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Public Talk by Prof Tani Barlow: “Writing a Material History of ‘Society’ in Modern China”.

16 April 2024 (Tue)

13:30 – 15:30



The Department of Cultural Studies recently hosted a thought-provoking talk titled “Writing a Material History of ‘Society’ in Modern China” by ProfTani Barlow, a Visiting Distinguished Professor from Rice University, who shared her insights on the challenges of writing a history of society in China.

Moderated by Prof Benjamin Joseph Kindler, Assistant Professor of the Department of Cultural Studies, the talk delved into the complexities surrounding the terms “society” and “shehui” (社會) in the context of late modernist languages. Prof Barlow discussed how these terms, absent in earlier periods, were retrospectively applied by intellectuals to interpret the historical past, leading to anachronisms that require careful examination.

The event provided attendees with significant insights into the historical development of the concept of society in China and shed light on the underlying ideologies that have influenced our understanding of social structures.

Event Details:

Date: 16 Apr 2024 (Tue)

Time: 1:30 – 3:30pm

Venue: LKK102 (in-person only)

Language: English

ILP : 2 units in Intellectual and Entrepreneurship Development

Title: Writing a Material History of ‘Society’ in Modern China

Speaker: Prof. Tani Barlow, Visiting Distinguished Professor

George and Nancy Rupp Professor of Humanities and Professor of History, Rice University

Moderator: Prof. Benjamin Joseph KINDLER, Assistant Professor of Department of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University 


This talk explores difficulties I am encountering as I write a history of society.  The terms “society” and “shehui” (社會) appeared only in the late modernist languages of colloquial English and Chinese. Intellectuals, particularly progressives, immediately used these words to explain the historical past, even though language before the mid-19th century had neither the term society, nor a theory or assumption that society is where humans live. Thus, society/shehui are anachronisms: objects, society, placed in the wrong chronological time, projected back into a past that did not include these terms.  The emergence of new ways of thinking about how humans inhabit the world has been a preoccupation in all my work.  The Question of Woman in Chinese Feminism (2004) documented the historical shift from women as kin to women as a collective biological sex.  In the Event of Women (2021) outlined how theorists and activists installed woman in commercial society and prescribed political rights to that female subject.  Now, under the title The Material Life of Society, I am excavating how social science grounded a common reality.  After a century of theorization and practice, society has come to define our world.  Forgotten in this shift are the ideological dimensions of historical, social scientific theory and praxis.  I draw on nineteen issues of the visionary theoretical journal, Xin Shehui (新社會), to make my initial points;  Xin Shehui (新社會 was, for reasons that will become obvious, second only to New Youth (新青年) as the most influential May Fourth theory journal of the twenties.


Tani Barlow is George and Nancy Rupp Professor of Humanities and Professor of History at Rice University.  She is the author of In the Event of Women (Duke University Press, 2018), The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism (Duke University Press, 2004), and Inter/National Feminism and China, Ito Ruri and Kobayashi Eri, trans., (Tokyo: Ochanomizu Press, 2003) among many other publications. With Professor Chen Jing of Nanking University, she is co-founder of the Chinese Commercial Advertising Archive. Professor Barlow was awarded the Distinguished Editor Award in 2023 by the Council of Editors of Learned Journals of the Modern Languages Association for her work as founding senior editor of positions: asia critique.  She is currently working on a new book under the title The Material Life of Society.