夷-Barbarian: The ‘Others’ outside of the Empire

Continuing from the last point in the previous post on the Eurocentric viewpoint on the concept of ‘Barbarians’, I want to explore this wholly contentious and still rather taboo subject from the Chinese worldview.

The Chinese ethnic race, while known as the originator and developer of some of the most culturally-transcendant philosophies and thinking in history (Taoism, the 兼爱 or universal love/pacificism of Mohism, Chinese Buddhism…), are hardly the race-blind and race-tolerant people some would like to make them out to be. In fact, the Chinese may be amongst the ancient world’s earliest and staunchest race chauvinists and advocates, and throughout it’s many centuries of existence as a ‘civilization-state’ (as opposed to the western Westphalian concept of nation-states), the Chinese as a state, civilization and race, has refined this concept of Difference and Distinction (and yet also that of Inclusion, ie. Sinicization) between themselves and all Others to a fine degree. An introduction to this idea may be undertaken here, the Hua(華)–Yi(夷) distinction (or Sino-Foreigner/Barbarian dichotomy).

In a recent discussion with old friends on this old debate (we must have had this discussion hundreds of times already over the years), I referred to the semiotic analysis of the Chinese concept of Otherness and Barbarians undertaken by Professor Lydia Liu (Columbia University) in her 2004 book, The Clash of Empires: the Invention of China in Modern World Making.

Prof Liu makes very interesting and on the whole, very compelling points in her book, especially the chapters on The Semiotic Turn of International Politics and my favourite chapter in the book:
The Birth of a Super-Sign [ie. the birth of the chinese word, 夷 or Barbarian]

Prof Liu’s main contention in her book is that there had been a lamentable mismatch of the Chinese conception of the word 夷-Foreigner/Barbarian (which had been in use for nearly three thousand years in Chinese consciousness) and the Western world’s interpretation of the word, especially in light of the use of the word on themselves (see the disastrous encounter in 1793 between the Qing emperor Qianlong and the British Ambassador Lord Macartney), which ultimately led to the Opium Wars, the subsequent spate of ‘unequal treaties’ and the hundred years of humiliation.

Prof Liu in the final section of her book and in application of her theory of the semiotic mismatch, then undertook a line-by-line redacted comparison of one of the most infamous letters of correspondece between Britain and China in the 19th century (between the original letter and the British ‘xenophobic’-slanted translation):
Admiral Lin Zexu’s letter to Queen Victoria on the opium trade
[Indeed, Prof Liu hinted that the seemingly incomprehensible stubborn insistence of the 19th century British translators to take the translation of the word 夷-Foreigner/Barbarian to it’s extreme and xenophobic meaning, was simply that of the British seizing upon any justification for their subsequent hardline militaristic engagement with China.
]

I am currently rereading Lydia Liu’s book (amongst many other books! Glorious references and recommendations born of delicious discussions with esteemed old friends) and at some point, would like to place some quotes here.

One thought on “夷-Barbarian: The ‘Others’ outside of the Empire

  1. Added a few more linked references above.

    A few other books and authors I am currently reading, by way of recommendation by old friends, includes the South Korean, David C. Kang, Professor of Government at Dartmouth.
    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~govt/faculty/kang.html

    Kang’s writings make for very good reading.

    Another one will be Martin Jacques.
    I have resisted reading Jacques’s rather more sensationalistic-titled book for a while now; but since it now comes recommended by friends, will give it a go.
    Apparently he had picked up on and been developing the idea of the Chinese ‘civilization-state’ quite a fair bit.

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