June 5, 2014, by Tony Hong

Translation and Modernity: Rethinking the Semantic Shift of “Civil Society” in the Chinese Context

By Meixi Zhuang,

Studying a PhD in Contemporary Chinese Studies,

The University of Nottingham Ningbo Campus.

What does it mean to translate Western ideas into the Chinese language on the basis of hypothetical equivalences? What happens in the process of intercultural interpretation and how do translated concepts impact Chinese people’s perception of their own society? Is trans-lingual practice based on an equal or unequal power basis? Do Western-originated concepts produce unconscious forms of ideological domination over Oriental countries? Trans-lingual practice can be regarded as a special site that sheds light upon the formation of borrowed concepts. It is a critical issue not only because most disciplines need to use Western theories to explain Chinese phenomena, but also because Western ideas are shaping our world views through everyday practice. Translation can never rest upon an absolutely equal basis, as languages are embedded in different cultural settings. What’s more, the process of “decoding-encoding” also involves the subjectivities of translators. Thus, a semantic shift of word meaning is almost inevitable. Bringing up the issue of trans-lingual practice helps one to see the problems with mechanically applying borrowed concepts to understand Chinese society in its full dynamism and heterogeneity.

The translation of “civil society” is a telling example. Civil society is a recently imported term that describes the changing state-society relation with the rise of capitalism. As this Western-oriented term is fraught with moral and theoretical implications, it is hard for translators to find its equivalent counterpart in the traditional Chinese language, simply because Chinese society seldom follows the “state vis-à-vis society” pattern of development. Under this context, translators have adopted different strategies for better presentation of the concept. Chinese terms have been invented and reinvented, which give rise to an extension of meanings attached to civil society. This demonstrates not only the translator’s varied understandings of China’s historical evolution in relation to Western modernity, but also their differed orientations of social theories. In other words, no theory is by nature an ideological dictate for winning dominance over others. Whether a theory should be treated as a rigid paradigm or just a reference point for comparison depends on how researchers translate, interpret and apply it.

Among various versions, “gongmin shehui” (公民社会), “shimin shehui”(市民社会) and “minjian shehui” (民间社会) stand out as the most popular translations of civil society. Each of them emphasizes on different facets of civil society, generates new meanings under its own context, and relates itself to Western modernity in its own ways.

“Gongmin shehui” is often regarded by some as the most “accurate” translation of civil society. The term “gongmin”, literally translated as “citizen”, is highly relevant to the issue of civil rights or citizenship. “Gongmin” originated from ancient Chinese legalist philosopher Han Fei’s masterwork Wudu, referring to a quality of collective interests, but it does not signify the clear demarcation of state and society, nor does it contain the meaning of legally-protected human rights. It was not until late Qing and Republican era did the phrase, as part and parcel of modernization theory, experienced a revival in China. For modern reformers such as Sun Yat-sen and Liang Qichao, the cultivation of civic spirits (“gongmin jingshen”,公民精神) and the construction of an independent legal system are crucial for democracy. By the same vein, “gongmin shehui” gives special emphasis on a social sphere of citizens guaranteed by legal institutions of society, which corresponds to the essence of civil society in a Hegelian sense. As one of the “unfinished projects” of Enlightenment, “gongmin shehui” is implicitly connected with the idea of democratization. In fact, today’s civil society activisms in China, such as New Citizen Movement, is not simply about nourishing civil society per se, but also about advocating structural change of the current political system.

The problem with translating civil society into “gongmin shehui” is that it narrows down one’s research scope to only those recent historical moments about political change. If civil society is to be narrowly understood as a modern phenomena that correlates to the rise of democracy, then what is left for discussion is simply whether China “has” a civil society or not. Instead of following such a black-and-white thinking pattern, many scholars have attempted to explore the China’s endogenous societal development that has a cultural logic of its own.

In this context, the Chinese variants of civil society, i.e., “shimin shehui” and “minjian shehui” come to the stage. Both “shimin” and “minjian” have been frequently used since ancient times. “Shimin” represents “urban residents”, whereas “minjian” means extra-bureaucratic space. Since 1980s, the term “shimin shehui” and “minjian shehui” are widely applied to various aspects of China’s civil society in different time periods, including private economic activities, various forms of associational life and public spheres for communications. On the one hand, “shimin shehui” and “minjian shehui” share some characters with a European civil society, which is urban-based and non-governmental. On the other hand, the terms themselves do not necessarily signify state-society opposition. Nor do they represent legally protected self-autonomy or a clear-cut boundary between state and society in the Western sense.

Take the word “min” in “minjian shehui” for instance. “Min” (民)means “people”, and is often contrasted with “guan” (official官). Jian (间) is a classifier that signifies room and space. The notion of “minjian” by the same vein, is distinguished from “guanchang” (official realm官场). Except for some rare historical periods such as the Mao era, the state is unwilling (and also incapable) to regulate every aspect of social life. Thus, people often take the initiatives of self-governance on projects of public good, such as water control, education, temple management and other charity work. That is to say, minjian is only complementary to the state rule, and does not necessarily pose itself as a counterweight to the state power. More often than not, “minjian shehui” has close cooperation with the state for the sake of empowerment and efficiency. The cultural tradition of “guanmin gongzhi” (state-society cooperation 官民共治) enjoys a long history in the course of China’s social development, and has been well revived even after the radical communist revolution.

At the same time, however, “min” is also fraught with moral connotations when combined with other words in different contexts. While it indicates a hierarchical relationship between grassroots and officials in “guanmin gongzhi”, it also emphasizes that state legitimacy comes from its people in the expression of “tian ting zi wo min ting”(天听自我民听),meaning the organic connection between the mandate of heaven and public opinion. In other circumstances, “min” is even posed as in opposition to the state, such as “guan bi min fan” (官逼民反),meaning that tyrannical rule leads to grassroots revolution. In a nutshell, “Minjian shehui” contains various connotations of state-society relations that are not directly related to the concept of modernity.

To conclude, civil society is a richly evocative but under theorized concept. As the term civil society is so vaguely defined and inconsistently used by domestic Chinese scholars, new research questions built out of it have often become unfocused and unanswerable. I argue that it is important for researchers to notice their subtle differences and avoid being blindly guided by their moral implications. Translation is political because both respect and disrespect for the original concept can be regarded as a strategic move that reflects and even questions cultural universals.

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