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What elevates a mere word to the status of keyword? What does it mean to translate a keyword and map its meaning against other languages?

 

Like every major culture, Chinese has its set of “keywords”: pivotal terms of political, ethical, literary and philosophical discourse. Tracing the origins, development, polysemy, and usages of keywords is one of the best ways to chart cultural and historical changes. This volume analyzes some of these keywords from different disciplinary and temporal perspectives, offering a new integrative study of their semantic richness, development trajectory, and distinct usages in Chinese culture.

 

The authors of the volume explore different keywords and focus on different periods and genres, ranging from philosophical and historical texts of the Warring States period (453–221 BCE) to late imperial (ca. 16th–18th centuries CE) literature and philosophy. They are guided by a similar set of questions: What elevates a mere word to the status of “keyword”? What sort of resonance and reverberations do we expect a keyword to have? How much does the semantic range of a keyword explain its significance? What kinds of arguments does it generate? What are the stories told to illustrate its meanings? What are the political and intellectual implications of the keyword’s reevaluation? What does it mean to translate a keyword and map its meaning against other languages?

 

Throughout Chinese history, new ideas and new approaches often mean reinterpreting important words; rupture, continuities, and inflection points are inseparable from the linguistic history of specific terms. The premise of this book is that taking the long view and encompassing different disciplines yield new insights and unexpected connections.

Wai-yee Li is the 1879 Professor of Chinese Literature at Harvard University. Her books include The Readability of the Past in Early Chinese Historiography (2007), Women and National Trauma in Late Imperial Chinese Literature (2014) and Plum Shadows and Plank Bridge: Two Memoirs about Courtesans (2020).

 

Yuri Pines is Michael W. Lipson Professor of Asian Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His monographs include Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era (2009); The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy (2012); and The Book of Lord Shang: Apologetics of State Power in Early China (2017).

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