Changing Referents: Learning Across Space and Time in China and the West is the Department of Government book of the month. Here, author Dr Leigh Jenco, Associate Professor in Political Theory at the LSE, discusses the book and the implications of cross cultural learning.
Changing Referents: Learning Across Space and Time in China and the West argues by example that Chinese thought can aid us in thinking through global problems, not only “Chinese” or “East Asian” ones. It examines a decades-long Chinese conversation over “Western Learning,” starting in the mid-nineteenth century.
Just as Chinese elites argued for the possibility of their producing knowledge along “Western” lines rather than “Chinese” ones, so too, might we come to see foreign knowledge as a theoretical resource – that is, as a body of knowledge which formulates methods of argument, goals of inquiry, and criteria of evidence that may be generalizable to other places and times. The call of reformers such as Liang Qichao and Yan Fu to bianfa—literally “change the institutions” of Chinese society and politics to produce new kinds of Western knowledge—was simultaneously a call to “change the referents” those institutions sought to emulate, and from which participants might draw their self-understanding.
The book follows Liang, Yan and their contemporaries to argue that the institutional and cultural contexts that support the production of knowledge are not prefigured givens that constrain cross-cultural understanding, but dynamic platforms for learning that are tractable to concerted efforts over time to transform them. In doing so, it argues that these Chinese thinkers point us beyond the mere acknowledgement of cultural difference toward reform of the social, institutional and disciplinary spaces in which the production of knowledge takes place. They thus enable a more truly global conversation to take place.
Leigh Jenco is an Associate Professor in Political Theory in the Department of Government. You can follow Leigh on twitter and view her personal webpage. Changing Referents: Learning Across Space and Time in China and the West is available now from Oxford University Press. This piece does not give the view of the Department of Government, nor the London School of Economics.