Lydia Liu’s ‘Clash of Empires’

by Liz on November 18, 2013

in Books & Entertainment

empire

The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making
by Lydia Liu
Harvard, 334 pages

As an avid reader of non-fiction books about East Asia it’s come to my attention academic works rarely cross over to enjoy the popularity of a Thomas Friedman bestseller or a Malcolm Gladwell paperback.

The most common complaint is academic books are dry, boring or hard to read.

While this may be true for some, it’s also increasingly the case I find works that are not only fascinating to read but are ferociously relevant to the present.

Lydia Liu’s The Clash Of Empires was published in 2004, but with its insights into the construction of ‘China’ in the 19th century it does astonish the reader with a completely overlooked episode in history.

According to Liu, mistranslation and appropriation of key Chinese words enabled European powers, and specifically Britain, to extract unfair treaties from relatively reclusive Qing China.

Through the reconstruction of the Chinese term ‘Yi‘ and misappropriating it into the false equivalence of the English word ‘barbarian,’ Liu argues that the diplomatically mediated British empire was able to bring Chinese writing under Western control.

It’s a flicker of an episode but one with catastrophic consequences for the Qing, because once philology was colonized even the Chinese elite was at the mercy of a new kind of control.

An event from such a distant past may not sound too relevant today but as Liu demonstrates that’s only because the hidden powers of political technologies have been kept out of view for so long.

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