New Sinology 后汉学/後漢學

New Sinology is an academic approach and an intellectual disposition that is advocated by the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) founded in 2010. It encourages a multifaceted understanding of China and the Sinophone world, one grounded in an ability to appreciate the living past in China’s present. First propounded by Geremie R. Barmé with the creation of China Heritage Quarterly in 2005, New Sinology is about:

A robust engagement with contemporary China and indeed with the Sinophone world in all of its complexity, be it local, regional or global. It affirms a conversation and intermingling that also emphasizes strong scholastic underpinnings in both the classical and modern Chinese language and studies, at the same time as encouraging an ecumenical attitude in relation to a rich variety of approaches and disciplines, whether they be mainly empirical or more theoretically inflected. In seeking to emphasize innovation within Sinology by recourse to the word ‘new’, it is nonetheless evident that I continue to affirm the distinctiveness of Sinology as a mode of intellectual inquiry.

—from Geremie R. Barmé, On New Sinology (2005)

New Sinology is an intellectual, cultural and personal involvement with the Chinese world (be it in the People’s Republic, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan or globally) that is underpinned by traditions of academic independence, local fluency and disciplinary relevance. It is an approach to the Chinese and Sinophone world that pays due accord to the demands of academic disciplines while essaying a more holistic understanding relevant not only to academics, but also to a wider, engaged public.

Western Sinology, or Hanxue 汉学/漢學 in Chinese, has a venerable history that dates back to the late-Ming dynasty in the sixteenth century. Early Christian missionaries in their attempts to sway Ming subjects, noble and common alike, familiarised themselves with indigenous traditions of thought, history, literature and scholarship, which were known as Hanxue, the accumulated body of learning that predated the Christian era and which formed the basis for rulership, culture and thought in Ming times. Their study of what in Chinese is known as the nexus between literature, history and philosophy (wenshizhe 文史哲), a competence in which was deemed essential for those who ruled the empire, was from the start a collaboration with Chinese scholars and thinkers, as the study of the Chinese world would continue to be. After all, Chinese were the first Sinologists.

Western Sinology developed as a broad-based attempt to understanding and engage meaningfully with Chinese ways of thinking about and ordering reality, with the hope also of influencing China and its ruling elite. In the colonial age some would dismiss Sinology and Sinologists as symptomatic of those who had ‘gone native’, or who were too bookish, disengaged or irrelevant to the pursuit of more material goals. In reality, from the nineteenth century, the study of China has often been intimately related to economic, political and cultural agendas.

In the early twentieth century, in keeping with the temper of a modern nation state China’s unique scholastic and intellectual traditions were recast by some conservatives as ‘National Learning’ (guoxue 国学). In many cases, National Learning 国学 and Sinology 汉学 are interchangeable, although Chinese Sinologists are often spoken of as specialists in National Learning. As China has reformed economically and revitalised intellectual and cultural agendas since the 1980s, National Learning has enjoyed a widespread revival (and massive state funding). The resurgence of National Learning and the persistent relevance of Marxist-Leninist, and particular Maoist ways of thinking, acting and talking add to pre-1949 traditions of Chinese scholarship and statecraft. Together this Chinese reality demands an approach to the study and understanding of the Chinese world that can meaningfully engage with powerful revived traditions as well as with the discourses of the regnant party-state (a point elucidated at length in the Lexicon entry on New China Newspeak). It is in this context then that a pursuit of a New Sinology is both timely and relevant.

In the post-WWII Western academy, ‘China Studies’ (Zhongguoxue 中国学) along with a range of more professionally focussed disciplinary approaches would enrich scholarship. However, this kind of professionalised and often narrow focus often came at the expense of a more integrated approach that suits better an understanding of a civilisation as varied and complex as that of the Chinese world (a point forcefully made by the historian Frederick W. Mote of Princeton University at a Symposium on Chinese Studies and the Disciplines in 1964, see below). Today, academics concerned with producing work primarily for themselves can perhaps too readily use China and their research as a footnote, or as a case study for regimes of knowledge production suited best to the industrialised global academy. Valuable work and hard-won insights are accessible to specialists certainly, but frequently they are disengaged from the mounting public interest in ‘the rise of China’.

In the post-Cultural Revolution era of Chinese reform, re-evaluations of the past and the rehabilitation of conflicting traditions (ancient, dynastic and modern) previously occluded by High Maoism would make this more integrative, and demanding, approach to the study of China more pressingly relevant. The basic skills in language (modern and various forms of the literary), understandings of philosophy, history and literature have again become important for those who would enjoy a broad-based involvement with the thinking Chinese world, not only for scholastic purposes, but so as to better understand how China’s present and future are in constant commerce with its past. If Chinese political leaders, strategists, business people, academics, media figures and the public generate new ideas and approaches to deal with Chinese problems by employing the resources of tradition alongside modernising international paradigms and practices, surely any basic education in Chinese Studies would require an appreciation of the National Learning that decocts those traditions for modern use. To develop such fundamental abilities, and to equip at least some well enough to embark on this undertaking requires a few of the approaches once common to a Sinological training.

The prominence of China on the world stage requires not only strong professional training in disciplinary ability, but just such a broader awareness and education. Just as understanding the ci-lyric style of poetry developed in the Song dynasty gave earlier generations of political scientists insights into Mao Zedong’s thinking (the Chairman often expressed himself using this millennium-old literary form), so too today a basic appreciation is necessary of classical modes of thought, literary tropes and historical anecdote, now frequently employed by Chinese thinkers, advisers and business people as a recrudescent China addresses the world not only in the modish language of global norms, but also in ways particular to what after all is a world civilisation. To rely entirely on official Chinese party-state interpretations of China’s past, be it of Confucianism, or the concept of Tianxia 天下 (frequently employed by Chinese IR specialists and strategists), or even ‘New Tianxia-ism‘ (Xin Tianxiazhuyi 新天下主义), harmony and ‘traditional values’ is to surrender to a ‘translated China’, one in which alternative understandings of China’s complex socio-political worldviews are edited out as once more the past is made to serve the present.

Scholars of Chinese politics, thought, history, commerce and various other fields often lament the over specialisation required of academic life today. It is a specialisation that cauterises the Chinese world (a world that places great faith in its autochthonous understandings of and approaches to the full range of human activities). Industrialised and corporatised education leaves many students of China well versed in the professions but stymied in understanding with ease and fluency online discussions, newspaper headlines and coded commentaries, as well as a myriad of traditional concepts redeployed today by thinkers, politicians, economists and strategist, as much as they are frustrated when watching kung-fu movies (which require a passing familiarity with literary Chinese, something most Chinese viewers pick up from an early age), or understanding the latest political gossip. All of these things require a grounding in skills that are too readily, and carelessly dismissed as ‘Sinology’.

In the People’s Republic the value of what is called ‘New Sinology’ or 新汉学 in official parlance, is evident. In mid 2012, Hanban 汉办 in Beijing, the headquarters of the global Confucius Institute network announced plans for the training of new generations of local and international Sinologists. The draft formulation of the ‘New Sinology Plan’ 新汉学计划 mooted the provision of bursaries for overseas doctoral scholars (博士生奖学金项目旨在通过来华学习、中外合作 培养等方式,资助具有中国研究学 术基础的各国优秀青年来华深造, 培养青年汉学家和中国学研究方 面的高端人才,推动对传统和当代 中国的跨学科研究.) These plans were further explored in a dedicated panel on ‘ “New Sinology’: Trends and Prospects’ (‘新汉学’的趋势与展望) and the ‘Forum for Young Sinologists and the Promotion of the “China Study Plan” ‘ (青年汉学家论坛暨’新汉学国际研修计划’推介会) at the Third ‘Sinology and the World Today‘ conference, Beijing, 3-5 November 2012. (It might be observed that, although one speaker, Chen Jue 陈珏, noted in their paper abstract that the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s use of the expression New Sinology in 2010, their was less cognisance of the origin of the term in the 2005 creation of China Heritage Quarterly in 2005 or that it underpinned the Australian Centre on China in the World. Meanwhile, Ge Jianxiong 葛剑雄 of Fudan University expressed concern about the unfolding non-language teaching role of Confucius Institutes and the political dimensions of their brief [for details, see below].)

If the overarching presumption among the academic bien-pensant remains determined predominantly by Euro-American-centrism, a solipsism that predicts that the Chinese are becoming more and more ‘like us’, then there is perhaps limited need to understand better the fundamental underpinnings of Chinese ways of seeing, thinking and acting. After all, sooner or later we will all enjoy a global convergence; until then relying on ‘translated China’ and constructing a provincialised China that remains in the thrall of Western intellectual metropoles will suffice. In that case, a Western-determined universalism, in academia as in other realms, may well continue to relegate a Sinology that attempts to engage with ‘things Chinese’ from an inner understanding while maintaining the protocols and values of scholarship, to fustian irrelevance.

Intellectual atomisation serves well the policemen and -women of an academy that quantifies its meaning primarily in disciplinary terms and audited outputs and outcomes. Those who find interdisciplinary and inclusive approaches germane to the life of the mind, however, will appreciate the more complex appeal, as well as the utilitarian value of a New Sinology.


Articles, speeches, sites and books on or related to New Sinology 后汉学/後漢學:

New Sinology in Practice:


On the imitative ‘New Sinology’ 新汉学 initiative launched by the Confucius Institutes of the People’s Republic in 2012, see: