Academia, Language, and Imperialism in China (Part One)

Thorsten Pattberg Interview: On Academic Imperialism and Language Issues in China; photo: Dong Guisheng
Thorsten Pattberg Interview: On Academic Imperialism and Language Issues in China; photo: Dong Guisheng

Pattberg Interview: Academia, Language, and Imperialism in China

by Eric Draitser

NEW YORK/TOKYO – Eric Draitser sits down with Dr. Thorsten Pattberg to discuss academia, language and imperialism. Dr. Pattberg examines the ways in which academic imperialism is used to shape dominant discourse. Also, Dr. Pattberg explains the concepts of language imperialism and linguistic imperialism and the distinction between the two. Additionally, the conversation touches on the differences between Western and Chinese perspectives on a wide range of issues.

Dr. Thorsten Pattberg is a renowned author and lecturer at Peking University. His books include The East-West Dichotomy, Shengren, and Inside Peking University. He has written extensively on linguistics and the relationship between language and imperialism. Visit his website at

Eric Draitser: Welcome back to the stop imperialism podcast. It is my pleasure and privilege to have Dr. Thorsten Pattberg on the program. Dr. Pattberg is a lecturer and author based in China. He is the author of The East-West Dichotomy, Shengren, and Inside Peking University, three invaluable books that everyone needs to definitely check out. So, Dr. Pattberg, thank you so much for coming to Stop Imperialism.

Thorsten Pattberg: Eric, glad to be on your show. Thanks!

ED: I wanted to begin with a recent article that you published on Global Research. It was entitled ‘The Frontiers of Academic Imperialism‘. In the article you touch on a number of important ideas, so why don’t we start with the central issue and that is if you could give your definition of ‘Academic Imperialism’ – what does that mean?

A China Without Chinese Ideas

“In China, only those students who are receptive to Western indoctrination may reach a doctoral level, post-doctoral level, lectureship, and maybe become professors even; but by which time they will have become indoctrinated and subservient to Western rather than Chinese values. That’s my view.”

TP: What I am specializing on is China so I am mainly talking about Chinese things. What I observed during my long stay in China, especially at Peking University is: Western scholarship on China basically leaves out Chinese concepts. So, Chinese concepts are left out of world history. And because this is an ongoing process it won’t stop tomorrow, we must address this problem, ok: In China, only those students who are receptive to Western indoctrination may reach a doctoral level, post-doctoral level, lectureship, and maybe become professors even; but by which time they will have become indoctrinated and subservient to Western rather than Chinese values. That’s my view.

ED: There is an interest point that you made, and in fact I wanted to get into it a little bit later in the interview, you know, about the hoops you have to jump through to get through academia and higher education here in the West specifically. But before we get to that I wanna go through one example that you touch upon in your article that I mentioned, again it was entitled ‘The Frontiers of Academic Imperialism’. You use the example of the world “philosophy” and the concept of philosophy as it is understood in the west. So, could you go into that example that you lay out in the article and then also about the term you used – ideological indoctrination?

TP: Well, the word “philosophy” is a Western word and comes from the Western tradition, we know that it is a Greek concept, and just by hearing this word the feeling we Westerners get is that it includes all foreign while being firmly rooted in Western tradition; at the same time the word lacks all foreignness while we are solely referring to ourselves. So, as an example, a book entitled “The History of Philosophy” may include a chapter on Confucius [the Chinese thinker] or it may not; but either way it would not fail to fulfill its title’s promise. So, what I am trying to say is that philosophy is a Western concept; it wasn’t even a word in China before 1871 when it was imported from Japan. In Japan a philosopher is called tetsugakusha. So before that China didn’t have a word for philosophy at all.

ED: Yes, and because of that it’s almost incumbent on Westerners who try to explain Chinese culture in some sort of an academic way that they then have to put their imprint on it; it has to fit into the dominant discourse of Western narrative. It is really interesting to read some of the stuff that you’ve published on the subject because what I find is that even though I try, you know, to be this anti-imperialist to engage with all the other cultures, China especially is so foreign to me that it is almost difficult if not impossible to me to even understand the mindset.

“We have already annihilated China’s spiritual shengren and the other archetypes. They are gone.”

TP: Yes, and that is probably because all those original Chinese, Japanese, and Korean terms are left out of history. We simply don’t know about that. For example why would you call Chinese thinkers philosophers? They have their own archetypes of thinkers and they are called, for instance: shengren. And shengren, it is seijin in Japanese and seong-in in Korean by the way, are always translated as something like a “Chinese philosopher”, “Japanese philosophers”, and “Korean philosophers”. So, metaphorically speaking we have already annihilated China’s spiritual shengren and the other archetypes. They are gone. We don’t talk about them any longer.

ED: Right, in other words we are trying to transform them into our own Western understanding, a very important idea. And there is another, you know, you mentioned this ideological indoctrination, is that what you are referring to?

 Western Ideological Indoctrination

TP: I am not an expert on the philosophy of education, but, you know they have the curriculum in the West and in China about what they should teach. I grew up in the west and studied in Germany and England and I have never heard about anything Chinese during my time in Europe. I only heard about those Chinese concepts when I moved to the East. So definitely the Western education now is lacking something; it is lacking a more Eastern educational view [on things].

ED: That’s a great point you make that even the exposure that we have to Chinese history and Chinese literature or any of the Asian cultures – it is always sort of framed in a Western understanding. I remember back when I was in a history class and in that class there was one section on China, Japan, and Korea and you would go through that in about two weeks and that was your quota of East-Asian history.

TP: Yes, excellent example. It is like that in many places. It is changing of course, but slowly.

ED: There is another topic of yours that I want to touch upon because it fascinates me, and that is the issue of language imperialism and linguistic imperialism. Before we even dig into those concepts – what do they mean, and I know that you always have been very careful to make a distinction between language imperialism and linguistic imperialism. Maybe you could flesh that out.

Language Imperialism 

“So that’s language imperialism: picking up those important concepts of the foreigners and translating them into your own language.”

TP: Yes, very briefly, linguistic imperialism is the replacement of language by another dominant language. It’s culture imperialism, right, one culture loses and the other wins. Language imperialism is like a surgery. You pick certain foreign concepts that you than willfully translate into your own lingua; and you do so in order to gain what the Germans call ‘Deutungshoheit‘. It means the sovereignty over the definition of thought. So, because you only talk in your language you will feel much more comfortable when talking about foreigners, while leaving them [their language] totally out; you are actually forcing them to learn your language in order to communicate with you about their culture. It’s a bit unfair, right, so that’s language imperialism: picking up those important concepts of the foreigners and translating them into your own language.

ED: You know, I have heard academics, scholars of many stripes, linguists and others who talked about these issues, but I have actually heard anybody other than you making a distinction between linguistic imperialism and language imperialism, so why do you think this distinction is so important?

TP: Well, because linguistic imperialism is so general. We are all English speakers, but you know, I am not an English native speaker as you can hear, but I have to study it in order to have a say at all. That must be true of many other people in the world right now, especially students who study cultural studies. So it is time to save what can be saved right now. We cannot convince a lot of people in the west to study the Chinese language because it is physically impossible and it is too complicated; maybe you need ten years to master that language. But what we can do is we pick the most important Chinese key concepts like wenming, shengren, junzi, daxue, datong and so one – all very important key concepts – and adopt them into our languages and the English language. That would be my goal.

ED: Very good, and obviously a productive goal, I think. I heard you mentioned it and I think that was what you were referring to a minute ago with the German phrase that you gave, but I wanted you to clarify something that I wasn’t clear on: the prerogative of final explanation – what exactly does that mean?

Deutungshoheit: The Prerogative of Final Explanation

TP: It’s a word the Germans are keen on: Deutungshoheit, or “the Prerogative of Final Explanation”. Just to give you an example: You force your opponents in a discourse to use your concepts. It’s a bit tricky, but it works. I once gave an example before about something that I have observed in Japan actually: There was a conference and the conference’s goal was to talk about the Japanese emperor. In Germany, emperor is “der Kaiser”. So, of course, the German professors [attending that conference] were trying to talk about the German “Kaiser” – now the “Japanese Kaiser”. But now, the Japanese don’t have a Kaiser; they don’t have the same experience, history, and etymology to that word [Kaiser] than the German have. They are too far away, both those cultural circles of Japan and Germany – just too far away. What the Japanese have is the “Tenno”. Now, they had to decide on one or the other – Kaiser or Tenno, and they went for the Kaiser. From then on the whole conversation was on the German side because it is their concept. They have much more to say on Kaiser than on Tenno. And the Japanese were kind of excluded from the discourse. I find that very curious. It’s amazing, isn’t it: the Japanese Kaiser is the Tenno, and only the Tenno. Tenno is the only [correct] word for the Japanese emperor.

ED: What I am thinking about this question and hearing you explaining it, it reminds me of the postmodern thinker Michele Foucault and the whole concept of power relations and it seems to me that this issue of linguist imperialism is really one of power relations.

TP: Oh yes it is, and Foucault is still good reading, it always is. Slavoj Zizek recently said, and I quote: “The true victory (the negation of the negation) occurs when your enemy speaks your language.” So it is about power, you are right about that.

ED: Absolutely. I want a little bit switch to another article you wrote. I know I am jumping around a little bit but time is limited and there is so much content I wanna cover. You wrote an article entitled ‘Language and Empire: My language, Your prison’, and among the many interesting things that I found in there one very interesting quote was when you were referring to philosophers and the study of philosophy as, quote: “the world’s greatest syndicate”. Could you explain what you mean by that?

Philosophers Are The World’s Greatest Syndicate

“There is no need for a Chinese thinker to call himself a philosopher; it’s a Hellenic idea! There is no need for a Chinese because they have their own titles – shengren, and junzi, or sixiangjia.”

TP: Well, I can’t remember exactly what I wrote there. Let me think about it, yes, the philosophers originated as a school of thought in the Hellenic tradition, you know, Plato and his school of philosophy. They surely developed pretty fast and actually they got rid of what today we call the sages: the “sophos” – another school of great wise men and teachers. They [the philosophers] got rid of the their competitors pretty fast and by the time Christianity comes along it takes care of the philosophers and promotes them, so to speak. So today, it is what it is: a syndicate that has spread. There is no need for a Chinese thinker to call himself a philosopher; it’s a Hellenic idea! There is no need for a Chinese because they have their own titles – shengren, and junzi, or sixiangjia. Why would they refer to themselves as philosophers? I mean, in the West we are caught in this prison that you cannot even graduate from a Western university without, you know, the highest degree in the West is called the “Doctor of Philosophy” – a PhD. Even if what you have studied there got nothing to do with philosophy, so you are trapped in that [syndicate’s] prison.

ED: Absolutely right, and another thing that occurs to me when you are saying that though is that there is another element to this syndicate, and that is really the money, the resources; in other words it is a syndicate in so far as they control and have the means and the power to fund academia through institutions and Wall Street and various other forms. They can control who is in and who is out. And if you espouse and ideology or an idea or a position that doesn’t fit their narrative you are out. Therefore it is almost like an organized crime family or something like that along those lines.

TP: Well, I don’t know if it’s a criminal syndicate, I didn’t want to say that. But surely it is about conformity. Students today are trapped in a life of conformity.

ED: (laughs) I was also not suggesting that it was criminal but rather in understanding the methods of control. You know, for instance, I know many people who have been PhD students, who’ve gotten their PhDs and you know it’s true to be a PhD you have to be a certain intellect, to have a certain ability, but the majority I have seen have simply mastered the art of school. And it is this being able to be a good student, to produce a good paper or to have a good work ethic – these are the things that get you to a PhD instead of say independent thinking or new ideas which often times are not in keeping with that dominant discourse.

“We only adopt words from leisure and entertainment but we don’t adopt words from the important fields in politics and cultural studies.”

TP: Yes, I absolutely agree. I mean, education should always be about producing new and exciting ideas for others rather than just learning what is already known. There should be a certain type of freedom to challenge existing norms and conventions. And back the language thing – of course there is progress. If you think about the great cultures in the east, the Indians and the Japanese and the Chinese, there are many of their original ideas, I call it their socio-cultural originality, that now flow back into the west. Think about words like “Avatar” [from the recent Hollywood movie] and “yoga” – these are Indian words. And with Chinese it is the same, it is developing, we already have “fengshui”; we have “yin and yang”; and people who are doing material arts know that we have “qi”. So there is progress, we have adopted them. But not the important ones. We only adopt words from leisure and entertainment but we don’t adopt words from the important fields in politics and cultural studies. We just don’t. And this is, I think, because we are trapped in this educational thing.

Confronting Western Academic Imperialism

ED: There is another point to be made and that is the relationship we’ve been talking about, you know, education or indoctrination or however you wan look on it and the actual nature of imperialism. So I am gonna ask you a broad question and you can take this in every direction you gonna like: In what ways do you think language imperialism and/or academic imperialism really serves to justify what we see all around us as Western imperialism and the imperialism of, say, the Anglo-Saxon or European establishment?

TP: Let me express it like this: It is always easy to take the role of the victim. Many Chinese or Indian commentators [on Western Academic Imperialism] take this role with pleasure – the role of the victim of all this bad imperialism that is going on. But I would actually like to take a chance an empower them; to empower them in a way that they can use their own concepts and they are proud of it and then to challenge Western dominance. This is a win-win situation in the end; it is all about what we want: do we want a global humanity or do we just want a Western humanity? So, it is all about to empower Eastern cultures in order to challenge Western concepts.

ED: Very interesting point, and, you know, since my realm is to focus on geopolitics that makes me think that the developments that we have seen this year for example the BRICS talking about the BRICS developing banks moving away from, say, a dollar-dominated world to a more multi-polar economic world. We seeS yria in the headlines every day and Russia and China being on the opposite side of the United States. So we do see a growing trend of China especially but also Russia and others beginning to challenge Western hegemony at least in the political realm; so perhaps now we are seeing a trend in more broadly realm than just politics?

TP: You mean, maybe that the scholars now following foot? Yes, that might be possible. After economic power grows, then the scholars might follow up on it. As to this geopolitical game, scholars should be independent and do it on their own. You know it is not just: Oh, China is now powerful; Russia is now powerful – we should start learn their languages, and look at the concepts they have and adopt those. No, they [the scholars] should do it anyway.

ED: I agree with you definitely. I wanna do a brief break and on the other side of the break I wanna go back to the issue of academic imperialism, and I wanna touch upon how it has changed over time, and I also wanna cover some other topics. So we are here with Dr. Thorsten Pattberg on Thank you so much for listening. We will be right back.

==short break==