Author: Krzysztof Gawlikowski
Institution: Uniwersytet SWPS
Year of publication: 2019
Source: Show
Pages: 50-78
DOI Address:
PDF: ap/22/ap2203.pdf

Some methodological difficulties in studying and analysing China

The study presents various factors which obstacles adequate description and analysis of Chinese realities in Western scholarly literature. The first factor presented in the article is the psychological mechanism of a “mirror”. As Lynn T. White suggested, since the 17th century, that Westerners look at China not through a ‘window’ but through a ‘mirror’, in which their own fears or most treasured ideals are refl ected, not China itself. Hence their descriptions of China refl ect first of all their state of mind. Peter Hays Gries and Stanley Rosen add to this metaphor another one, that of a procrustean bed. According to these authors, contemporary Western scholars procede like ancient Procrustes who made his captives fit his bed cutting their too long limbs or stretching these too short, in order to adapt Chinese realities to the Western schemes. Sebastian Heilmann and Matthias Stepan in order to explain Western mistaken views of China and expectations presented six wrong assumptions concerning developments in China. Their list is controversial, but it is true that on the Western side there are numerous wrong assumptions concerning China and other Asian states. Thus the Chinese realities are described in a wrong way, and the predictions of future developments are also false.
The Author put an emphasis on scientific categories and terms elaborated in Europe and the States and considered “universal”, which, however, are not adequate to the Chinese realities. Hence their use results in falsification of descriptions and makes previsions based on them – groundless. He distinguishes two essential kinds of categories and terms borrowed from the West but inadequate to the Chinese realities. The first constitutes the terms which significance does not fit to the Chinese realities, as “language”, “religion”, historical epochs such as “antiquity”, “,Middle Ages”, etc. The second constitutes the terms which meanings involve cultural values. Many of them are difficult to translate into Chinese and they acquire different meanings in the context of Confucian heritage. The Author analyses from this perspective: “human rights”, “democracy” and “freedom”.
Western scholars are also often mislead by Chinese sources. The study indicates another factor, which facilitates great misunderstandings. According to the cultural norm of the Confucian civilisation there is a “proper façade” presented in public, behind which there are hidden “internal realities”. Of course, such differences could be detected in each culture, but in highly ritualistic Confucian civilisation this distinction is essential, and both parts constitute “complex realities”, whereas Westerners presume that the façade constitutes a whole and complete reality. The Author presents as an example centralised, unitary Leninist state in Chin that is – in his opinion merely a false “public image”, whereas in reality there operate more or less innumerable quite autonomous units, which in fact are not subordinate. Under such circumstances all decisions must be consulted and negotiated among them, like in a federal system, although it does not operate formally. The Westerners also misleads themselves considering their peculiar civilisation as “universal”, whereas there are various civilisations, which will not amalgamate during the modernisation processes. Hence various societies function and change in their own ways, different from the western schemes and expectations.
The study indicates that the West still predominates and presents its civilisation as universal. However, its predomination faces growing resistance and numerous scholars recognise the existence of numerous civilisations, which will also develop in the future. The author enumerates the most significant concepts such as “dialogue among civilisations and cultures” adopted by the United Nations in 1989, Huntington’s warning against imposing western norms on other civilisations, which may result in their ‘clashes’, the concept of the Axial Age, of Multiple Modernities, and so on. The road to an equal status of all civilisations is long and tortuous. The elaboration of universal scientific categories and principles is even more difficult, and it is, perhaps, a task for future generations of Asian scholars.


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