Redesigning Area Studies

Area studies are going through a period of reform. Asian studies scholars have suggested new theoretical and methodological approaches as a response to globalisation (e.g. Barmé 2005, Zimmermann 2005, Pollock 2009, Guiheux 2010, Lie 2012, Davis 2015, Zimmermann & Sartoretti 2012, Zimmermann 2015). In the People's Republic of China, a country driven by rapid economic development, institutions attached to the Ministry of Education, such as the universities and the Confucius Institutes network, are becoming increasingly involved in academic activities under the label of the “new sinology” (新汉学).

As part of its contribution to current academic debates, the Confucius Institute has initiated a series of research projects on the anthropology of innovation, with a focus on the study of everyday technical objects.

We believe that mundane technological tools, which are at the core of globalization processes, need to be studied from the perspective of humanities, i.e. with similar methods that humanists use to study physical objects such as literary texts, paintings, sculptures, or movies. Asian studies have studied science and technology for a long time, however, very few scholars focus on today’s new technical devices and a large scope of empirical research is missing.  

The Waves and Forms project is an attempt to develop a new ontology for area studies involving ethnographic work on electronic music, social networking sites, and computer encodings in contemporary China and the Middle East. The CHIPOMAP project focuses on the technical evolution of the software powering a digital pollution map developed by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Beijing and sinology research on digital objects. The IMGAME project involves the design of new software for a sociological experiment known as the Imitation Game, which measures and records cultural differences between groups of migrants and urban residents in the Beijing municipality. CCHAT is investigating the paradigmatic shift in the study of cultural heritage and religious narratives through discourse analysis based on the ethnography of Muslim tombs in the south of China. KPMart is addressing how body movements can be conceptualised as embodied knowledge and how they are produced and circulated within the context of Chinese martial arts. Other connected projects, affiliated to the Institute, are LOCUS, an analysis of the use of online tools by a Syrian community with a focus on conflict issues in a digital environment, and CERTIFY, a research project in information systems that develops a software to fight fake news related to people's daily life in Europe and in the Middle East.

In parallel, the Confucius Institute has launched a dedicated research programme on Chinese teaching that looks into issues of lexicon morphology, error analysis, teacher training, and literary translation.


Barmé, G. R. “On New Sinology”. Chinese Studies Association of Australia Newsletter, Issue No. 3, 2005.

Barmé, G. R. "Worrying China & New Sinology". China Heritage Quarterly, 2008.

Davis, D. R. “Three Principles for an Asian Humanities: Care First. Learn from. Connect Histories”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 74-1, 43-67, 2015.

Guiheux, G. "Présence de la Chine et avenir des études chinoises". Etudes chinoises, Hors-série, 11-23, 2010.

Lie, J. “Asian Studies/Global Studies: Transcending Area Studies and Social Sciences”. Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, 2, e-journal, 2012.

Pollock, S. "Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World". Critical Inquiry, 35.4, pp. 931-961, 2009.

Zimmermann, B. "Technology is Culture: Two Paradigms". In Leonardo Music Journal, 15.1, pp. 53-57, 2005.

Zimmermann, B., & Sartoretti, N. "La Chine aujourd'hui: Techniques d'analyse du présent". Asiatische Studien / Études Asiatiques, 66(1), 163-187, 2012.

Zimmermann B. Waves and Forms: Electronic Music Devices and Computer Encodings in China. Inside Technology Series. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2015.

Zimmermann B. Humanités Populaires. La culture des objets. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2023.