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Keywords:

  • tradition;
  • academic discipline;
  • Chinese philosophy;
  • National Studies;
  • epistemological nativism;
  • Buddhism

ABSTRACT

This essay highlights the influential role played by epistemological nativism in the disciplining of tradition in modern China. Chinese epistemological nativism is the view that the articulation and development of China's intellectual heritage must draw exclusively on the paradigms and norms of so-called indigenous/local or China-based perspectives. Two case studies are presented to reveal some of the conundrums that confront the disciplining of tradition in modern China: Chinese philosophy and guoxue or National Studies. These case studies also provide an opportunity to reflect on the implications this has for tradition's place in Chinese modernity.

In the case of the discipline of Chinese philosophy the role of epistemological nativism is evident in widespread calls to return Chinese philosophy to some pristine form, predating its encounter with “Western” philosophy; and in the continued refusal to acknowledge and engage the intellectual diversity of the traditions that contribute to Chinese philosophy's composite identity. To illustrate this latter claim, I focus on the prominent example of Buddhist philosophy and its Indian roots.

As for the second case study, National Studies has been revived as a discipline, marked as distinct from all other disciplines, because of claims that it represents a holistic body of learning. National Studies' connection with various traditions of premodern learning is premised on the romantic conceit that these traditions of premodern learning somehow constituted a holistic, even organic, body of learning. The conundrum for contemporary guoxue protagonists, who present guoxue as a holistic body of learning, is that the stronger the claim made that guoxue warrants disciplinary status—and hence to be subjected to disciplinary subdivision—the weaker the case that guoxue is a holistic body of learning. This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that guoxue is an invented tradition.