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Semiotic interpretation of classic Chinese texts

Author  :  CHEN YUTONG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-07-25

In recent years, Chinese semiotic studies have presented many highlights in terms of cultural theories innovation.

Semiotics in China

“Literature, the arts, material culture, advertising, media, the virtual world—Chinese semiotics is studying all of this from a new perspective, which is particularly sensitive to the central role that China is now playing in shaping world culture,” said Massimo Leone, a tenured full professor from the Department of Philosophy and Educational Sciences at the University of Turin in Italy.

Leone said that Chinese semiotics has absorbed Western theories and traditions, but it is now able to reformulate them in a way that takes into account long and glorious Chinese traditions in the study of language, meaning, signs, and signification.

Developments and applications of semiotic theory are especially robust among linguists, philosophers, literary theorists, and media and culture studies scholars in China, and many other research domains seem to be opening to semiotic insights as well, said Jamin Pelkey, an associate professor from the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Ryerson University in Canada.

“Even more encouraging are the abundant signs of networking and mutual support between individual researchers and institutions who are investing time and resources into semiotic research,” Pelkey said. A remarkable example of this is the formation of an “Alliance of Chinese Semiotics” among semiotics research institutes in five universities across China: Nanjing Normal University, Sichuan University, Soochow University, Tianjin Foreign Studies University, and Northwest Normal University.


Margus Ott, a researcher from the School of Humanities at Tallinn University in Estonia, shed light on the intertextuality between Chinese and Western semiotic texts.

Pelkey’s research experience includes a comparative study of Chinese-Western philosophy. He noticed that in early Taoist thought one can find equal support for the study of oppositions beloved by structuralist semioticians, the critique of oppositions championed by post-structuralist semioticians, and the clarification of concepts for meaningful action in the world beloved by pragmatist semioticians.

“The fact that a single system of thought can embrace all three modes of inquiry should be cause for celebration, tribute, and devoted inquiry among Western semioticians,” Pelkey said.

Pelkey pointed out that more specific questions can also be illuminated with the aid of Taoist thought. In another recent study, he demonstrated how paying close attention to the semiotic structure of the second chapter of The Zhaungzi, “Qiwulun,” can illuminate vital relationships between C. S. Peirce’s formal semiotic theory and his philosophy of pragmatism. Not only does Zhuangzi prefigure Peirce in these connections, his writings also have the potential to shift Peircean thinking into a new key focused on personal wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. Related insights are currently being pursued by Chinese semioticians focused on the study of the “Cultural Semiotics of Jingshen.”

In Pelkey’s opinion, while the formal, widespread study of semiotics in China may still be in its early phases, a general semiotic consciousness or orientation to the study of signs and meaning is arguably a hallmark of Chinese civilization since its earliest expressions in pre-Qin (prior to 221 BCE) philosophical writings such as the Yi Jing (Book of Changes).

Mutual understanding

“Unfortunately, the dialogue between East and West on the nature of signs and meaning has been largely one-sided to date,” Pelkey said. Semioticians in China have proven to be much more open and willing to study semiotic theory from Western traditions, than Western semioticians have proven to be open toward semiotic thinking in Eastern traditions. This reciprocal asymmetry is especially unfortunate given that many of the key schools of thought, theories, and concepts that Western semioticians struggle to define, develop, and integrate are provided with fresh support, insight, and perspectives, including corrective perspectives, in Chinese sources.

Leone stressed the paramount effect of mutual knowledge and understanding. Western semioticians should become more familiar with the classics of Chinese civilization, including philosophy, theory of language, art criticism, theory of literature, and cultural theory. At the same time, Chinese semioticians should work on retrieving their glorious tradition and on making it more available to non-Chinese speaking audiences.

To make more progress on the project of bridging Chinese and Western semiotics, Ott suggested that knowledge of different thought traditions should be promoted. Scholars of semiotics and Western philosophy, both in the West and in China, need to have a deeper understanding of non-Western traditions. Besides, an “anthropological openness” is required, since practices are quite different in Western and Chinese academic circles. It would be better to try to understand the larger context into which the other is immersed in communication and cooperation.

International cooperation and exchange programs are fundamental in this field. As a permanent part-time visiting professor to Shanghai University, Leone expressed his interest in making a contribution to this cultural and intellectual dialogue, also through regularly and frequently visiting other Chinese universities that are currently developing semiotic research.

“I foresee a bright future for semiotics in China,” Leone said.

Editor: Yu Hui

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