Sinkwan Cheng

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2015/2016
discipline Cultural Studies

Research project

Begriffsgeschichte and Comparative Politics: Translation, the Introduction of Western Time Consciousness into the Chinese Language, and Chinese Social and Political Modernity


Europe is the product of a geopolitical rather than a geographical mapping. As such, Europe cannot be fully understood without being examined in relation to its dialectical Others. Translation is one way of relating Europe to its dialectical Others--including how its Others draw out from Europe certain ideals and blemishes which Europe cannot quite realize on its own, and vice versa. Through translation, the hidden voices and potentials of one culture may find expression in another. The source text in this way undergoes a maturing process and acquires an afterlife through translation. As much as translation releases a greater language in which both languages are expanded, the European civilization acquires an afterlife, and its significance becomes more deeply and fully appreciated, when we read Europe in relation to Asia and Africa. Appropriating Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte for translation and intercultural studies, my project explores how and why China’s linguistic revolutions took place alongside the country’s quest for scientific, economic, and political modernity.


When discussing the contributions made by translation of Western texts to China’s modernization process, scholars have been focusing on content issues. They have overlooked how translation, through effecting changes in the Chinese language, has transformed the Chinese people’s Weltanschauung at a fundamental level—only with that transformation did China become truly ready for modernity. For example, tenses did not exist in classical Chinese. But given the prominence of the temporal dimension in Western languages, time markers were gradually invented for the Chinese language as intellectuals engaged in translations of Western texts. These time markers brought a linear concept of time to Chinese society, and only with that new way of experiencing time could “the modern” become conceivable for the Chinese people. I examine how the time consciousness gave the Chinese a new concept of the future and laid the path for China’s modernization, and elaborate the subject at hand via an analysis of two waves of temporalization of the Chinese language.



Sinkwan Cheng is a Visiting Scholar at Duke University. She holds a Ph.D in Comparative Literature from the SUNY Buffalo. She has been awarded thirteen (inter-) national fellowships and grants in various countries in Europe and North America. Sinkwan has given faculty seminars and lectures in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, China, South Korea, Pakistan, Macau, and Hong Kong.

She is the editor of Law, Justice, and Power: Between Reason and Will (Stanford University Press). Along with Samuel Moyn, David Armitage, and Michael Freeden, she is a member of the International Editorial Board of Global Intellectual History.

She was the recipient of an Excellence in Teaching Award in a campus-wide competition at SUNY Buffalo.


Selected publications


Law, Justice, and Power: Between Reason and Will, (ed.), Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2004.


‘"Civilization" and the Two Faces of Law: J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians’, Cardozo Law Review, vol. 24, no. 6, 2003, pp. 2349-2370.


‘Ressentiment, the Superego, and Totalitarianism: George Orwell’s 1984’, Cardozo Law Review, vol. 24, no. 3, 2003, pp. 1099-1130.


'Comparative Philosophies of Tragedy: Buddhism, Lacan, and Ashes of Time', MLN [Johns Hopkins University Press], no. 123 (December 2008), pp. 1163-87.


‘Symbolic Capital, State Terror, and Terrorism: Reading Howard Barker with Pierre Bourdieu’, Law and Literature, vol. 22, no. 2, 2010, pp. 269-87.


'Fremdw√∂rter as `The Jews of Language' and Adorno's Politics of Exile', in Adorno, Culture, and Feminism,Maggie O'Neill (ed.), Sage Press, London, 1999, pp. 75-103. 


'Translation, the Introduction of Western Time Consciousness into the Chinese Language, and Chinese Social and Political Modernity', in A. Hartmann (ed.), Representing the Future: Zur kulturellen Logik der Zukunft, Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2015, pp. 217-231.


senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2013/2014
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2012/2013
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline Linguistics
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2014/2015
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline History
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)
discipline Philosophy and Islamic Studies