Building the Community for the Chinese Nation and an Ethnosemiotic Research (中华民族共同体与民族符号学研究 Zhong hua min zu gong tong ti yu minzu fu hao xue yanjiu), written by Jia Peng

In: Signs and Media
Lei Han School of Humanities, Shanghai Jiaotong University Shanghai China

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Jia Peng, Building the Community for the Chinese Nation and an Ethnosemiotic Research (中华民族共同体与民族符号学研究 Zhong hua min zu gong tong ti yu minzu fu hao xue yanjiu). Chengdu: Sichuan University Press, 2021. 208 pp., 2 illus., ¥56 (pb).

Ethnosemiotic research focuses on the signs and sign systems used for describing the cultural phenomena of an ethnic group, probing into ethnoculturalsystems, mechanisms, and structures from the perspective of semiotics. It is an important research area in cultural semiotics, or semiotics of culture. In China, the academic community mainly focuses on ethnosemiotics in East Europe, both for their shared views in ethnic studies and the cultural bonds between the former Socialist countries, including Estonia and Russia, where the most important semiotic research foundations lie today. As ethnosemiotics is intertwined with other disciplines such as anthropology, ethnology, and sociology, the development of the field often overlaps with that of other disciplines. As a result, in China, insufficient attention is paid to ethnosemiotic research as a developed branch of semiotics.

In her book Building the Community for the Chinese Nation and an Ethnosemiotic Research, Jia Peng attempts to introduce the theory of autopoiesis in biosemiotics into the study on the formation, main viewpoints, and development potential of ethnosemiotics from the systematic perspective of Chinese culture, a community of multi-ethnic cultural semiotics. She also elaborates on the important semiotic phenomena in the Chinese ethnic community and how they are generated, and proposes to rewrite the original semiotic autopoietic model, in the hope of facilitating constructive discussion with Western academia. In this sense, the book helps disseminate Chinese research findings around the world and contributes to the integrated development of community research and semiotic theories.

This book consists of four parts. First, the author discusses why autopoiesis in biosemiotics can be integrated with semiosphere, which is used for ethnosemiotic research, and how it is used in the observation and analysis of the cultural phenomena in the Community for the Chinese Nation, an autopoietic system. The author points out that what the boundary of a semiosphere and that of an autopoietic system have in common is differentiation and transformation, that is, the transformation of elements of others into conditions of itself. In addition, both systems produce and reproduce their own elements through communication. For any autopoietic system to distinguish itself from the ‘environment’, the cognitive differences between what is inside and outside of the system are critical and even more important than physical boundaries: self-observation is the core of the system. Therefore, the author notes that if ‘the differentiation between Huaxia (华夏) and Diyi (狄夷)’ is deemed merely a historical phenomenon that occurred during the development of the Community of Chinese Nation, and if the dynamic development of the ethnos is studied as a whole, it can be found that the coexistence of assimilation and heterogeneity has been one of the driving forces for the continuous coupling and interactions within the autopoietic system, namely, the Community. In fact, Huaxia and Diyi influenced and connected with each other. The Confucius philosophy centering on ‘Li’ (, conventional norms or code of civility) has permeated all aspects of China’s cultural and social systems. Therefore, it can be regarded as the boundary of the autopoietic system and a distinct code of the system. Within the autopoietic system, different subsystems serve as entities and environments to each other and are coupled with each other. This kind of communication, or dissemination, has been the basic driving force for the self-maintenance and development of the system.

In such a context, the author dives deep into the research on contemporary culture. If mass media is an autopoietic system, as Niklas Luhmann (1996) describes, what kind of coupling between traditional cultural elements and media will change the dissemination, meaning, and forms of traditional texts when mass media becomes the ‘environment’ of another autopoietic system, the Community? In this book, the author provides a diachronic description of the semiotic system of the Community, and shares her observation on the synchronic section of the system. She interprets the koi culture using Jakobson’s model of signification and communication, pointing out that traditional texts in ethnic culture, especially minority culture, are disseminated through channels that have transformed from oral media to written and visual media. The dissemination channels have shifted from people to mass and social media, resulting in significant changes in the emphasis on text elements and more variants in the composition of texts. More importantly, against the backdrop of the Internet and social media advancing the ‘globalization’ and homogenization of culture, intellectuals, craftspeople, and other members of ethnic groups engage in cultural construction and spread their culture through social media, which has become the new coupling element within the autopoietic system.

Next, the author discusses two fundamental concepts about the semiotics of culture: indexicality and markedness. She makes an analysis on how these two features are expressed, constructed, and highlighted amid the internal interactive development of the Community, noting that they always play the important roles of ‘anchor’ and ‘driving force’ in cultural frameworks. The author argues that indexicality is the anchor of the cognitive framework and index-like memory, while relations among ethnic groups involve issues like ethnic identity, consciousness construction, relationship structures, and mutual treatment. Relations among ethnic groups are not historical or static, but are constantly interpreted, constructed, or imagined during social development: how memories are formed, how the cognition associated with the past is verifiably retained, and how irrelevant factors are excluded are fundamental issues about indexicality. However, in today’s world, where digital media are prevailing and weakening connections between the past and the present, the image spectrums of collective memories are still constructing the memory and imagination of families and ethnic groups in different times, spaces, and media based on indexicality.

Finally, the author returns to the ‘cultural markedness’ model proposed by Yiheng Zhao. She probes into how the markedness of cultural and artistic texts symbolized by ‘Horse’ and ‘Dancing Horse’ changes. Combining with Greimas’ semiotic square, the research reviews the incline and reversal of markedness in ethnic arts based on categories, such as positive (marked), neutral, and negative (unmarked) terms, to showcase the overall mechanism of cultural development. The author points out that during the interactions between minority culture and mainstream culture, the markedness of minority culture may change at different levels. By endowing the culture with gender metaphors through metonymy, the culture is accepted at the artistic level and remains marked or to be further marked at the ideological level; the marked negative culture is established as ‘counterculture’ through reversal at the ideological level to reverse the markedness. This part of the book features great originality at both theoretical and analytical levels by providing a new perspective as well as probing into the change and development of important ethnic symbols.

Although semiotics originates from the West, only semiotics research that emphasizes both locality and difference can inject more diversity and vitality into the overall development of academic research, which is one of connotations of ‘Global Semiotics’, an important concept created by Thomas A. Sebeok (2001). This book makes significant contributions in the globality of semiotic studies in several aspects. First, it pointed out that the concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘ethnicity’ in Western academic traditions are significantly different from those in a Chinese context, which features a unified multi-ethnic cultural identity. The gradual integration of China’s multiple ethnic groups is based on the world view of ‘Tianxia’ (‘all under heaven’ coexisting harmoniously), which is different from the contractual ‘city state-nation’ concept or the separatist national concept of ‘ethnic independence and autonomy’. This perspective epitomizes an ideal world featuring an inclusive and diversified cultural identity based on the Han culture and Confucianism. Therefore, from the perspective of ethnosemiotics, the differentiation of codes has given rise to a variety of subsystems in China’s multi-ethnic semiotic system: although the codes distinguishing these subsystems are also dichotomous, they are not mutually exclusive and can be integrated and overlapped at different levels. Therefore, the subsystems may be coupled. Their constant interactions co-construct the entire system, thereby promoting the self-production and development of the system. These subsystems are ethnic groups that are constantly integrated, differentiated, and re-integrated with each other. They are constantly differentiated due to their appellations and significations, thus forming the autopoietic elements which not only have boundaries, but are also able to advance the systematic development of the Community.

The autopoietic system keeps referring to itself through its constant differentiation from the environment. As an autopoietic system, the Community signified itself and included other ethnic groups in it through the conversion between ‘Li’ and ‘non-Li’ cultural codes before the national identity was created in the modern era. Chinese culture, as a cultural system with rigorous etiquette code structures, temporarily or permanently excludes all the external cultural elements that are not in line with its cultural etiquette from its identity and regards them as originating from an external environment only, to clearly distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’. It transforms or rewrites the cultural elements with its differential code mechanism so that they can enter the system and interact with different subsystems within the system. The latter situation brings about new cultural phenomena. It drives the differentiation of subsystems in terms of function, so as to promote the continuous development and self-generation of the entire system (i.e. the Community): the new cultural phenomena, whereby more and more ethnic groups have been included into the Community in which Huaxia forms the majority and an increasing number of other cultural elements have been absorbed into the Chinese culture and then maintained, reflect the continuous self-production of the autopoietic system. This new ethnosemiotic description model is a differential supplement to Western ethnological research.

The author also tries to break the limitations of traditional folklore research to describe the semiotic mechanism of contemporary media in a new way. She argues that the diachronic motivatedness of signs are being weakened in the digital image, yet this doesn’t mean that as members of an ethnic group, individuals are decoupled from history and memories. On the contrary, as embodiment plays an increasingly important role in people’s cognitive experience via new media and technology, the body-generated indexicality becomes the framework through which individual cognition is anchored to the world past and present – a simulated space-time that is mainly comprised of digits, current statuses, and projection, which is different from the physical world we previously recognized. As media swiftly changes the way we perceive things, indexes as images and photos could be produced without existing objects and therefore not enough to be of the witness of the past. In the author’s view, we should rely more on ‘filling’ the ‘empty’ indexes at this moment, so that each current state can be transformed into pastness, indicating ‘traces’ in future cognition. Such a reversal is an inspiration provided by new indexicality for contemporary ethnosemiotic research. Therefore, the construction of the current collective memories of a society is important for fostering the cultural identity of the Chinese nation.

This book marks the Chinese academic circle’s first attempt to introduce a biosemiotic concept autopoiesis into the research on ethnosemiotics. To further improve Chinese semiotic theories, the author proposes a unique semiotic system model for the Chinese multi-ethnic culture that is different from the Western ethnic culture. This not only provides a critical perspective for Western semiotic researchers, making equal conversations possible, but also further verifies and promotes the cultural markedness theories proposed by China’s semiotic school. Based on a diachronic review of the phenomena related to the ethnosemiotic culture, the author has closely followed the changes in contemporary semiotic dissemination and cultural meanings. She probes into the impacts on ethnic culture formation brought about by the changes in the semiotic dissemination mechanism resulting from the evolution of media, providing a new perspective for contemporary ethnological research on cultural phenomena. In general, this book is an important attempt to build a bridge between the semiotics academia of China and that of Western countries. The topics and theoretical models proposed in this book are of great value and worth further study.


  • Luhmann, Niklas (1996). The Reality of the Mass Media (trans. Kathleen Cross). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Sebeok, Thomas A. (2001). Global Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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