The Center for the Study of Traditional Chinese Cultures

Concept and Strategy

The culture or the cultures of China? Isn't it usually just "the Chinese culture" that is talked about? A critical look at this supposed singularity raises important questions: When did the culturally united China first come into being? How different, for example, were the cultures of the Warring States (Zhanguo 戰國, 5th century-221 B.C.)? What about the more remote regions such as the so-called "western regions" (Xiyu 西域), which only became part of the "Middle Kingdom" after the foundation of the Chinese empire? Did all these territories share only one common culture over the centuries?

In fact, the term Zhongguo 中國, which is the common name for China today and is nowadays translated as "Middle Kingdom", originally did not refer to a single empire but to the "Middle Kingdoms". The term has already been documented with this meaning in a bronze inscription of the early Western Zhou Dynasty (ca. 1000 B.C.). So when ancient writings such as the Liji 禮記, the Records of the Rites, refer to Zhongguo, they do not speak of "China", the one "Middle Kingdom", but of - also culturally - diverse "countries of the middle". A look at texts of the so-called southern cultures shows us that these very countries are also called shangguo 上國, "the upper [i.e. northern] countries". For example, in the Guoyu 國語, the Discourses of the States, it is reported that although these "upper countries" could be conquered, one could never live there or ride their chariots. Obviously this is not an expression of self-identification in the sense of a homogeneous cultural area. So when and why did the plural become a singular? Why is the narrative of one traditional culture of China dominant? Only an unbiased look at Chinese conceptual history opens up perspectives on these subtle but decisive differences, which are gaining importance especially today.

It is questions such as these that directly demonstrate the great relevance of an unbiased perspective on cultural, literary and linguistic research questions in sinology today. In consideration of the historically grown area of influence of the Chinese cultural heritage, which extends from Japan and Korea to Vietnam, as well as the widespread use of Classical Chinese (wenyan 文言) as the written lingua franca, the research field of the CSTCC also includes a transcultural perspective on these cultural areas. Through the international connection in a "Knowledge Network" with the Universities of Oslo, Princeton, Kyōtō, Shanghai Jiaotong, and Zhengzhou, these additional sources are also made accessible in a larger framework of East Asian Sciences.

The research spectrum of the CSTCC includes, for example, ancient Chinese economic theories as well as their significance for the current international political economy of the People's Republic of China: Questions relating to contemporary China can only be understood and answered to their full extent, if they are considered in the context of their historical diachronic development. Even apparently "modern" concepts can often be traced back to pre-modern predecessors on closer examination. It is these intricate connections that the CSTCC seeks to uncover through its work, in order to show that a deeper understanding of modern China is hardly possible without a basic understanding of pre-modernity.

This understanding necessarily requires the exploration of central semantic fields, not only with regard to economic theory: the CSTCC places particular emphasis on the historical semantics of "dependence" (in cooperation with the Cluster of Excellence "Beyond Slavery and Freedom: Asymmetrical Dependencies in Pre-Modern Societies of the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms University of Bonn), "Power" and "Rulership" (in cooperation with the Collaborative Research Centre 1167 "Power and Rulership - Transcultural Configurations in Pre-Modern Perspective", University of Bonn), as well as the conceptual history of "guilt" and "love". With these research foci, the Center contributes directly to basic sinological research and a differentiated understanding of China.

The central object of research in these projects is Classical Chinese, also known as wenyan 文言: the classical written language of China, which still lives on in modern Chinese today. This language, which -- comparable to Latin in Europe -- served as a lingua franca in the East Asian sphere of influence of Chinese concepts, formed the basis for a far-reaching transcultural exchange: Since it was used for centuries in Japan and Korea as well as in Vietnam for all kinds of scripts, it offers an opportunity sui generis for the intercultural exploration of concepts. How have concepts that originally came from China evolved in Korea and Japan? Have completely new concepts been developed outside China and re-imported into China in written form? An illustrative example is the modern Chinese word for "economy", jingji 經濟. This term has been documented in the classical written language since the fourth century AD. At that time, however, it did not yet refer to the economy, but was shorthand for the maxim jing guo ji min 經國濟民, "put the country in order and save the people". This shorthand was adopted in Japan, and several centuries later, under the influence of Western economic thinking, it was given the loaned meaning of "economy" in its Japanese reading keizai. This new meaning of a long-standing word was again adopted in China in the late 19th century, referring now to the concept of economy.

Apart from the cultural and economic history as well as the conceptual history and the history of language mentioned above, the CSTCC also deals with the didactics of Classical Chinese: The intensive study of Classical Chinese at the CSTCC resulted in the development of a course that takes into account the above-mentioned transcultural perspectives. As an international hub of academic exchange on Classical Chinese, the CSTCC also creates an interface for the latest findings in the fields of linguistics and didactics. In addition, a digitalization of the Classical Chinese course, which has been tried and tested in class, is being sought: Students will be given the opportunity to directly participate in the translation of previously untranslated pre-modern texts through innovative eLearning offers. Students will thus be directly introduced to basic sinological research.

The Thesaurus Linguae Sericae: An Historical and Comparative Encyclopaedia of Chinese Conceptual Schemes, TLS for short (for a detailed description of the TLS see "Projects"), forms a central digital and methodological basis for research of the spectrum outlined here.

For a more detailed description of the concept of the CSTCC see also "Concept and Strategy of a Sinological Research Centre at the Ruhr-University Bochum".