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Race in the Archives (Primary Source Symposium)

October 14, 2020 - 12:00pm to 1:15pm
Shao-Yun Yang

Race and Censorship in the Siku quanshu Project 


The Siku quanshu of 1773-1784 was the largest book collection and collation project in Chinese history, aimed at producing a definitive imperial library containing an authoritative edition of every Chinese book deemed a classic in its genre. In the space of ten years, it catalogued over 10,000 works and anthologized over 3,500. But the project also resulted in the proscription and destruction of nearly three thousand "seditious" works, while others were heavily bowdlerized in the process of collation. This presentation explores the ethnoracial politics behind such bowdlerizing, which included 1) the tabooing of ethnic slurs via substitution with homophones and lacunae and 2) the rewriting or deletion of derogatory or dehumanizing statements about non-Han peoples. Why did the Qianlong emperor, who initiated the Siku quanshu project, object to the first mode of censorship while allowing the second? And why was the second mode practised with such inconsistency in standards? I will argue that the answers to these questions reflect the limitations of state censorship in premodern societies and the insecurity and denialism that characterized the Manchu Qing dynasty's response to Han ethnocentrism and supremacism. 



Shao-yun Yang studies the intellectual history of medieval China (between 200 and 1600 CE), with particular interest in Chinese perceptions of and interactions with other ethnocultural groups. At Denison, he regularly teaches a two-part survey of East Asian history from the first century CE to the twenty-first, as well as seminars on ancient Chinese civilization (2000-1 BCE), the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), and East Asia in the age of modern total war (1937-1953).

Dr. Yang has published essays in a number of academic journals and edited volumes. His first book, The Way of the Barbarians: Redrawing Ethnic Boundaries in Tang and Song China (2019), explores the ways in which the medieval Chinese interpreted and utilized the so-called “Chinese-barbarian dichotomy” - a longstanding belief that the peoples of the world were fundamentally divided between superior Chinese and inferior barbarians. The book seeks to explain why, during a period stretching from the ninth century to the twelfth century, traditional ethnic and cultural understandings of this dichotomy were challenged by new interpretations identifying ideological purity or moral integrity as the essence of Chineseness. Dr. Yang’s future projects include a study of the ideology of Chinese supremacism during the Southern Song (1127-1276) and Ming (1368-1644) periods, and a study of Chinese perceptions of other world regions during the period 1220-1620.

A second-generation descendant of Chinese immigrants to Singapore, Dr. Yang received his BA (2005) and MA (2007) from the National University of Singapore and his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley (2014).

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