Navigation – Plan du site
4 | 2008-2009
The Letter
Academic year 2008-2009
Selected papers
Inaugural lectures

Chair of Chinese Intellectual History

Anne Cheng
p. 17
Cet article est une traduction de :
Chaire d’histoire intellectuelle de la Chine

Notes de la rédaction

Anne Cheng gave her inaugural lecture on 11 December 2008. Her course entitled “Confucius revisited: ancient texts, new discourses”, began on 14 January 2009.

The inaugural lecture is available from Editions Fayard and on DVD (Collège de France/CNED/Doriane co-production)

Texte intégral

Extracts from the inaugural lecture:

1“The historical evolution of China over the past century forces us into a kind of increasingly participative observation (to borrow an expression from anthropology). Our perception of China can no longer afford to remain at a distance and to construct a fanciful object that can be apprehended as a quintessential whole. In many respects, we still entertain conceptions which were elaborated three centuries ago in the Enlightenment period but are no longer enlightened or enlightening. One cannot help being struck by the representations, both concomitant and contradictory, which prevail at the present time: how are we to reconcile the rationalistic and aesthetic picture of Voltaire’s “philosophical China” on the one hand, and the autocratic and Machiavellian China emblematic of Montesquieu’s “Oriental despotism” on the other? We must accept to observe and listen more closely, and thereby give up hasty generalizations, however brilliantly seductive and conveniently marketable they may be.”

2“China itself can no longer be considered as a static object of study, it has become a partner, we should even say an active participant in our debates. The simple reason is that, over the past thirty years or so (approximately one generation), the Chinese have been busy assimilating all the contributions of western social sciences and, even more recently, reappropriating their own intellectual and cultural traditions and patrimony, starting from the treasures underground. The archaeological discoveries which paradoxically started at the height of the Cultural Revolution can be compared, as to their impact and repercussions on our perception of Chinese antiquity, to the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls: while confirming the authenticity of a number of traditional sources, they challenge many of our assumptions inherited from long accepted common views. At the closure of the Maoist period, the Chinese intellectuals have been seized by a frantic appetite for everything that was new and freshly imported from Western (mainly North American) academic circles. There ensued a succession of “fevers” which have left their imprint on the past decades: cultural, Weberian, pragmatist, structuralist, deconstructionist, post-modern… Since the beginning of the 21st century, the intellectual world has been agitated by yet another fever, that of the traditional revival, which means that China is by now endeavouring to assert full mastery on the reappropriation of its own past.”

3“To my mind, the intellectual history of China, already so eminently illustrated by Jacques Gernet in this very institution, constitutes par excellence a discipline capable of bringing out the continuities and ruptures between different periods, the crises but also the internal dialogues, the various processes of revival, revisit and successive reconstructions of the past, all of which end up drawing up a complete landscape with its highs and lows. Instead of comforting the still enduring preconception of a monolithic tradition of thought or an eternal repetition of the same, we should open up the history of ideas both in the diversity of their socio-political contexts and in the long term. By circulating thus between past and present, we should be first brought to perceive how deeply our reading of the past is conditioned by present presuppositions and how necessary it is to remain immune from the ever powerful temptation of retroprojection, but also to apprehend the importance of past debates for the present time. Eventually, we shall perhaps come to realize that by dint of patiently tracing a tradition in its own terms and reconstituting its own questionings, we may end up observing that some common processes are to be found in the historical trajectories of different cultures. Together with a long term historical perspective, it is just as essential to open up a space for the circulation of ideas and for the cross-fertilization of multiple conversations, of intellectual and textual negotiations, of borrowings and transfers.”

4“It should by now be clear to everyone that before jumping to comparisons, I like moving about; to pseudo-dialogues I prefer multifarious conversations; rather than otherness which freezes dualities, I search for ways of detecting differences which seize things in the very movement of life, life which is perpetually on the move and to which we must always revert.”

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

The Letter of the Collège de France, Collège de France, Paris, juin 2009, p. 17. ISSN 1958-1408

Référence électronique

Anne Cheng, « Chair of Chinese Intellectual History », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 4 | 2008-2009, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2010, consulté le 22 février 2018. URL :

Haut de page


Anne Cheng

Former Professor at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations (Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales) from 1997 to 2008, Senior member of the French Academic Institute (Institut universitaire de France)

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

© Collège de France

Haut de page