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Area Studies from the Perspective of History of Civilization

“Area Studies from the Perspective of History of Civilization”, the second in the series of lectures marking the 5th anniversary of the establishment of the Institute of Area Studies, Peking University (PKUIAS), was held on May 12, 2023.

Wang Xianhua, a professor from Shanghai International Studies University and director of the Institute for the Global History of Civilizations was the speaker. The salon was moderated by Prof. Zan Tao, deputy director of PKUIAS. Qian Chengdan, Boya chair professor and other scholars participated in the discussion.  

Prof. Wang started by reviewing the concepts of civilization and history of civilization in the sense of their academic history. He pointed out that, in terms of understanding civilization, there was both the tradition of civilization morphology and the tradition of integrating civilization morphology with the theory of evolution. Per Wang, in recent years, the English-speaking world has begun to reflect on the concept of civilization, as represented by the work of Stephan Feuchtwang and Justin Jennings. For Wang, however, the current reflection and correction on the approach of civilization history is not that satisfactory. He holds that history of civilization can be disassembled into two aspects: civilization and history. History changes, but civilization still maintains its morphology.

To understand anew and redefine civilization, Prof. Wang introduced two important concepts, “ontopia” and “heterotopia”. Per Wang, any real human society includes matter as basal component; interlaced with it is human inquiry into the past, concern regarding the future and aspiration for a better life. When these components show enough commonalities in time and space, the society can be abstracted into a conceptual ontopia. The scale of the ontopia can be large or small, and civilization is the largest ontopia in human history so far. In this way, civilization has a form and an ontological definition.

In contrast to ontopia is “heterotopia.” Different from ontopia as an ideal model concept, heterotopia refers to the empirical world that can be seen and touched in real life, but it has not yet been understood and is full of various upside-down dreams; it is chaotic, with unknown matter and form. When dealing with the large-scale heterotopia of civilization, Prof. Wang proposed an important methodological concept — “reason of civilization”— which, simply put, is to look for the internal context and inner logic presented by the interaction of various forces in the force field formed by heterotopia.

In regard to the theory derived from such unsophisticated concepts, Prof. Wang illustrated his view through presenting a case analysis of Chinese civilization, for which he proposed the concept of the main artery of Chinese civilization. He used the main artery of civilization to reveal the internal development context of Chinese civilization as a heterotopia on the level of civilization. It is in this sense that Prof. Wang places the Sanxingdui civilization and the Long March of the Red Army in the same framework of civilization history, thereby allowing the formation of Chinese civilization and the process of Chinese modernization to be understood anew from the perspective of civilization history. Prof. Wang also applied his conceptual framework to West Asian studies, and noted that it can also explain the development of civilization history in West Asia.

Returning to the theme of the salon at the end of his talk, Prof. Wang directly touched upon “Area Studies from the Perspective of History of Civilization”. In his view, area studies should make efforts to find “reason of civilization” for large-scale ontopia or civilizations in the past, present and future in the world. “Reason of civilization” may change with the evolution of technology, because the development of technology will affect the basic properties of heterotopia.

Prof. Zan commented on the lecture. Scholars present then carried on in-depth discussions on the topics of the main artery of civilization, the complex relationship between geographical environment and civilization, and Jewish civilization.