Qing Dynasty Temple

The Births of International Studies in China

This article was written by Yih-Jye Hwang (Leiden)
This article was published on

Yih-Jye Hwang discusses the article published in BISA journal Review of International Studies. The article explores how International Studies as a scientific discipline emerged and developed in China, against the background of a Sinocentric world order that had predominated in East Asia for a long time. 

The International Relations (IR) discipline developed over the course of the 20th century to predominantly focus on the concerns of powerful Western states and to elaborate conceptual frameworks that could be applied elsewhere. One important critique of this Western-centric nature of IR is that it privileges Western thought over all other forms of thought and makes Western reason the sole criterion for ‘correct’ and ‘universal’ knowledge. In IR historiography, Western-centric disciplinary narratives cause a ‘selective amnesia about IR’s past’. Vineet Thakur and Peter Vale in their article titled ‘The Empty Neighbourhood: Race and Disciplinary Silence’ have shown that the issues of race and imperialism in the interwar years are totally missing from the stories told about the history of the discipline, even though race and imperialism were features of IR thinking in the interwar years when the discipline was established. They further noted that there is still very little knowledge about how IR arrived and developed in the non-Western world. Thus, one could say that the field of IR today has yet to appreciate how key processes that shape the practice of international relations elsewhere can tell us more about global politics as a whole.

Over the past two decades, there has been an emerging search for a post-Western IR that urges IR scholars to ‘re-world’ the subaltern voice. Scholars who advocate a post-Western agenda accordingly seek out the multiple worlds and hidden voices that intersect with one another across the world. One of the main goals of this quest has been to rediscover the lost historical and contemporary voices of the subalterns. More specifically, post-Western IR scholarship urges IR scholars to ‘re-world’ subaltern sites by examining how Western discourses on IR have been interpreted and appropriated at each particular site. The quest for post-Western IR accordingly attends predominantly to the rediscovery of agency at the subaltern site for the adaptation, feedback, and reconstruction of the Western influence encountered. Inspired by the post-Western IR initiative, my article aims to contribute to a focus on non-Western agency in producing IR knowledge by looking to China as sites from which a composite and hybrid global IR has been improvised from non-Western sources.

Accordingly, the article explores how International Studies as a scientific discipline emerged and developed in China from the late 19th century to the late 20th century. By ‘International Studies’ as a scientific discipline, I mean a field of study in which intellectuals and experts – practitioners, translators, historians, legal scholars, political theorists/scientists – are sustained by institutionalisation to undertake their pursuit of systematic knowledge on world politics. The article addresses the following four questions:

  1. How did the ideas of the ‘international’ travel to China in the late 19th and early 20th century amid the collapse of Chinese traditional world order that had predominated in East Asia for a long time? Through what channels did they arrive, and how were they initially received in China?
  2. How did people, ideas and institutions come together to form a distinct scientific discipline of International Studies in late Qing, the early Republic, and People’s Republic and Taiwan during the Cold War?
  3. What are the legacies of the development of the International Studies in contemporary China and Taiwan? 
  4. Is there an indigenous Chinese or Taiwanese site of agency with regard to developing IR and IRT? Whether and how has there been creative adaptation of Western IR, in which a Chinese and Taiwanese agential input can be discerned?

The arguments of this article are threefold. First, many ideas and theories had travelled to China before International Studies was recognised as a discipline. In the beginning, Chinese intellectuals did not recognise International Studies as a coherent discipline. The discipline relied heavily on historical, legal and political studies and placed a heavy focus on the investigation of China’s integration into the Westphalian system. For China, the concept of ‘international’ is a Western introduction. Ideas and theories central to Western international thought, such as sovereignty and the modern international law, were transplanted to China sporadically via periodicals and translation practices. As time went by, the discipline was gradually understood as an independent discipline. The transplanted ideas and theories represented various genealogical lines of discourses and they inevitably constitute the multiple origins of International Studies in China. In this article, I therefore offer a historical account of the development of International Studies in historical, legal and political studies in China, including:

  1. the development of diplomatic thoughts in the Qing Empire and the early Republic;
  2. the introduction of international law to China by Western missionaries in the late Qing Dynasty and professionalisation of the studies of international law by Chinese scholars in the early Republic;
  3. studies of diplomatic history in China and Taiwan in the 20th century;
  4. studies of Political Science in early Republican China and the academisation of International Studies in Taiwan during the Cold War;
  5. the establishment of the academic institutes of International Relations in the People’s Republic of China and the formation of the Chinese School of International Relations.

My coverage of International Studies writings in this article is not exhaustive. However, I have endeavoured to capture the overall tendency of the development of the discipline by focusing on a few key individuals and their works.

Second, studies of international relations were largely grounded in a problem-solving approach to various issues that China (and Taiwan) have been facing at various times. This approach was inherited from the Confucian ideal of statecraft pragmatism, in particular during the Imperial Qing and the early Republic. Chinese scholars at that time wanted to focus on practical uses of knowledge to promote modernisation, enlightening the people and protecting the country. Entering the Cold War, IR knowledge was still perceived as instrumental. The national government elites in Taiwan used IR research as an international communication channel and a persuasion mechanism. At the height of the Cold War, they used their monopoly over the Chinese intelligence apparatus as a tool to construct the international Chinese research agenda, hoping to build knowledge into facts and maintain the survival of the Republic of China and the international legitimacy of the Nationalist Party (or Kuomintang) regime. The academisation of International Studies has developed differently in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), albeit also largely facilitated by the pragmatic needs. International Studies was valued from the beginning after the founding of the PRC. The PRC established various institutes of International Relations since 1949 in order to train its cadres in foreign languages and foreign affairs. For the key facilitators of IR research in the PRC, diplomatic work needed the support of an entire discipline of International Studies and other related fields. The discipline of IR was mainly established for training foreign affairs experts so as to provide real-time analyses, opinions and suggestions for the government’s decision-making reference. Thus, to paraphrase Robert Cox’s renowned statement – ‘International Studies as a field of study is always for someone and for some purpose’ – Chinese IR is always for the Chinese nations, states and their regimes. As a result, International Studies as discipline aimed to theoretically and empirically understand international relations from their respective indigenous perspectives in time and space. 

Third, I argue that the aforementioned feature of the historical development of International Studies has had a profound impact on the current IR scholarship in China and Taiwan today, including the recent surge of attempts to establish the Chinese School of IR Theory in China and the voluntary acceptance of Western IR in Taiwan. On the one hand, plural Chinese scholars in the PRC have argued there should be a Chinese School of IR Theory, and there have been various attempts to establish the Chinese theory of international relations in recent decades. For these advocates, the Chinese IR community needs not only to develop a set of epistemological systems in understanding international relations from the Chinese perspective, but also involves what kind of world order China wants. For them, the core task of constructing the Chinese School is to examine IR theories through Chinese experiences and incorporate more Chinese perspectives and traditional thinking. On the other hand, the potential for a Chinese understanding of international relations is not taking a hold in Taiwan today. Taiwanese scholars remain far more receptive to Anglocentric/Western IR. While Chinese IR scholars have nowadays moved from simply introducing Western theories to China to innovating theories from Chinese perspectives, Taiwan's IR still follows the trends of the West closely because they need to utilise a specific body of IR knowledge as an international communication channel in order to gain the support from the West.

In the conclusion, I suggest that there is still an indigenous Chinese (and Taiwanese) site of agency with regards to developing IR despite the fact that in the course of their disciplinary institutionalisation Chinese (and Taiwanese) scholars have largely absorbed Western IR. Here I return to Cox’s seminal article ‘Social Forces, States, and World Orders’, wherein he made a renowned distinction between ‘problem-solving theory’ and ‘critical theory’. To Cox, problem-solving theory is ‘status quo orientated’; Critical Theory, by contrast, focuses on the possibilities of social change. I argue that although studies of international relations in China can be characterised as ‘problem-solving’, it does not mean that the Chinese IR aims to legitimise prevailing social and political structures. The problematic (i.e. capitalism system) that concerns Cox’s Critical Theory and the ‘social change’ he would like to bring about is also located in specific time and space: Western societies and the situation they were facing at that time. From this point of view, modern China must have its own particularistic worldviews and historical experiences, which in turn affects the awareness of their ‘problems’. Therefore, as far as the development of the IR discipline is concerned, their diagnoses must be different from those arising out of Western experience. Whether in the PRC or Taiwan, they must aim to meet the challenges they face at different times in the course of modernisation, focusing on their own interests and needs for its relations with the outside world. The process of problematic formation is also the process of subject construction. Hence, even though the general development of international studies in China is very much one of Chinese/Taiwanese scholars absorbing Western theories, this does not mean that there is no indigenous site of agency.

You can read the full article at DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0260210520000340

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Photo by Rod Waddington