Vol. 26

Paradise Lost and Regained: The Passion of Chinese Studies (Kangaku) in Meiji-Period Japan

Published July 16, 2019


This essay examines Meiji-period discussions of the utility and function of classical Chinese scholarship (kangaku) between the years 1880 and 1895. In contrast to earlier studies that have presented this period as a time in which Japan rejected Chinese texts and bodies of knowledge in favor of recently imported Western works, I argue that the era was marked by a sophisticated and sincere attempt at reconciling epistemes. As previous scholars have noted, Meiji-period kangaku was marked by a shift in emphasis from the ethico-political concerns characterizing earlier Confucian scholarship (keigaku) in favor of analysis of China as a geographically and temporally bounded space. While this shift has traditionally been interpreted within a larger rhetoric of Meiji-period “de-Asianization,” I demonstrate that this emphasis on the Chinese uniqueness embodied in classical texts served as the basis for a range of arguments that kangaku was an inherently adaptable episteme, capable of addressing the concerns of the rapidly modernizing Japanese nation-state.