Asia from the Sign’s Eye View: Imaginability, Scalability, and Revitalizability: Part B

Author: Xiao Ke (Duke University)Yukun Zeng, Shuting Zhuang (University Of Chicago)Jin Li (University Of Arizona)Velda Khoo (University Of Colorado Boulder)
Speaker: Xiao Ke, Yukun Zeng, Shuting Zhuang, Jin Li, Velda Khoo
Topic: Linguistic Anthropology
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 Colloquium Session

Panel Abstract

In an “anthropological spirit,” Benedict Anderson proposed the now-famous definition of nation as “an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (2006[1983]:5–6). This panel seeks to further the spirit of his analysis by taking linguistic anthropology’s “sign’s eye view” (Silverstein 2004:631) to examine the contemporary semiotic production of “nation” in Asia. Instead of treating Imagined Communities as a universal thesis, participants in this panel read this book as offering three insights into the cultural phenomenology of nationalism (to varying degrees of explicitness): a recognition of specific semiotic technologies that index the nation in modern societies; sites of participatory ritual incorporation into the nation-state form through; and the historical context of movements for “self-determination,” especially in Asia. In addition to these frequently discussed aspects of the work, panelists reconsider the centrality of Asia, especially Southeast and East Asia, in Anderson’s account. Inspired by new situations in these areas and the post-cold-war possibility of “Asia as Method” (Chen 2010), together, they ask: how can the semiotic analysis of emergent images, ideologies, contexts, communications, technologies, and theories, continue to reformulate our understandings of nation-formation; post-colonial- and post-imperial narration; and revitalization of tradition in contemporary Asia? And through the intellectual exchange in the form of colloquia, in particular, we hope to further our reflection on the (semiotic) imaginability, scalability, and revitalizability of Asia or its heterogeneous components.


Anderson, Benedict 2006[1983] Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.Chen, Kuan-Hsing 2010 Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization. Durham: Duke University Press.Silverstein, Michael 2004 ‘Cultural’ Concepts and the Language‐Culture Nexus. Current Anthropology 45 (5): 621–52.


Democratizing the honorific: sense of agency and liminality in a mediatized Tibet nation in exile

Xiao Ke (Duke University)


Democracy promises free speech, self-determination, and by entailment, civilization. To the Tibetan community in exile, democracy was seen as a gift from the Dalai Lama as well as preparation for the political vision of future national autonomy back in Tibet. Yet a set of questions emerge in the public sphere among Tibetans-in-exile in this liminal stage: If democracy means free to critique, could someone criticize the Dalai Lama? If democracy means that people are born equal, are journalists compelled to use the honorific pronoun to designate the Dalai Lama? If democracy means self-determination, what does it mean when a population finds itself holding an opposite political opinion from that of the Dalai Lama? As though conjuring these puzzles into being, a number of violent encounters have generated their live equivalents. For instance, a former Tibetan presidential candidate who criticized the Dalai Lama on his own social media account found his car and residence immediately vandalized in Dharamsala. This paper investigates the dynamic and ambivalent sense of agency in abduction (Carr 2015) and the dialectics of mediation and immediacy (Eisenlohr 2009) as these mediatized voices circulate in a public sphere that sees itself as a liminal nation.

Imagination through Nonreading

Yukun Zeng (University of Chicago)


If the emergence of new modes of reading along with the spread of print-capitalism, as Anderson argues (2006[1983]), entails imagined co-readerships and then imagined communities, what would “ancient” way of reading afford in contemporary society? This paper focuses on Dujing, a recent Confucian educational movement that has gained popularity in China but has also stirred up considerable controversy. Literarily meaning ‘to read’ (Chin: du) ‘canons’ (Chin: jing), Dujing re-constructed and employed “traditional” way of reading, in which students read Confucian texts aloud, repetitively and without pedagogical exegesis. This paper argues that Dujing’s non-denotational reading entails a different metapragmatics than the configuration of other anonymous reading in Anderson’s original argument. Negotiating Dujing’s meaningful repetition (or simultaneity) with the progressivism of modern education and social lives, Dujing readers embrace both alternativity and cosmopolitanism in the imagination of the past and telos of “Chinese civilization”.

Imaging Extinction: Snow Leopards, Ecological Nation and National Park of China

Shuting Zhuang (University of Chicago)


How could national community be imagined that includes multispecies? In 2017 the downgrading of the snow leopard from Endangered status on the IUCN Red List to Vulnerable status did not prevent itself being ranked as the “Star Species of the Year” in China by Chinese ecological journalists. Tons of photos and videos of Chinese scientists and local Tibetans monitoring, observing and rescuing the snow leopards have also flooded the building process of the first official national park of China on the Tibetan Plateau since 2016. Through a media analysis of how photographic indexicality of the wildlife images has generated a meta-realism endowed with cultural meanings of “endangerment” (Choy, 2011; Heise, 2016) in categories of qualia, dicentization, and propositionality (Ball, 2017), this paper explores how multi-species co-habitatization has been conjured up as the model of an “ecological nation” that also entails questions of inter-ethnic justice and values against the dynamics of Sino-Tibetan politics.

The Multivocality of Patriotic Hip-hop – Chinese Youth and Their Political Identification

Jin Li (University of Arizona)


Patriotic hip-hop has become an online sensation in China’s social media in recent years. These songs are produced by Chinese youth rappers who care much about politics and world affairs. This paper contextualizes the cultural form of hip-hop and the patriotic theme within Chinese youth culture. It investigates the emergence of a new hip-hop style, which I call patriotic hip-hop that is infused with Chinese local lives and emotions. This paper focuses on a particular patriotic hip-hop group, CD Rev from Chengdu, and their hit English song “This is China” co-produced by the Communist Youth League of China (CYLC). I draw on Bakhtin’s notion of voice (1981) to discern the multiple voices underlying this patriotic rap. I examine the rappers’ acts of stance-taking through strategic use of pronouns and recontextualization of national political discourse and Western media’s reported events in the lyrics which align Chinese youth’ voice with that of the nation-state and against Western media’s voice. I also incorporate Goffman’s (1981) “production format” to examine CD Rev’s collaboration with CYLC and their respective commitment to the patriotic voice. On the one hand, Chinese youth channel their own patriotic emotions and brand their political identity through hip-hop, a new genre that competes with and supplements traditional folk and orchestral styles, which are representative of the older generation’s expression of patriotism; on the other hand, the nation-state and the party participate in the production, circulation and promotion of patriotic hip-hop to communicate with Chinese youth and promote nationalist emotions. Through the productive incorporation of patriotic hip-hop, we identify the pursuit of subjecthood by Chinese youth both as a national subject and a global citizen and see how the trajectories of the youth’s and the Party’s political projects coincide, both seeking to communicate China to the world with China’s own voice.


Bakhtin, Mikhail M. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination: Four essays. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.


“The language is the people”: Constructions of Singlish and the hybrid nation

Velda Khoo (University of Colorado Boulder)


In May 2016, literary critic Gwee Li Sui wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the Singapore government’s war on Singlish seemed to be over; even politicians themselves are using the language. To some, this was an exoneration of Singlish, the irrepressible vernacular that “thrive[s] on codifying political resistance” and connects “speakers across ethnic and socioeconomic divides”, as it has flourished despite state efforts to cripple its significance. Singlish, in its manifestations as a sociocultural artifact, is central to constructions of Singaporean identity, especially in recent years as part of a nationalistic push to preserve local cultural heritage.  The pro-Singlish camp, spearheaded by cultural elites in Singapore, position themselves as historically-silenced, lay Singaporeans ideologically opposed to the ruling class as they call for the recognition of Singlish as a bona fide, “uniquely Singaporean” language. In a country where cultural and linguistic hybridity are often the main tropes for imagining a national identity (Rubdy & Alsagoff 2013), the theme of the creole has been appropriated in ways that advantage those in dominant sections of society. A “patchwork”, “folksy patois” like Singlish is the embodiment of Singapore’s diverse population, and by extension, needs to be legitimized as such. This paper approaches hybridity as a strategic communicative practice rooted in the historical and rhetorical (cf. Kraidy 2005), and examines how the notion of the hybrid language has been deployed within the context of Singapore’s transformation to a postcolonial “global city” and packaged as subversive and defiant acts of civic resistance. These conceptualizations, or translations, of Singlish articulate a particular celebratory vision of modern Singapore that erases the voices of minority communities, whose views on Singlish are influenced by their inability to participate in Singapore’s globalized economy (Said-Sirhan 2014). Through an analysis of metalinguistic discourses on Singlish, I uncover their role in identity constructions for speaker-listeners, with the underlying implication that discursive articulations of identity are complexly intertwined with ideological constructs that produce and reproduce relations of power (Bucholtz & Hall 2005). I end with a discussion about the structural effects this debate has on the language itself, as Singlish is further enregistered through indexicalities of resistance and subversion, ultimately limiting its power as a radical linguistic symbol against the hegemony of standard English in the country.


Bucholtz, M. & Hall, K. 2005 Identity and interaction: a sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies, 7(4–5), 585–614.

Kraidy, M. 2005 Hybridity, or the cultural logic of globalization. Temple University Press.Rubdy, R., & Alsagoff, L. Eds. 2013 The global-local interface and hybridity: Exploring language and identity.
Multilingual Matters.Said-Sirhan, Y. 2014 Linguistic insecurity and reproduction of the Malay community’s peripherality in Singapore. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication24(2), 221-240.