China, 16th century engraving. The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and the Chinese scholar who had converted to Christianity, Xu Guangqi (1562-1633).
Xiaosui Xiao wrote a interesting article on the contribution of Intercultural Communication to the topic of Exchange of Knowledge. He noticed the following problem: Historians would tend to be mainly concerned with the interaction between two cultural systems of thought (bodies of knowledge), rather than with the interaction between the speakers and listeners. He felt that historians were rather impersonal, meaning that the agency in communication of thought was rather neglected. Although I do not fully agree with his observation, I can see that Xiao, coming from a communication background, would like to see more detailed analyses of actual communication processes between people in history. Besides the historical approach, there is the communicative approach, specifically looking at the communication between people and on the use of various technologies in this communication. The topic of how knowledge is/was communicated is rather neglected in this social science discipline.
Having observed this problem, Xiao therefore proposed the following study: Intercultural Communication. The focus in this study would be on the intellectual dimension of intercultural transaction; the communication involved with cross-cultural exchange of ideas and thoughts.
Xiao made a theoretical framework based on historical examples since the Opium Wars. After the Opium Wars (1839-1861), the "assimilation of Western Learning" can be said to refer to the introduction and popularisation of Western ideas in China, which reached its heights during the Reform Movement (1890s) and the May Fourth Movement (1915-1925).
Xiao’s theoretical framework is as follows:
1. The assimilation of Western learning is a process of signification (meaning-building). For example, the concept of rén, having the connotation of hierarchy in Confucianism, was given a new meaning by Tan Sitong, namely the principle that all people are equal.
2. Signification is a site of social struggle. The new meaning of rén created a struggle between the new interpretation and Confucianism.
3. Signification inevitably involves the critical role of rhetoric. In the same example, rhetoric was applied by Tan Sitong to make his case stronger, namely the argumentation around the interconnectivity of rén in Neo-Confucianism.
4. The role of native interpreters and advocates of a foreign practice of signification. Tan Sitong’s initiative and effort was crucial in the assimilation of Western learning and the discussion that followed.
In short: Foreign knowledge was interpreted in China and trough translation and advocated within a long-standing tradition by means of rhetoric and by assigning new meanings to words. This causes strong responses and social struggles.
Although Xiao's examples seem to rule out any 'exchange,' rather suggesting an one-way assimilation of Western learning by Chinese initiative, the idea a signification, use of rhetoric, and the focus on agency can really provide a more comprehensive view on the the phenomenon of circulation of knowledge in history.