Project (2014-2015)

The Sciences of Sinography

Florence Hsia's project seeks to understand the process by which particular modes of knowledge-making coelesced around an object of study—“China”—that was itself under construction. While the project’s temporal focus places it firmly in the "early modern" period—the era of "proto-sinology" before "real" sinology and its sundry descendants found stable institutional homes, and the dawn rather than the age of imperialisms—its concern is not to recover an ideologically neutral form of scholarship, nor primarily to establish genealogies for post-Enlightenment, modern, colonialist, or orientalist forms of China studies and China-centered specialized discourse, though such connections and related critiques may well emerge. Rather, this project reconstructs the archeological horizon on which the languages and literatures, natural phenomena and lands, and histories, customs and peoples variously captured by the metonyms Cathaia–Sinae–China became visible for scholars whose home in the Latin Republic of Letters that spanned England, the Continent, and Russia paradoxically made it possible to assert expertise about a place they conceived of as a world apart. It does so by drawing on the fragmentary evidence of collective intellectual labor—notes on conversations and books; letters whether autographed or copied, drafted or sent, in manuscript or print; texts, tables, images that were repeatedly dispersed, selectively collected, and reproduced, and so continually transmuted—in order to reconstitute some of the conceptual strata within which they were made and re-made. Together, these strata constitute a sinographic archive crossing the modern disciplines of linguistics, ethnography, astronomy, and cartography, among others, one that should illuminate its other iterations in other times and other places and that Hsia also hopes will serve as a critical case study for thinking about the historical processes and conceptual frames through which "expert" knowledge of other peoples and other places is made.

(Sinography is a neologism Hsia borrows from a recent collection of essays not only for its metacritical view on the sinological project (on analogy with historiography), but also to emphasize the range and materiality of graphic forms (text, image, manuscript, print) at issue in this study. See Eric Hayot, Haun Saussy, and Steven G. Yao, “Sinographies: an introduction,” Sinographies: writing China, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, vii; xx n2; and Eric Hayot, Chinese dreams: Pound, Brecht, Tel quel, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004, 185–87.)