“All Things Transregional?” in conversation with… Barbara Mittler




What does Transregional Research mean? Who can learn from its insights? What are its limits? The interview series “All Things Transregional?” addresses these issues to launch an open discussion. We invite researchers to share their experiences, assess key issues and future perspectives of transregional research. 

 Prof. Dr. Barbara Mittler,  Professor for Chinese Studies at Institute of Chinese Studies at the University of Heidelberg and  member of the Board of Directors of the Forum Transregionale Studien, continues the discussion. We look forward to your comments! Already published: Sebastian Conrad, Monica JunejaMatthias MiddellMadeleine Herren-Oesch and Thomas Maissen.

Mittler_Barbara_Portrait_kleinWhat academic insights did you personally gain by investigating issues transregionally?

Not unlike Monica Juneja and Sebastian Conrad, I had for a long time worked on things transregional but never consciously paid attention to the fact. Studying the beginnings of classical music-making in China in my first book and investigating in the next how the idea of the free and liberal press “became Chinese” (both happened between the late 19th century and early 20th century), I was dealing with two cultural products that came into being by both going across and going beyond (the two meanings constitutive to my own understanding of trans) particular borders. Yet working on these – from my Area Studies perspective – I was in fact asking the “regional,” or even the “national” question: how “Chinese” was this music (by using “Chinese” scales, instruments, philosophical ideas, etc.)? And how did the newspaper, as an “alien medium” become “Chinese” (by quoting from the Confucian Classics or using established genres such as the eight-legged examination essay)?

So, while I had been working on phenomena that could in fact be called “transregional”– long before the term as such was used – I never considered them from a transregional perspective. Doing so is like zooming in and zooming out again on the same phenomenon but from different (“trans”) angles – the across and the beyond: no longer the predictable borders, but dynamic traversals, no longer the rigid separations, but creative integrations, no longer the strict authenticities, but playful parodies come into focus. In two newer book-length studies currently in the making, I am turning back on myself, radically redrawing the picture, zooming in now, not on the “Chineseness” but on the great feminist Internationale in the making of Chinese women’s magazines of the last 100 years in one book; and zooming out, deliberating the importance of “national style” and “authenticity” for Chinese musicians on the world’s classical music stages, in another.

To take a “trans-” perspective has been an eye-opening step for me. It allows me to see not just the static phenomenon at hand (a performance of Chopin by a prize-winning pianist from China), but to focus on the moments of its production (where does the performance take place, who is the audience and how does that matter?), the media of transfer or transmission belts (who were the pianist’s teachers, where were they trained and what does this mean?), the points of exchange, the challenges, conflicts and disagreements in its making (what do the critics say and why do they stress that our pianist may be accomplished technically, but in the end is not “Polish” enough to play this music properly, even though he has just won the Chopin competition? Why criticize the “tiger mother” behind the successful musician?). Taking a “trans-” perspective also enables one to uncover, or at least ask for the brokers and translaters (who are the communicators “selling” and “explaining” the pianist to his Chinese and non-Chinese audiences, and how powerful is their packaging and why?). In short, this approach, multi-positional as it is, highlights the dynamics as well as the materials, the technologies and the agents of an object’s becoming.

What are the limits of transregional studies? What are the misunderstandings about the field? 

To me, a transregional perspective is limited, as it highlights only one angle of enquiry: the spatial. My preferred “trans-” perspective, therefore, is the trans-cultural. It opens up many more dimensions, next to space that of time (as Madeleine Herren pointed out). It thus allows us to see the past as a foreign country, for one (L. P. Hartley 1953 and later David Lowenthal 1985 and “revisited” 2015). But in addition, it allows more border crossings: between the cultures of disciplines, for example, the cultures of classes, the cultures of generations, institutions, races, genders – all of which can be “trans-”ed in similarly fruitful ways. Taking a transcultural perspective, therefore, allows us to study the multidirectionalities as well as the polyphonies which are characteristic of the experience of a global “history-in-common” but from many directions, not just the regional.1

The transregional perspective is also limited because it is indeed quite wrong to say that “all things are transregional” – and here I agree, at least in part, with both Thomas Maissen and Sebastian Conrad. There are experiences that are distinctly not transregional, that do not contain any element of crossing or going beyond particular borders, and these experiences, accordingly, also do not offer themselves readily (or at all) to be studied from a transregional perspective: investigating the life of one particular small contractor in a little town in the German Eifel, or even studying the cartoon Biene Maja, produced in Japan, a fact of which none of the German kids watching it in the 1970s had an inkling, however, may more aptly require another methodology than the transregional. Not unlike any other approach, then, the transregional is limited both by the objects of its enquiry and by nature: it is not per se a superior paradigm, nor is it one that we must all stick to dogmatically. I would not condemn my own earlier writings, so distinctly not transregional in perspective: they simply offer a different mode of reading the world! And indeed, one can (and often even must) write interesting work from what has lately been termed – and unjustly derogatively – the “national default mode.”

Other phenomena seem to have been made for a trans-approach – the uses of Hollywood film plots in Chinese silent movies of the 1920s, or the travels of comic strips or illustrations and serialized (detective) novels between the (penny) magazines of Europe and the world (Asian Punches: A Transcultural Affair, Barbara Mittler & Hans Harder, eds., Transcultural Research – Heidelberg Studies on Asia and Europe in a Global Context, Heidelberg: Springer 2013), or the manifold global reincarnations of the “Renaissance” already evoked by others in this blog. Many of these have been neglected in scholarship so far, because they cannot easily be framed according to the logic of established stratifications, both in space and in time. Like moving targets (which Monica Juneja invoked earlier) they defy classifications, periodizations, or localizations. In studying matters and things trans-regional, -cultural and the like we have to shift from the linear paradigm to the rhizomic, from the tree model to lattice and network, and probably even beyond, which is not always easily done, partly because we often have to move in and out of areas that are no longer part of our own expertise.

And here lies the potential for misunderstanding: to call for doing research that considers the object at hand from a trans-perspective is certainly not a call for giving up our specialist areas and fields and all become generalists (or should we say, dilletanti?) now. To the contrary: zooming in on the complexity of these phenomenological structures is – almost inevitably – overwhelming and this is why “trans-” studies can hardly be done by a single researcher. This research calls for expertise not just in a single discipline but in several, not just in one region, but in many and accordingly, it requires multidisciplinary and cross-regional cooperation. A team of specialists working jointly on a topic from a transcultural perspective will surpass even the most well-informed but single(-minded) generalist.

This means that the field of trans-studies need not be misunderstood as one making obsolete either the established disciplines (musicology, history, literary studies etc) or the established area studies with their particular expertise in the languages and cultures from non-European worlds (although indeed, this separation into areas and disciplines is problematic in itself as others in this blog have pointed out already, and I will come back to this later): indeed, there are limits to how far one single researcher can (and should) reach in terms of “trans-.”

I do not see things improving if every Europeanist now starts a fig-leaf project that deals with Asia to enhance their CV. To the contrary: in my mind, experts in trans-regional or global history/musicology/literary studies need to be grounded in particular disciplines and areas, i.e. they should know everything about some things including the languages and cultures of the areas they are working with so as to be able to read their sources first-hand, but they should not be trained as generalists who know hardly anything about many things and only work in translation and from secondary sources. Instead, they should learn how to form teams with other experts to create what I would call “interactive”, rather than “additive” and therefore “true” interdisciplinary work.

This, on the other hand, is another limiting factor, or one more reason why “trans-”studies are indeed rather difficult to carry out: to produce prime “trans-” research actually means to change our established structures and systems of scholarly work and evaluation. As long as the humanities are caught up with the importance of the single-authored manuscript (and doctoral dissertation), trans-anything will remain a tough ball to play, especially for young researchers. And even for senior researchers, trans-research is not easily done: team-work is more time-consuming than doing research on one’s own and this is a major difficulty in a world driven by constant requests not only to publish (or perish) but also to engage, constantly, in third-party-funding initiatives. Trans-research often takes much more time and energy than these strict straightjackets allow for.

How did the field of transregional research develop in the past ten years? How do you envision its future?

“Trans-” research is not a matter of the past ten years, it seems to me. It can build on the many different emancipation movements, feminist, post-colonial and the like, that we have seen for more than half a century now, which made us realize that we cannot continue to “do history” the way we did before, that we must begin to ask new questions of old materials and change the logic of historical thinking, culminating in our attempts today to reconceive what it could mean to be Thinking History Globally (Diego Olsten, 2015). Earlier endeavours at refashioning established canons and hierarchies, retrieving unused sources and forgotten hero(in)es to add to the “white elephans” of established History, thus relativizing what appeared to be fixed norms about only seemingly fixed entities and denying essentialisms of any kind, by pointing to the ever-shifting asymmetries in cultural flows and powers – from Orientalism to Occidentalism to Black Athena – all of these have laid the groundwork for what can now be done in research that goes across and beyond borders of many kinds (Cf. Thomas A. Schmitz “Ex Africa lux? Black Athena and the debate about Afrocentrism in the US” Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft Bd. 2, 1999).

Already now, many new and relativizing narratives (provincializing not just Europe, but men, the elites, the West etc.) have been written. The crucial task for the future will be, however, to establish these new narratives not as “alternative” narratives that, by implication, prescribe new orthodox norms, but instead, as narratives-in-common. Narratives-in-common are radically more than alternative narratives – they are level and levelling. They are able to discard the apologetic (catching-up) or triumphant (we have had it all along) modes of writing alternative histories that Thomas Maissen has already criticized. Instead, they are histories told on an equal plane, no longer deficient histories. Yet, to write these narratives-in-common is not an easy task, for several reasons: First, we need to establish the institutional structures that allow for admitting the writing of History-in-common and second, we need to create a language for this History-in-common.

In terms of structures: if we accept the importance of gender for the study of any historical or literary field, why do we need separate institutes of gender studies to produce alternative readings of history and literature? If we agree that Europe and non-European worlds are equally areas, why should History or Musicology departments be restricted to the study of Europe or, turned the other way around, why should Area Studies be restricted to study places outside of Europe? Once we have accepted that we are all area studies specialists, each of us trained in certain disciplinary methodologies, we may actually be able to alter our understanding of how to interpret the past. We will all be doing History(-in-common) – no longer Chinese, French, African, Women’s or Queer History. Once these qualifying adjectives have become obsolete, once History in the school textbooks will include the histories of the world and as many of its cultures as necessary as a matter-of-course, will we have achieved the writing of History-in-common.

Now to speak of History-in-common is precisely not to say “dass es dies und jenes überall gab” as Thomas Maissen put it. Indeed, in the conversation he alludes to, I would hold that China did not have “The Renaissance” and that this matters. For if we view history in a global context, we realize that China had something else: it had a “Chinese” Renaissance which happened according to its own rules. Thus moving toward greater differentiation, however, we also realize that Europe did not have a “The Renaissance”, either, it had but a “European” Renaissance. Read in a global context, then, all History becomes regional history and accordingly, there are many histories of the renaissance to tell, in this global context. On the other hand, if we are able to accept that actors all over the world may have been engaged equally in the writing of renaissances, and if we make this the basis of our writing of a new and global history,  which no longer takes the European case as unique and thus no longer treats all other historical experiences as derivative, but instead, is interested in these other, as well as the European experiences, as regionally specific and thus “authentic” histories, yet part of one global experience, we can move from these specific histories back to History again: History-in-common, characterized by variation and differentiation both in terms of space and time.

I would hold that it would be important to continue rethinking borders of all kinds, but one of the most important frontiers on our way to writing History-in-common is language. As we observe how words have moved across age and time, we realize that there are many limitations in the use of particular vocabularies, these words are made and accepted at different levels and scales (see e.g. New Terms For New Ideas: Western Knowledge and Lexical Change in Late Imperial China by Michael Lackner, Iwo Amelung & Joachim Kurtz eds., Leiden 2001). One of the most important (and difficult) tasks I see therefore in the writing of History-in-common is a need for enriching our vocabularies in at least two ways: first by accepting the use of foreign words (such as jiao/teaching for what has sometimes been translated as “religion” or “philosophy” of China – with all the baggage attached to each of these terms for non-Chinese readers) and second by denying exclusive and essentialist uses of familiar lexicon (renaissance is being used by many players world-wide and it is worth our while to see what they have to say about it – even if this need not reconfigure our understanding of the European Renaissance in the end).

Carol Gluck & Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing begin their edited volume Words in Motion. Toward a global Lexicon (Durham 2009) with the maxim “As words change the world changes.” They explore how scholars might study global connections and express them in particular vocabularies without prematurely homogenizing the global. This, I think, may be our most pressing task: once we have been able to find the right words, we will be able to write history differently.

 What academic works (literature) would you name as ground-breaking and trend-setting for the field of transregional research?

Arjun Appadurai and Barbara Mittler during the Conference “Global Modernisms”, 2015 Photo: Forum Transregionale Studien under CC BY SA 4.0

At his keynote at the recent 2015 Annual Conference organized by the Forum Transregionale Studien, Arjun Appadurai claimed the legacy of Max Weber for his own intellectual formation: he had learned from Weber the spirit of “closely examining things.” Weber’s work on religion in Europe and Asia, and in particular his theory on the importance of Protestantism for the development of the “spirit of capitalism” in Europe (and its lack in Asia) has profoundly influenced sociologists and historians since it was first published in 1904 and especially those who were concerned with “things transregional:” Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Modern World System (4 vols, 1974, 1980, 1989, 2011), for example, borrowed Weber’s explanations of the growth of capitalism.

To me, reading the work of Weber was the beginning of feeling resistance to particular forms of (historical) writing that, although speaking about things transregional somehow seemed to ignore or silence the voice of the Other.

Both Rudolf Wagner’s Reenacting the Heavenly Vision: The Role of Religion in the Taiping Rebellion, 1982 and Paul Cohen’s Discovering History in China: American Writings on the Recent Chinese Past 1984 – one (Wagner) an empirical study that let the Chinese texts speak in all their peculiarity and took them seriously, nevertheless; the other (Cohen) a study in the history of science which illustrates how scholarship on China in the US had changed from speaking about to speaking in (or with) the voice of the Other – were seminal and formative reading experiences that helped me find my own path in developing a research perspective that has more recently come to be described as world/global/transregional/transnational or – as I would prefer – transcultural.

Important readings that may contribute to developing “trans-” perspectives are the writings by Carol Gluck, and here especially her contributions to the Columbia Project on Asia in the Core Curriculum, begun in 1984 (e.g. Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching, e.g. Asia in Western and world History by Ainslie T. Embree & Carol Gluck, 1997) but also her Japan’s Modern Myths (1985) and Thinking with the Past: the Japanese and Modern History (2013). Another scholar whose work has made important inroads into transcultural entanglements is Lydia Liu (g. Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity-China 1900-1937. Stanford University Press, 1995; and Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations. Duke University Press, 1999, as well as The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making. Harvard University Press, 2004; and reading these together with Donald F. Lach Asia in the Making of Europe 1965 ff, Jonathan Spence The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds 1999 and Jürgen Osterhammel & Niels P. Petersson Globalization A Short history, Princeton 2005, may lead us not to question the Rise of the West, but to engage more seriously with the shifting asymmetries in cultural flows that my own institution, the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies (formerly Cluster “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”) once set out to uncover. Thus crossing and going beyond regional borders, we might end up with a new ways of understanding our own, as well as the History of others.


Barbara Mittler holds a Chair in Chinese Studies at the Institute of Chinese Studies, University of Heidelberg and is Co-Director of the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies (formerly the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context.”) She began her studies of Sinology at the University of Oxford (MA Oxon 1990) and has spent research periods in Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong as well as Harvard and Stanford. Her PhD (1994) and her habilitation (post-doctoral thesis, 1998) are both from Heidelberg. Her research focuses on cultural production in (greater) China covering a range of topics from music to (visual) and (historical) print media in China’s long modernity. She has published three book-length studies: Dangerous Tunes: The Politics of Chinese Music in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China since 1949, Harrassowitz 1997; A Newspaper for China? Power, Identity and Change in China’s News-Media, 1872-1912, Harvard University Press, 2004; and A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture, Harvard University Press, 2012 (Fairbank Prize 2013). Currently, she is finishing a study on women’s magazines, Portrait(s) of a Trope: Making New Women and New Men in Chinese Women’s Magazines, 1898-2008. She has started a new collaborative and digital-only project with Sumathi Ramaswamy (Duke) “Embodying the Nation—Representations of Gandhi and Mao,” and is preparing a new monograph: “And there is only one Lang Lang…”—Music in China from a Transcultural Perspective.”



Citation: »All Things Transregional?« in conversation with… Barbara Mittler, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.11.2015 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/3146



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Editorial Board (2015, 11. November). “All Things Transregional?” in conversation with… Barbara Mittler. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 22. April 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/usi2

  1. I am adapting this phrase from the Japan Historian Carol Gluck who, during her keynote lecture, at the Heidelberg Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” Annual Conference, October 9-11, 2013, spoke on “Modernity in Common: Japan and World History.” She summarized her use of the term modernity-in-common as follows: “Just as the modern history of a society cannot be explained in isolation from the world, it is also possible to explore the history of the modern world from the vantage point of any particular place in the existing ‘globeful of modernities.’  Here that place is Japan, which because it shares commonalities and connections with other modern societies offers the opportunity to think about the “modern” on empirical bases different from the European experiences that underlay earlier theories of modernity.” The abstract for this lecture can be found here []

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