Qian Daxin and the Philological Revolution in Eighteenth-Century China

Qian Daxin and the Philological Revolution in Eighteenth-Century China

My project aims to identify and examine the philological revolution in eighteenth-century China across disciplinary boundaries and from a new interpretative framework—the nexus of knowledge and Confucian identity. The underlying principles of that revolution continue to inform scholarly and even governmental agendas to this day. Philology, as a set of linguistic tools and methods used to investigate languages and texts, has the power to construct the textual pasts of peoples and, consequently, shape both individual and collective identities. From the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries, philology became the mainstay of classical scholarship in East Asia. Although philological inquiry was not new, the consolidation of the discipline, its rising status, a new understanding on what valid knowledge consists, and the massive publication efforts linked to it in the eighteenth century—alongside attacks on philology by those dissatisfied with its reign—constitute what I term a “philological revolution.” The scholars of the revolution shared a systematic focus, accompanied by terminological, categorical, and discursive changes, on the reliability of sources as evidence for restoring ancient texts and meanings, a shift that deeply affected the formation of contemporaneous political, social, and cultural agendas. In short, the revolution was the most important intellectual turn of the Qing dynasty and had long-lasting consequences for modern China as well, even when the powerful weapon of philology turned into a double-edged sword as far as the original intentions of the revolution were concerned.

Qian Daxin (1728–1804), arguably the most distinguished scholar of the Qing Dynasty, whose persona, life, and thought have not been examined in any Western language monograph or study, forms the axis of my study. While parts of the story of the “philological turn” in late imperial China have been told, my perspective problematizes and challenges this received narrative, questions the periodization of the revolution, and advances new understandings, unfolding the process of the revolution and also the reasons that enabled and precipitated it. The project engages a variety of fields (history, classicism, science, ritual), as well as the social history of scholars and scholarship (the social infrastructure of the revolution) and the intellectual contents. Recurrent themes include: the nexus of philology and the scholars’ sense of identity; methods of accessing ancient texts and the criteria for their selection; the transmission of earlier and current knowledge in China; the history of science; and the possible encounter between philology and notions of nativism, exceptionalism, or cosmopolitanism, which also accentuated inter- and intra-cultural tensions between so-called “ancients and moderns.”