Theory, Professionalism, and Chinese Studies

By Gloria Davies

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, pp.1-42

What does “theory” mean in Chinese studies and how has it changed the field? This essay provides a comparative perspective on the ways in which theory, in the form of poststructuralist and feminist readings of literary, philosophical and other kinds of texts, have been taken up in studies of modern and contemporary China. It examines the difficulties of theorizing in Chinese studies, in the context of significant differences between Chinese studies, as an ill-defined multidisciplinary formation, and mainstream disciplines of the humanities and social sciences where the discourse of theory has flourished.

It argues that the language of representation is necessarily dominant in Chinese studies and that this language inhibits the development of self-reflexive critical inquiry associated with theory. While the former leads to the production of explanations about China, the latter seeks to ever more precisely define the knowledge problematic in terms of “language about language.” This gap remains a crucial difference between the appearance of theoretical motifs in Chinese studies and the larger discourse of theory produced from within Cultural Studies, postcolonial studies and so forth.