Thursday, May 03, 2012

Thomas Boutonnet and Douglas Howland on Civilization and Wenming

"Be Civilized Residents"

In light of yesterday's query concerning the differences between "civilization" and "wenming," I want to post some material from a couple of scholars whose views on the issue I found through a bit of research online. First a passage on "civilization" from an apparently recent article by China expert Thomas Boutonnet, "From Local Control to Globalised Citizenship: The Civilising Concept of Wenming in Official Chinese Rhetoric":
The first step in understanding the relation between wenming and civilisation necessarily involves a discussion of the meaning of the English word civilisation. In terms of etymology, words such as civilisation, civilised, citizen, civilian, civic, civil, and civility, which are related to social and political standards and urbanity, all originate from the Latin word civis (citizen) and its derivatives civilis or civitas (the city). While citizen refers to a member of a community who is entitled to participate, through his/her rights and duties, in the political organisation of said community, civil can refer both to what is associated with ordinary citizens as distinct from military men, and to a courteous or polite person. As for civility, definitions point to politeness, or individual acts and manners of behaving which conform to social conventions of propriety. Last but not least, the word civilised is generally used to describe someone who is well-mannered and polite, well-bred and educated. In this etymological perspective, civilisation can be interpreted as the process of making someone civil, and therefore polite (polite comes from the Latin politus, which means polished or made smoothed), or of bringing someone to civility or politeness. But of course, an etymological approach detached from contemporary and common usage is in itself irrelevant, since a word is mostly defined by how it is used rather than by what root words it originates from.

This information about the meaning of "civilization" sounds remarkably similar to the meaning that Professor Gu Zhengkun attributed to wenming, and rather unlike his etymological statement that "the English word 'civilization' derives from a city people's mastery over materials and technology." Or so Dr. Thorsten Pattberg informs us Professor Gu says. Anyway, let's see what Boutonnet has to say about "wenming":
The standard definition of wenming that can be found in Chinese dictionaries remains rather vague. Wenming is defined as: 1. Culture, and 2. A relatively high stage of development and high cultural achievement. Such definition, however, remains problematic because the word culture is as vague as it is polysemic, and does not bring particular insights into the meaning of wenming. The dictionary further mentions that the term, when applied to a person, implies good manners, which is close to the connotation of the word civilised in English. An etymological approach provides additional -- though limited -- elements to understand the meaning of wenming. Wenming is made of two characters: wen 文, which refers, among other meanings, to writing, language and to what is literary, refined or elegant; and ming 明, which is associated with brightness, clarity and obviousness. In classical Chinese language, wenming meant clear-sightedness and talent. Borrowed by Japanese intellectuals during the nineteenth century as a translation for the word civilisation, the word wenming became associated with westernisation and modernisation, before being used in China at the end of nineteenth century. Wenming was then used to refer to someone civilised, enlightened, in opposition to barbarism and in association with the Western world and modernity. It is therefore essential to understand that the term wenming contains several historical layers of meaning, including a clear interaction with -- in fact the addition of -- connotations coming from the English word civilisation. Wenming should therefore not be regarded as an autonomous concept, but rather as a palimpsest that carries several layers of meanings which overlap and at times contradict one another. Its meaning evolved throughout the twentieth century in China, but kept revolving around notions of excellence and high standards of culture, social practices and morality. Since the 1980s and the launch of the "two wenming" program, however, the concept of wenming has been substantially exposed and deployed in social and public spaces through all kinds of manifestations and items related to "spiritual civilisation". Wenming has become synonymous with righteous, correct, appropriate and high standard, and its meaning is closely associated with the "two civilisations" campaign and ideological perspective which has been in force since then.

This sounds rather different from Professor Gu's remarks on the term "wenming" and its meaning, though I again emphasize that my knowledge of his veiws comes mediated by Dr. Pattberg. Moreover, any 'mistranslation' would appear to have originated with the Japanese rather than with Westerners, given what Boutonnet says. Indeed, this receives support from a book by China scholar Douglas Howland, Borders of Chinese Civilization: Geography and History at Empire's End (Duke University Press, 1996) :
Zhang Zhidong, as leader of the conservative reform movement that proceeded cautiously after the aborted Hundred Days of Reform in 1898, urged Chinese students to go to Japan to study the new Western learning that would bring China wealth and power. Since the Japanese language shared Chinese characters, Zhang felt that Chinese students would have an easier time studying there. Many did, like Dai Jitao, and among the new terminology they brought back to China was Fukuzawa Yukichi's Japanese translation for the English word "civilization," wenming (J: bunmei), which he had used to refer to that universal civilization grounded in Western learning and toward which the entire world was progressing. Such a usage of wenming gained a youthful currency in the first decade of this century in China, where it served to indicate Western phenomena that differed from their Chinese counterparts. (page 246)

Given what Boutonnet and Howland provide, I have to question Professor Gu's views, or at least Thorsten Pattberg's presentation of those views. Of course, I am -- I hasten to confess -- profoundly ignorant on this civilization/wenming issue, but I am, after all, a gypsy scholar and therefore range from topic to topic.

Again, I welcome any comments from knowledgeable individuals.

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At 5:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Again, I welcome any comments from knowledgeable individuals.

This almost stopped me, as I am probably the least knowledgeable of all your friends! What I do know is the usage of a word can change the meaning of a word, IF the new usage is adopted by a wide enough population. "Gay" was not defined as another meaning for homosexual until the latter half of last century. In fact my 1976 Websters's did not even define it as such, but my 1985 Webster's does. Many words have grown into additional, and even new, meanings over the years. Where and how a person was raised and educated drives a lot of each person's definition of certain words. Which is one of the greatest things about words, you can get them to do, and define, many things. Come up with a new word and a plausible definition, then use it in your conversations and correspondence, and I almost gaurantee you will hear or see it again somewhere down the road.

More ramblings from - Jay

At 7:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

When we were growing up, the word "stout" as used in the Ozarks still meant "strong" even though the rest of the US was using it to mean "heavy," so I know what you mean by changes in meaning . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't get up to Missouri's Blue Moon I reckon Jeffery? As "a youngster" I mean. I can recall one fellow asking another about the "merits" of another certain person.

The other responded to the asker, "Well... she's pretty stout."

Being the scrawny little kid I was, when I saw the subject for myself - "strong" was not the first descriptor which entered my mind. Kinda pretty mind, didn't appear she'd make the Olympics weight-lifting team though...

Course I coulda been proved wrong had not Jimmy Carter... Best not mix politics with women. T'wouldn't be civil.

I'm thinking Jay, I recall some 15th Century uses, mainly slang, where "gay" was used along those lines. I'll look through my links.

H. Doolittle

At 1:56 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No, I never made my way to that bar. I guess the place was just too linguistically advanced for the likes of me . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Blue Moon...Have not thought of that bar in a long time. Tim H. and I made a couple trips to it. Never carded, never refused a beer, but I did see a number of stout women. As for scrawny, being 6'2" and weighing less than 130 pounds, I was a pictorial definition of scrawny.


At 9:11 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Scrawny. I'd forgotten about that word. I'll have to use it this week.

Jeffery Hodges

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