Sinkwan Cheng
ifk Senior Fellow

Duration of fellowship
01. March 2021 bis 30. June 2021

Translation, Concepts of “Right,” and the Opium Wars: Beyond Postcolonial Historiography and a New World History


Sinkwan Cheng’s project demonstrates how Chinese translations of “right” in Western law, politics, and philosophy—translations linked to the Opium Wars—could shed new light on “right” in world history. Existing scholarship on the two key Chinese translations of “right”—li (moral reason) and quanli (power and profit)—has stopped short of calling them “mistranslations.” Cheng, by contrast, uses these translations to draw out the “subjective turn of right” around the time of the Spanish Conquest, when the meaning of “right” changed increasingly from “rectitude” to “entitlement.” Li resembles the early meaning of “right,” whereas quanli captures the new semantics of “right” as facultas/potestas (power) and dominium (property). Using lallows us to tap into an earlier Western meaning of “right,” which has been increasingly repressed since the advent of European capitalism and imperialism. Moreover, the “mistranslations” stand as the truth of the Subject’s message being returned from the Other in inverted form (Lacan). Sinkwan Cheng uses the Chinese “mistranslations” to capture certain truths about the Master which he cannot access on his own.


Sinkwan Cheng has been awarded 13 (inter)national ​fellowships and grants, including a European Institute for Advanced Study Senior Fellowship, a Rockefeller Fellowship, a DAAD Fellowship, and two additional IAS Fellowships in Poland and the UK. Together with Samuel Moyn, David Armitage, and Michael Freeden, she serves on the International Editorial Board of Global Intellectual History and has reviewed fellowship applications for the European Institutes for Advanced Stud​y and the French Institutes for Advanced Study. She has held ​faculty seminars and ​lectures in the US, the UK, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland, China, South Korea, Macau, and Hong Kong.


“Conceptual History, the Will to Power, and a New Politics of Translation,” in: Global Intellectual History, published online 2019, print forthcoming in the special issue Interdisciplinarity and Methodological Pluralism: The Practice of Intellectual History and Conceptual History; “Aristotle, Confucius, and a New ‘Right’ to Connect China to the West: What Concepts of ‘Self’ and ‘Right’ We Might Have without the Christian Notion of Original Sin?,” in: Ingolf U. Dalferth (ed.), Self or No-Self? The Debate about Selflessness and the Sense of Self, Tübingen 2017; (ed.), Law, Justice, and Power: Between Reason and Will, Stanford 2004.

03 May 2021
18:15 - 20:00
  • Lecture
Sinkwan Cheng

Western Tools with Chinese Characteristics: Localization as a Translation Strategy and China’s Quest for An Alternative Modernity

“Western tools with Chinese characteristics” sums up the predominant Chinese approach to western ideologies ever since China was inexorably drawn into global history in the 19th century by imperialism and capitalism. Long before Deng Xiaoping’s “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,”Chinese receptions of western ideas had already focused on sinicizing western ideas to prevent China from being  subsumed and subjugated by the world order created by western hegemonic powers. One such practice was the Chinese intellectuals and statesmen’s localization/sinicization strategy as they translated western ideas into China to jump start the country’s modernization.