Editor's Note: The essay that follows is based on a conference paper by Dilip K. Basu that has long circulated informally, in the process exercising an unusually high degree of influence for an unpublished commentary. Most notably, some ideas embedded in it have been spread via literary scholar Lydia Liu's engagement with and quoting of the paper in The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (Liu 2006), a provocative and much-cited book that calls for a radical rethinking of some of the standard terms and concepts used in the past to refer to the Qing Empire's ties to and conflicts with other political and territorial units. Those familiar with Liu's work will find here an essay that complements some arguments in her book; those who have not read it will be introduced to those ideas for the first time. Beyond this, though, all readers will find a discussion of various ideas and events—visions of China's place in the world, how the story of the Opium War is thought about in different settings, the history of Sinology—shaped by personal as well as scholarly concerns.
The essay's ties to the author's life and associations, which come into play more as the essay proceeds, make it a good fit with the goals of our recently introduced and still evolving “Reflections” genre. In addition, since it revisits critically ideas about China associated with the work of John K. Fairbank, it can be placed well beside some of the essays published in the “Legacies” series launched by Kenneth George, in his time as editor of the journal. And regular attendees of the Association for Asian Studies annual meetings may notice that much that follows resonates with the keynote address by Amitav Ghosh, one of those familiar with Basu's essay in draft form, when that conference was held in Toronto in 2012. The pages that follow are tightly focused on China, but Basu's discussion of “xenology” (a term for the ways that cultures think about those deemed “others,” which has, of course, the same root as the more familiar term “xenophobia”) clearly has implications for widely varied times and places, just as the handling of Fairbank's distinctive role in Chinese studies may bring to mind parallels to the influence that other prominent Western academics from the last century once shaped and via their legacies can continue to shape academic work on other parts of Asia. While focused tightly on China, in other words, it has much to offer readers whose primary interest is not in that country.