February 2023

5:00 PM

Room 113, School of Arts and Sciences


The Chinese Claim for Universality

Seminar and Lecture Series

Professor Anne Cheng

Chair of Chinese Intellectual History
Collège de France

Over its very long history, China has been claiming some sort of universality which has been inseparable from a certain idea of civilisation, with a centre shining upon surrounding regions. The geographical embodiment of this radiating influence is what is commonly – albeit controversially – called the sinicised world, which would include the entire East Asian region surrounding China itself: Korea, Japan, Vietnam, all cultures which have been influenced by China to different extents and at different moments in history. Conversely, each time China itself was encroached upon or invaded by “outsiders”, it was always assumed that the latter would end up being transformed and adopting Chinese civilisation. Imperial China thus depicted itself not only as the centre of the world, but even more simply as “the world” (in Chinese, tianxia, “all under heaven”), and it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century, under attack from Western powers, that it was constrained to consider itself as just one nation amongst others. It is the same universality of “China-as-world” which, after being jeopardised by colonial powers (including Japan) at the end of the nineteenth century, is today once again becoming a type of nostalgic self-representation and a unifying factor in the revival of the ancient notion of “all under Heaven”, an ideological construct which needs to be re-examined in a critical light. It is indeed high time that China should come to realise in its own interest that posing as a domineering super-power will not ensure it a sustainable influence in the region, nor in the world for that matter.


Professor Anne Cheng

Born in Paris in 1955 to Chinese parents, Anne Cheng was educated in the French state school system, focusing on classics and European language and literature, until she entered the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where she opted to devote herself exclusively to Chinese studies. For forty years she has been involved in teaching and research on the intellectual history of China and Confucianism in particular, initially at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research), then at INALCO (National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations), before her appointment to the Institut universitaire de France, followed by her election to the Collège de France in 2008 to the Chair of Chinese Intellectual History.

She has authored a French translation of the Analects of Confucius (Entretiens de Confucius, Seuil, "Points-Sagesses", 1981), a study on Confucianism in the early Imperial Era and a history of Chinese thought (Histoire de la pensée chinoise, Seuil, 1997, reprinted in paperback by "Points-Essais" in 2002), which has already been translated into numerous languages. She has also edited several joint publications, including La pensée en Chine aujourd'hui (Gallimard, 2007) and Penser en Chine (Gallimard, 2021). Her inaugural lecture at the Collège de France has been published in 2009 under the title : La Chine pense-t-elle ?  (Does China think ?). Since 2010, she is the co-editor of a bilingual series of works written in classical Chinese and translated into French at the Editions des Belles Lettres (over 30 titles have been published so far).