Distinctive terms mirror China’s interaction with world
A thematic exhibition commemorating the 20th anniversary of China’s accession to the WTO was held during the Fourth China International Import Expo in Shanghai in November 2021. Photo: CFP
The semiotic system of language is a crucial medium for understanding, reflecting, and constructing reality. Reflecting the real world, language mirrors social development and the changing times. Meanwhile, language can construct society. During interactive construction of reality, it helps foster subject consciousness.
In this way, language externalizes human consciousness. Keywords and core concepts that have been incorporated into mainstream social discourse epitomize the will of a state and its global image. The multidimensional evolution of expressions can reflect the development of Chinese diplomacy, implying China’s growing subjectivity as it integrates into the world and actively participates in the global governance system and the new model of globalization.
Multidimensional discourse evolution
Linguistic symbols are instrumental to making sense of the world. Through concepts, we can perceive how people abstract and categorize the world and themselves at a particular time. Synchronic concepts crystallize diachronic epistemological outcomes.
Since reform and opening up, China has been approaching the center of the world stage, alongside tremendous changes in the language landscape. Countless new words and buzzwords have emerged which bear witnesses to the evolution of China’s image in the realms of politics, the economy, culture, and science and technology.
Politically, China has been moving forward from the periphery of the international arena to its center. Marked by the convening of the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee in December 1978, the country embarked upon a new journey of reform and opening up, when “reform and opening up” and “to be in line with international practices” became key phrases of the era. By upholding diplomatic guidelines of “peace and development” and “keeping a low profile and making positive contributions,” China gradually blended into the international political pattern.
Since the 18th CPC National Congress, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping proposed such concepts as the “new type of international relations,” “human community with a shared future,” “Belt and Road Initiative,” “Global Development Initiative,” “Global Security Initiative,” “Global Civilization Initiative,” “high-standard opening up,” and “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” These terms suggest that China has been deeply involved in global governance, steadily advancing and playing a leading role in reforms to the global governance system. The concept of “Chinese modernization,” based on reflections on the shortcomings of capital-centered Western modernization, has provided a Chinese example for a new form of human advancement. China’s identity has shifted from a participant in global governance who aims to “be in line with international practices” to a facilitator who seeks to “make positive contributions,” on to a forerunner who inspires the world to build a “human community with a shared future.”
On the economic front, China’s international businesses have grown increasingly diverse. At the beginning of reform and opening up, low value-added processing trade occupied a large proportion of China’s international businesses. In that era, terms like “processing supplied materials,” “assembling supplied parts,” “processing with supplied samples,” and “compensation trade” entered the lexicon, revealing the Chinese economy’s primary form as it strived to integrate into the global industrial chain.
At the same time, “accession to the WTO” was a popular phrase, one with epochal significance, which became a record of China’s practical experience in joining the WTO and participating in economic globalization.
Since the new era began, the country’s foreign economic engagements have progressed from simple reliance on foreign trade to diverse approaches including strengthening regional free trade. Terms such as “Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank,” “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership,” “win-win cooperation,” and “creating a new development pattern” signify China’s quick transition to an “open economy.”
In terms of culture, the focus of people-to-people exchanges has switched from “bringing in” outstanding foreign culture to facilitating fine Chinese culture to “go global.” In the 1980s, a foreign literature wave swept the country, when vigorous translations reflected Chinese readers’ great intellectual demand.
Since the dawn of the 21st century, terms like “cultural year,” “cultural festival,” and “year of cultural and sports exchanges” have frequently appeared in mainstream social discourse, indicating China’s increased efforts in cultural diplomacy. National overall planning and multi-party participation have been vibrant in people-to-people exchanges. Internationally remarkable names like the “Confucius Institute” and “Confucius Classroom” symbolize a fever for learning the Chinese language and show signs of “Chinese culture going global.”
Since the 18th CPC National Congress, “cultural confidence” has been in vogue, in academic theory and on the internet, representing a social and value consensus. “Promoting the creative transformation and innovative development of fine traditional Chinese culture” showcases Chinese culture’s profound implications and contemporary value.
In March 2023, General Secretary Xi Jinping put forward the “Global Civilization Initiative,” which stresses respecting the diversity of world civilizations, making important contributions to fueling international people-to-people exchanges and fostering mutual learning among human civilizations.
In the field of science and technology, China has progressed from learning and drawing upon other countries to independent innovation. After the policy of reform and opening up was implemented, China became the “world factory,” but “Made in China” was, for a while, synonymous with inexpensive products. This revealed a predicament in Chinese manufacturing—it depended on OEM processing and contract manufacturing to earn meager profits, lacking independent intellectual property rights.
Since the new era began, “Created in China” and “Intelligent Manufacturing in China ” have received growing attention. The terminological evolution suggests that Chinese enterprises have leapfrogged from participating in to jointly constructing industrial chains, as Chinese products’ independent innovation capacities have improved substantively. Some “self-owned brands” such as Huawei, DJI, BYD, and ByteDance are famous throughout the world, enhancing Chinese enterprises’ reputation. In addition, “climate change governance,” and “carbon peak and carbon neutrality” represent Chinese wisdom in global governance and green development.
Over the 40-odd years of reform and opening up, lexical changes in multiple dimensions highlight notable achievements in building a Chinese discourse system. Through the mirror of language, we can get a glimpse into China’s national identity, observing the way it shapes and communicates its own image. Lexical and conceptual evolution shows that China’s foreign relations have become increasingly open and diverse, while improvements are made in the effectiveness of its international communication and its ability to guide international public opinion.
When it comes to national identity, China is a “developing country,” “socialist power,” “great ancient civilization,” and “responsible great power .” While reflecting China’s realistic experience, these terms are constructing reality, prompting the expression and generation of the nation as a subject. As such, it is necessary to focus on the constructive nature of language, attaching importance to the conceptual expressions, lexical choices, and discourse innovation in the construction of China’s international discourse system.
For example, the term “One Country, Two Systems” was extended from discourse innovation to policy implementation, representing Chinese insights for the international community to resolve similar problems left over from history. The expression “Chinese modernization” exemplifies discourse construction of China’s unique experiences through the modernization drive, thereby entrenching modern China’s identity in foreign exchanges and demonstrating to other developing nations a socialist modernization paradigm beyond the Western capital logic.
Regarding the self-shaping and communication of national image, linguistic symbols are mediums which transmit information. The communicative nature of language is prominent in discourse, a linguistic form presented by interactions in certain social contexts. Conceptual expressions are at the core of the discourse system, and the underpinning for a country to shape its own image. Therefore, proposing new concepts, categories, and expressions that integrate Chinese and foreign features to strengthen the constructive role of language is essential to the effective self-shaping of national image. “Civilized country, ” “Oriental power,” “responsible great power,” and “socialist power” are General Secretary Xi Jinping’s accurate summaries of China’s contemporary national image.
Enhancing int’l discourse power
From the perspective of interactive discourse construction, the relationship between China and the world is reflected and confirmed in the mirror of language, while being shaped and embodied by language. The impact of language on the real world deserves our attention.
First, language should pave the way for economic and trade cooperation. Removing language barriers is the premise and a guarantee for interconnectivity within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. We should accelerate the cultivation of talent that can speak languages of Belt and Road countries, improve language services, and broaden the service scope, providing high-quality language counseling, training, and management services for cross-border infrastructure construction, trade, and investment and financing, thus enhancing mutual trust in economy and trade.
Language is a key vehicle of cultural inheritance, and vital groundwork for international cultural communication. Efforts are needed to explore the cultural dimension behind language and select information to be disseminated according to characteristics of communication objects regionally and by segmenting the audience, in order to deepen the audience’s understanding of the communication content. For example, in the Sinosphere, also known as the East Asian cultural sphere or Chinese-character cultural sphere, it is advisable to select common texts like calligraphy, poetry, and paintings, which are based on Chinese characters, for international communication purposes.
Furthermore, language data has become a crucial production factor in the digital age. New technologies like cloud computing, big data, and artificial intelligence are all grounded in language data. As language digitalization has significantly powered the thriving of the digital economy and the development of digital industries, we should proactively foster language industries and expand international communication and cooperation on digitalization, showcasing contemporary China’s strength as a major country in sci-tech innovation.
Language carries characteristics of the times and practices, and is constructive, mirroring changes in the world, history, and the times. Terminological evolution since reform and opening up has reflected China’s increasingly close discourse interactions with the world. The uniquely Chinese expressions have mapped out the new journey of the great rejuvenation of the nation and China’s image as a peaceful, open, inclusive, and responsible major country, witnessing Chinese discourse system’s transition from striving “to be in line with international practices” to “demonstrating Chinese characteristics and playing a leading role in the world.”
Shi Xiao is from the School of International Studies at Zhengzhou University. Yang Mingxing is a professor from the Chinese Academy of Diplomatic Discourse Studies at Zhengzhou University.