Re-constructing East Asia: international law as inter-cultural process in late Qing China
Abstract Late imperial China is often viewed as a period when China was growing more xenophobic and gradually closing her doors to earlier much stronger global links. The forcing of China open to trade and exchange after the Opium War did not immediately change China’s international orientation. The early Chinese self-strengthening efforts were more directed towards domestic change and did little to change China’s official and intellectual view on her global position. With the more systematic introduction of Western sciences, starting in the 1860s and gaining full momentum in the 1880s and '90s, however, China’s international orientation changed in fundamental ways. This article argues that the translations and reception of international law as a branch of the Western sciences from the 1860s radically changed China’s global outlook and her world orientation. When the process of translating international law commenced systematically in the 1860s, this branch of legal studies was entirely alien to its translators as well as its potential readership. When China’s international outlook was gradually transformed in the 1880s and her cultural and political links in Asia changed with the expansion of Japanese power in the middle of the 1890s, however, international law quite rapidly became a framework for constructing a new discursive global orientation among Chinese intellectuals. Cultural and political change within Asia made this former alien interpretation of inter-state relations highly relevant in the Asian-Chinese context. This article argues that the Chinese world orientation changed from an East Asian construction and orientation of relations between suzerain and vassal to a world orientation based on concepts of national sovereignty and balance of power between states as constituted in international law. By focussing on the introduction and reception of international law in China, this article shows that international law as a branch of Western learning contributed strongly to international orientation and inter-cultural processes in East Asia.
Rune Svarverudis professor of China studies in the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages at the University of Oslo. His main fields of interest are the intellectual history of China, Sino-Western relations and the East–West intellectual transfer of ideas. His research has focused on pre-Qin and Han intellectual history (e.g. Methods of the Way: Early Chinese Ethical Thought, Brill, 1998) and the translation and reception of ideas from the West in late imperial/early modern China (e.g. International Law as World Order in Late Imperial China: Translation, Reception and Discourse, 1847–1911, Brill, 2007).