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On Postmodernism and Postcolonialism in Chinese Modernity: Text and Context

Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum

Inside-Out Art Museum is presenting the fifth episode of “China as an Issue” Lecture Series on Saturday, March 23. We are honored to have the historian Lei Yi to share his thoughts on the relationship between historical research and specific context and discourse.


On Postmodernism and Postcolonialism in Chinese Modernity: 

Text and Context

Lecturer: Lei Yi

Time: 14:00-16:00, March 23, 2019

Location: Conference Room, Inside-Out Art Museum

Language: Chinese Only

Max Horkheimer, the leading figure of the Frankfurt School, once said “the greater a work is, the more deeply it is rooted in specific historical context”.


Recent two decades have witnessed a number of work attempting to interpret modern Chinese society and history through the theories of Postmodernism and Postcolonialism. However, the majority of such attempts are separated from their contexts. That is, in Horkheimer’s words, they are not “deeply rooted in specific historical context”. It is necessary, therefore, to question closely if modernity belongs to “Western colonial discourse” or is indeed an internal demand for China? What would be the consequences and inherent contradictions of interpretation out of specific context? We must be cautious of the danger of interpreting text without context.


All theories of social science are produced within specific social and historical environment, and are abstracted from reality. Thus, they all have their own characteristics and limitations to various degree. They are also more or less transcendent and universal so that one can apply ‘social theory’ about one society to another that is completely different. Such application is highly complicated because reducing and generalizing knowledge of a specific society makes it precarious if adopted in a different context. In this light, we must take great caution when applying introduced theories of social science to local society and consider ways to combine the two properly.


As a matter of fact, same theory can generate very different effects under different circumstances. The same ‘signifiers’ can point to the ‘signified’ that are completely different. From the perspective of sociology of knowledge, scholars should pay extra attention to the social effects of ‘knowledge’ because how doctrines and notions become ideologies is crucial for understanding history and reality. This is the point where we depart from pure academic knowledge and its intrinsic integrity to the realm of practical use of those doctrines and notions in politics, society and economy within specific historical context. Hence it is not the ‘text’ of ‘universal’ notions that require us to interpret, explain and emphasize but their specific ‘context’ as well as the manifestation and particular meanings of that ‘context’.


Lei Yi

Born in 1956, Lei Yi, upon graduation of middle school, joined the movement that relocated educated youths to live and work in the countryside. After years of life as a farmer, he joined the Air Force of the People’s Liberation Army and worked at ground service. After demobilization from the military service, he went to work as a lathe worker in a factory. When the College Entrance Examination was resumed in 1978, Lei entered Jilin University and studied at the Department of History. Graduating in 1982 with a Bachelor of Arts, he continued to study at and obtained a Master degree from the Department of History at Graduate School of Jilin University with a major in Modern History of China. Since 1985, Lei has been working at the Institute of Modern History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He worked as the Associate Editor of Modern China Research and now as a Researcher there focusing on Chinese Modern History, Contemporary Intellectual History and Cultural History.