New publication by Sinkwan Cheng, EURIAS Fellow 2015-2016


"Confucius, Aristotle, and a New 'Right' to Connect China to the West: What Concepts of 'Self' and 'Right' We Might Have without the Christian Notion of Original Sin?”

Self or No-Self? The Debate about Selflessness and the Sense of Self, Ingolf U. Dalferth & Trevor W. Kimball (eds)

Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2017, pp.269-299.




This paper is part of a book project entitled Translations, Concepts of `Right,’ and the Opium Wars: A New Historical Method and a New World History. The book endeavours to find a concept of “right” rooted in both Western and Chinese traditions in order to better connect China to Europe. This I undertake by using Yuan Dehui’s 19th-century Chinese translation of Emer de Vattel’s “right”—often regarded a mistranslation due to the absence in the classical Chinese culture of a concept of an atomistic self that could ground the modern liberal notion of “right” -- to tease out its classical Greek counterpart which is equally incompatible with the modern liberal idea of “right.” More importantly, I use the two classical traditions’ common incompatibility with modern liberal notion of “right” to explore the commonalities between them, and examine how two civilizations apart from each other could nonetheless share a similar idea of “self” giving rise to similar notions of “right.”


It is my argument that Yuan’s translation li (理)which looks like a Confucian misinterpretation of Western notions of “right” turns out to be a return of the repressed—that is, a return of an earlier Western meaning of “right” which has been increasingly repressed since Europe’s capitalistic-imperialistic adventures. By using Yuan’s Confucian rendition of “right” to draw out a pre-Christian, pre-capitalist, and pre-expansionist meaning of “right” in the Western tradition, my goal is to join the East with the West in a “right” that could better harmonize the self with society, right with duty, and negative with positive freedom.


In addition to breaking new grounds in intellectual content, I also seek to do the same with methodology. I initiate a new kind of adventure in Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte method by using synchronic semantic changes effected by translation to interrogate the diachronic semantic changes of “right” in the West. By using the “new” semantics that surface in the Chinese translation of “right” to draw out the “old” semantics of “right” in the West, I effect a defamiliarization of the modern liberal concept of “right” via both its synchronic Other (Confucian “right”) and its diachronic Other (“right” in pre-modern West). In Benjaminian language, my paper uses Chinese translation history to “blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history” in the semantic history of “right” in the West. Benjamin disrupts the “homogeneous empty time” of mythical linear history via “a tiger’s leap into the past.” I demonstrate how radical heterogeneity can be introduced by the spatial Other (Chinese translation history) as much as the temporal Other. My method also extends Benjamin by making a tiger’s leap into the Other of the past, and into the past of the Other. By using the Confucian notion of “right” to draw out an earlier notion of “right” in the West, I aim at interrogating modern Western “right” with its temporal Other (Aristotle) via the detour of its cultural Other (Confucius), thus inviting readers to understand the meaning of “right” anew.