Global imaginary Chinese

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Two or three days ago, I received the following call for papers:

"CFP The Chinese Script and its Global Imaginary" (H-Asia 10/7/15)

This is for a conference that will be held in New Zealand on April 1, 2016.  Perhaps they do not celebrate April Fools' Day in New Zealand.  Otherwise, I would have wondered whether this were some sort of hoax.

Here is the Call for Papers (CFP):

The Chinese script has been contradictorily associated with the identity and alterity of the Chinese people in intellectual and popular imaginations. Against the background of China’s “belated” transformation from a multilingual and multiethnic empire into a modern nation-state, the Chinese script was approached by intellectuals within and outside China as part of an anachronistic Confucian and imperial culture separating China from modern nationalism and global modernity. In today’s world, where China reinvents itself as a civilizational-national entity dreaming of an alternative global future, the Chinese script is recast as a possibly universal –– and yet neo-imperial ––medium on the cutting edge of literary-aesthetic innovations, popular cultures, and communication technologies that supersede cultural isolation and elitism. Yet cultural particularity continues to lurk behind the Chinese script, unfolding a global imaginary defined by an unyielding sense of foreignness and exoticism, while also problematizing the relative unity of mainland Chinese, diasporic Chinese and Sinophone communities. This new scene of cultural configurations on a global scale calls for our critical engagement.

This special issue of Frontiers of Literary Studies in China aims to trace the shapes of these configurations of cultures through mobilizing the Chinese script as a culturally particular, though potentially universal, medium of literary, artistic, and technological production. Submissions extending our understanding of the Chinese script from the written representations of Mandarin and non-Mandarin dialects and Sinitic languages to the interfaces of Chinese characters, pinyin, and Roman letters are welcome, as are essays analyzing the script’s practical and imaginative connections to various scriptive technologies in the past and in the present. This special issue tracks the genealogies and ramifications of the Chinese script in relation to premodern imperial regimes and neo-imperial, capitalistic technocultures, as well as exploring the role of writers, calligraphers, artisans, artists, designers, and cryptanalysts as old and new scriptive agents who practically and imaginatively work with the Chinese script.

Essays engaging with comparative, historical, and theoretical examinations of the Chinese script and its resonances in literature and film, visual and performance art, design and architecture from within and beyond Chinese cultural contexts are welcome.

Potential topics include but are not limited to:

  • Script reforms in China and non-western worlds
  • Script practices of premodern imperial and neo-imperial regimes
  • The concept of “ideography” in literatures, arts, and communication technologies
  • Uses of the Chinese script in mainland Chinese, diasporic Chinese, and Sinophone literatures and art
  • The hegemony of pinyin in relation to internet literature and the rise of Mandarin Chinese as a new lingua franca

It seems to me that they had to work really hard at this in order to ensure that outsiders would not comprehend what they are up to.  Someone observed that the CFP reads as though the organizers were trying to parody or satirize themselves.

My favorite phrase is "the hegemony of pinyin".  I really want to know more about that.

This CFP is more extreme in its postmodern jargon than Beyond Sinology: Chinese Writing and the Scripts of Culture by Andrea Bachner (Columbia University Press, 2014).

See the critical review by Mary Erbaugh in The Journal of Asian Studies, 74.1 (February 2015), 183-184.   An even more discerning review was published by Edward McDonald in MCLC (Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, The Ohio State University) Resource Center Publication (Copyright June 2014).

A waggish friend made this brilliant pun on the Chinese subtitle of Bachner's book, shuōwén xiězì 說文寫字 ("speaking of script and writing about characters"), which is itself a clever pun on Shuōwén jiězì 說文解字 ("An explanation of simple and compound graphs") (the title of the first dictionary of character construction [100 / 120 AD]), viz., tuōwén xièzì 脫文瀉字, which would mean something like "logographorrhea".

With the New Zealand CFP and Bachner's book, we may compare McDonald's own Learning Chinese, Turning Chinese:  Challenges to Becoming Sinophone in a Globalised World (Routledge,  2011), in which the author shows that, not only is he familiar with the latest theoretical approaches to Chinese language and literature, he is also well versed in Saussurean and other more traditional schools of linguistics

[Thanks to Tom Bartlett and Nick Kaldis]


  1. languagehat said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 8:47 am

    I've obviously read too much academic writing; that sounds perfectly normal to me (for academic writing — I'd never write that way myself, but I have the luxury of not writing for academic publishers, who presumably expect/demand such stuff). In particular, I see nothing odd about "the hegemony of pinyin"; surely the meaning is obvious if one knows the dictionary sense of "hegemony"?

  2. Brendan said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 10:02 am

    "Imaginary" as a noun is one of the things that never fails to snag my attention when I'm reading academic writing; ditto the use of "problematic" as a noun. Friends have assured me that these are completely different from "imagination" and "problem" as generally used in zee English. Personally, if we're going to have a specialized scholarly language that violates normal rules about word classes, I'd much rather use literary Sinitic, where this sort of thing feels a lot more natural.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 10:36 am

    Bless your sapient soul, Brendan!

    As for "the hegemony of pinyin", my colleagues who deal with the romanization of Sinitic languages every day are simply boggled by it.

  4. J. M. Unger said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 10:54 am

    Apart from the post-modernist cant, the first paragraph seems to be historically wrong. The idea of the modern nation-state China described in the second sentence seems to date from the days of Deng Xiaoping; the idea of Chinese script as a universal medium for literary-esthetic innovations goes back to the early 20th century.

  5. David L said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

    My first guess at imaginary-as-noun is that it ought to mean a cabinet of wonders: (For some reason my attempts at embedding urls in LLog comments don't work anymore).

  6. Adrian said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 12:54 pm

    The use of imaginary as a noun is baffling. The main dictionaries don't seem to accept it (except in maths), but searching "imaginary noun" in Google is somewhat more illuminating.

  7. leoboiko said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 1:39 pm

    @languagehat it sounds perfectly normal to me too (in fact I think I could probably present something in the conference, if I had the funding). I'm also utterly unbaffled by "imaginary" as noun. Perhaps it's because we both are used to literary studies (the kind of thing that goes on in "English" depts in the U.S., as opposed to the "linguistics" dept)?

  8. languagehat said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 2:59 pm

    Yes, I suspect so.

  9. Richard W said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 5:44 pm

    What I find baffling about the phrase "the hegemony of pinyin in relation to internet literature" is that it could potentially mean two things that I can think of, but neither of them makes sense. One is that Chinese internet literature is written predominantly in pinyin rather than hanzi. The other is that romanized words, when they are interspersed in internet literature (e.g. to disguise certain words that might attract the attention of censors) are predominantly written in pinyin rather than, say, Gwoyeu Romatzyh or Wade-Giles. The former isn't true, and the latter seems hardly remarkable enough to warrant discussion.

  10. Richard W said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 5:54 pm

    @Adrian ["The main dictionaries don't seem to accept it"]:
    I can't claim to be familiar with "imaginary" in the noun sense used in the CFP, but it is in the OED, defined as "An imagination; a fancy; something imagined. Freq. in pl." A citation from 1999 says "Such ‘imaginaries’ are crucial because they shape urban development patterns."

  11. David L said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 8:17 pm

    @Richard W: That's all very well, but how does it help me interpret "the Chinese script and its global imaginary"? The Chinese script has a global imagination? A fancy? Honestly, I have no idea what this is getting at.

  12. JS said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 8:32 pm

    Of course a bunch of words here, including imaginary (n.), occur frequently in literary studies (and related) prose, but not because they are technical vocabulary in the sense of facilitating analysis and communication by giving name to concepts and phenomena peculiar to that field. In place of trying to articulate precisely what these terms are, maybe we could simply reflect upon the evocative (provocative?) openendedness of phrases like "the Chinese script and its global imaginary"… how many different ways could this be glossed in language which a, um, linguist would understand; how many Western academics of (for example) Chinese origin would happily compose such a title in English but laugh uproariously at the idea of translating it into Chinese?

  13. JS said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 8:42 pm

    "The Chinese script has been contradictorily associated with the identity and alterity of the Chinese people in intellectual and popular imaginations."
    The natural assumption is that the writer feels "association with Chinese identity" and "association with Chinese alterity" are in some sense contradictory, but I don't see how. Or are the intellectual and popular imaginations being presented as contradictory? This seems unlikely. Or is it that the script is associated with "identity and alterity" (unitary idea) in a contradictory fashion which is either supposed to be obvious or later to be elucidated?

  14. AntC said,

    October 10, 2015 @ 11:25 pm

    @VHM Perhaps they do not celebrate April Fools' Day in New Zealand.

    Yes we do. The University of Otago is a well-respected institution, and has a large student population compared to the size of the City of Dunedin.

    The students are well known in NZ for their pranks. I wonder if this is one such?

  15. krogerfoot said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 6:10 am

    "Yet cultural particularity continues to lurk behind the Chinese script, unfolding a global imaginary defined by an unyielding sense of foreignness and exoticism, while also problematizing the relative unity of mainland Chinese, diasporic Chinese and Sinophone communities. This new scene of cultural configurations on a global scale calls for our critical engagement."

    Without problematizing the scene of cultural configurations overmuch, I have to admit that reading this call for papers has left me with an unyielding sense of having become particularly stupider than I was previously.

  16. Richard W said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 6:35 am

    @David L
    It's true. That brief definition in the OED doesn't shed much light on what "the global imaginary" means. I see now, though, that there is a Wikipedia article
    which goes into the topic a bit. But it's all new to me, and a bit hard to grasp.

  17. languagehat said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 8:18 am

    But it’s all new to me, and a bit hard to grasp.

    An excellent attitude, and one which I wish more people would adopt. Unfortunately, it's easier and thus more popular to simply mock that which is new to one, with the attitude "Since I, an intelligent person, don't understand this at first glance, it must be nonsense."

  18. Victor Mair said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 8:59 am

    I asked a number of colleagues in various fields what they thought of the prose of the CFP. Here are their unretouched comments (this is but a first batch; I will post others if they come in later):

    From a Sinologist (historian) with a background in Classical Studies:


    …[S]ome of the prose makes my skin crawl.

    It’s appalling gibberish.


    From a senior professor of Sinology:


    Chuckle! But one has to be careful because sometimes–not often–the jargon is saying something good.


    From an emeritus professor of English literature:


    It is barbarous, elaborately opaque, and self-indulgently vulgar.

    However, this ghastly prose is downright Shakespearean compared to the sort of thing that is taken for good professional writing among many of my most distinguished colleagues, as you will see from this attachment.*

    *VHM: I copy here four items collected by the emeritus professor, but omit several pages of other examples that he copied from the annual Incomprehensibility Award column in the Times Literary Supplement (he called the whole lot "Bad Writing"):

    Judith Butler, “Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time”

    The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulations of power.

    VHM: Butler invokes "hegemony" twice in this short passage, but I don't understand what she means by it in either case. I certainly do know the dictionary definition of "hegemony" — this is actually a fairly common term in the study of ancient Chinese history.


    Homi Bhaba, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse”

    If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.


    Steven Z. Levine, "Manet's Man Meets the Gleam of Her Gaze: A Psychoanalytic Novel," in Bradford Collins, ed., Twelve Views of Manet’s “Bar”

    As my story is an august tale of fathers and sons, real and imagined, the biography here will fitfully attend to the putative traces in Manet’s work of “les noms du père,” a Lacanian romance of the errant paternal phallus (“Les Non-dupes errent”), a revised Freudian novella of the inferential dynamic of paternity which annihilates (and hence enculturates) through the deferred introduction of the third term of insemination the phenomenologically irreducible dyad of the mother and child.


    Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Psychoanalysis in Left Field and Fieldworking: Examples to Fit the Title”

    The rememoration of the “present” as space is the possibility of the utopian imperative on no-(particular)-place, the metropolitan project that can supplement the post-colonial attempt at the impossible cathexis of place-bound history as the lost time of the spectator.



    So, even in English departments, there is good writing and there is bad writing. No matter where we encounter writing, we need to be able to differentiate between the two types. Good writing expresses information, thoughts, and opinions clearly; bad writing botches them. As several of the commenters to this post have demonstrated quite conclusively, it is impossible at many points in the CFP under discussion to discern precisely what the authors are saying. In other words, the writing fails to achieve its intended purpose, unless it were to obfuscate.

  19. JS said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 11:14 am

    No… folks here are certainly familiar with reading material they don't understand at all, let alone "at first glance" — I do it with regularity right here on LL.

    If the word hegemony is called for in this discussion, it's in reference to the frightening ascendance of such doublespeak in the academy (consider languagehat's impression that academic publishers "expect/demand such stuff") even (or especially) when concerning topics as fundamentally mundane as the above.

    What a tragic turn for a mode of discourse first (nominally) concerned with giving voice to the sufferers of hegemony.

  20. Francisco said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

    This reminds me of Alan Sokal's hoax of twenty years ago.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 2:06 pm

    From an emeritus professor of the history of Chinese science:

    How can you call that a style of writing? It seems to be a collection of slightly out-of-date buzzwords and cliches, with no evidence of coherent thought behind them. I haven't the slightest idea what "global imaginary" means, if anything.

    From a professor of medieval Japanese literature:

    I’m sorry, Victor, but whatever language this is in, I neither speak nor read it.

    Seriously, this is a great example of contemporary postmodern language that attempts to “complicate” the subject. It succeeds at that, and at excluding anyone who isn’t schooled in jargon (and overuse of the passive voice).

    From a professor of English and comparative literature:

    I'm jargon savvy, but this is trying so hard to sound theoretical that it sounds silly. If that's what you're asking, I totally agree. I've met XXX at comparative literature conferences, and I've personally found him a little silly. (I haven't read his work but I gather it's not bad.). I don't know the others.

    From a professor of anthropology and a professor of folklore writing jointly:

    We both agree that it is terribly "heavy"– heavy and pedantic to the point of being almost unintelligible at times. A good communicator doesn't make the reader keep rereading to try to figure out what is meant. More specifically, the syntax is very heavy with subordinate clauses, and the vocabulary heavy with lengthy, low-frequency terms (where a simple, high-frequency term would carry the meaning and lighten the reader's load).

    From an emeritus professor of Sinology:

    I am appalled at the "English" of the call for papers that you sent. You probably know what I think of scholars who compose such jargon-filled prose as "the Chinese script was approached by intellectuals within and outside China as part of an anachronistic Confucian and imperial culture separating China from modern nationalism and global modernity." I have no idea what this sentence means! I will send this to my good friend XXXXX who will be even more outraged than I.

    From a Shakespearean specialist and a well-known British author, writing jointly:

    Gadzooks! We didn’t know whether to laugh or weep. In any case, we will both be submitting essays forthwith!

    From a professor of early medieval Chinese history:

    The document turns me off with its opaque language and jargon, although I think the topics suggested at its end are fine.

    From a professor of medieval Chinese poetry:

    One can only shake one’s head and give a crooked smile at such beauties as “neo-imperial capitalist technocultures,” “civilizational-nationalistic entity dreaming of an alternative global future,” and “cryptanalysts…and scriptive agents.” I am almost inspired to submit an essay on a “theoretical examination of the Chinese script…beyond Chinese cultural contexts”??? if only I knew what that could mean.

    From a professor of English literature who is a specialist on Orientalism of the last three centuries:

    I’m of two minds about this CFP: certainly, the Western ignorance around script continues in popular forms today (and even scholarly ones). And I like the idea of bringing together linguist/sinologist specialists with cultural studies folks. I don’t know about the statement that “Chinese script is recast as a possibly universal…medium” given the ongoing alterity of the script.

    What is unspoken about this CFP is the perspective behind the ‘global imaginary,’ as it assumes a Western, Orientalist vantage point but does not name this speaking and reception position. I don’t read this CFP as explicitly saying that it wants to bring together western and non-western perspectives, or to create a dialogue between ancient and contemporary, etc. which seems implicit and would be worth bringing out. Another more targeted and transparent mode would be to address the question of orientalism directly, and perhaps the politicization and propagandistic appropriations. The CFP shies away from the language of cultural appropriation, though that seems to be a big, motivating factor.

    Here is a fascinating instance of neo-imperialism and resistance around the question of script (Arabic in this case):

  22. AntC said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 4:02 pm

    I've just noticed the point Script reforms in China and non-western worlds

    Is worlds some sort of academic coinage/contraction for regions or Whorfian script-influenced world-views or the like?

    Presumably it's to contrast with places/languages using Latin/Greek/Cyrillic/Semitic scripts(?) Do Sanskrit-derived scripts count as Western or non-? Put the linguistic question the other way: what's the term for a group of languages/countries using the same script?

  23. Richard W said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 5:13 pm

    I looked at the profile of the person named as the publisher of the CFP: Dr. Lorraine Wong, a lecturer at the University of Otago.

    Three things struck me in reading it:

    – The language in her profile is much more comprehensible to me than the CFP, although a phrase like "the Soviet Union’s campaign of anti-illiteracy in the 1920s" might be bettter expressed as "the Soviet Union’s literacy campaign of the 1920s".

    – Wong states that she has an interest in "Romanizations and Script Reforms in non-western worlds". But I am struck by the apparent contradiction between the notion of "the hegemony of pinyin" (in the CFP) and the statement in Wong's profile that the campaign to "replace Chinese characters with … the Latin alphabet … was ended by the new Chinese state in the 1950s".

    – In her teaching, Wong incorporates "special topics … such as urban and rural imaginations in Chinese literary discourses". I wonder if that is supposed to be "imaginaries". I am strongly reminded of the quote in the OED's entry for "imaginary": "Such ‘imaginaries’ are crucial because they shape urban development patterns."

  24. Victor Mair said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 6:28 pm

    @Richard W

    Thank you very much for giving us the profile of Lorraine Wong. It is actually quite sensible and readable. Indeed, it is something that I could happily endorse, and it makes me want to read both her first book and her forthcoming book. I suspect that someone else was responsible for the final form of the CFP.

  25. Richard W said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 6:59 pm

    Well, Wong's co-editor for the "Special Issue (Spring 2017) — The Chinese Script and its Global Imaginary" is named in the CFP as
    Jacob Edmond:

  26. Gavin Smith said,

    October 12, 2015 @ 6:13 am

    >Butler invokes "hegemony" twice in this short passage, but I don't understand what she means by it in either case.

    My guess is it is referring to the power of the upper classes over the lower classes. What I think she's saying is that people used to think that that class distinctions were a consequence of market forces, but now they think that class distinctions preceded market forces and capitalism, and capitalism was used by the upper classes to perpetuate power relations (in her words, "rearticulating" their power). I really struggled reading it, though, and I may be reading too much into it. One thing that she was vague about is whose views these are: what people changed their opinion – academics or the general population?

  27. Rodger C said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 8:52 am

    As a literary scholar, I'm all too familiar with "imaginary" as a noun; it's one of those Hideous Gallicisms that came in After My Time (though I'm not sure I haven't used it once or twice myself). As for "hegemony," my geezerly perception is that it has a Legitimate Meaning, derived from Gramsci, and a Hand-Waving Meaning uselessly synonymous with :"dominance."

  28. Kevin McCready said,

    October 17, 2015 @ 10:47 pm

    I hate pomo with a fierce intellectual disgust. Isn't it dying out? Is it taking longer down here at the end of the world? This reminisce may amuse.

  29. VeeLow said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 3:09 pm

    "(and overuse of the passive voice)"
    I'm going to politely suggest that when one's allies are also prone to this sort of objection, one needs to think carefully about the war one is fighting. Very much the same sort of people, in my experience, rant against INCOMPREHENSIBLE ACADEMIC WRITING and WEAK PASSIVE VOICE SENTENCES. And it does tend to be ranting. I'm with languagehat here, then.

    One exception: the following sentence

    Yet cultural particularity continues to lurk behind the Chinese script, unfolding a global imaginary defined by an unyielding sense of foreignness and exoticism, while also problematizing the relative unity of mainland Chinese, diasporic Chinese and Sinophone communities.

    is pretty bad: "….lurk…unfolding….problematizing"–some unfortunate choices here. Are we in a little allegory; if so, how ought Cultural Particularity be depicted in the painting; is (s)he really the agent here at all? Ironically, I'd argue that it's precisely the ACTIVE VERBS that get the writer in trouble, by "painting a vivid picture" where no such picture is called for!

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