Mao’s Reflective Encounter’s begins with three challenges that comparative rhetoric as defined by Kennedy faces: temptation of resorting to the defiency mode, identifying “rhetorical universals” across cultures and imposing principles from Western classical rhetoric onto other cultural rhetorical practices. Mao offers a brief history of comparative rhetoric as subdiscipline in our field and fleshes out the advances that have thus far been made as well as the Orientalist perspectives that have often resulted. Mao suggests taking an emic-etic approach to produce “reflective encounters,” which puts rhetorical traditions/practices into conversation to see how they can learn from each other. Mao explains that contrastive rhetorics by and large studies ESL and EFL rather than individual rhetorical tradition and practices on their own terms. He asks: how should we understand, study, and compare various rhetorical traditions and practices without resorting to the defiency model or forcing Western principles to unique rhetorical traditions so they fit within Western conceptions of rhetoric. Mao begins by analyzing whether or not Robert Olivers succeeds in studying Indian and Chinese rhetorics on their own terms as he proclaimed we must do and set out do in his seminal work in comparative rhetoric. Mao claims that Oliver does and does not succeed. Problematic are the ways in which Oliver relies on unreliable sources, makes unwarranted general or stereotypical conclusions, makes misinterpretations because of his reliance on translated materials, as well as his failure to look at Chinese and Indian rhetoric on their own terms.
Mao also discusses the work Carolyn Matalene, who in conducting an early study of Chinese rhetoric, resorts to binary characterizations and the deficiency model, which result in part from not considering other social, cultural, and linguistic forces that shaped Chinese rhetorical practices she was studying. Mao also faults the scholarship of John Morrison, which claims Japanese lack a rhetorical tradition, for implying there is only one rhetorical tradition, the western one, and for a lack of primary research. Carl Becker’s work is also problematic in Mao’s eyes because in using negative correlation as a methodology, Becker focuses on what is absent rather then what is present in Chinese rhetorical traditions, which Mao claims reflects not only a bias but also an Orientalist logic at work in Becker’s scholarship. Mao defines Orientalist logic as using “Western systems of thought or norms to adjudicate or to make value-laden judgments about rhetorical traditions in the East, without making any effort to reflect upon their own systems or norms or to search for interpretive norms or categories that inform these Eastern traditions” (409). Mao also claims that Kennedy’s work operates by an Orientalist logic that sparks rhetorical Darwinism in Kennedy’s work as well as the consistent use of Western rhetorical concepts to make sense of so called non-Western rhetorical practices.
Drawing on the work of J. Vernon Jenson, Mao demonstrates how comparative rhetoric can operate outside an Orientalist logic if scholars do not use Western rhetorical concepts as only “points of reference or origin and that insists on reflective encounters” (412). Reflective Encounters demand “critical interrogation and informed contextualization” (412). Mao cites Mary Garrett’s work as example that does this important work on ancient Chinese rhetorics to prove that argumentation played a role in the Chinese rhetorical tradition and accomplished various rhetorical and political objectives. Mao reminds readers that motivating forces behind comparative work is to not only better understand Western rhetoric but also to redefine and enrich it through comparison with other rhetorical traditions operating in different contexts (413). Perhaps one of the strongest points made by Mao is that in comparative rhetoric, “the point of origin can be non-Western…and…tools for crosscultural comparisons can be based on non-Western terms or concepts” (414). Using Lu as an example, Mao also reminds us that we need to study original texts rather than rely on translations to identify rhetorical practices that have often been overlooked. Mao claims Lu effectively models how to conduct contextual analysis; describe non-Western rhetorical practices by using their own terms and concepts which do not already exist; identify how non-Western cultures conceputalized rhetoric and put it to practice; and investigate multicultural rhetorics, which are simultaneously both local and global (415). Mao does not simply praise Lu, however. Mao claims that any move toward identifying universal rhetorics is risky, unappealing, and idealistic because that move demands extensive knoweldge across rhetoridal traditions, which there is far to less work on to be able to do it well. Mao discourages the temptation to characterize different rhetorical traditions in dichotomous terms, which in turn causes various concerns.
Instead, he suggests to take an etic/emic approach, and more specifically an emic approach if we want to study rhetorical traditions on their own terms. An emic approach describes elements that are already components of a rhetorical tradition and focuses our attention on materials and conditions that are embedded in these traditions. Mao acknowledges, however, that we are always located outside our object of study in time and place so that there is always pressure to use concepts from the here and now to describe an Other rhetorical tradition. As long as we avoid Orientalist logic, attempt emic accounts, and practice self-interrogation, we can practice comparative rhetoric ethically. Mao concludes that an etic/emic approach produces reflective encounters, which results when we both study a non-Western rhetorical tradition on its own terms and develop on ongoing dialogue between these rhetorical traditions and Western ones. We must again interrogate our own dominant traditions, dominant positions, and well meaning representations of the other. Interestingly, Mao notes that those scholars native to a non-western rhetorical tradition do not necessarily offer more authentic accounts of their own rhetorical traditions because “studying (one’s own0 rhetorical and cultural experiences is always a process of recontextualization, no matter how intimate they are with these experiences” (418). In order to avoid resorting to Occidentalism, they too need to employ reflective encounters, which “renounce domination, adjudication, and assimilation, and…nurture tolerance, vagueness, and heteroglossia” (418).