> topics > Sociology

Dialogue with the West vital to localizing sociology in China

TIAN YIPENG | 2019-02-14 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Yan Fu and his translation of The Study of Sociology by Herbert Spencer, Qunxue Yiyan in Chinese Photo: FILE


Since Western sociology was introduced into China in the late Qing Dynasty, Chinese sociology has undergone two tortuous stages of development. The beginning of the first stage was marked by lectures on qunxue, literally study of groups, given by prominent scholar, political thinker and reformer Kang Youwei in his school Wanmu Caotang, or Cottage in the Woods, in Guangzhou during the Hundred Days’ Reform from June 11th to Sep 21st, 1898.

To reformers at the time, the study of groups was an instrument to save the Chinese nation from subjugation. To prevent China from perishing, it was vital to “unite as a big group” since scholar-officials were unorganized then.

Around the same time, renowned scholar and translator Yan Fu published the translation of The Study of Sociology by English sociologist Herbert Spencer, in which he translated Western sociology into qunxue terms in Chinese that integrated pre-Qin philosopher Xunzi’s thought and Western sociological theories.

Later, however, sociology created by French philosopher Auguste Comte was imported and gained dominance. Shehuixue, or study of society, coined by a Japanese scholar, replaced qunxue as the Chinese translation of sociology. From then on, sociology was regarded as purely exotic in China.

The second stage started from 1979. In the context of reform and opening up, Chinese sociology embarked upon its journey of reconstruction. It is worth noting that the rebuilding of Chinese sociology in the 1980s synchronized with the thriving of American sociology, when positivistic sociology deeply rooted in American positivism became so popular that the social analysis tradition unique to China was almost left in oblivion.

Different as the two stages are, there is one thing in common: The introduction of Western sociological theories and its discipline system was a one-way process within the eastward spread of Western culture. Although scholars constantly underscored the importance of localizing sociology in China, in a bid to dissipate the defining influences of exotic theories by vitalizing indigenous culture, sociology developed passively under the impact-response framework.

Under such circumstances, the so-called indigenous sociological study was nothing more than digesting and comprehending foreign theories. Sociology had yet to receive the status of an independent discipline.


Cultural  self-consciousness
Since the beginning of the 21st century, academics have gradually realized the significance of constructing indigenous sociology. At the turn of the century, pioneering sociologist Fei Xiaotong raised the theory of “cultural self-consciousness,” stressing that people living in a certain culture should have a “self-knowledge” of the culture and understand its source, evolution, characteristics and development trends. Meanwhile, he emphasized intercultural understanding and communication, calling for understanding of the cultures one is exposed to and absorption of their quintessence.

Lu Xueyi also attached importance to indigenous sociological study. He expressed the belief that among the existing disciplinary systems of sociology, Chinese rural sociology and the history of social thought are the landmark disciplines with the greatest promise to go global.

Zheng Hangsheng put forward the concept of theoretical self-consciousness, arguing that those engaging in the teaching and research of sociology should have a self-knowledge of the sociological theories they teach and research, reflecting both on their own and others’ theories. Self-reflections are conducive to understanding relationships between different theories from home and abroad, Zheng added.

In recent years, scholars represented by Jing Tiankui, former director of the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and a CASS Member, have taken the study of the traditional Chinese social thought system as a point of departure, seeking to endow the construction of the sociology discipline with special implications within new analytical frameworks.

In their research outcomes, such as Chinese Sociology: The Origin and Sustainability, they proposed a new “trichotomy” approach for the discipline system of sociology, contending that the spread and expansion of Western sociology in China, the synthesis of Chinese and Western sociological theories, and the transformation and renewal of indigenous sociology constitute the core of the emergence and development of Chinese sociology. The so-called “modern transformation of Chinese sociology” includes the three paths.


Origin of modern sociology
From the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, modern sociology as a discipline was basically built according to the traditional-modern analytical framework. Within it, many branches of the social sciences, including sociology, were defined as originating from modern Europe, mainly the UK, France and Italy.

Admittedly, the analytical framework laid the groundwork for the understanding and research of the modern social sciences system, playing a crucial role in modern academic history. Yet it has its shortcomings. During the process of constructing the West-centric discipline system of sociology, the knowledge and thought of Western learning overshadowed the traditional thought, knowledge and experience of non-Western countries and composed a discipline structure rooted in the West-centric theory.

In fact, both domestic and foreign scholars devoted to researching the history of Chinese thought have admitted that traditional Chinese thought matured early. During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, Xunzi’s philosophy that men and nature are independent from each other spawned diverse schools of thought. His study of groups was typical sociological analysis.


Indigenous sociology
The concept of indigenous sociology was proposed in light of the relational theory concerning the universality and particularity of the development of human society. Like other modern social sciences, sociology was also built upon European experience.

At the beginning of sociology’s development, however, scholars seldom drew on the societal knowledge and thought of ancient civilizations other than those of the West. Consequently, most of the established sociological theories are from the West, and the knowledge base for the discipline is simple. The limitation is self-evident.

The consequence is inevitable to some extent due to the dominant core-periphery theory in Western society. Today as the world is witnessing the rapid pace of globalization and as non-Western countries are reviving, it is essential to study societies of non-Western countries in depth and systematically to build a more complete sociology on that basis.

From the perspective of time, the Chinese civilization originated quite early and the continuity of its ideological and cultural development is unparalleled in the world. Historian Qian Mu said that a country or nation that could endure for hundreds or thousands of years and continue to develop and progress must have a strong potential force, and most important of all is to find out that potential by investigating its politics and society. Indigenous sociological study is vital whether locally or globally.

Underlining the building of indigenous sociology doesn’t mean to leverage Chinese traditional resources to confront Western sociology. Instead, an attitude of dialogue, mutual interpretation, communication and interaction is key to developing and enriching the discipline of sociology amid globalization.

As Taiwan scholar Ye Qizheng said, indigenous sociological study does not aim to regionalize sociological research. On the contrary, it aims to incorporate the efforts of Chinese scholars into the world’s social sciences system. Indian scholar Partha Mukherji held that the universalization of the social sciences should be realized by integrating indigenous projects from all over the world.

An examination of the multilinear development trajectory of sociology from long-term perspectives reveals that in the pre-industrial society, especially during the origination of human civilization, humans carried out original social analysis and research when isolated from each other. The original thoughts and cultures formed traditions of different veins for the analysis and study of human society.

With the advent of modern industrial society, Western sociology rose suddenly and developed into a positivistic discipline. As Western learning was introduced to the East, the wisdom of that early social thought was largely submerged by the tides of history.

Today, globalization has facilitated the dialogue and exchange between Chinese and Western cultures and thought. It is necessary to summarize and utilize indigenous sociological resources to enter into multi-leveled academic dialogues and advance the development of an indigenously rooted sociology with global significance.


Tian Yipeng is a professor from the School of Philosophy and Sociology at Jilin University.

(edited by CHEN MIRONG)