Day 17: Across academic discourses and toilet conversations - The China Chronicles

By Deena Dajani · 21 June 2013

 Our final day of the exchange programme gave us an insight into the shifting meanings of 'citizenship' in China. One intriguing and puzzling moment was the discussion about the concepts “Guomin” and “Gongmin”. The simple translation of each would be 'citizenship'. However, these two terms have undergone, important transformations during the 20th century. They cannot be easily translated into Western understandings of the concept.

The concept of “Renmin”, the people, is an attractive one. Many welcomed this concept and believed that China would truly become a country for ordinary people. But this dream was soon taken over by another, derived form a top-down statism with a strong precedent in China. Francis Fukuyama even attributes the birth of the state to China. Understanding the history of this period seems to be still problematic. In mainstream discourse, the planned economy, which caused the loss of tens of millions of life, was considered to be 'moral'. The expulsion of intellectuals to rural areas, in the process of which tens of millions died again, was understood as a mass reverse migration from urban to rural areas. 

The word “Gongmin-ken” is used in Japanese to describe both rights such as a right to vote, and the civil rights movement in the US. This is understood as a citizen's right against the state. The very same word, Gongmin, literary public-person, however, is still a very contested term in China. We were left with an open question whether Gongmin should be taken to mean people of the state? Or, is it one's capability to act politically in public sphere? The Chinese state clearly supports the former. This was a view that was echoed in many of presentations of our Chinese colleagues.
The historical victory and longevity of communism is a source of pride for many Chinese people. Many leftist intellectuals envied them and took inspiration from them. This amazing achievement has, however, meant for the modern history of China, a completion of absolute statism without nationalism. Sun Yat-sen's project of imagining and building a nation-state called 'China' had to start with the creation of 'Guomin', a nation. Like many other countries, this was not an easy task. How to be Chinese, or who should be Chinese within a multi-ethnic country, was the first challenge he had to face. Later, the victory of the CCP in the civil war and retreat of KMT (the Chinese Nationalist Party) to Taiwan had many unfortunate outcomes. For Taiwan, their status as a nation-state will probably remain technically unresolved for the foreseeable future. But for Mainland China, the simple replacement of the word Guomin, which symbolised the ideology of the KMT, by Renmin, 'people', did not mean that a 'nation-state' had been achieved. This project was, officially, abandoned. 
Statism without nationalism has also meant the return of the empire. Instead of a nation-state with clear territorial boarders, the empire, by definition, does not have boarders. China's recent aggressive actions in the South China Sea against smaller states such as Vietnam and the Philippines, and their state-led massive overseas 'development' projects in other regions of the world show their immense capacity to act imperially. The idea of nation-state has been problematised. But the return of the empire is equally problematic and terrifying.
Nevertheless, our discussion about citizenship also left one important matter aside, a matter that is often neglected, the role of gender and the position of women in the discourse of citizenship. As we feminists had experienced many times before, what is easily neglected in the formal discussion always comes up in the informal conversations with other women.  Meeting female students and colleagues throughout our time in China, one is struck by how so many experiences resonate across continents.  One is constantly used to hearing that Western secular feminism does not translate in non-Western contexts.  This is something that someone schooled in canons of "race, class, gender" in the West reminds oneself of, over and over within places in which many things are said to be "cultural."  And yet, female students and academics are often eager to talk (privately) about their experiences of sexism in academia and problems of gender-based oppression in China.  There is no point perhaps in drawing comparisons.  Having said that, there is this conversation that seems to repeat over and over again, in different accents, with many of the same jokes, in the corridors and ladies' toilets of academic spaces across the world.
Furthermore, we discovered that putting ourselves in a setting that is new for us all brought about tensions among ourselves about the translation of gender power dynamics and our different positioning and therefore our responses to this matter. Interestingly, this moment opened up new discussions that we have never had back in the UK. We are left wondering whether the gendered body in public space may open up a space for transnational feminist translation?  Troubled with the challenges this question raises, we bear in our hearts what someone once remarked "...feminism is the radical notion that women are people."  Across borders, language, text, and faith we recall this radical notion. As we continue to reflect on how too many people are denied their full right to act as a citizen, we hope that it provides a guiding mantra for the present and the future.

- The Oecumene Team, 18 June 2013

About the author

  • Deena Dajani

    Research Associate
    Deena Dajani
    The Open University
    My research project experiments with Arabic oral and dramatic traditions as forms of subjugated knowledges and sites of political disputation. This experimentation navigates beyond interest in Arabic... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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