Image: Li Jinxi, "Diagram Showing the Evolution of Chinese for the Last Four Millenniums" (1926)

Contact Philology


Tuesday, November 28th, 2023


6:00 - 8:00 PM ET


Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, East Campus

Event Organizer

The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities

Event Co-Sponsor(s)

Colloquium on Literacies across East Asia; Institute for Comparative Literature and Society; Critical Chinese Humanities Series; Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures


The study of language contact lacked prestige in traditional Philology. European philologists partitioned the past into distinct languages and nations; Confucian philologists privileged the Chinese tradition alone. This talk asks why, during the twentieth-century internationalization of the discipline, the languages of the “Far East” became, for some, a paradigm-shifting exception. How, in colonial Asia (1900-1940s) and then during the anticolonial Afro-Asian movement (1950s-60s), did the last generation of philologists reimagine Oriental Philology for the study of the connected past? If Indo-European philology organized the world’s languages into genetic family trees, the study of ancient Indo-Chinese and Central Asian languages invoked the constitutive nature of contact. Contact philology here refers not to a future field but rather to the reparative effort to come to terms with Philology’s inconvenient past. At stake is how Philology’s predilection for dead languages and racial origins both constrained and enabled the study of historical contact across distinct disciplines, regions, and ideologies.


Tamara Chin is an associate professor of comparative literature at Brown University who works on comparative approaches to antiquity. She is the author of Savage Exchange: Han Imperialism, Chinese Literary Style, and the Economic Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2014). Today's talk comes from a book in progress entitled The Silk Road Spirit and the Modern Human Sciences, 1870-1970, a multiregional and multidisciplinary account of the study of premodern contact during the century spanning New Imperialism and Cold War decolonization.