Western discourses on China: orientalism reconsidered

Ji Fengyuan

Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) was a landmark in discourse analysis, cultural studies and postcolonial thought. In it, Said argued that the West had for over two thousand years constructed Asian peoples and cultures as an inferior and unchanging ‘Other’, attributing to them qualities that were antitheses of the virtues enshrined in the West’s idealised self-image. This paper will test the applicability of his argument to Western discourses about China. It will suggest that while it applies well enough to some discourses, it cannot come to terms with either the multiplicity of discourses or the radical discursive transformations that have occurred over time. Different groups created competing discourses that reflected their divergent interests and perspectives, and discourses emerged and vanished in response to developments in Western society, the evolving needs of opinion makers, the changing international situation, and events in China itself.

While the paper covers some familiar territory, it differs from earlier treatments in its systematic attempt to link Western discourses to the interests of particular groups, in its focus on explaining why successive discourses developed and then disappeared, and in its sustained attention to Said’s argument in relation to the whole period of contact between China and the West.

About the Speaker

Ji Fengyuan is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese at the Australian National University. She grew up in China where she experienced the ‘linguistic engineering’ of the Mao era at first hand. She then studied at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and taught there for many years before coming to Canberra. Her research interests focus on the relationship between language and politics, and she is the author of Linguistic Engineering: Language and Politics in Mao’s China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press 2004). More recent publications include Language, State and Society in Post-Mao China: Continuity and Change, in Ernest Andrews, (ed.), Legacies of Totalitarian Language in the Discourse Culture of the Post-Totalitarian Era: The Case of Eastern Europe, Russia, and China, Maryland: Lexington Books 2011; and Linguistic Engineering in Hu Jintao’s China: The Case of the “Maintain Advancedness” Campaign, in Anne-Marie Brady (ed.), China's Thought Management, London: Routledge 2011.

After the Seminar

To allow for informal discussion, the seminar will be followed by a dinner with the guest speaker at 6:15pm. The location of the restaurant will be announced at the seminar. All are welcome, though those who attend will need to pay for their own food and drinks. As reservations must be made at the restaurant, please RSVP by noon of the day before the seminar to jasmine.lin@anu.edu.au

The ANU China Seminar Series is supported by the China Institute, the Research School of Asia and the Pacific, and the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University.


Ji Fengyuan

Dates & times

Thursday, 7 May 2015

4.00pm - 5.30pm


Seminar Rooms, China in the World Building (188), Fellows Lane, ANU

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