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A discussion of the concept of “feudal”

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image of Frontiers of History in China

The Western terms “feudal” and “feudalism” have been widely and improperly translated as “fengjian” in contemporary China. The early Western Sinologists and Chinese scholars, including Yan Fu, did not originally make such a translation. Yan initially transliterated the term “feudalism” as fute zhi in his early translations. It was not until the 20th century, when Western classical evolutionism found its way into China, that “feudalism” was reduced to an abstrac t concept, and the Western European model was generalized as a framework for understanding development in China and the whole world. Only then did Yan Fu first equate “feudalism” with “fengjian,” and China was believed to have experienced a “feudal society” in the same sense as Europe. From the perspective of intellectual history, using evidential and theoretical analyses, this article attempts to show that feudalism was a historical product in the development of Western Europe and existed only in Europe, “fengjian” is a system appropriate only in discussions of pre-Qin China, and China from the Qin to the Qing experienced instead a system of imperial autocracy. The medieval periods in the West and in China evidence widely divergent social forms and hence should not be confused with the same label.


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