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Chinese name
Traditional Chinese漢學
Simplified Chinese汉学
Vietnamese name
VietnameseHán học
Korean name
Japanese name

Sinology, also referred to as China studies, is a subfield of area studies or East Asian studies involved in social sciences and humanities research on China. It is an academic discipline that focuses on the study of the Chinese civilization primarily through Chinese language, history, culture, literature, philosophy, art, music, cinema, and science. Its origin "may be traced to the examination which Chinese scholars made of their own civilization."[1]

The academic field of sinology often refers to Western scholarship. Until the 20th century, it was historically seen as equivalent to philology concerning the Chinese classics and other literature written in the Chinese language.[2] Since, the scope of sinology has expanded to include Chinese history, palaeography, among other subjects.


The terms sinology and sinologist were coined around 1838,[2] derived from Late Latin Sinae, in turn from the Greek Sinae, from the Arabic Sin—which ultimately derive from "Qin", i.e. the Qin dynasty.[3]

In the context of area studies, the European and the American usages may differ. In Europe, sinology is usually known as "Chinese studies", whereas in the United States, sinology is a subfield[clarification needed] of Chinese studies. A China watcher is a person who monitors current events and power struggles in China.

Japanese sinology[edit]

In Japan, sinology was known as kangaku. It was contrasted with the study of Japan (kokugaku) as well as with the study of the West (first rangaku, then more broadly yōgaku). This historical field is distinguished from modern sinology.

Chinese sinology[edit]

In modern China, the studies of China-related subjects is known as "national studies" (国学; 國學; guóxué), and foreign sinology is translated as "Han studies" (汉学; 漢學; Hànxué).

Western sinology[edit]

Early modern era[edit]

The earliest Westerners known to have studied Chinese in significant numbers were 16th-century Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian missionaries. All were either Jesuits or Dominicans seeking to spread Catholic Christianity to the Chinese people. An early Spanish Dominican mission in Manila operated a printing press; between 1593 and 1607, they produced four works on Catholic doctrine for the Chinese immigrant community, three in Literary Chinese and one in a mixture of Literary Chinese and vernacular Hokkien.[4]

Dominican accomplishments among the Chinese diaspora pale in comparison to the success of the Jesuits in mainland China, led by the renowned pioneer Matteo Ricci.[5] Ricci arrived in Guangzhou in 1583, and would spend the rest of his life in China. Unlike most of his predecessors and contemporaries, Ricci did not view the Chinese firstly as pagans or idolators, but as "like-minded literati approachable on the level of learning".[6] Like Chinese literati, he studied the Confucian classics in order to present Catholic doctrine and European learning to the Chinese using their own terms.[6]

18th century[edit]

During the Age of Enlightenment, sinologists started to introduce Chinese philosophy, ethics, legal system, and aesthetics into the West. Though often unscientific and incomplete, their works inspired the development of chinoiserie and a series of debates comparing Chinese and Western cultures. At that time, sinologists often described China as an enlightened kingdom, comparing it to Europe, which had just emerged from the Dark Ages. Among the European literati interested in China was Voltaire, who wrote the play L'orphelin de la Chine inspired by The Orphan of Zhao, Leibniz who penned his famous Novissima Sinica (News from China) and Giambattista Vico.

Because Chinese texts did not have any major connections to most important European topics (such as the Bible), they were scarcely studied by European universities until around 1860. An exception to this was France, where Chinese studies were popularized owing to efforts from Louis XIV. In 1711, he appointed a young Chinese man named Arcadio Huang to catalog the royal collection of Chinese texts. Huang was assisted by Étienne Fourmont, who published a grammar of Chinese in 1742. [citation needed]

In 1732, Matteo Ripa, a missionary of the Neapolitan "Sacred Congregation" (De propaganda fide) founded the "Chinese Institute" in Naples—the first school of sinology on the European continent, and sanctioned by Pope Clement XII. The institute was first nucleus of what would become today's Università degli studi di Napoli L'Orientale. Ripa had worked as a painter and copper-engraver in the court of the Kangxi Emperor between 1711 and 1723, and returned to Naples with four young Chinese Christians, who all taught their native language and formed the institute to teach Chinese to missionaries en route to China.

19th century[edit]

In 1814, a chair of Chinese and Manchu was founded at Collège de France. Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat, who taught himself Chinese, filled the position, becoming the first professor of Chinese in Europe. By then the first Russian sinologist, Nikita Bichurin, had been living in Beijing for ten years. Abel-Rémusat's counterparts in England and Germany were Samuel Kidd (1797–1843) and Wilhelm Schott (1807–1889) respectively, though the first important secular sinologists in these two countries were James Legge and Hans Georg Conon von der Gabelentz. In 1878, a professorship of Far Eastern languages, the first of its kind in the German-speaking world, was created at the University of Leipzig with von der Gabelentz taking the position. Scholars like Legge often relied on the work of ethnic Chinese scholars such as Wang Tao.[7]

Stanislas Julien served as the chair of Chinese at the Collège de France for over 40 years, starting his studies with Rémusat and succeeding him in 1833. He was notable for his translations not only of classical texts but also works of vernacular literature, and for his knowledge of Manchu. Édouard Chavannes succeeded to the position after the death of Marquis d'Hervey-Saint-Denys in 1893. Chavannes pursued broad interests in history as well as language.[7]

The image of China as an essentially Confucian society conveyed by Jesuit scholars dominated Western thought in these times. While some in Europe learned to speak Chinese, most studied written classical Chinese. These scholars were in what is called the "commentarial tradition" through critical annotated translation. This emphasis on translating classical texts inhibited the use of social science methodology or comparing these texts of other traditions. One scholar described this type of sinology as "philological hairsplitting" preoccupied with marginal or curious aspects.[8] Secular scholars gradually came to outnumber missionaries, and in the 20th century sinology slowly gained a substantial presence in Western universities.

20th and 21st centuries[edit]

The Paris-based type of sinology dominated learning about China until the Second World War even outside France. Paul Pelliot, Henri Maspero, and Marcel Granet both published basic studies and trained students. Pelliot's knowledge of the relevant languages, especially those of Central Asia, and control of bibliography in those languages, gave him the power to write on a range of topics and to criticize in damning detail the mistakes of other scholars. Maspero expanded the scope of sinology from Confucianism to include Daoism, Buddhism, and popular religion, as well as art, mythology, and the history of science. The contribution of Granet was to apply the concepts of Emile Durkheim, a pioneer sociologist, to the society of ancient China, especially the family and ritual.[9]

The Russian school of sinology was focused mainly on learning classical Chinese texts. For example, the contribution of the Russian sinologist Julian Shchutsky was especially valuable. The best full translation of the I Ching (Book of Changes) was made by him in 1937. Later his translation was translated in English and other European languages.

After the proclamation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, China studies developed along diverging lines. The rise of Area studies, the role of China watchers, and the growth of university graduate programs has changed the role of sinology.[10] Funding for Chinese and Taiwanese studies comes from a variety of sources; one prominent source is the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation.[11]

The Area studies approach, especially in the United States, challenged the dominance of classical sinology. Scholars such as John King Fairbank promoted the "study of China within a discipline," an approach which downplayed the role of philological sinology and focused on issues in history and the social sciences.[10]

One of the earliest American scholars of Cold War China and Sino-American relations was Chinese-American Tang Tsou of the University of Chicago. Tsou emphasized the importance of academic objectivity in general and in sinology in particular, stressing that intellectual and academic exchange between China and the West was the only way for both parties to come to a greater understanding of one another.[12]

In 1964 an exchange in the pages of the Journal of Asian Studies debated the continued relevance of sinology. The anthropologist G. William Skinner called for the social sciences to make more use of China, but wrote "In recent years the cry has gone up: Sinology is dead; long live Chinese studies!" and concluded that "Sinology, a discipline unto itself, is being replaced by Chinese studies, a multidisciplinary endeavour with specific research objectives."[13] Joseph Levenson, a historian, went further. He doubted that sinology was a tool that social scientists would still find useful,[14] while another historian, Benjamin I. Schwartz, on the other hand, replied that the disciplines were too often treated as ends in themselves.[15] Sinology had its backers. Frederick W. Mote, a specialist in traditional China, replying to Skinner, spoke up for sinology, which he saw as a field or discipline in itself.[16] Another specialist in traditional China, Denis Twitchett, in reply to the back and forth of this debate, issued what he called "A Lone Cheer for Sinology". He did not accept the assumption that there is "some implicit hostility between 'Sinology' and the disciplines of history and social sciences." Sinology, he continued, is used in too a wide range of meanings to be so confined:

At one extreme it is used to characterize a rather ridiculous caricature compounded of pedantry and preoccupation with peripheral and precious subjects of little general significance.... At the other extreme, the definition used by Prof. Mote is so broad and all-inclusive as to mean little more than the humanistic studies in the Chinese field.[17]

During the Cold War, China Watchers centered in Hong Kong, especially American government officials or journalists. Mutual distrust between the United States and China and the prohibition of travel between the countries meant they did not have access to press briefings or interviews. They therefore adopted techniques from Kremlinology, such as the close parsing of official announcements for hidden meanings, movements of officials reported in newspapers, and analysis of photographs of public appearances. But in the years since the opening of China, China watchers can live in China and take advantage of normal sources of information.

Towards the end of the century, many of those studying China professionally called for an end to the split between sinology and the disciplines. The Australian scholar Geremie Barmé, for instance, suggests a "New Sinology", one which "emphasizes strong scholastic underpinnings in both the classical and modern Chinese language and studies, at the same time as encouraging an ecumenical attitude in relation to a rich variety of approaches and disciplines, whether they be mainly empirical or more theoretically inflected."[18]

Arab Sinology[edit]

Before 1900[edit]

Chinese historical sources indicate that the Chinese had knowledge of the Arabs several centuries before Islam, as the history of relations between the two civilizations dates back to the pre-Islamic era. The policy of the Han Dynasty (206 BC) aimed at opening trade routes with the western regions, which are today called Central Asia, India and Western Asia, extending to the Arabian Peninsula and Africa.[19] Historical studies confirmed that Muslim Arabs entered China during the early days of Islam to spread the religion, when four of Muhammad's companions namely Saad bin Abi Waqqas, Jaafar bin Abi Talib, and Jahsh bin Riab preached in China in the year 616/17.[20] During the reign of Emperor Yongle, the first Chinese fleet arrived on the shores of the Arabian Peninsula, led by Zheng He, on his fourth voyage in 1412 AD. It is clear from the foregoing that there had been friction between China and the Arabs from a long time ago, and that there are cultural and commercial relations existing between the Arab and Chinese civilizations, which required the visiting Arabs to learn the Chinese language and vice versa. However, there are no texts indicating that the Arabs during this period studied the Chinese language or culture beyond what their missionary or trades affairs demanded, and the reason for this is due to the fact that the purpose of the visits was often to trade or to spread Islam.

At the beginning of the seventh century until the eighth century, the power of the Arabs increased due to the expansion of Islam and its spread throughout the world, and their control expanded to the east and west. Their power was strengthened by their vast lands, their advanced network of postal stations, and the pilgrimage to Mecca, in addition to the flourishing of land and sea trade. All this led to the advancement of their studies in geography and thus, new knowledge about China found its way to the Arab world. Up to the twelfth century, the Arabs possessed exclusive knowledge about the East, and they were contributing to the transmission of knowledge to the West, which contributed to the advancement of Islamic civilization and its impact on world culture.

Arabs such as Abu al-Hasan Ali al-Masoudi, who is a well-known historical figure in the Arabian Peninsula, made significant contributions to Sinology. Al-Masoudi has traveled all over the world since he was a child, visiting faraway places. In the year 915, he visited India, Ceylon, Champa, and the coastal regions of China, and then visited Zabagh and Turkistan in Central Asia. He died in the year 956, and he is the author of the book "Meadows of Gold", which deals with history, geography, and other fields. He had many records about China, and these records were popular among orient scholars.

Abu Zayd's book "On China and India" was a well-known and highly regarded Arabic historical material. The book had two separate parts, the first part was "History of Indian and Chinese Affairs" by an unknown author, and the second part was "A Collection of Rumors of India and China" by Abu Zayd. The first part was a selection from Solomon's "Chinese experiences" and other anonymous sources, written and recorded in 851, together with their experiences in India.[21]

20th century and after[edit]

During the 20th century, projects of cooperation between China and the Arab countries led to the development of Sinology in the Arab countries nominally after expanding the scope of Chinese-Arab cooperation in the field of education, with some difference according to the level of cooperation. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Egypt in 1956, Egypt began to open the Chinese language specialization course in Egyptian universities, but on a small scale at that time. Ain Shams University opened the Chinese language specialization in 1958. However, the course was stopped for prevailing political reasons at the time. In the period between 1958 and 1963, 33 Chinese language students graduated from Egyptian universities. In 1977, Ain Shams University reintroduced the Sinology specialization course. In addition to Egypt, there were activities to teach the Chinese language in Kuwait as well, but they stopped after a short period.[22]

The number of Arabs that learn the Chinese Language has increased. The Chinese Language Department at Ain Shams University is a major center for teaching the Chinese language in Egypt and one of the notable centers for teaching the Chinese language in the Arab world and Africa in terms of student size, teaching quality, and the level of teachers and staff. The Bourguiba Institute for Modern Languages was also opened in Tunisia, and it specializes in the Chinese language in 1977. Cairo University also established the Chinese Language Department in September 2004 becoming a major center for Sinology is North Africa.

Arab scholars sought to delve deeper into Sinology for academic, political, cultural and diplomatic purposes in order to build a bridge of communication between the Arab and Chinese peoples. Their interest in the history of China also increased greatly. Many books related to the history of Chinese culture and its people were published in the Arabic language. In 2020 after spending about six years as a consul in Guangzhou, Ali bin Ghanem Al-Hajri, a Qatari diplomat who is considered one of the Arabs with a lot of original Arabic academic works in sinology, published the book "Zheng He, Chinese Emperor of the Seas". The book covers the history and adventures of a Chinese commander by the name Zheng He whose fleet went round the known world in seven voyages between the years 1415 and 1432. He also wrote before that the novel "The Fleet of the Sun" inspired by the story of the Chinese commander. It was considered the first Arabic novel with a Chinese as the central character, thus it achieved some fame in the Arab world, although it was not published until recently. He also published "China in the Eyes of Travelers", a book that delved deep into the history of ancient China through the discoveries made by travellers and explorers. Al-hajri further wrote the book "Arts in the Ming Dynasty", in which he elaborated on the political and economic development of the Ming Dynasty and the historical development of Chinese culture. Four of his books are translated into Chinese[23]

Many books have been translated from Chinese into Arabic as part of these efforts. Where more than 700 books about the people of China, their culture, economy, literature and philosophy have been translated into Arabic by the (House of Wisdom) company located in the Ningxia Hui region, northwest China since its establishment in 2011.[24]



See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Cf. p.4, Zurndorfer, China Bibliography
  2. ^ a b Honey (2001), p. xi.
  3. ^ American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 3rd edition 1992): 1686.
  4. ^ Honey (2001), p. 6.
  5. ^ Honey (2001), p. 9.
  6. ^ a b Honey (2001), p. 10.
  7. ^ a b Zurndorfer (1999), p. 8-14.
  8. ^ Zurndorfer (1999), p. 14-15.
  9. ^ Zurndorfer (1999), pp. 32–33.
  10. ^ a b Zurndorfer (1999), p. 32.
  11. ^ Brown, Deborah (September–December 2004). "Organizations That Support Taiwan Studies: A Select Overview" (PDF). Issues & Studies. 40 (3/4): 281–314. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 July 2011.
  12. ^ Liu, Qing (May 2020). "To Be an Apolitical Political Scientist: A Chinese Immigrant Scholar and (Geo)politicized American Higher Education". History of Education Quarterly. 60 (2): 129–155. doi:10.1017/heq.2020.10.
  13. ^ Skinner, G William (1964). "What the Study of China Can Do for Social Science". The Journal of Asian Studies. 23 (4): 517–522. doi:10.2307/2050232. JSTOR 2050232. S2CID 143323553.
  14. ^ Levenson, Joseph R (1964). "The Humanistic Disciplines: Will Sinology Do?". The Journal of Asian Studies. 23 (4): 507–512. doi:10.2307/2050230. JSTOR 2050230. S2CID 163599896.
  15. ^ Schwartz, Benjamin (1964). "The Fetish of the 'Disciplines'". Journal of Asian Studies. 23 (4): 537–538. doi:10.2307/2050236. JSTOR 2050236. S2CID 146894392.
  16. ^ Mote, Frederick W. (1964). "The Case for the Integrity of Sinology". The Journal of Asian Studies. 23 (4): 531–534. doi:10.2307/2050234. JSTOR 2050234. S2CID 163521238.
  17. ^ Twitchett, Denis (December 1964). "A Lone Cheer for Sinology". The Journal of Asian Studies. 24 (1): 109–112. doi:10.2307/2050419. JSTOR 2050419. S2CID 162434544.
  18. ^ Barmé, Geremie R., On New Sinology Archived 2015-04-11 at the Wayback Machine, China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
  19. ^ "الأساطير المتعلقة بوصول الإسلام إلى الصين – مركز جمال بن حويرب للدراسات". 26 December 2022. Archived from the original on 26 December 2022. Retrieved 27 March 2023.
  20. ^ "Jewel of Chinese Muslim's Heritage" (PDF). 24 November 2022. Archived (PDF) from the original on 24 November 2022. Retrieved 27 June 2023.
  21. ^ Mò, Dōngyín (1943). History of the development of Sinology (Translated by Lóng Jiāng 2020 ed.).
  22. ^ "التعاون التعليمي الصيني- العربي في سبعين عاما". 7 December 2019. Archived from the original on 7 December 2019. Retrieved 27 March 2023.
  23. ^ "الملتقى القطري للمؤلفين". 17 November 2022. Archived from the original on 17 November 2022. Retrieved 27 March 2023.
  24. ^ "Across China: Publishing house brings Chinese wisdom to Arabic speakers - Xinhua |". 26 May 2022. Archived from the original on 26 May 2022. Retrieved 28 March 2023.
  25. ^ "Focus | China Heritage Quarterly". Archived from the original on 13 January 2019. Retrieved 23 October 2008.
  26. ^ "東方学報 京都大学人文科学研究所". 5 October 2008. Archived from the original on 5 October 2008.
  27. ^ "東洋史研究会". 5 April 2009. Archived from the original on 5 April 2009.


External links[edit]

Library and research guides[edit]