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Toward a conceptual history of 'wenhua' and 'wenming' in Modern China: shattering an old narrative, formulating a new method


Dr. Joseph Ciaudo (INALCO, Paris)

Datum und Zeit

10. November 2016, 16:15–18:00


Asien-Orient-Institut, Universität Zürich, RAA E 12, Rämistrasse 59, 8001 Zürich


Wenhua and wenming, often translated as "culture" and "civilization" are two keywords in modern and contemporary China. However their historical formation and discursive potency have never been put into question. Completely disregarded by previous research in conceptual history, they are a significant blind spot in our understanding of the political and intellectual turmoil that China passed through at the beginning of the twentieth century. By bringing them to the centre of the picture and by questioning their uses with a framewort inspired by Koselleck's Begriffsgeschichte, Joseph Ciaudo will show that wenhuais in a fact a very modern concept that was at first completely disjointed from the issue of "an identity to preserve". As such, it was a concept very distant from what we nowadays commonly call "culture". His presentation will put forward the idea that the supposed contradiction between "Chinese cultural identity" and "modernity" - the so-called Levenson's dichotomy - as much as classical narrative inherited from the May Fourth era often offer a profoundly distorted reading of the cultural issue in Modern China. By considering modern Chinese history with our all too modern categories, we fail to notice that the Chinese intellectuals grasped their own political and social reality through lens completely different from ours. By interrogating the lexical formation of the concepts of wenhua and wenming, as much as their dissemination in the intellectual discourses, Joseph Ciaudo will demonstrate that the concept of "culture" is absolutely inappropriate to translate the concerns of Chinese intellectuals ath the beginning of the twentieth century China.

Through a summary of his doctoral research and a presentation of his on-going projects, Joseph Ciaudo will notably focus on the methodological issue raised by a potential conceptual history of wenhua and on how it can affect our understanding of Modern China in its relation to the West and its past.


Asien‐Orient‐Institut – Sinologie