‘Sound and Sense: Phonology and Human Difference in late Ming China’

Professor Leigh Jenco, from the London School of Economics examines some unusual sources of political thinking in the Ming dynasty of the late 16th and early 17th century.

“In this talk I examine some unusual sources of political thinking in the Ming dynasty of the late 16th and early 17th century: prefaces to innovative works on historical phonology.  These phonological works, most prominently that of Chen Di, are recognized for being the first in imperial China to understand sound as changing in a specific way through time.”

Ben Turner chairs this talk by Professor Leigh Jenco (BA, Bard College; MA and PhD, University of Chicago) political theorist and historian of Chinese thought at The London School of Economics. 

In the prefaces written for these works, Chen and others explain how they came to make these claims and to demonstrate their validity through a systematic comparison of ancient classic texts. These works were later heralded as paragons of proto-scientific empiricism in early modern China, praised for breaking from speculative moral neo-Confucian philosophy to pursue evidence-based historical scholarship.

“I argue, that these works were both motivated, and made possible, by the authors’ commitment to the very neo-Confucian philosophy presumed to contradict their scientific approach.” Jenco explains “More specifically, it was a commitment to an ideal of virtue as embodied and responsive to context, upheld by the late Ming neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming and his followers, that inspired Chen and his interlocutors to expose themselves to diverse experiences through travel, aesthetic production, careful reflection on classical texts, and friendships.”

“In this talk I trace how Chen’s experiences of travel on the Ming frontiers are linked to his recognition of a diversity of (historical) sound across time, which parallels and mutually enriches his reflections about the validity of (cultural) difference across space.”

Jenco has held visiting positions at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taiwan; the Department of History, National Taiwan University; and the University of Heidelberg. She has served as associate editor of the flagship journal American Political Science Review and principal investigator for the Humanities in the European Research Area grant project “East Asian Uses of the European Past,” funded by the European Commission.

Date: Wednesday 24th March 2021

Time: 16:30 – 17:00 (UK Time)

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