Statement of Significance and Impact

Beyond Tradition and Modernity:
Gender, Genre, and the Negotiation of Knowledge in Late Qing China

The reform era has been represented in modern Chinese historiography as either a "transitional" period between the death of the "traditional" Confucian imperial order and the enlightened embrace of "modern" ideas in the "New Culture Movement" (c. 1915-1925), or as the first stage in a process of gradually replacing Chinese values with "Western" ideas. This international conference joins the new scholarship on the reform period to dismantle these binary constructs (tradition versus modernity and China versus the West) in favor of a more nuanced approach to historical and cultural analysis.

Our conference has two special features. First, the participants will bring to light new literary, artistic, and historical sources and archives. In papers based on original research, they will challenge and nuance existing views of the "late Qing reforms" of 1898-1911. Second, the participants will focus on three important and interrelated issues which defined the important changes taking place in this era: the construction of new gender roles, the profusion of literary and artistic genres, and the negotiation of knowledge—themes that have been ignored or understudied in the existing literature. The papers will provide a fresh perspective on social, intellectual, and cultural life in the late Qing period, expanding the boundaries of modern Chinese historiography by moving beyond the political, military, and economic themes which have dominated scholarship on this period. They will also uncover the writings and experience of a range of individuals, making it possible to transcend the particular preoccupations of individuals such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, who have for so long stood at the center of scholarship on the reform era.

The conference will further demonstrate that the standard image of the reform era as a period of anxiety and self-doubt is misleading. Western and Japanese imperialism did engender various forms of "nationalism," and did provoke the questioning of inherited values and the advocacy of China's rapid "modernization." Later interpreters of this period have, however, focused almost exclusively on the most visible political figures in assessing these processes while paying insufficient attention to broader cultural trends and contested social meanings of both nationalism and modernity. Many Chinese intellectuals—both men and women, with women often the more determined and motivated reformers—were not swept up by a hegemonic nationalist discourse as conventional accounts of the reform period often suggest, nor did they feel the need to make an either/or choice between "traditional" Chinese ideas and "modern" Western ones. Rather, they were committed to integrating ideas derived from Japanese and Western sources into their own cultural repertoire without abandoning their allegiance to inherited values. These scholars, writers, artists, and journalists were neither crippled by their "Confucian" past nor intimidated by newly imported concepts. They were able to creatively use China's own historical legacy and new foreign resources to grapple with China’s changing geopolitical and cultural circumstances.

In brief, our conference will demonstrate that the late Qing was not simply "between two worlds" but a world unto itself. A fuller understanding of this world which the conference will help foster is crucial not only to our knowledge of the decades at the turn of the twentieth century, but of the late imperial and republican periods which preceded and followed.

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