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Haun Saussy

“Strangers and the Strange People Who Befriended Them in Ming China”
Haun Saussy, Yale University


    Recent theories of cultural change invoke terms such as translation, assimilation, and hybridity. What conditions favor the acceptance of new cultural objects from outside? How are innovations transformed by the process of reception? How do the marginal zones of a culture interact both with culturally central zones and with the cultural “outside”? The mutual adaptations of Renaissance Europe and Ming China furnish examples for reflection.


    Matteo Ricci’s book Jiaoyou lun (On Friendship) was a strategic intervention into Ming-dynasty society and a response to opportunities that were very much of their moment. Had Ricci arrived a hundred years earlier or later, he would most likely have had to seek a different opening. As it was, Ricci had in common with numerous elite Chinese men circa 1600 an outsider status; by cultivating their friendship he also cultivated a certain role of persona for himself, as a familiar kind of stranger. Early responses to Ricci often carry “Daoist” connotations, as if this religious or philosophical stance, thoroughly implanted in Chinese history, were the solution to the Ricci enigma. It is probably not to be taken too seriously except in the context of late-Ming outsider culture. Nonetheless, it furnished Ricci a license to propose doctrines that seemed new, strange, paradoxical and even mad. An account of the outsider culture in which Ricci’s ideas initially spread will be offered, first through consideration of the broad social field, then through the specific example of Li Zhi, the literatus most closely associated with Ricci in the early stages of Ricci’s persuasion campaign. Ricci’s relations with Li Zhi, from an early alliance to a posthumous repudiation, track the missionary’s infiltration of Chinese majority culture from the strategic entry-point offered by the voluntary or involuntary marginality of the elite outsider.


Haun Saussy is the Bird White Housum Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University. He wrote The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic (Stanford, 1993), in which he discussed questions of intercultural hermeneutics, the theory of figural language, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He has also written Great Walls of Discourse and Other Adventures in Cultural China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2001), an account of the ways of knowing and describing specific to China scholarship, Chinese as well as foreign. Of particular relevance to this conference’s goals, he has also edited Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization: The 2005 ACLA Report on the State of the Discipline (Johns Hopkins, 2006).

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