From a hierarchy in time to a hierarchy in space : The meanings of sino-babylonianism in early twentieth-century China

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-169
Journal / PublicationModern China
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2010
Externally publishedYes


In 1892, Terrien de Lacouperie (1845-1894), professor of Chinese at University College in London, set out to prove that the Chinese migrated from Mesopotamia in prehistoric times. Despite mixed responses from his colleagues, Lacouperie's "Sino-Babylonianism" found its way into China and captured the imagination of Chinese historians from the 1900s to 1930s. Whether they supported or opposed Lacouperie's view, Chinese historians were intrigued by his boldness in linking early China to the global network of trade and cultural exchange. This article examines how Chinese historians adopted, transformed, and appropriated Sino-Babylonianism in their discourse on the nation. It argues that the rise and fall of Sino-Babylonianism coincided with the Chinese perceptions of the world system of nation-states. Sino-Babylonianism was warmly received when the Chinese perceived the world system of nation-states as a hierarchy in temporality, prescribing a process of evolution that all human communities must follow. Sino-Babylonianism was fiercely rejected when the Chinese saw the world system of nation-states as a hierarchy in space, characterized by incessant territorial expansion of imperialist powers. In both instances, Sino-Babylonianism was no longer what Lacouperie had proposed in the late nineteenth century. Rather, it was an important benchmark for the Chinese understanding of the modern global order. © 2010 SAGE Publications.

Research Area(s)

  • Cultural nationalists, Imperialism, Sino-Babylonianism, Social evolution, Terrien de Lacouperie, Territorial sovereignty, World system of nation-states