Keywords in Contemporary China

2:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Room H

  • Organised by Beatrice Gallelli
  • Chaired by Marco Fumian
  • Beatrice Gallelli, “Jingshen 精神 (spirit): Moulding a Subjective Collectivity”
  • Adrian Krawczyk, “Ideology: Concepts of Ideology in Contemporary China”
  • Bettina Mottura, “Constitution 宪法 as a Keyword in Contemporary China”
  • Federico Picerni, “Worker: Silent as a Riddle”
  • Runya Qiaoan, “Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)”
  • Natalia Riva, “A Western-Born Concept’s Journey To The East: Ruanshili 软实力 (Soft Power) In Contemporary Chinese Discourse”

Keywords are those words that we use constantly. Yet, any attempt to provide a univocal definition to each of them ends up in a cul-de-sac, as the words themselves are “elements of the problems” they stand for (Williams, 2015: XXVII). Some may even be the site of fierce political struggles taking place with the ambition to fix their meanings (Laclau, 2005). This is the first of the two panels that bring together scholars from different disciplines to investigate the meanings and performativity of specific keywords in contemporary Chinese discourses. By doing so, each presentation will provide insights into the trajectories of values and ideas leading the construction of Chinese political, social, and cultural reality. While the two panels share the same goals, the presentations included in this first one pertains mostly China’s domestic politics; while the second has to do with China’s “going global”.
In this first panel, two presentations focus on issues that go back to the dawn of Chinese modernity. This is the case of Mottura’s study on xianfa 宪法 (Constitution), a keyword that can be traced back to the late Qing and the republican period, and Gallelli’s discussion on jingshen 精神 (spirit, essence), which concern the vexata quaestio on the relationship between modernisation and “traditions”. Others have to do with the more recent China’s communist-era: Krawczyk discusses the struggle over the meaning of yishixingtai 意识形态 (ideology) in official and intellectual discourses, while Picerni focuses on gongren 工人 (workers) analysing the identity impasse in migrant-workers’ poetry.
Combining perspectives from language, literature, media, and political studies, the panels set up an interdisciplinary dialogue aiming at unlocking the impressive political, cultural, and social changes that have occurred over the past decades in China.

Laclau, Ernesto. 2005. On Populist Reason. London/New York: Verso.
Sorace, Christian; Ivan Franceschini and Nicholas Loubere. 2019. Afterlives of Chinese Communism. Political Concepts from Mao to Xi. Acton: Australia National University Press.
Williams, Raymond. 2015. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Beatrice Gallelli, “Jingshen 精神 (spirit): Moulding a Subjective Collectivity”

“Spirit” is a term which has, at the same time, a precise, and vague meaning, that is contemporaneously practical and untouchable, subjective, and collective. In many societies, the term “spirit” is tightly bound to religion(s), if not completely obsolete. On the contrary, in China, jingshen 精神 (spirit, spiritual) is far from being out-of-date or sporadic: it has been a keyword in the debate on China’s path towards modernity since the turn of the 20th century. Jingshen has been a pivot in the discussion on how to build not only a strong Chinese State but also a solid Chinese nation. After 1949, it did not disappear, even though it was sometimes sidelined to give priority to other ideas and political matters.
Since 2012, soon after the 18th National Party Congress, jingshen has again gained a central position in the political debate. Defined by Xi Jinping as one of the main pillars to achieve the “Chinese dream,” jingshen plays a key role in the blueprint of China’s future.
What is this China’s jingshen of the 21st century? What are the meanings, connotations, and functions attached to it? This presentation will answer these questions and provide insights into the discursive construction of a Chinese jingshen in contemporary official discourse. It does so, by analysing Xi Jinping’s talks delivered between 2012 and 2019 in domestic contexts. This presentation will shed light on how a top-down discourse on jingshen attempts to mould a subjective collectivity based on cultural traits and revolutionary history, and which is able to go deeply into the individual sphere.

Adrian Krawczyk, “Ideology: Concepts of Ideology in Contemporary China”

“Ideology” has always served as a polemical concept in political struggles and at the same time is a key concept in the history of Marxism. Unsurprisingly, it is a highly contested term and a generally accepted definition does not exist. The official celebrations of the bicentennial of Karl Marx`s birth in China in 2018 demonstrated the ongoing significance of Marxism in China as a state ideology. But while one can draw on numerous studies of the shifting ideology of CCP leaders in the reform era and especially on the supposed “return of ideology” in recent years, not a single study deals with conflicts over the meaning of the term in China and their relation to official formulations. Therefore, my paper will focus on the work of influential contemporary scholars of ideology in order to clarify the complex relations of theories of ideology in the academic field and Chinese party orthodoxy. How do Marxist philosophers relate their research to the political reality in China? How do they conceptualise the relationship between the Marxian method as a critique of the ideology of capitalist societies with the urgent need for a new socialist ideology that fits the current state of Chinese society? And do they link the analysis of Western theories of ideology to the development of Chinese socialism and society in general? In answering these questions, my paper shall serve as a window into the highly controversial debates on Marxism and socialism in China.

Bettina Mottura, “Constitution 宪法 as a Keyword in Contemporary China”

Constitution 宪法 has been identified as one of the keywords of political and media discourses in China since the end of 2012 (Xinwen Zhongxin 2018). The importance accorded to the word in the last years aimed at reaffirming the centrality of the constitutional text in the country’s political life, thus building and negotiating the discursive framework in which the fifth amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 2018 and implemented (Mottura 2019).
This contribution will highlight how the contemporary use of the keyword contributes at reinforcing political stability and regime legitimacy in China, drawing on a corpus of speeches and documents, issued by the Chinese Communist Party or by state organs, and of official media texts. It will finally discuss that the function performed by Constitution as a keyword can be traced back to the late Qing and the republican period, thus demonstrating the persistence of its cultural relevance.

Mottura B. 2019. “Costituzione e discorso delle istituzioni in Cina oggi”. Nuovi Autoritarismi e Democrazie: Diritto, Istituzioni, Società vol. 2, pp. 93-108.
Xinwen Zhongxin 新闻中心. 2018. “2018 Niandu ‘Zhongguo Meiti Shi Da Liuxing Yu’ Zhengshi Fabu 2018年度‘中国媒体十大流行语’正式发布” (2018 ‘Top Ten Terms in the Chinese Media’ Officially Released). Beiyu Xinwen Wang 北语新闻网:

Federico Picerni, “Worker: Silent as a Riddle”

Today no less than in the past, “worker” is a central word for China. For a long time, the country has been called “the world’s workshop,” and the persistent importance of its industrial sector, although re-adjusting, cannot be underestimated. Furthermore, the ruling party, 70 years after its nationwide triumph, is still characterised by its constitution as the “vanguard of the working class.” Nevertheless, after 1978 and especially with the transition to a postsocialist system, the composition, role, and socio-political and cultural nature of workers have undergone tremendous changes, most notably with the formation of the ambiguous figure of “farmer-workers” 农民工. In this conceptual quagmire, the extremely interesting phenomenon of contemporary worker literature—distinct from “old” worker literature arisen during the 1950s—can offer a unique, significant perspective on what it means to be a “worker” today.
My paper, taking contemporary (migrant-)worker poetry as an expressive medium relevant both as a form of art and as social discourse, presents an analysis of the representation of the figure of worker in the oeuvre of some contemporary (migrant-)worker poets, I will focus on their relationship with the factory, the rupture, or continuity with “old” worker culture, and, of course, literature itself (with its implications as a medium for the subaltern voice). This literary understanding of the problem is framed within a larger dialogue with other perspectives, above all the philosophical and sociological discussion on the concept of “working class.”

Runya Qiaoan, “Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)”

Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) might be the most discussed and least defined buzzword of this decade. Since it was first advocated by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013, there has been a constant accusation of BRI: even Beijing does not have a clear and consistent definition of this concept, which makes the “the project of the century” even more mysterious and controversial. This study examines the representation of BRI discourse on Chinese semi-official social media. Through critical cultural discourse analysis of over 50 articles related to the Belt and Road Initiative on a People’s Daily affiliated Wechat public account, we notice two disparate periods denoting a dramatic shift of the meaning of BRI. In the first period (2014-2016), BRI is presented as a China-centered strategy aiming to solve domestic overproduction. In the second period (2017-2019), BRI is constructed into a cosmopolitan initiative to solve worldwide problems. The former aims to persuade the domestic audience and the latter aims to confront international denouncement. Such a shift reveals the fluidity of the BRI representation and it can be argued that the changes are not intrinsically driven; rather, it reflects China’s prompt response to international critics. Thus, this study goes further to assert that the BRI is an empty signifier in Laclau’s and Mouffe’s sense: while the name of BRI remains, any meanings ascribed to the name are contingent and context-dependent.

Natalia Riva, “A Western-Born Concept’s Journey To The East: Ruanshili 软实力 (Soft Power) In Contemporary Chinese Discourse”

In the 1990s, American scholar Joseph S. Nye introduced the theory of soft power as a new aspect of world politics in the post-Cold War era. With culture, political values, and foreign policies as its resource base, “soft power” became a keyword in the realm of international relations discourse.
In China, the theory quickly made its first appearance in intellectual circles. It then gradually penetrated the policy-making and leadership levels and finally became part of the country’s national strategy. Nowadays, debates on soft power are extremely popular in a variety of disciplines among Chinese officials and scholars as well as on the mainstream media.
This paper addresses soft power—ruanshili 软实力—as a keyword of contemporary China. Based on the examination of relevant Chinese leaders’ speeches and a sample of journal and newspaper articles drawn from the CNKI database, it analyses the language used in relation to ruanshili since entering the Chinese discourse.
The analysis aims to reconstruct the journey of ruanshili in the Chinese context, discussing its historical background, process of study and evolution, formalisation, and popularisation. To this end, the formulation “tigao guojia wenhua ruanshili 提高国家文化软实力” (enhance the country’s cultural soft power), officially sanctioned by Hu Jintao in 2007, is examined from different angles (e.g. conceptual, terminological, discursive etc.), with a particular focus on the reinterpretation of ruanshili as wenhua ruanshili 文化软实力 (cultural soft power). This shift and the reasons behind it signal the originality and wider breadth of China’s approach to soft power in which the appeal generated by culture represents the core.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room H