ahorbinski: The five elements theory in the style of the periodic table of the elements.  (teach the controversy)
Bibliographic Data: Liu, Lydia H. The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Main Argument: The mutual encounters between the British and Qing Empires produced a regime of sovereign thinking that in the 19thC ordered how citizens and subjects around the globe thought of and fought over sovereignty, culture, language, linguistics, and law. This sovereign thinking is necessarily hetero-cultural and translingual, and it requires mobility of signs and signifiers across space and time. Translation is no more a neutral activity than a translated text is neutral ground.

Civilizations do not clash; empires do. )

Critical assessment:
Wow, this book. Lydia Liu clearly operates at about three levels above the rest of us in terms of her thinking, which, it's good to have people up there on the heights, but it takes a lot of brain-work to be able to grasp the messages they send down. What I wish she had brought up more explicitly--well, okay, one of many things--is the Qing construction of empire and sovereignty vis-a-vis the modern imperial-national British/European one. It's crystal-clear to me, as a classicist turned modern historian, that the Qing were advocating and instantiating a classical version of the same, broadly comparable to other ancient polyethnic empires such as Rome (and inasmuch as its conception of the state was classical, related too to states that were not empires, such as Yamato in the Nara and Heian periods). And maybe it's just me, but I think there's at least as much value in looking at those two empires side-by-side as in going back and reading the Manchu versions of the Qing court documents. Also, as a consequence of Liu's rarified thinking, the very real violence that the violence of language, treaty, translation prefigured or authorized or augured tends to be lost in her accounts, and despite her meticulous documentation of farragoes of racist "scholarship," she goes easy on physical details of that too. This is a consequence of her focus, I think, but I always prefer to have people be reminded of the realities of the past, as they were, to the extent that we can know them. Her chapters could be more strongly integrated, but there definitely is a thread that connects them, and they're brilliant in and of themselves. Regardless, an excellent book.

Further reading:
Lydia Liu, Translingual Practice; Ian Christopher Fletcher et al., eds., Women's Suffrage in the British Empire; Laura Hostetler, Qing Colonial Enterprise; Der Ling, Two Years in the Forbidden City; J.Y. Wong, Deadly Dreams; Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Emperor

Meta notes:
There is nothing that cannot be subordinated, no neutral ground on which to fight; we have already all been colonized, and even a comparative approach toward what was before modernity's advent is inevitably structured by modernity. The best we can do, like Ma Jianzhong, is to make these structures visible, and so problematize them openly.
ahorbinski: kanji (kanji)
Negative portrayals of Westerners began in the early sixteenth century, when the first Portuguese traders appeared on the southern coast of China and committed random acts of pillage and homicide. […] In the eighteenth century, as I have pointed out, the supercargoes of the British East India Company repeatedly got in trouble with the local government for homicides committed by Europeans against the Cantonese "natives." It was these acts of violence, rather than the exotic appearance of the Westerners, that had contributed to the rise of the epithets fan gui and gui zi ["foreign devils"] among the Cantonese and their spread to the rest of the country after the first Opium War.

--Lydia H. Liu, The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (98-99)

Yeah, my reaction is "What the hell is wrong with these people?" too.

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Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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