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Orientalist Knowledge and Social Theories: China and the European Conceptions of East-West Differences from 1600 to 1900

Ho-Fung Hung
Sociological Theory
Vol. 21, No. 3 (Sep., 2003), pp. 254-280
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3108638
Page Count: 27
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Orientalist Knowledge and Social Theories: China and the European Conceptions of East-West Differences from 1600 to 1900
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Abstract

This paper examines the long-term development of Orientalism as an intellectual field, with the European learning of China between ca.1600 and ca.1900 as an exemplary case. My analysis will be aided by a theoretical framework based on a synthesis of the world-system and network perspectives on long-run intellectual change. Analyzing recurrent debates on China within European intellectual circles, I demonstrate that the Western conception of the East has been oscillating between universalism and particularism, and between naive idealization and racist bias. This oscillation is a function as much of the changing political economy of the capitalist world-system as of the endogenous politics of the intellectual field. Despite their contrasting views, both admirers and despisers of the East viewed non-Western civilizations as uniform wholes that had never changed. I argue that the fundamental fallacy of Orientalism lay, not in its presumptions about the ontological differences between East and West and the former's inferiority, as previous critics of Orientalism have supposed, but in its reductionism. Understanding non-Western civilizations in their full dynamism and heterogeneity is a critical step toward the renewal of the twentieth-century social theories that were built upon and impaired by the Orientalist knowledge accumulated in the previous centuries.

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