Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty celebrated his eightieth birthday in 1790, for which Vietnam, Korea, the RyūkyūIslands, Burma, and Mongolia sent delegates to the imperial summer resort at Chengde to pay homage. Curiously, the Annamese (or, Vietnamese) king NguyênQuangBình, who had just defeated the Qing army, offered to appear in Qing costume and kowtow to the Qing emperor. The unusual act pleased Emperor Qianlong and infuriated the Korean delegates. What did costume and ceremonial mean in the context of the East Asian political and cultural order? Why did the British embassy to China led by Lord Macartney three years later cause friction with regards to sartorial and ceremonial manners? This lecture will address these questions.
This lecture is concerned with some historical issues of “China,” “territory,” “culture” and “identity” that are placed against the background of politics, culture and scholarship in contemporary China. I want to draw attention to the question of how historians understand and interpret “China.” It addresses the following questions. First, where did the idea of “China” come from? and how did it become a topic of scholarly research? What kind of dilemmas does “China” confront in its current condition and historical interpretation? Second, how do various new historical theories and methods in international academic circles enrich our understanding of “China”? Third, how does China’s history and reality challenge the theories of “empire” and “nation-state”? Fourth, is it possible to write “East Asian history”? Does “national history” prove still effective in describing China or East Asia?
Discussions on the contrast between the Tang and Song dynasties are common in Chinese cultural and intellectual history. Will it make more sense if the continuity between Song and Ming are emphasized instead? This shift in research perspective will have multiple effects. Instead of paying exclusive attention to the elites and classics, we will focus on common knowledge, thoughts, and beliefs. As a result of this shift in the core of our research interests, the process by which ideas and cultural novelties are institutionalized, popularized, and “conventionalized” will become an important focus of historical research. Shifting our concern from the “original thinking” of the Tang and Song to the “compromise thinking” of the Song and Ming will cause an increase in the kinds of documents about cultural and intellectual history. Such changes in periodization and research perspective can stimulate fundamental changes in the study of Chinese cultural and intellectual history