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Current Projects

HERA 2016 East Asian Uses of The Past:

Tracing Braided Chronotypes

Coordination: Joachim Kurtz (Universität Heidelberg) in collaboration with Taciana Fisac (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid), Leigh Jenco (London School of Economics and Political Science), and Martin Dusinberre (Universität Zürich)


The birth of philosophy in ancient Greece, the fall of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Holocaust: such emblematic historical moments have long been regarded as building blocks of a quintessentially European past. But how ‘European’ is this past if many in the non-European world have claimed competing representations of it as their own? And how ‘European’ is this story if many in the European world, in turn, have appropriated non-European claims to bolster their own sense of identity?

The collaborative research project “East Asian Uses of the European Past: Tracing Braided Chronotypes”, which is supported by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area) as part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, argues that, far from being Europe’s exclusive property, the pasts constructed through such emblematic historical moments were shaped in global circulations of meaning. The significance these moments acquired in different times and localities must be understood as the result of situated co-productions that transgress continental boundaries and affect perceptions of historical time both in the non-European world and in Europe itself.

Emblematic moments from Europe’s past played a crucial role in changing perceptions of historical time in East Asia. In China, Japan and Korea many influential actors appropriated idealized images of the European past to come to terms with their own experiences of change and prescribe recipes for action. Their appropriations were based on a reconfiguration of the patterns, or ‘chronotypes’, through which historical time acquired meaning in both Europe and Asia.

The four subprojects, conducted by researchers in Heidelberg, Madrid, Zurich and London, trace how the East Asian encounter with emblematic moments of the European past altered four distinct chronotypes: those of “awakening and rebirth,” “recurrence and return,” “decline and fall,” and “timelessness and permanence.” Regular updates about the project’s activities and findings are available via their website. Project duration: 2016-2019.

MC4.3 Paratexts

Paratexts in Late Imperial Chinese Book Culture

Coordination: Joachim Kurtz


Paratexts such as book jackets, prefaces, epilogues, colophons as well as seals, marginal notes, illustrative materials, etc. are indispensable parts of the public and private histories of any book. According to G. Genette, who coined the term, paratexts are what enables a text to become a book in the first place: thresholds of interpretation that authors, editors and others can use to frame how readers approach the work's main text. The book culture of late imperial China was an unusually fertile ground for the production of framing paratexts. Present in virtually every book published in the Ming and Qing dynasties, paratexts served as strategic platforms for commercial, epistemological and ideological negotiations between authors, publishers, and readers. This subproject aims to reconstruct the complex paratextual landscape in late imperial Chinese book culture and attempts to redefine the paratextual genre as a global phenomenon.

Part of the interdisciplinary research group MC4 Frames.

MC5.4 Indigenous Concepts

The Global Career of "Indigenous Concepts"

Coordination: Joachim Kurtz, Dhruv Raina


Appeals to include "indigenous concepts" in global discourses have gained in both urgency and frequency over the past decades. Responding to the real, if at times overstated, discursive hegemony of Euro-America and the notions coined to describe its peculiar experiences, concerned scholars in both Western and non-Western countries have repeatedly called for an expansion of the international conceptual lexicon.  Despite its precarious standing, the concept has had an important role in raising central questions regarding the plausibility of existing global narratives, whose very existence today rests on the incorporation of the "multitudinous indigenous" into the global. But at what point, theoretical and historical, did the indigenous begin to assert its presence and enforce a revision of social theory, insisting upon its incorporation into the global as the very precondition for achieving any robust theory or history of the global? When, why, and how did it become prominent in Western and non-Western discursive arenas, and what are the different hopes and expectations attached to it by its most fervent proponents? How, finally, is the postulate of a radical alterity of the local that the notion seems to imply problematized, or instrumentalized, within and outside of Euro-America?

Part of the interdisciplinary research group MC5 Global Concepts.

The WSC Databases

Wissenschaftssprache Chinesisch / Modern Chinese Scientific Terminologies


Bibliographical DB:

Terminological DB (old version):

Overview of the WSC databases: structural diagram.

The WSC-Databases contain data on 130,000 lexical items, more than 6,500 primary and 2,000 secondary texts, including about 800 late imperial Chinese periodicals, as well as biographical information on approx. 2,300 authors and translators.

Through the newly designed eXist interface, users working with the database can conduct searches starting from a keyword or field of knowledge, a translated work or original text, or a particular translator or author. They will also be able to find related works or translations on the same topic or from the same time period and list all works translated or written by certain persons.

The data will be arranged in such a way as to facilitate the planned integration with the as yet unrevised biographical and terminological data stored in the internal WSC database files. Once completed, the online publication of all three parts of the WSC databases will be an essential tool for scholars interested in circulations of new knowledge in late nineteenth and early twentieth century China.

Past Projects

MC13.1 Standards of Validity

Standards of Validity in Imperial Chinese Discourses

Coordination: Joachim Kurtz, Martin Hofmann


This subproject is an extension of the Cluster research project D15 "Making Powerful Arguments". In addition to the areas of investigation addressed there, it will examine dialogical forms of argumentation in imperial Chinese discourses. A massive archive of such practices is preserved in the so called “questions and answers” texts that played prominent parts in the propagation and domestication of non-Chinese or nonorthodox ideas. Known under different names throughout their long history, staged representations of dialogue and debate in question and answer form were strategically deployed in struggles for imperial patronage or other kinds of support between competing schools of thought. Juxtaposing Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian and European ideas in dialogical frameworks was a means to demonstrate the supremacy of arguments and, by extension, that of beliefs and ideologies. Focusing on three periods in which question and answer texts gained particular prominence—the Chinese encounter with Buddhism, Neo- Confucian reinterpretations of the Classics, and adaptations of European ideas—the studies in this subproject seek to recover the implicit criteria governing truth-claims in Chinese dialogical reasoning.

Part of the interdisciplinary research group MC13 Practices of Argumentation.

D15 Making Powerful Arguments

Making Powerful Arguments in Late Imperial China: Shifting Standards of Validity in Transcultural Perspective

Coordination: Martin Hofmann, Joachim Kurtz


Making Powerful Arguments aims to fill a significant lacuna in the global histories of truth and rationality. By assembling evidence on the distinct modes of knowledge production that shaped learned discourses in late imperial China, the project will lay the foundations for a history of argumentative practice in one of the richest textual cultures outside of Europe. In contrast to existing studies that have, so far unsuccessfully, focused on recovering explicit Chinese theories of reasoning, Making Powerful Arguments reconstructs the standards of validity embodied in concrete and historically situated instances of argumentation. The initial focus is on case studies in five interrelated areas of central concern to the imperial Chinese state: education, law, canonical exegesis, historiography and natural studies. In a second step, the project will trace how practices in each of these areas were transformed, and standards of validity altered, by encounters with different forms of discursive rationality in the wake of the European expansion.

C11 Medicine and Religion

Medicine and Religion in Premodern East Asia

Coordination: Harald Fuess, Joachim Kurtz


Medicine and Religion aims to provide a thorough investigation of shifting paradigms and asymmetrical cultural flows within scientific and religious discourses about the human body, healing, birth and mortality. Set against the backdrop of premodern East Asian cultures, this joint project will combine a number of case studies that shed light on the interweaving of notions about the human body with, on the one hand, wider conceptual networks of medical and healing knowledge, and on the other, the religious traditions of East Asia. Competing discourses, scientific discoveries, and the development of new technologies constantly challenged established epistemological orders. This project aims to examine the rich interface between the forces that alternatively disputed and defined systems of knowledge concerning the body; it will integrate a number of smaller case studies that highlight the asymmetrical cultural flows not only between different cultures of East Asia, but also between East Asia and the rest of the world. In addition to the main themes of medicine and religion, this project will also concentrate the important issues of gender, politics, population, health and the environment. On the whole, each constituent study will offer invaluable clues as to how views of the human experience (and conceptions of its finitude) depend on transformation, interchange, or fossilization in religious and scientific discourses. Project duration 2010-12.

HRA 5 Modern Chinese Scientific Terminologies

The distribution of Western Knowledge in Late Imperial China

Coordination: Joachim Kurtz, Jens Østergaard Petersen, Kaja Müller-Wang, Iwo Amelung


The WSC-Project (Wissenschaftssprache Chinesisch / Modern Chinese Scientific Terminologies) aims to understand the distribution and transformation of Euro-American knowledge in late imperial China (ca. 1600–1911) through the reconstruction of Chinese scientific terminologies coined, altered, disputed and successively refined since the early nineteenth century. Due to the vast amount of relevant sources, the project will limit its scope for the time being to the disciplines of philosophy, logic, physics, chemistry, geography (i.e. "knowledge on foreign countries"), politics and international law. In addition, it will concentrate on the formative period of modern Chinese scientific vocabulary between ca. 1840 and 1930.

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