The Art of In-betweenness (间)
As I said in another post on the Ming exhibition at the British Museum, it is not surprising that misinterpretations of ancient Chinese culture and inventions sometimes occur. This is not due to inadequate knowledge, but mostly due to the positionality of the viewer. One is prone to see what he or she wants to see. How can we get a complete picture of history? How can we be aware of the gap between different cultures? Nicolas Standaert, a sinologist based at the University of Leuven, puts forward the concept of “in-betweenness” for use when dealing with Chinese culture. On 28th August 2015 in Antwerp, Prof. Standaert elaborated on this notion through an examination of cartography in the early Qing dynasty.
Let me begin with his theoretical review of the research into the history of relations between China and Europe. In the lecture, Prof. Standaert introduced four frameworks within which the contact between China and Europe in the seventeenth century has been studied. In the first one, the “transmission” framework, the question of how missionaries transmitted Christianity or Western sciences in China is explored through some major studies concerning Matteo Ricci’s world map. Interestingly, different perspectives on the world can be seen in subtle changes to the maps, which reveals the impact or effect of the transmitter on the receiver. The other three frameworks are respectively the “reception”, “invention”, and “interaction & communication” frameworks. This fourth framework “is based on a type of relationship to the other that can be qualified as ‘relational otherness’ in which the self and the other enter into interaction.”
In this regard, the focus of studying history shifts from differences to betweenness. The text becomes the result of communication. What impressed me most in Prof. Standaert’s lecture was the borrowing from a Chinese character “间” and its related implications in his interpretation of the methodology of historical studies. I would like to give you a brief explanation of the character in this term “间”, which has its origins in both Japanese and Chinese. This idea was nicely expressed by Xu Kai (徐楷920–974) in his commentary on the character in the Shuowen jiezi (说文解字): “夫门当夜闭，闭而见月光，是有间隙也。”[When the gate closes at night, and while closed one sees the moonshine, this shows that there is a crack.] In Modern Chinese, the character (jiān and jiàn) has a wide variety of meanings: between, among, within a definitive time or space, room (=jiān), space or time in between, break, opening, interval, gap (=jiàn) etc.”
Traditionally, the task of the historian is regarded as the study of the evidence for the production of historical stories in the form of texts, images, artefacts, and rituals. Prof. Standaert, on the other hand, interprets it within the concept of “in-betweenness”. He argues that:
Sinologists are a ‘story’ themselves. This story is itself the result of a personal and common engagement, an ‘act connection’, with China. It is the interwoven story of what happened between them and the Chinese they encountered, between them and texts Chinese they read. This story of the Sinologist contains the characteristics of in-betweenness: ambiguity, ambivalence, indetermination, tension, equivocity, complexity.
In the in-betweenness approach, historians attempt to “find a crack in everything, a crack through which the light gets in”. “Crack” and “Lack”, which is essential in traditional Chinese landscape paintings as well as philosophy, offer a new lens for us to look at historical studies within the concept of “in-betweenness”, and leave a space for more conversation and interaction between history and historians, transmitter and receiver. Moving away from the dominant or Euro-centric methodology, we could find alternative interpretations and perceptions in other cultures like the “间” in Chinese philosophy. Or, can we deconstruct the “dominant” theoretical system and find a balance between the various methodologies – thereby going some way towards compensating for the historian’s partiality? More work needs to be done to erase misinterpretations.