Undoing Commonness: Language and Social Change in Contemporary China

Talk by Qing Zhang, University of Arizona

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“Letting some people and regions get rich first,” a declarative by Deng Xiaoping 30 years ago, offers perhaps the most potent example for the power of language in social change in contemporary China. This talk argues for an integrated approach to language and social change as mutually constitutive. Building on research that tracks the emergence of Cosmopolitan Mandarin (CM), a new linguistic style alternative to the conventional Standard Mandarin, also known as “common speech,” I demonstrate that CM constitutes an emergent stylistic resource for dismantling the Maoist socialist stylistic regime that valued conformity and egalitarianism. By examining the formation, use, and social evaluation of CM, I demonstrate that it brings about social change in two ways. First, through its use by particularly groups of social actors to produce new distinction, CM participates in the increasing socioeconomic diversification of Chinese society. Second, through its valorizations vis-à-vis the conventional standard language, CM participates in shaping the configuration of a postsocialist stylistic regime.

Qing Zhang is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and affiliated faculty member in East Asian Studies and Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona. Her research examines the constitutive role of language in contexts of sociopolitical change and globalization. Specifically, her work investigates linguistic practice and rapid socioeconomic transformations in the People’s Republic of China. Her research treats language not merely as reflecting or responding to societal changes but as being among the very forces and resources that reconfigure the contemporary social-political landscape of China. She has investigated how linguistic resources are taken up by social agents to effect new social distinctions and to attain access to newly available socioeconomic opportunities. Her works have been published in journals such as Language in Society, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Journal of Sociolinguistics, Journal of Language and Politics, and in edited volumes on language and globalization, language policy and ideology, and new discourses in contemporary China. She trains undergraduate and graduate students in linguistic anthropology as well as graduate students in the Joint Ph.D. Program in Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Arizona. Her forthcoming book, Undoing Commonness: The Emergence of Cosmopolitan Mandarin in Contemporary China (Routledge 2017), offers a model for an integrated approach to language variation and change embedded in broader sociopolitical processes.

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Duration: 00:59:08


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Published: Thursday, March 2, 2017