An International Workshop: “The Social Lives of Keywords: Lenses on China”

By: Lina Qu

In January, I participated in the international workshop “The Social Lives of Keywords: Lenses on China” in Hong Kong. The four-day workshop from Jan 9th to 12th was a preparatory meeting to produce the inaugural volume for the Chinese-English Keywords Project (CEKP). As encapsulated by its initiator, Professor Louisa Schein (in Anthropology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers), CEKP is “a growing global network of scholars interested in tracking the multivalence, conceptual incommensurabilities, and generative gaps that emerge when key concepts travel between English and Chinese.” The project has garnered substantial interest from transnational academia, and recruited a good many world-known scholars from the United States, Europe, mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan to contribute to its multivolume publication. The goals are to capture the heterogeneity of keyword meanings as they migrate between sites and social contexts, and to take the “social lives” of keywords as lenses on China.

Since 2016, I have been selected to be one of the core members of the growing project. I moderated at the International Symposium “Conceptualizing Ethnicity—Why China is Different from the U.S.” at Rutgers and shared my work at the two-day workshop “Keywords in Social and Cultural Theory.” I was also included in the roundtable “The Social Life of Keywords: Embracing Conceptual Dynamism between Chinese and English” at the international conference of the Association for Asian Studies in 2017. I was appointed the editor-in-chief of the bilingual newsletter of the Chinese-English Keywords Project. We have produced and circulated the inaugural issue last August.

Sponsored by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Hong Kong workshop followed upon the previous workshop at Rutgers in March 2017, and provided a precious opportunity for global scholars in China studies to convene and discuss key concepts and theories on the theme of “ethnicity (minzu) and nation (guojia).” The fourteen participants were Zhang Yinong of Shanghai University, Naran Bilik of Fudan University, Guan Kai of Minzu University of China, Cheung Siu-woo of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Tim Oakes of University of Colorado, Boulder, Pal Nyiri of Vrije University Amsterdam, Charlene Makley of Reed University, Chen Junjie, Luo Yu of City University of Hong Kong, Megan Steffen of Tsinghua University, Derek Sheridan of Brandeis University, Louisa Schein, Qu Lina, and Kao Ying-chao of Rutgers University. I was honored to be one of only two graduate students invited, the other twelve members including established scholars and senior professors in humanities and social sciences. The workshopping was organized with an innovative methodology: drafts of preliminary entries on one keyword or a pair of keywords were circulated ahead of time, and then, at the workshop, members of participation not only made suggestions to each other but also collectively built the entries. Drawing on their own experience and expertise, respondents offered other meanings, sources, histories, and personal or professional anecdotes to be considered and incorporated into the entries. Each entry was presented by its “curator,” brainstormed with the whole group, and further developed in the breakdown group discussions. The method of outsourcing deployed in the process of developing each entry mirrors the social life of keywords, which derives its momentum from the diversified, contextualized, and even personalized usage of language.

Besides the fourteen participants, local scholars also contributed a great deal to the success of the workshop. In the afternoons of Jan 10th and 11th, Hong Kong professors were invited to the group discussions: Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Chen Juchen, Ling Minhua, and Wu Ka-Ming of Chinese University of Hong Kong, Travis Kong of Hong Kong University, and Lucetta Kam of Hong Kong Baptist University. They offered valuable insights on the theoretical framework, publishing strategy, and potential readership of the keywords project, as well as flagged intriguing new keywords in their own fields of study. The brainstorming session in the afternoon of Jan 11th sparked animated discussions and paved the ground for the second volume on the theme of “gender (xingbie) and sexuality (xing).” Working with index cards, all the participants spoke out and wrote down relevant keywords in both Chinese and English, and then categorized them into different but interconnected topical groups.

The workshop was held at the beautiful Royal Park Hotel in Shatin district, with wonderful catering services. As a hub of global cuisine, Hong Kong offered us an amazing range of choices in dining. Whether at the hotel breakfast buffet, the Cantonese restaurant, or the dessert bar, the participants made it a great venue to exchange scholarly insights, as well as to build personal connections. The workshop concluded on a friendly and happy note, with each of the members being rewarded with fruitful new thoughts, unforgettable memories and a durable network of committed colleagues.