Translation, Concepts of ‘Right,’ and the Opium Wars: A New Historical Method and a New World History

Sinkwan Cheng


Quentin Skinner compares Hobbes’s Leviathan to a parliamentary speech; to interpret the text is to uncover its contributions to ongoing debates which I extend to demonstrate how the Chinese translation history of ‘rights’ during the Opium Wars and their aftermath could contribute to ongoing debates about ‘rights’ in world history. So far, commentators on the two key Chinese translations of ‘rights’—daoli (道理) and quanli (權利)—have basically stopped at calling them ‘mistranslations’. Contrary to these critics, I argue that these translations draw out certain truths in the conceptual history of ‘rights’ in the West. My analysis highlights the Chinese ‘mistranslations’ as the truth of the Subject’s message being returned from its Other in inverted form.[i] In the words of the Tang Emperor Taizhong as recorded in both The Old Tang History and The New Tang History, ‘The Other as my mirror helps me understand my strengths and weaknesses’. The new historical method I develop via Lacan and Chinese historiography allows me to go beyond postcolonial reading of the subaltern’s ‘copy’ of the master’s ideas as distortion, mimicry, or creative transformation. Instead of making the subaltern’s translation a mere parody of the Master—subversive or not—I highlight how the Chinese (mis)-translations captures certain truths about the Master which the latter cannot see in himself.

[i] This reading is based on an expropriation of Lacan’s formulation.

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University of Sunderland

ISSN 2057-2042 (Print)
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