Reviewed by: Society for East Asian Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students
Primary Theme: Identity and Equity
Secondary Theme: Inclusivity
What does it entail to talk about race, ethnicity or otherness in China? More broadly, how are the languages of sociocultural difference adapted and re-valenced to signify effectively in distinct sociopolitical contexts? This roundtable delves into concepts that organize, recognize and divide social groups in Chinese perceptions, capturing these conceptual specificities through key terminologies such as – minzu (people), buluo (tribe), zuqun (ethnic group), minsu (folk). Taking seriously the historically-inflected social lives of such constructs, we resist subjecting them to the search for clean commensurability that has often marked the lexical interplay between Chinese and English. China’s “Open Door” Policy since the 1980s allowed for Western popular and academic terms to spill into daily usage in myriad social contexts. Yet as these terms travel across domains, they take on different meanings, adapting to local conventions and worldviews. What forms of power and resilience have been at work either in striving for translational fidelity or in proliferating meanings? As the concept of indigeneity gained currency in Western political theorizing, for instance, its counterpart - perhaps yuanshengtai - burgeoned in China, bundled with a whole range of its own connotations encompassing historic continuity, cultural purity, environmental sensibility. While “race” has global referentiality largely inflected by histories of colonialism, some aver that no comparable category exists in China, that the standard gloss, “zhongzu,” veers into depoliticized zones of difference not freighted by legacies of oppression. Might this shift with China’s intensified presence in Africa? Meanwhile, “tribe” and its standard gloss "bulou" have become highly marketized, implicated in branding cultural products through refashioning the term to signal desirability not denigration. Indeed, in China, the field of anthropology itself bifurcates: “renleixue” technically translates as “anthropology,” but is idiomatically deployed in Chinese institutional practice; “minzuxue,” (studies of non-Han minorities) historically was glossed as “ethnology,” but increasingly resembles contemporary American ethnic studies while retaining Communist undertones. Academic theory is, moreover, not fused with English, but reflects coinages from French, Russian, etc. What are the lived social outcomes of such scenarios of slippage? What are the possibilities for a decolonized interlingual engagement in which we pursue communication across conceptual divides without imposing orthodoxies? As China reconfigures its place in changing geopolitics, will Chinese meaning-makers themselves resist linguistic colonization, perhaps by “de-translating” terms not readily adaptable to English?
Following the World Anthropologies initiative of AAA, our roundtable will elicit a generative dialogue capturing the ongoing disjunctions that confound attempts at cross-cultural exchange and supranational integration of our discipline. Encountering migrating terms in all their potential alterity, we emphasize generative gaps and creative convergences produced when the languages of anthropology, culture and human difference flow between Chinese and English. Participants from the U.S., China and Hong Kong will actively engage attendees in exchanging ethnographic vignettes, folk usages, and official discourses. We assume that such concepts are not stable, but rather morph in meaning as they move across social tiers, institutions and regions. Hence our exchange aims to retain heterogeneity and employ it to gain distinct lenses on China in transformation.