On “Decontextualization” and “Recontextualization” in East Asian Cultural Interactions: Some Methodological Reflections

In the history of cultural interaction in East Asia, the phenomena of “decontextualization” and “recontextualization” can readily be observed in the exchanges of texts, people and ideas among the different regions. “Contextual turn” refers to processes of “decontextualization” where a text, person or idea is transmitted from its home country into another country where it is then “recontextualized” into that cultural environment. The present paper discusses methodological problems involved in the study of the phenomena of “decontextualization” and “recontextualization.” Section one introduces this paper. Section two then clarifies that “East Asia” is not an abstract term ranging over the countries of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, but rather refers to the dynamic, real process of concrete cultural interactions among these living countries. On the dramatic stage of these interactions, China plays the role of significant “Other” to the many other actors. China is certainly not the sole conductor of the symphony of East Asia. Section three shows that the methodology of “the history of ideas” can be used when studying these phenomena of “decontextualization.” But one can easily become ensnared in what I call “the blind spot of textualism.” Section four provides an analytical discussion of an effective methodology for studying “decontextualization:” such an activity would involve looking at the concrete exchange of texts, people, and ideas against a specific historical background, then highlighting the subjective “emotions” of the “intermediate agents” in these cultural exchanges as the agents navigate the processes of “decontextualization” and “recontextualization.” This paper concludes by stressing that East Asian cultural interactions are dynamic processes and not static structures. Therefore, in our study of the history of cultural interactions in East Asia we must seek the dynamic equilibrium between “textualism” and “contextualism” as well as between “fact” and “value” or “emotion.” Keywords: contextual turn, decontextualization, recontextualization, East Asia, China, the history of ideas, textualism, contextualism
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