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Harmony as language policy in China: an Internet perspective

Wang, Xuan, Juffermans, Kasper and Du, Caixia 2016. Harmony as language policy in China: an Internet perspective. Language Policy 15 (3) , pp. 299-321. 10.1007/s10993-015-9374-y

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This paper provides an ethnographic understanding of harmony as language policy in China, grounded in a historical analysis of ‘harmony’ (和 he) as a distinct traditional Chinese (Confucian) ideal that gradually finds its new expressions through the policy of Harmonious Society (和谐社会hexie shehui) in contemporary China. The paper focuses on language practices surrounding ‘harmony’ emerging from the Internet, a discursive space and site that is both highly diverse and heavily contested with respect to policing processes, and notably so in the context of the PRC for its stringent measurement of censorship and sensitization of language use. It is shown that although the state is arguably the strongest stakeholder in implementing the policy of harmony, the actual processes of harmonization online develop in detailed, multidirectional and unpredictable rather than abstract, linear or monofocal ways. The paper offers a descriptive analysis of the field of Internet memes that critique and subvert the policies of harmonization. This includes new meanings for words (e.g. ‘harmony’ as euphemism for censorship) and puns around the acoustic image of hexie and other censorable words, resulting in the circulation and bricolage of myths and songs revolving around ‘river crab’ (hexie) and ‘grass mud horse’ (caonima) as placeholders of dissent, which feed back into offline popular (and critical) culture. The paper concludes with a discussion of the politics of harmony, pointing at the increasingly polycentric realities clashing with the modernist monocentric ideal of the state project of harmony, and with arguments for an ethnographically based understanding and inspection of language policy as an instrument for shaping sociolinguistic life.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: Modern Languages
Additional Information: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
Publisher: Springer Verlag (Germany)
ISSN: 1568-4555
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 3 October 2018
Last Modified: 25 Nov 2020 10:00

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