Communist Chinese Mantras — keywords and the importance of formulaic language

Watching China Watching

Chapter XLI



In Watching China Watching, a China Heritage series launched in January 2018, we offer essays and reflections on studying the Chinese world and approaches to understanding the Chinese People’s Republic. Our method is underpinned by New Sinology.

The men and women who taught us to engage with the Chinese world and to appreciate things Chinese in a holistic fashion were motivated and inspired by many things: their personal histories, a diverse range of interests, as well as a pressing necessity to watch (and to watch out for) China. For many of them, Chinese and non-Chinese alike (after all, some of the greatest China Watchers are from China), China was not a distant subject for study but an essential part of lived reality. Their insights were generally based not on some crude social science or anthropological approach to observing The Other, or the result of dissecting an object rich in possibility as part of some ambitious career trajectory. Their understanding was based as much on entanglement, fraught questioning, a spirit of self-discovery and personal enrichment as the result of a lifelong effort to approach what is in fact an all-encompassing cultural-political world from a broad humanistic perspective.


In June 2010, China Heritage Quarterly published a note on the term 折騰 zhē teng and, in December 2011, that note  became the first entry in a fledgling China Heritage Glossary. The Glossary developed slowly as it was sidetracked by a short-lived, although ambitious venture titled China Story Keywords that I created for The China Story site founded in 2012. Both of those modest undertakings feature in the present China Heritage Glossary.

Although our Glossary took its immediate inspiration from Lin Yutang (林語堂, 1895-1976), we also snuck a sidewards glance at Raymond Williams and Keywords of the Chinese Revolution (1993-1996), a project initiated by Timothy Cheek, an old friend, among others, and spearheaded by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a collaborator in The Gate of Heavenly Peace documentary film on which I worked from 1991 to 1995.

Below, we reproduce Robert Barnett’s introduction to a special section in the May 2023 issue of Inner Asia titled ‘Keywords—A Window into China’s Governance of Its Inner Asian Borderlands’ in which the author draws together some of those disparate ventures in his insightful discussion of the political mantras of China’s Communists. The six studies of ‘Other China’ that Professor Barnett introduces, focus on ‘the role of formalistic, ritualised political language as a technology for ruling, and as sources for the circulation of narratives that declare and facilitate state policies and goals.’ He concludes his overview of ‘Communist Party mantras’ (our term) with the observation that ‘the study of official language, guided by scholars from the peripheries of the state to whom its underlying logic of unity is most apparent, presents itself as a powerful avenue for ethnographic research’. This approach is particularly relevant for those embroiled in the study of what we call Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium.

We are delighted to be able to include Professor Barnett’s insightful essay in Watching China Watching. It is also included in our New Sinology Bibliography. We have added some hyperlinks to the essay and split up the introductory paragraph for ease of reading. Additional Chinese characters have been included in square brackets [].


The extended Chinese epigram of this chapter in Watching China Watching is taken from ‘The Little Pleasures of Life’ 閒情記趣, chapter two of Six Chapters of a Floating Life 浮生六記, a Qing-era memoir by Shen Fu 沈復:


Lin Yutang translates this passage as:

‘One should try to show the big in the small and the small in the big, and provide for the real in the unreal. One reveals and conceals alternatively, making it sometimes apparent and sometimes hidden.’

Today, Shen Fu’s description of how best to design a garden may also resonate with students of contemporary Chinese political discourse.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
8 June 2023


Related Material:


灋/ 法 , as in 提法 tífǎ, a formulaic expression of a policy or political idea repeated ad nauseam



A Window into China’s Governance of
Its Inner Asian Borderlands



Robert Barnett

SOAS, University of London


‘Keywords’ were, in eighteenth-century English, terms that allowed the solution of a code or cypher—they literally unlocked a conundrum. By the mid nineteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, they had acquired a more general use, designating a term or concept that explained or summarised a larger set of ideas—‘a word, expression, or concept of particular importance or significance’.

In 1976, when Raymond Williams published his foundational study Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, the term was redesignated to mean ‘significant, indicative words’ that are central to ‘the vocabulary of a crucial area of social and cultural discussion’ (Williams 1985: 15, 24). The task of the scholar, as Williams presented it, was to unravel or disambiguate the various, often conflicting, meanings and associations of those terms in order for that discussion to take place in a clearer, more productive form.

An extensive literature has since emerged in the humanities and social sciences—the Keywords Project, the Critical Terms series, Critical Keywords collections, and so forth—that continues this effort. In essence, that literature aims to increase clarity within contentious, entangled concepts in order to enable sharper, more focused argumentation and debate. This has led to a major production of studies of keywords in various cultures, much of it drawing also on Foucault’s genealogical method of explicating the history and effects of key concepts in discourses.

In the China field, scholars such as Kipnis (2006) have followed Williams’s approach in excavating the detailed history of single, significant terms and tracing the cultural and political valences of their meanings at different times and within different contexts. But the study of keywords and their cognates in the context of Chinese politics has also stemmed from a different strain of writing, one that is associated more recently with the work of Michael Schoenhals (1992). His approach resembled the earlier use of a keyword to unlock a concealed meaning or set of practices rather than to elucidate semantic histories in order to enhance debate. Schoenhals viewed the formalised regulation of language in the modern Chinese system as ‘a form of power managed and manipulated by the state’ (1992: 3). Focusing on the highly regimented management of tifa (提法, formulations) in modern Chinese politics, he drew attention to the minuteness of the CCP’s micro-management of these, including through the frequent issuance of circulars on correct terminology—as he notes, one saying among the bureaucrats ran, ‘where a formulation is off the mark by one millimetre, the theory will be wrong by a thousand kilometres’ (Schoenhals 1992: 7) [差之毫厘,谬以千里]. These circulars, he wrote, ‘certainly play a greater role in shaping the form of the discourse than does ideology . . . Ideology is ultimately secondary to the bureaucratic apparatus that generates, circulates, and supervises compliance with circulars’ on the use of correct terminology (Schoenhals 1992: 51).

Although not mentioned by Schoenhals, a number of scholars and translators, usually based in Hong Kong or Taiwan, had in fact been studying Chinese political language in great detail since the 1950s. Producing primary resources and analysis for western governments, journalists and the academic community, the China-watchers, as they were called, tracked often minute linguistic variations in official press publications and radio broadcasts issued by the mainland authorities. Represented most prominently by Ladány (1988), Whitson (1973), and later by Miller (2018), these China-watchers, drawing on earlier forms of Soviet studies and analysis, were a product of the Cold War era; the standing of ‘China-watching’ was diminished, often unfairly, by its association in some cases with governmental intelligence-gathering and by their lack of access to the field.

In the 1970s, the work of Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) provided a bridge between the often austere analytics of the China-watchers and broader intellectual questions. His approach was to situate the close reading of Communist texts within the context of Chinese history and culture, as well as that of foreign incapacities to interpret it.[1] Leys produced a famous description of the China analyst’s task:

In the course of his exhaustive surveys of Chinese official documentation, the analyst must absorb industrial quantities of the most indigestible stuff; reading Communist literature is akin to munching rhinoceros sausage, or to swallowing sawdust by the bucketful. Furthermore, while subjecting himself to this punishment, the analyst . . . must keep his wits sharp and keen; with the eye of an eagle that can spot a lone rabbit in the middle of a desert, he must scan the arid wastes of the small print in the pages of the People’s Daily, and pounce upon those rare items of significance that lie buried under mountains of clichés. He must know how to milk substance and meaning out of flaccid speeches, hollow slogans, and fanciful statistics; he must scavenge for needles in Himalayan-size haystacks; he must combine the nose of a hunting hound, the concentration and patience of an angler, and the intuition and encyclopaedic knowledge of a Sherlock Holmes.

Thirdly—and this is his greatest challenge—he must crack the code of the Communist political jargon and translate into ordinary speech this secret language full of symbols, riddles, cryptograms, hints, traps, dark allusions, and red herrings. (Leys 1990)

That description, although written in 1990 in a review of Ladány’s memoir of 1988, looked back to the Cold War era, when there was little possibility of fieldwork in China by foreigners, few visits to the mainland and no interviews other than with refugees to give researchers the reassuring impression of acquiring primary knowledge. Even when fieldwork was permitted for foreigners, it was limited to those politically sympathetic to the regime and was prone to dramatic misunderstandings and oversights, often on a large scale (for a powerful account of misreadings in fieldwork-based research, see Friedman 2006). Leys’s commemoration of Ladány thus seemed to represent a kind of nostalgic reverence for a past practice. By that time, such work had come to seem less relevant, if not anachronistic, to some, given that China had, so it seemed, become relatively accessible to foreign researchers in the early 1980s. As Miller was to show in her work (2018), that view was premature. But that was not the majority approach in the realm of China scholarship at the time.

In certain areas of the field, however, that lexicological approach and attention to official language never lost its significance. That was necessarily true of areas like Tibet, and more recently Xinjiang, where foreign research or travel has only rarely been allowed, and where official publications—now often termed open-source materials—have long been the only consistent source of information. In addition, throughout the reform era, other scholars of China developed intellectual positions which, in the tradition of Ladány and Leys, placed the language and publications of the Party at the centre of their work in seeking to understand Chinese politics and its products. The ‘New Sinology’ group, in particular, formed by Geremie Barmé, John Minford and others (Barmé 2016), framed their studies within broader Chinese history and culture instead of interpreting keywords and ideas only by studying their history and usage within Party literature. Drawing on historically based China (and Chinese) scholarship from the early twentieth century, such as that of the Shanghai-based, Republican-era journal The China Critic (Rea 2012a), Lionel Giles (Minford 2008), and Owen Lattimore (Loubere 2016), they aimed to ‘bring back into Chinese Studies something of the depth (and excitement) of the best early Sinology, [so as] to create a New Sinology, that transcends the narrow concerns of the prevalent Social Sciences-based model’ (Minford 2008). This led to an ongoing series of studies that situate contemporary concepts and practices in Chinese politics in their classical, pre-modern and early modern contexts in Chinese history and culture. This approach, with its thematic and temporal cross-cutting, led to Barmé’s In the Red (1999), a survey of semi-commercial, mass-media and pop subcultures in post-Mao China which traced the use of keywords from the early 1900s, through revolutionary praxis in the Maoist era, to political mobilisation-cum-advertising jingles and ersatz art in the 1990s.

These strands of thought—the humanistic problematising of keywords in Williams’s tradition, the analysis of political language as a form of power, the close reading of terminology by the China-watchers and the cultural-historical deep-readings of the New Sinologists, all of which circulated at roughly the same time as Lydia Liu (1995) raised questions as to the very possibility of cross-cultural or translingual translation[2]—have led to the production of multiple works studying or commenting on elements within the lexicon of modern Chinese politics. These have included glossaries, keyword lists, word studies and word essays focused on the interpretation of difficult terms in Chinese political discourse, with increasing range and sophistication—for example, those produced by China Media Project and their online dictionary (CMP n.d.), online glossaries compiled by NGOs discussing the histories of key terms (HRW 2017), in-depth word essays by China Heritage (Barmé 2012) and collected volumes such as Sorace, Franceschini & Loubere’s Afterlives of Communism (2019).[3] At some level, all of these efforts retained the eighteenth-century concept of a keyword: a term the understanding of which can unlock a puzzle, or, as Leys put it in plainer if more dramatic terms, ‘crack the code of the Communist political jargon’.

These studies have in general used ‘keyword’, or a similar term, to refer to expressions of six overlapping kinds that are found in CCP and Chinese governmental texts: official tifa [提法] or formalised, regulated terms or groups of terms; slogans, meaning formalised collocations intended to be repeated and memorised by political participants; policy descriptors, the short forms of titles of particular policies, drives and campaigns by the Party; mnemonics developed, sometimes at local or office level and often with enumerators, as devices for recalling instructions or regulations; standardised formulae purporting to explain a governmental policy or position; and keywords, words considered, either by users within China or by outside commentators, as especially significant to political and intellectual discussion. Some studies in the China field, such as Kipnis’s (2006) discussion of suzhi, Rea’s (2012b) study of lun [论], or Bulag’s (2008) study of Menggu daifu, have focused on unravelling the semantic burdens of a single term; others, such as Qing Gang and the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, have studied keywords in official texts to elucidate the role and nature of particular policies or political institutions; still others have looked at official terms as indices to factional, intellectual and theoretical shifts or conflicts. There is, however, in these studies a shared sense that Chinese political terms reflect in important ways political realities of the time or have real political effects and consequences, or both; that is, words in the Chinese political arena are seen as forms of political signalling, persuasion, or demand that actively shape discourses and alter mentalities. This is also, apparently, the view from within the CCP. As Schoenhals noted (1992: 11),

When the CCP leadership approves of a certain formulation, it does so because the formulation is judged to be politically useful and clever. A highly scientific formulation is one the state can use as a powerful tool of political manipulation.

This supports the emphasis among sinological interpreters on the close study of Chinese terms and their political utility. But in general, perhaps because of the silo-ing of specialisms between political and social sciences, there has been less attention to the social effects of official language and the reverberations of official terminology within the communities to which they are, in many cases, addressed. It is this that we have termed the social life of keywords.


It was to address this aspect of linguistic study in the China context that we assembled in Cambridge during the spring of 2022 a group of social scientists whose work and experience focused on societies in the Inner Asian areas of China. Our consideration was not initially to study terminology as such. Rather, we met to discuss with scholars from the region the methodological possibilities that remain for anthropological and social study of China’s western areas, given the increasing restrictions on access to those areas (compounded since 2020 by the impact of the pandemic) and the deeply troubling ethical issues involving any research or contact with people in those areas, particularly Xinjiang, where the technology of state surveillance and practices of extreme repression now far outstrip that of any other Chinese region. In that context, the analysis of open-source materials and their terminology presents itself as a partial, indirect but still important way of learning something of the condition of society from afar—an element of what Margaret Mead and others, in the context of World War II and later the Cold War, had called ‘the study of culture at a distance’ (Mead & Métraux 1953), a concept that is now more fashionably termed remote ethnography.

That discussion led us to the question of keywords. Grouping together the six sub-types of official terminology listed above—regularised formulations, slogans, policy descriptors, mnemonics, justificatory formulae and keywords—we took, as is normal in the field, governmental language and rhetoric in China to be at least indicators if not leading instruments of the campaigns, policies, and drives that are central (alongside educational, economic, institutional, disciplinary and other mechanisms) to the Party’s continual efforts to reshape social structures, norms, identities, institutions and subjectivities within the Chinese geobody and beyond. But we sought to add to that approach the social question inherent in the study of Party terminology—the relation of individuals and communities to the keywords found in official texts, and the circulation and reception of such terms in those contexts. Focusing on the Inner Asian context, where the issue of nationality and its historic relations to the Chinese state is paramount, we aimed to integrate textual study with ethnographic and lived experience. At the same time, we wanted to balance the ethnographic experience of outside researchers, which has structural dominance in the field, with that of scholars from the region. Such scholars identify themselves variously—some by ethnicity, others by historical connection to a place, others through concepts such as indigeneity, minority status, or nativeness—but in general what distinguishes their work is their history of lived experience in a place or community, and often of a shared mother-tongue with that community. In this issue, such scholars consider two primary questions about keywords and their influence: how do keywords function in the Inner Asian areas of China, where ethnicity, difference and border tensions are pervasive features of life and politics? And how do people in those communities, particularly those with deep historical ties to place, experience the impact of keywords in practice?

As a first step in exploring these questions, this special section consists of papers by six social scientists— an ethnomusicologist, a linguistic anthropologist, three social anthropologists and a human geographer—who are currently overseas, but whose scholarship is grounded in experience living or working in China’s border regions to discuss the functioning of policy-related keywords in the field. They presented their perspectives on ways in which certain politically laden terms and phrases act in the social realm and daily life, and on distinctions in their valency and meaning between texts and practice, between different levels of administration, and between the officials who implement the policies and the targets of the policies, as well as other factors. Their papers treat only a minute fraction of the keywords or phrases that operate and shape people’s lives and communities in the areas and locations observed by these scholars, and much more work will be needed before general statements or conclusions can be drawn. But some common themes are already discernible. These are reflected in the arrangement of these papers, which we have ordered from the more general or theoretical to the more particular and local, proceeding from the debates and publications of official scholars and bureaucrats to the villages and pastoral settlements of those whose lives the scholars and officials aim to improve and regulate.


Inner Asia

Vol.25, No.1 (May 2023)

Keywords:  A Window into China’s Governance of Its Inner Asian Borderlands

Edited by Robert Barnett and Tenha Seher

  • Introduction, Robert Barnett
  • Xiaoshi Wei, Pluralistic Unity: The Social Life of Duoyuan yiti in China
  • Gegentuul Baioud, From Diversity to Homogeneity: Vacillating Signifieds in Propaganda Texts in Inner Mongolia
  • Musapir, Whose ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’? The Dispossession of Uyghur Knowledge-Holders
  • Tenha Seher, Ping’an jiating in Rural Southern Xinjiang: A Keyword and Its Meanings in the Local Context
  • Yonten Nyima, ‘When the Land Cannot Support the People Any More’: The Utility of an Official Formulation in Resettlement in Tibet
  • Guldana Salimjan, Ecotourism as Racial Capitalism: Ecological Civilisation in Settler-Colonial Xinjiang

Link to open access chapters:


The first paper in this series is thus Wei Xiaoshi’s discussion of what can be seen as the guiding principle in recent thinking among officials, intellectuals and others in China about the handling of ‘minorities’: the concept of duoyuan yiti [多元一体], meaning ‘pluralistic unity’, or ‘unity and plurality’. Coined by the pre-eminent anthropologist Fei Xiaotong at a lecture he gave in Hong Kong in 1988, it has provided the framework for most subsequent enunciations of policy regarding the relations of the Chinese state with its non-Chinese populations. This concept, from the perspective of the parent state and of those who have to explain its values and policies, underlies or frames the terms and conditions described in the five other papers in this issue. Wei’s work as an ethnomusicologist has led him to observe the tensions between duoyuan, plurality, and yiti, unity, in his field, particularly in the framing of studies and publications within the community of social scientists who work in China on the collection, archiving and categorisation of music by non-Han peoples in China. The social life of this formulation that he traces in his paper is thus primarily its circulation in official documents, academic texts, the naming of cultural institutions, and archival practices. But he also notes how certain popular phrases or idioms that suggest a seemingly similar concept—such as the pomegranate and its seeds in Xinjiang, or salt and tea in Tibet—are co-opted for, or mimicked in, official rhetoric. ‘On the one hand,’ Wei explains, ‘the authorities consider such interactions and rhetorical framing devices to “genuinely” reflect ideas of nationhood and intercultural perceptions; on the other hand, ordinary members of “minorities” often simply view them as a mandatory element to be indexed and so legitimise the performance.’ The duoyuan yiti key term, originally an academic concept, is thus ‘now politically actualised, academically integrated, and adopted, though not always sincerely, in everyday social parlance among the very minorities it seeks to occlude.’ He concludes that ‘in public discourse, “diversity” seems to yield to “unity” most of the time,’ a finding that is demonstrated by the other essays in this issue.

The use of the duoyuan yiti formulation and its implications are explored by Gegentuul Baioud in the context of Inner Mongolia, one of the five regions, including Tibet and Xinjiang, designated as autonomous by the Chinese state. Drawing on a recent set of online propaganda posts issued by state bodies in Mongolian and on the images that accompanied them, she discusses two keywords or phrases, both of which are enactments of the duoyuan yiti formulation. Focusing on the shifting connotation of these keywords and their effects on Mongolians, she argues that the usage of these keywords indicates the increasing drift of policy in China towards the valorisation of assimilationist solutions. ‘The changing signification of key terms’, she notes, ‘is interrelated with and constitutes the transformation of China from a multinational country to a Han-centric nation state’. The first is dumdadu-yin ündüsten, the Mongolian translation of the Chinese term Zhonghua minzu [中华民族], which has become the principal term in official discourse for conceptualising nationality issues in contemporary China. Translated in official literature as ‘the Chinese nation’, but meaning more precisely ‘the China nationality’ or ‘the China ethnicity’ [in China Heritage this term is translated as ‘China Race’], the term is the active component within a now-primary assertion by the state that the citizens of China constitute a single ethnic group, albeit containing a number of subsidiary cultures and ethnicities, of which the ‘Han’ (ethnic Chinese) are only one. The term is thus the actualisation of the duoyuan yiti concept as a political configuration—in short, a scheme for the reordering of cultures and peoples within China. The second term, ulus-un neidem hereglehü üge hel, translates the Chinese formulation guojia tongyong yuyan [国家通用语言], national common language, the teaching and use of which constitute the current enactment of the duoyuan yiti formulation in the realm of linguistic and educational policy. The term proposes the existence of a single language that has supposedly evolved to become the language of all citizens of China and yet is not, despite appearances, the same as the language of the Han majority. In August 2020 this proposition was abruptly actualised for Mongolians in China: the Inner Mongolia Education Department announced that three key subjects in Mongolian-medium schools were to be taught in Mandarin Chinese, a major reversal of language policy for those schools. Baioud shows how, for Mongolians within China, the promotion of yiti over duoyuan, unity over plurality, in the new terminology of China’s political order and in its language policies ‘flattens layers of identities of multilingual minorities and renders their nested loyalties to the country and their own nationality (ethnicity) impossible.’

The next three papers discuss the uses and impacts of keywords at the grassroots level. Musapir, a Uyghur anthropologist currently overseas and writing under a pseudonym to protect family members and sources, describes the social reality at the village level of a keyword that is of particular importance to communities in Inner Asia that, at least by the Chinese state, are classified as minorities: intangible cultural heritage (ICH) [无形文化遗产]. ICH is a major feature in international discourse, promoted originally by a number of scholars and diplomats (primarily from Japan) from the 1980s onwards to offset a Western-dominated, monumentalist view of cultural heritage and a paternalistic, text-based attitude to folklore (Bortolotto 2007). Formalised through a UNESCO Convention in 2003, the ICH concept aimed instead to celebrate the ‘wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted . . . from one generation to the next,’ and in doing so stressed in particular that ‘this transmission of knowledge is relevant for minority groups’ (UNESCO n.d.).[4] China has used the notion of ICH extensively in its political lexicon, in part to highlight its support for an internationally acclaimed ideal, and it has been a world leader in ICH-implementation—it was one of the first countries to ratify the 2003 Convention (Demgenski 2020) and, as of late 2022, had 43 elements[5] inscribed in the UNESCO lists of recognised examples of ICH, far more than that of any other country and nearly twice that of Japan or France (Ji et al. 2020). But the realisation of ICH as a policy has in some ways reproduced the tensions inherent in Chinese state discourses about minority cultures. Some of these are shown in Musapir’s study, which discusses state uses of the ICH concept among Uyghur communities in southern Xinjiang where she worked as an ethnographer in the mid 2010s. Knowledge-holders, musicians and healers within the community who had been designated and rewarded by the state as ‘bearers’ of ICH, she found, had to manoeuvre within restrictive definitions of and constraints on their cultural practices. In some cases this was a consequence of the hegemonic ordering of China’s minorities as ‘colourful, exotic, and backward’; in other cases it was a policy-driven stripping of religiously connotated content; in yet others, what had been communal events were reconfigured as professionalised, commercial performances, often aimed at tourists. At least among Uyghur communities in southern Xinjiang, she suggests, the ICH framework has ‘been used to further Han cultural domination and nation-building,’ involving practices which she describes as ‘excluding, erasing and eradicating’ vital aspects of the cultures of those communities.

In her paper on village life in southern Xinjiang, Tenha Seher, also a Uyghur anthropologist writing under a pseudonym to protect family and sources, shows how a prominent keyword operates as a kind of token in negotiations between the state and the community, offering opportunities to both. Through deployment of the keyword, she notes, villagers are offered a compact of sorts in which conformity with state norms can be traded for access to resources. The keyword in this case is inscribed on a metal plaque or sign and screwed or nailed to the doorframe of a villager’s house. The semantic content of the keyword—in this case, the words ping’an jiating [平安家庭] or ‘peaceful, safe household’, a designation used as part of a post-2012 security policy known as ping’an jianshe [平安建设], ‘peaceful, safe construction’—is secondary to its function, which is to mark a household or family as in conformity with a set of state-defined norms, some related to legal and political compliance and others to educational achievement and moral conduct. Seher notes that this practice in some ways mimics the use of models or exemplars in the Maoist era, but in a largely token way, since almost every village household will have the same status and most households need do nothing extra to acquire it. Instead, she argues, the marking of a home with the keyword functions in a way similar to a currency, providing ‘use value’ for both the village officials and household members. For the former, it enables information collection and evidence of successful management; for the latter, it signals a trust relationship with the local bureaucracy, a status that can be brokered to gain access to certain privileges, such as (at one time) permission to undertake the haj or pilgrimage to Mecca. In the context of Xinjiang, however, where the state’s privileging of unity over diversity has taken what is by far the most extreme form known in modern times, particularly since 2017, a villager’s compact with the state can be reversed at any time. In rural Xinjiang, Seher notes, the use value of such a keyword ‘is changeable, dependent on political climate both at the national level and at the level of the region, and sometimes fraught with danger.’

The third of the three village-level studies in this collection is from the Tibetan social scientist and geographer Yonten Nyima, based on many years of fieldwork (as well as upbringing) among pastoralists in the northern part of the Tibet Autonomous Region. His study focuses on a formulation that is used repeatedly, not as a slogan or policy title, but as an explanation for a foundational and long-standing policy of the Chinese state: the relocation of rural communities from one area to another. China has applied this policy increasingly to herding communities in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang or Tibet, removing them from their pasturelands to areas where they will have to pursue a non-herding way of life. The keyword or formula, yifang shuitu yanghuo buliao yifangren (‘the soil and water of a place cannot support the local people’) [一方水土养活不了一方人], has been used in official texts since the late 1980s to explain the need for one or other community to be relocated. Yonten Nyima argues that the formula functions in those texts not as a form of evidence-based argumentation, but as a narrative—that this or that place cannot sustain human life—that appears to make sense of an administrative decision, although it may not in fact reflect reality. It is thus a persuasive strategy which, when combined with incentives, signals an expectation of compliance rather than debate. As one herder says of this formula,

I have grown up in the new society and experienced many such expressions (sheltsul) . . . the phrase is just a sheltsul and maybe will be gone after some time. It is not good to say [it is] untrue, when it [the phrase] is still [being] said by the government.

The formulation, operating separately from its meaning, is thus deployed, Yonten Nyima explains, as ‘a contribution to policy implementation on the ground’. Tibetan officials, conscious of the trust of herders in the central state rather than its local representatives, use the device to obtain compliance with policies although they probably know the formula is inaccurate, since it enables them to signal high-level authorisation for an action that they are obligated to complete. Its significance, Yonten Nyima explains, ‘does not lie in what it suggests or in the validity of what it suggests is true. Rather, it is used to convey authority.’

The final paper in this collection is by Guldana Salimjan, a Kazakh anthropologist from Xinjiang. She discusses the wider implications of another keyword that, like ICH, signals China’s wish to be seen as a leading player in an issue that has wide international support: environmental protection. In practice, however, the keyword is realised, in at least some areas of Xinjiang, through policies including land appropriation and the removal of indigenous communities. That keyword is, in Chinese, shengtai wenming [生态文明], ‘ecological civilisation’. The goal of ‘building an ecological civilisation’ was first declared to be a major objective for China in 2007; five years later it was incorporated into the national and Party constitutions as well as into China’s Five-Year Plan (Wang et al. 2014).[6] It represented a commitment by China to balance the contradictions between development and environmental protection ‘so as to achieve a virtuous cycle in the interaction between the natural ecosystem and social and economic systems’ (Ju 2020: pt. 1). This was to be done by creating ‘an industrial structure and models of growth and consumption that would use energy and resources sparingly and preserve the natural environment’ (Ju 2020: pt. 1). Salimjan looks at the reality of these high-sounding ideals for a number of pastoral communities in Xinjiang, where Kazakh herders have been relocated from their pasturelands in the name of this keyword, cut off from their traditional livelihood and converted into wage-labourers serving wealthy Chinese customers from the Han heartlands in eco-tourism venues. She points out that this process of radical dislocation and appropriation is not only of people, but also of labour, landscapes, heritage and communities; further, she notes, it is linked to the systems of labour extraction developed in tandem with the network of internment and re-education camps operating throughout Xinjiang since at least 2017. Situating these practices within global forms of capitalism, she concludes that ‘the expansion of ecological capitalism in China remains hinged on the production of brutal economic inequalities and cycles of vulnerability among racialised and minoritised bodies.’

The keywords and formulations discussed in the six case-studies presented here thus appear in practice, at least in the Inner Asian context, to relegate or flatten, or at the very least to reduce, and sometimes to eviscerate, the diversity of local needs and histories in the interests of larger state purposes. The underlying logic of those keywords privileges unity rather than diversity, leading to social and cultural changes that prioritise sincisation rather than local priorities or histories. What we find in all six studies is the role of formalistic, ritualised political language as a technology for ruling, and as sources for the circulation of narratives that declare and facilitate state policies and goals.

The findings of these studies, and their evident value to the field, return us to our initial enquiry about appropriate modes of ethnographic and political research in the Inner Asian areas at a time when access is restricted. In a situation in which minorities are being subjected to keyworded propaganda and policy, clearly scholars with lived experience in those areas and communities, with their language skills, experience and positionality, are especially well placed to explain some of the undercurrents and problems in the workings of those concepts, and more especially to challenge the state’s discursive domination in its rule of their communities. Under such conditions, the study of official language, guided by scholars from the peripheries of the state to whom its underlying logic of unity is most apparent, presents itself as a powerful avenue for ethnographic research.


All hyperlinks included in the references for this introduction and papers in the China section of this issue were current at the time of writing unless otherwise stated.

Barmé, G. 1999. In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture. New York (NY): Columbia University Press.

Barmé, G. 2012. China Heritage Glossary. China Heritage Quarterly 30/31, June/September. Online publication.

Barmé, G. 2016. A New Sinology reader: what is New Sinology? China Heritage. The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology. 28 June. Online publication.

Bortolotto, C. 2007. From objects to processes: UNESCO’s ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Journal of Museum Ethnography 19: 21–33.

Bulag, U. 2008. Contesting the words that wound: ethnicity and the politics of sentiment in China. Inner Asia 10(1): 87–111.

CIPG (China International Publishing Group), ACCWS (Academy of Contemporary China and World Studies) & CATL (Chinese Academy of Translation). 2019. Keywords to understand China. Beijing: New World Press.

CMP (China Media Project). N.d. The CMP Dictionary. China Media Project. Online publication.

Demgenski, P. 2020. ‘When it comes to intangible cultural heritage, everyone is always happy:’ some thoughts on the Chinese life of a UNESCOconvention. Contemporary China Centre Blog, Issue Five: Heritage and Memory. 22 April. Online publication.

Friedman, E. 2006. Learning about a Chinese Village in a Leninist-Party authoritarian state. Journal of Contemporary China 15(47): 369–87.

HRW (Human Rights Watch). 2017. Tibet: a glossary of repression. 19 June. Online publication.

Ji Yuqiao, Dong Feng & Li Yuche 2020. How China became No.1 in world intangible cultural heritage. Global Times. 21 December.,Intangible%20Cultural%20Heritage%20on%20Thursday

Jin Guantao & Liu Qingfeng. 2009. Guannian shi yanjiu: Zhongguo xiandai zhongyao zhengzhi shuyu de xingcheng 观念史研究:中国现代重要政治术语的形成 [Research on the history of ideas: the formation of important modern Chinese political terms]. Beijing: Falu chubanshe 法律出版社 [Legal Publishing House].

Ju Li. 2020. The Chinese Path to an ecological civilization. Qiushi Journal (English edition). April. 1) and (part 2).

Kipnis, A. 2006. Suzhi: a keyword approach. China Quarterly 186: 295–313.

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[1] Leys had, of course, rich material to mine in China’s own tradition of word analysis. As Schoenhals notes, ‘in premodern China, political philosophers studied language formalisation extensively’; he goes on to cite Confucius’ saying, ‘the Prince is never casual in his choice of words’ (Schoenhals 1992: 2). In Chinese, there have been numerous keyword studies or concept studies (guan nian shi 观念史), notably Jin & Liu (2009), which is based on The Database for the Study of Modern Chinese Thought and Literature, 1830–1910, housed at Chengchi University, Taiwan (, and Sun’s 7-volume series (2013–21), based on the journal Yazhou gainian shi yanjiu 亚洲概念史研究 [Research on the history of Asian concepts] (see Liu & Sun 2013–).

[2] Liu, while distancing her approach from that of Williams, continues the historical study of terminologies and their contexts, albeit in complex ways: ‘Lest my work be misunderstood as a keyword study in the manner of Raymond Williams, I emphasise that my concerns lie beyond establishing the changing meanings of words, concepts, and discourses that are thought to bear witness to larger historical processes . . . [I] also consider the issue of translingual modes of representation’ (1995: xix).

[3] The Chinese government itself, through the State Council Information Office, has produced its own bilingual list of keywords, ‘analysing and explaining essential expressions used to describe the developmental theories and pathways, external and internal policies . . . of contemporary China’ (SCIO n.d.; CIPG et al. 2019). The explanations for each keyword—among which, for some reason, is the term ‘Colourful Guizhou’—consist primarily of praise for the policy or claim represented by the keyword, rather than analysis or explanation. In other words, the purpose of an explanation of a keyword is seen as a continuation of the purpose of the keyword itself: its political utility as a persuasive device.

[4] ICH is presented by UNESCO as a counterpoint to state-defined notions or determinations of minority culture: ‘Intangible cultural heritage can only be heritage when it is recognised as such by the communities, groups or individuals that create, maintain and transmit it—without their recognition, nobody else can decide for them that a given expression or practice is their heritage’ (UNESCO n.d.).

[5] See

[6] The policy of building an ‘ecological civilisation’ is described in an article in Qiushi, the principal theoretical journal of the Chinese Communist Party, as a ‘Chinese-originated concept’ (Ju 2020: pt. 2), and is said to have been developed and implemented by China for the last 70 years (Ju 2020: pt. 1). In fact, the term was coined by Soviet environmental experts in 1984 (Oswald 2016).