Michael Lackner and Natascha Vittinghoff, Editors. Mapping Meanings: The Field of New Learning in Late Qing China

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Michael Lackner and Natascha Vittinghoff, editors. Mapping Meanings: The Field of New Learning in Late Qing China. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2004. xviii, 741 pp. Hardcover $201.00, ISBN 90-04-13919-2.

We all know the problems with conference volumes. Publishers no longer want them, and conference organizers confront the task of editing conference papers under the cloud of that awareness. Superior conference volumes still make it into print, but in the U.S. academic publishing world, they are fewer and farther between each year. Mapping Meanings shows us what happens when assiduous editors and a receptive publisher conspire to produce a complete set of conference papers without demanding copyedited perfection. The results are uneven, to be sure: some typos remain uncorrected; the length and breadth and significance of the papers all vary widely; and the thematic division of the volume seems a bit arbitrary. But these papers are alive, giving the reader a chance virtually to attend the conference herself. Readers of this volume will be rewarded with a palpable sense of the intellectual excitement of late Qing studies, particularly in Europe, where much of this scholarship was produced.

As at any conference, the terse (Ma Jun's study of the translation of Western military ranks) stands alongside the contemplative (Wolfgang Behr's essay on the terms for "translation" itself). Benjamin Elman's masterly survey of the transition from "natural studies" (gezhi xue) in the late empire to "modern science" (kexue) after 1911 inaugurates the essays, while a concluding section on "knowledge between heart and mind" includes essays ranging from fetal education for Republican mothers to the variants on translations of "God" in Christian texts. The effect is slightly chaotic, but why not? In the intellectual and epistemological chaos of the late Qing, everything was being translated and all categories of analysis--from the sublime to the mundane--were up for grabs. In "mapping" the meanings of this chaotic period, the editors would be remiss if they suppressed anything.

Michael Lackner's preface explains that the volume represents the second stage of an ongoing research project on "The Formation of Modern Chinese Terminologies," headed by Lackner in company with Iwo Amelung and Joachim Kurtz. The project, which at the time of publication had established a database of roughly 127,000 Chinese neologisms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, convened an international conference on "Translating Western Knowledge into Late Imperial China" in 1999 at Gottingen University, with the aim of "placing the history of migrating words and concepts" in their social, political, and institutional context (p. xviii). Lackner acknowledges, as do virtually all contributors to the volume, the painstaking editorial work of his co-editor, Natascha Vittinghoff. Vittinghoff's own illuminating introductory essay places the "new learning" (xinxue) of the period in the context of current studies in the history of science, which conceives of the sciences as modes of "cultural practice" that require interdisciplinary methods and approaches (p. 2). The authors of the essays in the volume, accordingly, understand scientific practice or "new learning" as "a disunified occupation" where "new knowledge as a local practice [is] inseparable from the local context" (p. 2). In every locality, moreover, encounters between Chinese and Western thinkers in this period were reciprocal and transcultural, overriding the distinction between "foreign" and "indigenous" (p. 3) and constituting forms of global knowledge which then found their way into local uses.

These diverse local practices have long been ignored in the script that dictates the narrative of China's modern history, which stresses the impact of the West and particularly the defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese war, and posits a coherent "national" response (self-strengthening, reform, revolution). …