The China Story Lexicon

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Use the selector above to navigate around The China Story Lexicon, or read about the rationale behind the Lexicon below:

The Narrative Arc

One of the challenges in discussing contemporary China, in academic or more public forums, is that we often find ourselves confronting the posture of the Chinese party-state. In China, there is an official view (or 'line') on just about every topic of public importance; one that the government expects Chinese citizens dutifully to echo. The official view is also tirelessly represented in the Chinese media, by officials, individuals and interest groups. In the international arena, this is often done through what we dub a ‘translated China’, that is talking points related to the official party-state view on all major, and numerous minor, issues crucial to an understanding of that country today that are presented as the 'objective', 'correct' and 'scientific', 'China-friendly' way of seeing things.

The overarching view of China follows a certain narrative arc that is generally familiar to people deeply engaged with the People's Republic as part of their work, whether as academics, diplomats, journalists and professionals from other fields, or students. It is an account of China that projects not so much greatness as the connected tale of the nation’s fall and rise. It typically begins with the decline in power, economic might, and unity of the Chinese world from the eighteenth century, continues with the century of humiliation (roughly 1840-1949) and accords a singular importance to the birth of a New China in 1949. Two acts of liberation (1949 and 1978) provide the highlights and the narrative culminates in the present with the ‘great renaissance of the Chinese nation’ (Zhonghua minzude weida fuxing 中华民族的伟大复兴), an epoch formally announced by Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin a decade ago and one repeatedly affirmed by General Secretary Hu Jintao, in particular on the occasion of the celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2009. Hu used the phrase again numerous times when he marked the centenary of the 1911 Xinhai Revolution on 9 October 2011.

This connected narrative has, more recently, coalesced into what is sometimes called The China Story (Zhongguode gushi 中国的故事). It accounts for a kind of ‘Chinese exceptionalism’ based on what are spoken as the country’s particular or unique national characteristics (guoqing 国情; for more on this and its background, see ‘Telling Chinese Stories’). In some instances it is summed up as ‘The China Model’ or 'Model China'. One of the crucial ways in which The China Story is told is through language, particular formulations, methods of argumentation, terms and concepts. Underpinning the public expression of the party-state's version of The China Story is what some writers call 'New China Newspeak'.

Cold War Paradigms

In essence, The China Story seeks to locate the People’s Republic of China since 1978 – the year that marked the decisive turn away from protracted class struggle toward economic policies that have created ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – firmly within the grand romantic narrative of Chinese communism. This story speaks to the history of the Communist Party in the context of national revolution and independence; it cleaves to Mao Zedong (and a panoply of lesser leaders) and uses the Chairman’s career, thought, and politics to lend authority to his successors, starting with Deng Xiaoping. Although this Communist Party-centric narrative may appear to many to be politically bankrupt in all but name, the appeal of an overarching existential rationale for the power-holders, and indeed for people of various backgrounds immersed in the carefully sculpted official account of China’s past, remains undiminished.

One of the most abiding legacies of the Maoist era (c.1949-1978), and one particularly attractive for its advocates regardless of their present political persuasion, is the paradigm of the Cold War. In the eternal present of Cold War attitudes and rhetoric the assembly of devices carefully cultivated during the era of class struggle is easily translated into the tensions between the People’s Republic of China and its neighbours as well as other developed nations today. The rhetorical landscape so comfortably traversed by the party-state and those in its thrall (from state think-tank apparatchiki and a swarm of left-leaning academics to semi-independent media writers) also feeds the competitive political and media grandstanding in any given stoush. Cold War rhetoric is a powerful tool for competitors on both sides, and it finds constant new expressions in China and internationally. It is essential to be mindful of the fact that Cold War discourse was the co-creation of competing ideologies and economic systems. Today, the habits of Cold War thinking and speaking persist more in the context of competing national interests.

In recent years, rhetorical clashes that replicate Cold War attitudes have revolved around such areas as: the nature of the one-party state, propaganda/PR, climate change, US arms sales to Taiwan, the valuation of the Renminbi, Internet freedom, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, human and labour rights, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, the events of 4 June 1989, democracy in Hong Kong, the status of Taiwan, ongoing disturbances in Tibet and Xinjiang, Falun Gong and even the performance of Chinese athletes on the international stage. In discussing and representing these issues – and here we are concerned with Chinese rhetoric, not the substantive matters involving different national and economic interests – the default position of the Chinese party-state remains that of the early Maoist days, when conspiracy theories, class struggle, and inflammatory rhetoric formed the backdrop to any official stance. We would also note that the rhetoric of those suspicious of all official Chinese acts and motives is often just as hidebound and unforgiving. Neo-Cold War warriors can be just as shrill as China's party-state.

A Lexicon of Chinese Stories

In reality, despite the efforts of Chinese officialdom to present a unitary China Story, the discussion about China both in and outside of China is anything but a monologue. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution era (c.1964-1978), voices of contention have been heard in China that provide alternative accounts of every imaginable topic. Since the advent of the Internet age, these voices have proliferated, and in many cases become more insistent, if not vociferous. Scholars of China, as well as journalists, diplomats and businesspeople along with their Chinese counterparts have also excelled in providing Chinese Stories that challenge the orthodoxy and enrich our understanding of what Lucien Pye famously said was ‘a civilization pretending to be a nation-state’. The China Story Project hopes to add to a nuanced and multidimensional engagement with the Chinese world that is in constant, lively, rancourous, often humorous, always feisty discussion about what China is, where it is going and how The China Story should be told, and heard.

The China Story Lexicon offers in-depth studies of key words (topics, concepts and issues) related to the contemporary representation of China/The People’s Republic of China. Each Lexicon item is discussed from various angles, including the official Chinese view, internal and external dissenting perspectives, international au courant representations of the issue, the state of international (predominantly Anglophone) scholarship and, where relevant, the background to the key word or topic under discussion.

Timelines, glossaries, biographies, bibliographies and sources are provided when relevant as part of what we hope will be a useful reference for specialists, generalists, writers, journalists, business people, travellers, students and diplomats alike.

At present the Lexicon is limited to a few terms: Human Rights 人权; The Internet 互联网; Labour 劳工; New China Newspeak 新华文体; Renminbi 人民币; and, Xinjiang 新疆. As new entries are posted, updates will be issued via our Twitter stream and Facebook page. You can also subscribe to our RSS feed.

Other Lexicons, Glossaries and Word Lists
China Heritage Quarterly: Glossary
China Digital Times: Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon
China Media Project: Media Dictionary
ChinaSMACK: Glossary of Internet Slang

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