Chinese perspectives key to objective, integrated Sinology

By LI JIA and XU BAOFENG / 09-30-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Chinese journals on Sinology Photo: Chen Mirong/CSST

Sinology has long been a prominent field in academia. It is a window through which foreign countries understand China and also provides channels for China to make sense of how it is viewed by foreign countries. 

In recent years, Sinologies in many countries around the world have been engaging in increasingly close interaction and exchange with Chinese academia, even closer than communication between Sinologists from different countries. Chinese scholars have also paid close attention to, and participated in, the study of Sinologies around the world. 

Sinology has a clear disciplinary nature in many countries, but in China, locating Sinology within a particular discipline remains contested. Moreover, self-centeredness still looms large in Sinological research. Studies show that as China deepens participation, the field of Sinology has embraced Chinese perspectives, which has accelerated the integration of Sinological resources worldwide. 

Attributes of Sinology

Sinology has cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural attributes. To Chinese academia, Sinology is also about the review of Sinological research from foreign countries, more specifically, translating and analyzing foreign Sinological works or examining the overseas communication and reception of Chinese culture through the lens of Sinology. 

Sinology is inherently cross-cultural because from its beginning, the knowledge was primarily produced by foreign scholars and ethnic Chinese who were born or lived extensively abroad. Subject to profound influence from foreign cultures, they conducted cross-cultural studies of China as cultural “others.”

Therefore, some Chinese scholars argue that Sinology refers to foreign scholarship, while considering Chinese scholars’ study of Chinese culture “Guoxue” (National Studies). They propose adding determiners like “foreign,” “international,” and “overseas” to clarify the “non-Chinese” nature of Sinology. 

However, researchers of Sinology today are no longer only foreign scholars, as Chinese academics have been deeply involved, moving beyond initial translation efforts. China’s participation means that Sinology with Chinese perspectives features “restudying Sinological research.”

It is worth noting that Sinology with Chinese perspectives is committed to not only translating and introducing classical Sinological thoughts in foreign countries, but also to objectively refuting their radical ideas.

Generally, Sinology research in Chinese academia is characterized by integration of Sinological resources and Sinology-based research on the communication and reception of Chinese culture abroad. The integration perspective is exemplified by the major project “Oral Chinese Accounts of World Sinologists and A History of International Communication of Chinese Culture” under the auspices of the National Social Sciences Fund, chaired by Professor Xu Baofeng from Beijing Language and Culture University. Through oral interviews with Sinologists from all over the world, the project keeps track of the overseas dissemination of Chinese culture in image, text, and video formats. 

As a second example, Zheng Jiewen, a professor of pre-Qin documents at Shandong University, presided over a project which integrated global ancient Chinese books through collection, recording, and cataloguing, which is conducive to both overseas Sinology studies and domestic academic research.

Regarding the overseas communication and reception of Chinese culture, notable Sinology-based research outcomes include From Translation into Chinese to Translation from Chinese: Xie Tianzhen’s Medio-Translatology and Overseas Sinology Studies authored by Zhang Xiping, a professor and director of the National Research Center at Beijing Foreign Studies University, and On the Philosophical Dialogue in Scriptural Reasoning by Yang Huilin, a professor from the School of Literature at Renmin University of China. 

As Zhang stated, “overseas Sinology has dual characteristics. First, it is waixue, foreign academic research, revealing the worldwide significance of Chinese knowledge and thoughts, and reflecting the overseas communication and influence of Chinese intellectual culture. Second, it is neixue, studied domestically. Overseas Chinese knowledge has been drawn into Chinese knowledge and thought evolution since modern times and become an important factor driving us to update our own knowledge and thought.” This statement proves that Sinology is not only “a study by others,” but also “one by ourselves.” On this basis, it is certain that Sinology with Chinese perspectives has basically taken shape and become a distinct component of world Sinology. 


The Sinology development path and model varies from country to country. Geographically, European and American Sinology, Japanese and Korean Sinology, and Russian Sinology dominate the contemporary landscape of world Sinology. Nonetheless, Sinology has also gained traction in such regions as the Middle East and Latin America. In terms of research areas and outcomes, global Sinologists are devoted, notably, to Chinese history and literature. 

When it comes to Chinese history, remarkable works include: The Cambridge History of China co-compiled by American Sinologist John King Fairbank and British Sinologist Denis Twitchett; Kodansha China’s History published by Kodansha, Japan’s biggest publisher; and The General History of China compiled by Russian Sinologist Sergei Tikhvinsky.

Regarding Chinese literature, American Sinologist Victor H. Mair edited The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, German Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin compiled the History of Chinese Literature, Japanese Sinologist Naoaki Maeno produced Chinese Literature History and Criticism, and Russian Sinologist Vasily Pavlovich Vasiliev compiled The Outline of Chinese Literary History

Although Sinologists around the world exchange with and influence each other, each of the European and American, Japanese and Korean, and Russian schools has their own academic system and norms as a result of their respective development history and research features. In general, the Sinology realm is divided, and each school is evidently quite esoteric. 

For example, the development of European Sinology was deeply indebted to Eurocentrism, and its research thought implies the superiority of Europe in the world, maintaining that Europe dominated the world and created history, hence Europe’s absolute authority and legitimacy. 

Self-centeredness in American Sinology was fostered in the later period of WWII, when world Sinology was reoriented from Europe to the US. Based on John King Fairbank’s Chinese studies, the US ushered in an era of “China studies,” with the focus of Sinology shifted from traditional China to realities in the nation. Emphasizing empirical research of contemporary China by crossing other disciplines like sociology, American Sinology’s research paradigm of China studies charted a new course for world Sinology. 

However, the Russian and Japanese schools of Sinology had in fact developed this research paradigm even earlier, in studies of China-related borderland issues. Many scholars misunderstand that this China studies research paradigm is unique to American Sinology because China studies by American scholars had relatively strong discourse power in modern times. Russian Sinology was inseparable from Slavism. After frequent debates with European Sinology, Russia became a distinctive school in world Sinology.  

About the esoteric division in Sinology, Ming Dong Gu, a professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Dallas in the US, said in his 2012 book Sinologism: An Alternative to Orientalism and Postcolonialism that studies of China from Western perspectives refuse to or are unwilling to understand Chinese culture based on China’s actual conditions, disregarding Chinese realities and simplifying the all-encompassing Chinese civilization to incorporate it into the simple Western development model. He called for a return to fair and objective academic research. 

In the context that humanity shares the future, the division of world Sinology will do no good to the development of the field. Furthermore, self-centeredness is the root cause for lopsided esoteric research and biased thoughts in some countries’ Sinological research. The division will ultimately be terminated, and self-centeredness is bound to ebb away in the wave of global integration. To this end, Chinese perspectives are significant to Sinology, because we need a cosmopolitan view, rather than self-centered, esoteric perspectives. 

Significance of Chinese perspectives

The emergence of Chinese perspectives in Sinology is an inevitable result of world Sinology’s turn towards China, and meanwhile, a realistic appeal for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and for Chinese culture to go global. It requires us to break away from long-standing Western centrism in Sinology. 

Since global academia gave more attention to European and American Sinology, other countries which have also delved into the study are overlooked to some degree, particularly new forces, such as Mexican, Egyptian, Iranian, and Peruvian Sinologists. 

In the interview part of the project to collect oral accounts from Sinologists around the world, we found that the Spanish-language book Historia mínima del confucianismo (A Minimal History of Confucianism) co-authored by Flora Botton Beja, founder of Mexican Sinology, had an important impact in the Spanish-speaking world, contributing to the overseas dissemination of Chinese culture. Therefore, the meaning of Chinese participation in Sinology lies in integrating resources from Sinologists who have a good knowledge of, hold a friendly attitude toward, and love China, to provide them with more platforms to deliver their voices and work together. 

Sinology with Chinese perspectives is committed to integrating not only the divided schools of Sinology around the world, but also distinctive thoughts of each school. Unity in diversity and shared future are among the principles of integration. In other words, it aims to re-direct Sinology research from esoteric self-centeredness to cosmopolitanism. 

In the new era, the overseas communication of Chinese culture is not limited to “interpreting China,” but should meet a higher requirement of “Chinese interpretation,” which necessitates Sinology with Chinese perspectives. Sinology with Chinese perspectives is valuable in that it can promote quality, effective cultural exchanges between Chinese and foreign countries, encourage foreign countries to identify with Chinese culture, offer guidance to avoid foreign misunderstandings and biases, boost the competitiveness of China’s discourse in the international arena, help reshape the overseas image of Chinese culture abroad, and spread Chinese culture to a wider scope abroad. 

Li Jia is a postdoctoral researcher from the School of International Journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Xu Baofeng is a professor from the Belt and Road Academy at Beijing Language and Culture University.