Speech Act Rules and the Weak

In the same lecture on the rules of speech acts in which my professor quoted Confucius, he talked quite a bit about race. His point was that the rules of speech acts govern what we can and can’t say about race in society.

According to him, the rules depended on who “the weak” (弱者) were. The weak could be spoken of positively by the rest of society, but if they were spoken negatively of, there would be strong resentment. Furthermore, the priveleged in society could not be spoken of too positively, as that would incur the wrath of the weak.

As an example, he gave holidays. Why are there Teacher’s Day but not Student’s Day, Secretary’s Day but not Boss’s Day*, Nurse’s Day but not Doctor’s Day, Labor Day but not Rich Man’s Day? To this a student asked, “well what about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day?” My professor laughed. “Parents are the most downtrodden of all!” he replied. The class, chuckling, agreed.

He went on to talk about a Chinese song which had been popular in the 70’s. The song glorified the Chinese people, along with their “yellow skin,” “black hair,” and “black eyes.” At that time, everyone thought it was a great song. And yet, such a racially-fixated song would be out of place in Chinese society today. Why?

Back then China was really struggling. It had not yet experienced the economic growth that it would under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. China was undeniably a member of “the weak” on the world stage. As such, it could glorify its racial features, and no one would have a problem. As China’s economy grew over the years and the nation prospered, it became less “weak,” and the situation changed.

As a similar example, my professor pointed out the situation in the United States. Black Americans could have black pride, but white pride was frowned upon (particularly by “the weak” in society). Similarly, Americans–including black Americans–would not really care about Chinese racial pride, because to Americans both black and white, the Chinese are still “the weak.” He predicted that a Chinese show of racial pride would, however, be offensive to many Africans.

It was an interesting lecture.

* Apparently in China there is no Boss’s Day.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Does sound like an interesting lecture.

    I’m not sure I’d agree that “such a…song would be out of place in Chinese society today” – he would have been referring to Hou Dejian’s “Descendants of the Dragon” (龙的传人), probably – first in 1978, then covered by tons of artists (even good old Lee-hom did one for today’s music scene).

    Then there was 东方之珠 in 1991 or so (永远不变黄色的脸). And Andy Lau’s hugely popular 中国人 based national pride on ethnic features (yellow skin and black eyes), and that was in 1997 – and in Hong Kong, no less. And Ye Fan sang 亲爱的中国我爱你 at the 2001 CCTV Spring Festival thing, with the lyrics “Yellow-skinned faces make up the Chinese flag” (黄皮肤的脸是面中国旗).

    In the debate over these images last year when a few of these songs were included in a textbook of “Patriotic Songs,” one of the issues raised was the fact that the descriptions were exclusionary, not in relation to any power outside China, but to non-yellow-skinned minorities within China – a different dimension to the strong-weak dynamic. Politically, these songs seem to exist in a delicate balance between the pursuit of cross-straits solidarity and the preservation of a multi-ethnic society.

  2. zhwj,

    Yes, 龙的传人 was the song he was referring to.

    I don’t know much about these songs… Aoccrding to the prof, 龙的传人 was hugely popular. Were the other songs you mentioned very popular in recent times?

  3. I think your prof hit this issue right on the head. Not being a member of a minority does make a person reluctant to celebrate pride in his race. I think that’s why there is such a proliferation of people’s pride in their origins.

    A person in the US that is proud to be white would be seen as a “white supremisist” by most blacks and whites. A person proud to be Irish or Italian would be seen as a person respecting his roots.

  4. Are you able to understand most or all of his lectures without help? Impressive, especially for someone who worked as an English teacher for a few years and learned Chinese on the sly. I wouldn’t recognize “downtrodden” if I heard it in Chinese.

  5. 弱者 shows up all the time in the book I just finished, 上海里弄的保护与更新, as the old people and children who need special consideration when the city government decides to tear down a buncha people’s houses and build new office buildings/world expo parks.

    I dunno about your prof, it sounds like he subscribes to the “everybody does as much bad stuff as they can get away with” theory, which is pretty much the basis for modern economics and capitalism, but fails when it runs into altruistic people. So I would take it as a good approximation to the world, but claim that he doesn’t have the whole picture there.

  6. I am actually quite surprised to read that your professor had these views. How did other students react to it? Has he taught/worked in the US? I ask because I’m wondering if his is a wholly home-grown China view.

    In the US, typically disciplines in Latin American, Asian American, African American studies gave a great deal of weight to ‘power’ relations as a core to race relations. Words, their underlying meanings and uses had to be understood in the context of the power relationship, the typical example being that it’s okay for an African American to use the *n word, but not okay for a caucasion to use it, principally because of the relative power status that their race provided in the context of US society. Another example being the comfort and use of words like negro, colored and black by an older generation of African Americans versus the use of African American by younger generations. (As a generalization)

    I looked up my old college website to get the proper name of the majors, and it’s interesting that now there is only the American Studies dept and Latin American and Latino dept. Things are still changing in the USA.

    With this professor’s comments, it’s good to know that at least some Chinese are aware of the power of words in relation to race. My Chinese simply is not good enough to know right now, but is ‘race’ as a word the same as it is in English, with all it’s various interpretations, history and political implications? Are there different Chinese words for ‘race’, ‘ethnic’, ‘nationality’? Is there parsing of a Chinese vs. a Han-Chinese vs a Mongolian-Chinese vs. a Mongolian vs a Chinese-Mongolian?

  7. The popularity of 龙的传人 was a special case, I think, since it arrived on the mainland representing Taiwanese pop music as well as sentiments of shared identity. 东方之珠 is a karaoke standard even today. 中国人 pretty much everyone knows, I believe. When I saw Andy Lau in one of those multi-artist concerts in 2001, he sang four songs – one was 中国人, during which all the backing dancers had those ancient warrior costumes on and did pseudo-kungfu moves. The last one I’m not too sure of, really.

  8. That is the most off-topic lecture I have ever heard of. If speech is the means to an end (for example, expressing an opinion about race), then the social restrictions are better discussed in relation to the outcome of the speech act (the expressed opinion) rather than the speech itself. Although the line between linguistics and sociology is sometimes hard to draw, your professor’s pet theory on societal dynamics is pretty clearly not in the realm of linguistics. What on earth do national holidays have to do with SPEECH ACTS?

    Anyway, his theory sounds like little more than a description of “political correctness”, and is almost certainly specific to a certain society at a certain time. Does it apply to feudal China? I don’t think so. And although nationalistic songs are no longer as popular as they once were, I don’t think that they are socially unacceptable, far from it. So basically, I think your professor’s theory is neither interesting, nor relevant.

    Universities ARE the places to discuss new ideas, but I don’t think a lecture is the right time for it. Will you be tested on this?

  9. 翻译也有好处…

    中国被国外称为儒教国家。而关于孔子们的思想,国外的汉学家们却理解得比国内透彻得多。老罗说,把中文翻译成英文再翻译回来,结果自己的孩子都不认识了。但这只是对于"父母"而言。对于孩子来讲,孩子外面瞎跑了一圈,回来惊讶地发现,原来我爸妈是这样啊,好处多多。苏轼写了一首诗,就是这个意思。其他例子数不胜数譬如林语堂写吾国吾民譬如王二大神譬如一般人看不明白的官文,好事的 ……

  10. Tell him to read Nietzsche “no one is so inferior as someone who insists he is equal”.

  11. I think of lot of it goes to the root of Asian philosophy. For instance, Chinese have told me that they want to be unified with Taiwan because they are apart. But once they are unified, probably the Chinese will all start talking about secession. The pendulum swings back and forth. We see that in the U.S. Now that the religious right is seen as more powerful because Bush is President, people have a fear that creationism will take over all the schools. But if a Democrat wins next time, people will complain about some bs that some other schools teach. Asian societies are more open about discussing the need for harmony because the Emperor was deciding for everyone, whereas the democratic systems in the West result in more harmonious outcomes due to the system itself.

  12. schtickyrice Says: April 30, 2006 at 8:16 am

    I’m not sure if the fundamental substance of current debates about the political incorrectness of songs such as ‘Descendants of the Dragon’ is really about the strong-weak power dynamic. What it really comes down to is a maturing nation state coming to terms with its imperial legacy and the schizophrenic nature of Chinese nationalism. The official line has always been that China is a multi-ethnic nation state, inclusive of all ethnic minorities. I think the Nationalists under Sun Yat-Sen had even promoted the anthropologically unsound idea of a Chinese ‘racial family’ that included Mongolians, Tibetans, and Uighurs. In practice, however, the symbols of Chinese nationalism are invariably Han-centric. Granted, a few pop songs from Taiwan and Hong Kong do not represent the official view of Chinese nationalism, but the state has certainly used the Han nationalist sentiments of the lyrics to its advantage in its pursuit of national ‘unity’ in the context of cross-strait relations. Given the song’s blatant racial and/or cultural exclusion of many of China’s minorities, however, it is only a matter of time before the wisdom of promoting such sentiments would be called into question. I don’t think its about the strong/Han becoming more politically correct and sensitive to the weak/minorities. It really comes down to the fundamental question of what exactly does it mean to be Chinese. Is it not true that Chinese historians are even starting to question the wisdom of deifying historical nationalist heros such as Zhang Fei because the barbarian invaders that he was fighting, the Khitans and Jurchens, through time have assimilated into the Chinese melting pot? Granted, such academic political correctness may not fly on the street, but the fact that this is even debated at all is a healthy sign that Chinese society is maturing, is it not?

  13. Sonagi,

    I don’t usually have much trouble understanding the lectures, but you have to remember that I don’t remember them word for word. I understand them, store them in “mentalese” (to use Steven Pinker’s term), then reconstruct them in English when necessary.

  14. Lantian,

    That particular prof of mine has never been to the States, and he’s not interested in visiting (I’ve asked). He speaks little or no English.

    I think the race-related stuff you bring up in the last paragraph of your comment is all fairly complex in Chinese as well, and goes sort of beyond the scope of the discussion here…

  15. Todd,

    Wow. Sorry you feel that way.

    I think the reason that I haven’t had much to say about my classes so far is that the teacher does mostly adhere to the subject matter as much as you would seem to prefer.

  16. Lantian Says: May 1, 2006 at 12:27 pm

    Hi schtickyrice,

    I agree with almost everything you said, except the fundamental premise that this does not have to do with power relations. Absolutely China is going thru a period of introspection, extrospecition-if that’ is a word, that has a lot to do with nation-building which people do not often bring up in discussions such as this. Therefore, your discussion about what is Han, etc., is of course quite interesting. But if you only want to stop there and see it as the creation of identity–then I think the view is too narrow.

    Do you mean to say that the ultimate conclusion of an identity results in maturity or a stable nation is the goal? I don’t think that nation-states are necessarily an ideal ultimate goal, nor do I think identity every really becomes stable, especially so at a societal level (Note ‘mature’ nations such as France or the Netherlands are even now tackling ‘What is, who can be French/Dutch). The continual change, revision and balance all are built upon power relationships. This power exists as the boss that can fire you or the nation that can blow you up.

    As the land mass of China has an extremely long history of creating, dealing with, and applying ‘identity’ I would differ with you that in this regard it is ‘maturing’ which implies needing to go from here point A to there point B, point B being mature. China is already exceedingly mature, nuanced, and effective in it’s application of social identity. Being mature–versus is that a good thing, well that’s another topic. Clearly I am also parsing this out for the sake of dicussion from technical, industrialization aspects of development and ‘economic-maturity’ measures.

    How can you not link the subject of power dynamics to something to me as seemingly blatent a power-relationship as something like nationalism, national identity or nation-state? If we can agree that it exist there, then all that John and the professor have done is discussed and related it at the micro-level of linguistics and individual word speech acts; which I believe is right on, relevant, and an interesting cross-discipline discussion.

    (Wow, do I feel all academic now. So schtickyrice, tell me more about Khitans and Jurchens. And let’s turn up the volume on some cheesy C-pop! And can anyone tell me where I can get some good Vietnamese sticky rice and mango?!!!)

  17. Lantian Says: May 1, 2006 at 12:39 pm

    Hi John,

    Wow, your professor sounds like professors I had in the States. Maybe he was plugged into ArpaNet before we all even had the Internet. Talk more about mentalese, Steven Pinker, if you ever get the urge, I wonder sometimes what I’m “thinking in” and linguistically — I don’t think my ‘words’ are all stored as such. Does ‘Applied Linguistics” mean that you only examine it from the point of the written/spoken word and how it fits into everything, versus I dunno something like neuro-linguistics, where it all might come from?

  18. Sonagi Says: May 1, 2006 at 8:50 pm

    The ‘mentalese’ thing makes sense, John. I do it, too. It’s funny how I can listen to speech in a foreign language, understand it, but can’t recall exactly what words were used.

  19. Da Xiangchang Says: May 3, 2006 at 4:29 am

    It’s not so much “weakness” but insecurity of an “inferior” group to a “superior” group. I don’t think Africans would care if Chinese people express racial pride cuz Chinese people and blacks never had a superior-inferior relationship like blacks and pinks. And Chinese songs celebrating the Chinese racial characteristics is just another symptom of Chinese insecurity in relationship to Caucasians. The songs are rather pathetic, no different, IMHO, from some trailer trash saying, “I’m proud to be white!” GET THE #$@!!% OUTTA HERE. Real pride comes from personal accomplishments.

  20. schtickyrice Says: May 3, 2006 at 12:24 pm

    Hi Lantian
    You make some very interesting points that compel me to re-examine some of my previous statements. Let me start by clarifying that I am no expert in the academic nuances of power relation dynamics, but I do have some personal perspectives regarding the issue of identity. Do I think the power relationship between the Han and China’s ethnic minorities is equal? Not at all. The point I was trying to make was that I don’t believe Chinese society has yet reached the point of political correctness as it has in western society in which the ‘strong’ Han bleeding hearts are flagellating themselves over insensitivities to the ‘weak’ minorities. Similarly, political correctness simply does not exist in China when it comes to the economically downtrodden. Just go to any Chinese internet forum and words like mingong and nongmin are tossed around as insults.

    I don’t believe the sudden soul searching over the racially and culturally exclusionary lyrics of a few nationalist pop songs is done for the benefit of the ‘hurt feelings’ of the ‘merry minorities’. Rather, my gut feeling is that the reason such songs are even questioned at all is because the lyrics undermine the legitimacy of Chinese claims over its bordering territories and provides fodder for separatist sentiments amongst the minorities. The fact that this issue did not even register on the radar of official public discourse in the past is a reflection of the insular nature of Chinese society in general. It does seem odd that in all those years nobody, powerful enough to be heard that is, even bothered to notice the inappropriateness of it all.

    Perhaps maturity is not the best word to use here, as it implies an inevitable, even desired, final destination in social development. Chinese society obviously has a long, long way to go and western style social development is not necessarily the best roadmap either. So Lantian, your point is well taken. As for the Khitans and Jurchens and countless other ancient tribes of the Chinese melting pot, how about a toast with baiju and a dose of saccharine M-pop, with rolling rrrrr’s for added measure?

  21. we chinese were never weak . we are strong and powerful. we hav the best tacti to fight a war . best martial art…and alot other thing…….i jus don understance why do america think we are diffrent .come on … we may be yellow and they are white they are also different ……in fact in tis world the white and the yellow should be good friend instead of despising each other because amond the whole world … america and china are the most powerfull country in the world….once china was conqure by japan NOT because we are weak it is because there are too many traitor and many are greedy and selfish…..if not japan stand no chance against china…..IF ONLY THE CHINESE CAN BE UNITED the chinese are invincible….I ALSO LIKE THE SONG tat was sung by andy lau it boost our race moral…… telling the world all the chinese we are part of CHINA…….the chinese MUST NOT fight the chinese than shall we all win a true victory

  22. 龙的传人 is still popular, or at least everybody knows it. Every time we do it at karaoke, mainland chinese guys, drunk or sober, will enthusiastically sing along. For bonus points, do the English rap in the Leehom version.

Leave a Reply