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Mar 24: Persian Literati and Chinese Culture: Sinology for All?

Society of Fellows Lecture Series Spring’23

Persian Literati and Chinese Culture: Sinology for All? A Description of the Chinese Script from the Mongol Middle East

Date: March 24, 2023 (Friday) Time: 5:30PM Delivery: Room 4.04, 4/F, Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU

Details and registration: All are welcome. No registration required.

Speaker: Francesco Calzolaio, Fellow, Society of Fellows in the Humanities, HKU Moderator: Javier Cha, Department of History, HKU

Long before Marco Polo inspired European audiences to fantasize about mighty civilizations in the East, Islamic literati engaged in enthralling debates about the Chinese world. Set down in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, their writings offer a unique insight into the encounter between two major Asian civilizations before modernity. This talk demonstrates the cultural and historic import of the “Sinological” investigations of Islamic intellectuals through discussion of a case study: the description of the Chinese script by the Persian scholar Rashid al-Din (d. 1318). A prominent state official from the Mongol Middle East, Rashid al-Din used his position to launch pioneering investigations into Chinese civilization, introducing his contemporaries to countless facts that had never found their way West before. His discussion of the Chinese script is a case in point. Writing at a time when Chinese characters were an exotic entity, Rashid al-Din embarked on an exciting intellectual journey to unveil their nature and operation, eventually coming to a visionary conclusion: Chinese characters are an ideographic writing system that people speaking different tongues can use to communicate in writing. As such, they constitute a universal writing system; a veritable anti-Babel device, in effect, capable of remedying the difficulty encapsulated in the famous biblical myth.

Francesco Calzolaio is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at The University of Hong Kong, where he is also affiliated with the History Department. A global historian of Islam, Francesco investigates the long-interlocking history of the Islamic world and China, with a focus on how Islamic literati imagined, constructed, and understood the Chinese world. His research has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Journal of Early Modern History, Central Asiatic Journal, Iranian Studies, and Iran & The Caucasus, and he is currently working on a book project for Edinburgh University Press.

Javier Cha is a medievalist, digital historian, and technologist. His expertise includes Korean Neo-Confucianism, medieval literary criticism, patronage, and data-assisted historical methods. As the director of the Big Data Studies Lab, he examines data centres and the global telecommunications infrastructure in a manner comparable to how a book historian investigates medieval manuscripts and libraries. Cha has been active in the digital humanities community since 2008. He serves on the editorial boards of the International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing and Cursor Mundi, as well as the international nominations committee for Digital Humanities Awards.


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