The Vocabulary of Anthropology in China
Programmatic and an example

Stevan Harrell
Department of Anthropology
University of Washington

A Report (not yet a Paper)
Presented at the
Annual Meetings of the
American Ethnological Society
March 8, 1997

Please do not cite or quote without permission.

I often remark to graduate students in anthropology, and not entirely facetiously, that the way to make a name for yourself in our pre- or non-paradigmatic science is to name something else, to invent a term. Having done the thickest ethnographic description in the world pales in importance before having first used the word "liminality" or "traveling theory" or even "thick description." A term has to stick, of course, and one can be judged to have had one's term stick when it gets cited in a tertiary mode, particularly if it earns the classifier "notion," or even better, "concept" as in "Jo Schmo uses Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital to look at..." Here Jo Schmo has done all right, but Pierre Bourdieu has arrived. In other words, a case can be made that our discipline, our discourse, revolves around vocabulary.
It can be argued, and in fact is in an increasing number of publications, that the current crisis of anthropology is embodied in the realization that theories developed in the metropole are inherently prejudicial to practice that begins to emanate from the periphery. Anthropology is tainted with colonial and neo-colonial aims, personnel, and theoretical arguments. I think this is true, and I think that the survival of the discipline in the next fifty years probably depends on our being able to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question of whether our discourse is inherently colonial or Eurocentric, and thus will pass with the passing of the colonial and Eurocentric world order just as scholasticism passed with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, or lixue passed with the wusi yundong, or whether we can develop a multilateral or decentered discourse that will still speak to important questions in the world order of our grandchildren.
But if, as I suggested a minute ago, our discipline revolves around vocabulary, then we can focus the above question a bit more narrowly upon one of its aspects--the aspect of vocabulary. We know, of course, that in the early years of anthropology (say until the 1960s), the vocabulary of our discipline was overwhelmingly English language vocabulary (with a considerable dollop of French thrown in, and a tiny pinch of German), even when the practitioners were natives of the countries that usually formed the object of anthropological research (even Jomo Kenyatta used English to write Facing Mount Kenya, and certainly Talal Asad used English to write and edit Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter). But there have been exceptions from early on, and these exceptions increase as various former object countries develop anthropological discourses of their own. The questions we need to ask, however, about vocabulary, concern the derivation and nature of the terms used to discuss anthropological questions in various languages. Are the terms used translations of terms from the English-language discourse (or even borrowings directly from it, as in so many articles in Taiwan's Minzusuo Yanjiu Jikan)? If so, how well do they resonate with their linguistic environment, which we can assume in most cases to be the elite, intellectual discourse in their various communities? Are there differences between the ordinary use of the terms and their anthropological use? Do they introduce concepts that are alien to, or somehow don't seem to fit with, the conceptual universe, the ordinary intellectual vocabulary, commonly used in that language? Do they force anthropologists working in that language to use concepts alien to that broader intellectual community, and if so does this alienate the anthropologists from that community, or make their writings inaccessible to others outside the discipline?
Or perhaps we are being too negative here. Perhaps borrowed and/or translated vocabulary can be turned to appropriately native ends, and borrowed or translated terms can be turned to more native referents, shedding new light on local phenomena.
Or there is still another possibility to consider: have anthropologists in countries outside the Euro-American metropole been able to develop their own vocabulary, relatively free from the influence of Euro-American anthropology, in order to elucidate phenomena that, according to their judgement, are not reached or not precisely delineated by borrowed or translated English terms? How well has this vocabulary fared? How much do non-metropolitan anthropologists need--what mix between borrowed or translated terms and native ones?
Having laid out some of the questions to be addressed in this project, I want to examine the case of anthropological vocabulary in China. But to do so, I have to first mention that for China (and also Vietnam) the Euro-American metropole has not been the only one exporting theories (and in the context of this paper, vocabulary) to the periphery, or at least not the only one exporting them directly. Parallel with China's importation of various kinds of bourgeois Euro-American theory beginning with Cai Yuanpei's call for minzuxue in the 1920s China had also been importing a different canon, that of revolutionary Marxist social analysis. The revolution of 1949 forced Chinese anthropologists or ethnologists (few of whom had originally had much sympathy with Marxism, though many supported the revolution for humanitarian reasons) to begin absorbing that other vocabulary, the words of the alternative, non-bourgeois ethnology that had been developed in the Soviet Union under Stalin. The same questions can be asked, mutatis mutandis, about China's importation of this vocabulary (whose immediate source language is, of course, Russian rather than English) as can be asked about the importation of Euro-American vocabulary: to what extent does it fit or not, and within the general revolutionary Marxist discourse, has native vocabulary emerged, and in what sort of mix with translated or borrowed terms?
To deal adequately with these questions would require more research time than I have had lately, and more presentation time than that given us, mercifully, by the AES. So today I will just lay out a few specific areas that need to be investigated in detail, and then present my thoughts on one of them.
First, why and how were traditional Chinese ethnological concepts abandoned in the early 20th century? Beginning with the Xinan Yi Liezhuan of the Shi Ji in the second century B.C.E., and continuing into the mid-Qing period, Chinese officials and scholars wrote accounts of the peoples on China's peripheries. These were not merely descriptive, but also employed generalizing theoretical concepts, such as the difference between sheng and shu (beyond and within the influence of civilization, an idea similar to those embodied in the cultural evolutionism of both the bourgeois and Marxist discourses), the general process of guihua, or assimilation, and how it worked, and a kind of ecological determinism, similar to that employed by late 19th-century Euro-American theorists, correlating certain types of character and morals with farming, herding, and other subsistence pursuits. Yet when we find anthropology emerging in China in the 1920s, the leaders all attached themselves to one or another school of European origin, such as German Kulturkreislehre or, as Professor Liu demonstrates in his paper today, British Social Anthropology's structural functionalism. Why, in developing an anthropological discourse of their own, did Chinese scholars reject traditional concepts almost entirely, and take up imported ones, rather than developing a synthesis? Why do we find, for example, in the works of Fei Xiaotong described below, much use of traditional aphorisms to describe specific phenomena, but not the use of traditional theoretical terms or synthesizing categories?
Second, was Mao Zedong's greatly touted "sinification of Marxism" really a move toward a Marxist version of such a synthesis, or even of a native anthropological discourse, albeit an applied one? It is well known that Mao, when he wrote some of his early works such as Zhongguo Shehui Ge Jieji de Fenxi in 1926, and the scarily magnificent Hunan Nongmin Yundong Kaocha Baogao in 1927, was not well acquainted even with what Marxist theory and terminology were available in Chinese (he never learned any other language) at the time, and that the Hunan report was considered quite unorthodox by his comrades. In addition, by the time he wrote his famous "liberal" pieces of 1956 and 1957, Lun Shi Da Guanxi and Guanyu Zhengque Chuli Renmin Neibu Maodun de Wenti, he was dissatisfied with orthodoxy, particularly imported orthodoxy, for other reasons. An analysis of the language in these pieces, which I had hoped to be able to present today but simply did not have time to complete, would provide an idea of whether and how China might have developed an indigenous Marxist anthropological vocabulary.
Third, to what extent has Chinese anthropological vocabulary, imported, borrowed, translated or otherwise, affected the discourse on minority peoples and on ethnic differences in today's China? It seems to me that if Chinese anthropological vocabulary is derivative from Western and Russian languages, then any discourse about minority peoples must subject the discourse about those to a double-layered linguistic removal from fact, being forced to use Chinese language terms that themselves have been borrowed or translated, and to use them to describe a reality that is understood by its participants in a language unrelated to Chinese (because no language is closely related to Chinese). In a few cases of ethnology written in the minority languages, the terms themselves are borrowed twice, or perhaps translated and then borrowed or translated twice (I don't think they would be borrowed and then translated, but I may be wrong). Reflection on this question would allow us to mix the syntagm of two-layered colonial influence with the paradigm comparing Chinese discourses about minorities either to cosmopolitan discourses about China or to discourses about minority peoples (such as Native Americans) in the metropolitan countries.
All these topics would have to be included in a comprehensive treatment of Chinese anthropological vocabulary, but today I want to concentrate on a fourth one, on what I see as, with the possible exception of some of Mao's early unorthodox writings, the earliest attempt to create a native anthropological vocabulary in China, as embodied in Fei Xiaotong's 1947 essay, Xiangtu Zhongguo. In this effort, I have been aided by procrastination; I originally felt that the minimum paper for today would have to investigate at least two of the above topics, but then I received Professor Liu's paper, which was entirely about Fei, so I felt justified in concentrating on Fei also.
Fei's essay has recently been ably translated into English by Gary Hamilton and Wang Zheng as From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society. In their introduction, Hamilton and Wang discuss the novelty, even uniqueness of this work: they call it (p. 4) "Fei Xiaotong's first and only effort to construct a non-Western theoretical foundation for a sociology of Chinese society," and even go so far as to claim that this work "represents one of the few and certainly one of the most insightful efforts to build a sociology of a non-Western society." They also point out (p. 18) that it contains "an implicit criticism of foreign theories applied to China." It is not, of course, an effort totally de novo, and in fact the foreign elements in Fei's analysis probably balance or slightly outweigh the innovative ones. But what is significant (and this is pointed out clearly in Hamilton and Wang's introduction) is that Fei, despite his impeccable English education described today by Professor Liu, simply refuses to apply foreign-derived concepts or terms uncritically to China. He uses them where he sees them fit, and invents new ones of his own where they don't fit, always patiently explaining why he has to depart from the conventions of Euro-American derived theory.
Except where they insist on claiming him as a sociologist (in the 1940s, at least, he was good enough that I want him on our team), I don't wish to contest or attack any element of Hamilton and Wang's analysis of Fei's work. What I do propose to do (ironically, since they actually translated it and all I did was read it and take notes) is to give more explicit public attention than they do to the role of vocabulary in Fei's essay, to consider his quasi-nativist achievement in light of my general questions about importation and invention of vocabulary. To do so, I will point out some of the instances in which Fei's uses new or newly redefined vocabulary to express ideas about Chinese society that he considers unreachable by conventional English-language terminology, pointing out how he uses them and how he explains their usage. In each case, I will then go on to show how Hamilton and Wang's translation (back) into English, the metropolitan language of sociology and anthropology, illustrates in a looking-glass way some of the problems that Fei himself faced when learning anthropology in English and trying to apply it to China, and some of the reasons why he had to come up with neologisms.

Fei's Argument and the Role of Neologisms

The first and most important indication that Fei is no slave to his British education comes in the first few paragraphs of his essay, which are heavy in multiple uses of the term tu and compounds formed with tu. Fei begins by saying that Chinese society is basically xiangtu xing de. He then goes on to say that we should pay attention to those bei chengwei tutou tunao de xiangxia ren. And in the next paragraph, he points out that rural people are often said to have tuqi, while on the next page he refers to the fact that in the countryside (xiangxia) tu is the root of their existence (tamen de ming gen). And finally, the preeminence of the earth deity, Tu di, is due to the fact that it symbolizes kegui de nitu. All of these expressions use the term tu in somewhat different ways. Hamilton and Wang, for example, translate xiangtu xing de as rural; bei chengwei tutou tunao de xiangxia ren as those so called hayseeds living in the countryside, and tuqi as "soiled," though they are unsure enough of the last to include the original tuqi in parentheses in the English text. Tu as the root of existence is translated as soil, Tudi is named in Chinese and then glossed as god of the earth, and finally, nitu as the earth itself. So in English, we have rural, hayseed, soil, and earth, a group of terms that certainly have mutual resonances, but nothing like the unity of the cluster of terms all built out of the three simple strokes of the character tu.
I have no reason to quibble with any of Hamilton and Wang's translations, except that I would prefer "hick" to "hayseed," even though neither one has dirt or earth or soil or ground in it. My point here is that Fei is introducing, as his fundamental term referring to the whole social complex he wishes to analyze, a term that must be in Chinese, that cannot have been derived from any European language, because European languages do not have this resonating cluster of meanings built on the same root, and that washes out when even the best of translators try to put it into a European language. And he is not just describing something here; he is introducing a new anthropological concept of xiangtu shehui, which, by including all the different resonances of tu, is much richer and more multivalent than any possible English equivalent, even though the second part of the compound, shehui is a Chinese transpronunciation of a two-character term invented in Meiji Japan as a rough equivalent of the Western society, societé, or Gesellschaft. The distinction Fei makes between xiangtu and urban (nothing remarkable in his translation of that term) is not the same as Raymond Williams's country and city, for example, and it does not say the same things about the countryside as are embedded in the orthodox Chinese Communist term nongcun, a term that implies a kind of technological determinism absent from Fei's work, but that Fei does not use once in his entire essay.
The distinction between xiangtu and something else (which varies from dushi or urban, and Xifang or Xiyang, or Western), is the root of several other dichotomies Fei constructs in his essay, each of which is a corresponding binary. The most famous of these, and the only one treated systematically by Hamilton and Wang in their introduction, is that between two different modes of social structure (for which Fei again uses a derived term, shehui jiegou). These are the tuanti geju of Western or urban societies, and the chaxu geju of the xiangtu society. Hamilton and Wang point out (pp. 19-20) that chaxu geju as a term is "awkward in Chinese," and surmise (correctly, I think) that Fei purposely used an awkward or unnatural term because he was trying to elucidate a concept for which there was no term either in the natural discourse of everyday intellectual Chinese or in the anthropological vocabulary imported from Europe. We do not need to go into a detailed exegesis of the terms here; it should suffice to point out that geju is a rather uncommon term referring to an order of relationships or mode of distinction or categorization; Hamilton and Wang come up with "mode of association," and that should be good enough for us today. Tuanti refers to a social group, and Fei states that although Chinese often use this word to refer to any social collectivity, in the particular technical vocabulary that he is trying to invent, there are no tuanti, no bounded, hierarchically organized social groups, in China's xiangtu society. There are, instead, person-centered networks based on a multiplicity of individual distinctions of rank and distance. It is this rank and distance chaxu that shape the network of every Chinese individual.
It is interesting for us to note that Fei's chaxu geju, while it is something that he invented in order to help explain Chinese xiangtu society to Chinese readers, in fact corresponds in many interesting ways both to the network analysis begun a decade or so later by Western anthropologists dissatisfied with the group-orientation of classical British structural-functionalism, and to the networks of personal obligation explored by outside and native analysis of Japan beginning with The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. But Fei was ahead of his British colleagues, and coeval with Benedict, whose work he was presumably not interested in since, as Professor Liu points out, he was only interested in China. So he invented network theory on his own. It wasn't unique to China like the whole complex built around tu, but it was an independent invention of a Chinese anthropologist trying to explain Chinese society and finding borrowed or translated terms to be inadequate.
Another place where Fei feels he has to invent new vocabulary to question the validity of a Western-derived dichotomy is in reference to family and kinship. He begins (p. 39), by criticizing a distinction that he must have learned at London: between small and large family systems, or nuclear and extended family systems. He says that the whole notion of family (usually translated into Chinese as jiating) belongs to the realm of tuanti, and so is inadequate to describe the small kin or household units of the xiangtu society. Instead, the relevant object to consider here is the jiazu, a patrilineal kinship group whose boundaries fade out from the individual, unlike a jiating whose boundaries are rigid and sociocentric. Who counts as an agnatic relative depends on who you are, in other words, and the term jiating simply doesn't fit.
Hamilton and Wang translate jiazu as patrilineage (chapter 6), and indeed this is a standard, uncontentious translation. But it masks, in a way, the distinction Fei is making between jiazu as an aspect of chaxu geju and jiating as an aspect of tuanti geju. This is because many Western students of China, beginning with Maurice Freedman, the most canonical figure for the Western discourse on Chinese society, used terms such as lineage and patrilineage, but used them to construct a group-centered view of rural China, something Fei would consider an imposition of the tuanti geju model onto a society where it didn't belong. Fei's jiazu is not really Freedman's patrilineage. What is at issue here is not whether Fei or Freedman was right (I suspect part of the difference may have been due to Fei's roots in the Lake Tai region, combined with his fieldwork in Yunnan, as opposed to Freedman's work in the land of the corporate patrilineage in Fujian and Guangdong). What is of interest is that, first, Fei saw nothing in the Western literature that could help him understand the family in rural China, so he invented a new definition for the term jiazu, and second that Freedman, never having learned to read Chinese, missed out on a possible interpretation for his data. He did have the English-language works of Lin Yaohua (The Golden Wing), but his was written about Fujian, and of Hu Hsien-chin, but hers was written as an English dissertation with less detachment from or ability to reflect on the European concepts than Fei had by the time he was writing Xiangtu Zhongguo.
One further terminological invention of Fei's was made in response to his dissatisfaction with the distinction between rule by law and rule by men in Western thinking, two concepts that he translates into Chinese rather conventionally as fazhi and renzhi, respectively. Fei displays no problem with "rule by law" or its Chinese translation, fazhi, in describing the Western or urban society contrasted to xiangtu society. Laws are definite rules that are laid down in a social contract and have to be followed. But he presents a devastating critique of the idea that either Confucian moral philosophy or the customary procedure of the xiangtu society constitutes rule by men, in the sense that he understands of giving the right to decide to certain men and relying on their judgment. He points out that such authority is given to specific men only on the condition or assumption that they possess superior knowledge of li, which he defines (using a mass of Western-derived terms) as shehui gongren heshi de xingwei guifan, which we might back-translate (rather awkwardly) as rules for behavior which are generally recognized by society as appropriate. The way to understand xiangtu society is not as renzhi, which has much to great a connotation of arbitrariness or capriciousness, but as lizhi, ruled by convention or propriety.

The Significance of Xiangtu Zhongguo

These are not a lot of terms--xiangtu shehui, chaxu geju, jiazu, lizhi. But as I say to my students, all you have to do to become famous is to invent one. Fei, on the other hand, has invented not so much four or five or eleven terms, but a whole complex of terminology which derives from an insider's dissatisfaction toward the outside terms he was handed in the unequal discourse between the Western canon and what he perceived as the Chinese reality. In Xiangtu Zhongguo, he was on his way to indigenizing anthropology in the best possible way--taking what seemed appropriate from the Euro-American discourse (after all, he was not so stupid, nor should we be so seduced by our opposition to Eurocentrism to reject everything that comes out of Europe just because it comes out of Europe), and then inventing new, more appropriate terminology for those things that the Euro-American vocabulary either mislabeled or didn't address at all. This, I think is enough that we should recognize the brilliance of Fei's achievement; it remains to speculate on its significance.
First, we might ask to what degree Fei's work could form a model for anthropologists in other non-metropolitan societies trying to indigenize their own anthropology. I see no reason why it could not be an important model, or one of a series of important models. Fei's sensitivity not only to the social conditions of China, but more importantly to the problems of translation and the particular relative strengths and weaknesses of English and Chinese could be transferred, I think, to any situation of trans-lingual anthropology. Some of this has been done in Taiwan, but more of what happens in Taiwan seems to be a direct adoption of English terms either by borrowing or translation; as with Fei, some work better than others. The subaltern theorists of India might also provide an interesting comparison, but of course they are writing in English, although it is English seasoned by the experience of a very un-English society. Still, I would recommend Fei's work to any anthropologist from a non-metropolitan country wrestling with this problems, but with the important qualifier that if the interested anthropologist couldn't read Chinese (which would almost always be the case), she would find it hard to see 90% of the model she was seeking. Since Chinese is not a language of metropolitan discourse (and is likely never to become one, given its writing system), an important prospective model for the internationalization of theory is probably consigned to obscurity. Once it's translated, however valuable its analysis, its value as a model disappears behind a thick screen.
Second, we should consider the value of Xiangtu Zhongguo for China's current attempt to revive and indigenize anthropology. Ironically and rather sadly, if we are to believe Professor Liu and others, the promise and the model of Xiangtu Zhongguo did not survive in the roly-poly octogenarian who now defends Malinowski and Mao in the same breath. The only thing he could say in his 1986 preface to the Sanlian edition of Xiangtu Zhongguo was that it might be fun after 40 years to see his own youthful musings in print again. Obviously, Fei is prouder of his own achievement than this politically cautious modesty would indicate, but he is also intelligent enough that he could have hinted at greater significance for the present than he chose to. Instead he extols the model of Malinowski. Perhaps this is because he really wants to encourage a return to more empirical work, less empty theorizing, and not because he really believes in seventy-year-old functionalism. Whatever the case, he is not going to be the one to express or advocate the significance of his own work. This will have to come directly from the younger generations, with little guidance from the elders permanently scarred by the mindless orthodoxy of revolutionary Marxist ethnology.
Finally, perhaps the greatest significance for us as anthropologists is to alert us to the significance of particular languages, to the far from frictionless nature of the translation process, even in so technical and jargon-filled a field as anthropology. Having read Xiangtu Zhongguo, we can never again consider translation of scholarly work from one language to another to be un-problematical; rather the problematics of translation, not only of field data but also of the scholarly product, must remain central to our understanding of the intellectual and political future of our discipline.