I thank my lucky stars that I’m not in a philosophy department.


    (a) The issue has nothing to do with Frank Dikötter. This makes me think you’re letting your experiences with hostile colleagues in philosophy influence your judgment in this case.

    (b) Someone who really does believe that philosophy is Greek in origin isn’t necessarily a white-supremacist. (Ignorant? Sure. Unproductive? Sure. White-supremacist? We need more information.) First, this person would be denigrating not just Chinese philosophy, but also Finnish philosophy, Irish philosophy, what have you. “Greek” is not the same as “white.” More importantly, one would have to know precisely why this person thinks philosophy is Greek in origin in order to be sure that the reasoning is white-supremacist. Someone who believes that philosophy is Greek in origin on the bankrupt grounds that white people are better thinkers and only white people can truly understand philosophy–OK, that’s a white-supremacist. But there are many other possible ways that someone could arrive at this position, and you might not agree with it (I’ve already clarified that I don’t agree with it), but it’s not necessarily white-supremacist. I consider white-supremacy a very serious charge–and I can confidently say that I am committed to opposing white-supremacism–but a very serious charge comes with a commensurately high burden of proof. There are white-supremacists in this world; one of them is my colleague right here at Penn. (You might have read about this case, and I insisted that my department draft and publicize a formal response.) Thomas Jefferson was an explicit white-supremacist. But Dikötter? Sorry, I see no evidence to support that accusation. Just a scholar who happens to be white and who happens to have written a book with abundant weaknesses. (I’ve criticized it myself in the past.)

    (c) Slightly different issue, but I do have to ask: why are you so sure that the people who are criticizing this article haven’t read it? That’s weird.

  8. P.S. I think I should probably add that anti-Asian racism is getting WORSE in the United States, not better, and it’s starting to cause a meaningful loss of talent as scientists are no longer so sure that the United States is such a desirable place to call home. (There have been studies of this—details on request.) I had a student who dropped out after a traumatic experience, so it has hit close to home. Don’t mistake what I’m saying as a lack of concern about racism. It’s a scourge, and it’s getting worse.

    Exactly why I think we need more constructive responses to it.

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