“Knowledge Is My Immediate Research Object” – Interview with Yufei Zhou

We regularly introduce scholars that work in the project by letting them answer three short questions. Today, we talk to Yufei Zhou who is a historian of modern Japanese thought and global intellectual history. She specializes in entanglements between Europe and East Asia, with a focus on the transplantation of modern social scientific concepts, institutions, and theoretical paradigms. She has published articles on the Marxist discourse in prewar Japan and on the entanglement of Japanese leftists into European revolutionary circles.

From 2018 to 2019, Yufei Zhou was an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Letters, Osaka University. She was also a member of its research unit “Cluster for Global Japanese Studies.” In 2019, she started working as a research fellow at the German Institute for Japanese Studies Tokyo (DIJ) in the project “Interaction and Knowledge in the Pacific Region: Entanglements and Disentanglements,” which is part of the Max Weber Foundation’s large-scale research project “Wissen entgrenzen.” Her main areas of interest are East Asian Intellectual History, Modern Social Sciences in East Asia, the Intellectual Entanglement of Europe and Asia as well as Conceptual History and Global Intellectual History.

What will you be working on while being involved with the “Knowledge Unbound” project and what did you work on before?

I participate in the “Wissen entgrenzen” project through the sub-project “Imagining ‘Capitalism’ in East Asia in the Early Twentieth Century.” This sub-project seeks to portray the routes through which East Asian intellectuals embraced the concept of capitalism, with its variety of descriptions and interpretations, against the background of the transnational entanglements of social scientific knowledge at the turn of the twentieth century.

Before I joined the “Wissen entgrenzen” project, I focused on the transcontinental interconnectedness of leftwing intellectuals in Japan, China, and Europe, during the prewar and wartime periods. My doctoral project, “Karl August Wittfogel and East Asia: Intermediaries, Translations and Networks (1926-1945),” is a micro-level empirical study that historically reconstructs the process by which the Marxist historiography of Asiatic society was localized in Japan and China, and empirically analyzes how East Asian intellectuals transformed it into a mobilized ideological propaganda. My doctoral project was innovative in that it treats the localization of Marxian social scientific knowledge in Japan and China as two deeply interconnected processes, and brings to light the multi-directional interactions of leftists in Japan, China, and Europe (including the Soviet Union).

What role does the concept of “knowledge” play in your own research?

As a historian specializing in the history of social sciences and social thoughts, knowledge is my immediate research object. However, knowledge has a variety of forms, ranging from tacit knowledge, hands-on practical knowledge, and social knowledge to highly professionalized scientific knowledge. Furthermore, studies of knowledge differ significantly in their interests, perspectives, and approaches, according to different research contexts. I chiefly deal with professionalized and institutionalized knowledge on society. However, instead of focusing on the theoretical advancement of sociology or economics, I am more interested in how the normative social theories transcended different historically and socio-economically defined spaces. It is generally acknowledged that modern social scientific knowledge, which sought to grasp the patterns and regularities beneath the surface of social phenomena, was invented in nineteenth-century Europe. It spread rapidly in East Asia at the turn of the twentieth century, when the region was increasingly integrated into the global capitalist economy. East Asian intellectuals – mostly university professors, government bureaucrats, and other highly educated agencies – actively toured in Europe and the United States. In metropolitan cities such as Berlin, Vienna, and New York, they often constructed transnational networks, comprising not only local scholars and their compatriots, but also intellectuals and activists from other countries and professions. My aim is to explore the undocumented dynamic interactions of multi-national actors, and to investigate the extent to which these encounters, entanglements, and exchanges affected the process of knowledge production in different knowledge orders.

Have there been any surprising moments in your research recently?

As I was seeking to trace the early phase of how people in Japan first encountered the concept of “capitalism,” I discovered that the most widely circulated scholarly treatments of the concept did not necessarily come from the “great thinkers” that are still widely read today (e. g. Marx or Weber). These initial advocates, who have since faded into obscurity either due to the obsolescence of their theories or to their denounced political stands, often played a surprisingly influential role in a knowledge order other than their own. The same is true for the importation of Rankean historiography in East Asia: the local practices of Ludwig Riß and the introductory writings of Ernst Bernheim had a much more significant impact in shaping Japan’s and China’s modern disciplines of historical science than Ranke’s own works.

Knowledge transfer is never a rectilinear process. Behind the grand narratives of “knowledge flow” from power centers to peripheries, innumerable surprises, contingencies, and unexpected facts await exploration. It is both challenging and exciting to explore the dynamics of the multi-faceted process of knowledge transfer by empirically studying the networks and practices of the intermediaries of knowledge, and tracing the logic of their actions.


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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