In the thirty years since the publication of Robert T. Oliver’s Communication and Culture in Ancient India and China, Chinese rhetoric has slowly gained recognition as a legitimate area of research in communication studies. This study has begun, however, with characterizations of Chinese discourse in terms of what it is said to lack in comparison to the West. Oliver’s book, for instance, begins by stressing India and China’s lack of political, legal, religious, or educational platforms for oratory. It famously continues that for these countries “rhetoric has been considered so important that it could not be separated from the remainder of human knowledge” (10). George Kennedy, in his 1998 book Comparative Rhetoric, even implies that Chinese rhetoric as a scholarly discipline was invented by French Jesuits.
This paper argues that if Chinese rhetoric was, as Oliver and Kennedy suggest, first theorized by the West, then it was also theorized for the West. Furthermore, European theories of rhetoric were changing even as Jesuit descriptions of Chinese rhetoric were circulating around Europe. Whether Chinese rhetoric as a discipline was invented by the Jesuits or not, contemporary Western studies of Chinese rhetoric have failed to examine the complex relations between “our” notions of Chinese rhetoric and the particular seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European contexts in which those notions were rooted. Absent this examination, Chinese rhetorical theory is inevitably cast as being in some sense outside of time and “behind” that of the West.
Kennedy, George A. Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.
Oliver, Robert T. Communication and Culture in Ancient India and China. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1971.I think the paper makes an interesting argument about cross-cultural studies of rhetoric, though similar arguments have probably been made elsewhere since then by others who are more active in comparative rhetoric than I am anymore.
Anyway, I thought I'd post the paper online after I noticed that it was cited in Li Yuxue's (李奭學) book, 中國晚明與歐洲文學. I guess Li must have come across the CD-ROM on which the papers from the conference were saved. (Everyone attending that 2004 Conference on East-West Identities at Hong Kong Baptist University got a CD-ROM with the papers on it.) I don't think I'm going to be doing any revising with it at this point; that phase of my life has pretty much passed. But I enjoyed rereading my paper (am I allowed to say that?) and I hope others will get something out of it, too.