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Review of  Chinese Discourse and Interaction

Reviewer: Patrick R Callier
Book Title: Chinese Discourse and Interaction
Book Author: Yuling Pan Dániel Zoltan Kádár
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 24.2647

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This book brings together a range of views on discourse and interaction in spoken and written Chinese. The intent is to update scholarly understanding of discourse in the Chinese language with new analysis of empirical data, which can in turn provide an additional layer of nuance to discourses around indirectness, hierarchical orientation, or the emphasis on “connection” (guanxi) in Chinese interaction. These are all concepts which have found a lot of traction not just in linguistics and discourse analysis, but also in communication studies in general and business communication in particular. As many of the studies in this volume find, these and other widely used concepts (e.g. “face”) often have analytical utility, but the details of their implementation in interaction problematize the overly general and sometimes essentialist character of characterizations of Chinese language and culture that circulate within and outside of China. As such, the volume is of broad interest to scholars of Chinese language, discourse and culture, as well as linguists, communications scholars, and teachers of Chinese as a foreign language, among others.

Yuling Pan and Dániel Kádár’s introduction sets the stage for the volume, justifying the multiplicity of approaches represented in the contributions by citing the volume’s aim to avoid essentializing accounts of a monolithic Chinese culture, as well as to strike a balance between detailed linguistic and microsocial analysis and larger-scale interactional and macrosocial description.

Part I, “Conversation Analytic and Linguistic Approaches to Chinese Discourse,” encompasses Chapters 2-5, and consists of sequential analysis of talk-in-interaction from spoken Chinese (mostly Mandarin, with one paper also incorporating data from Cantonese), with all adopting analytic approaches influenced by conversation analysis (CA), along with other methodological influences.

Tomoko Endo’s chapter, “Epistemic stance in Mandarin conversation: The positions and functions of wo juede (I feel/think),” outlines the functions of the phrase ‘wo juede’ in mitigating possible disagreement, managing turn-taking, and modulating commitment to a proposition. In parallel to interactional analyses of English ‘I think’ (Kärkkäinen 2006), Tono shows that the functions of ‘wo juede’ in discourse are multiple and highly context-dependent, for instance to mitigate disagreement, solicit agreement, or manage the floor.

“Self-repair in Mandarin and Cantonese: Delaying the next item due in casual conversation and news interviews” is Wei Zhang and Angela Chan’s chapter (Chapter 3). They conduct sequential and quantitative analyses of repair strategies in proximity to two similar particles: Mandarin ‘de’ and Cantonese ‘ge,’ which “link” a modifying phrase to its head noun. The authors draw on data from two kinds of interactional situations — less formal conversational settings and more formal televised news interviews — for each language variety. They uncover interesting differences in the use of “recycling” (or repetition) as a self-repair strategy between Mandarin and Cantonese, as well as distinctions in the overall frequency of self-repair between. They emphasize the interaction of phonology, syntax, and interactional considerations in explaining the patterns in their data.

Chapter 4, Agnes Weiyun He’s “‘Do I really have to?’ The give-and-take of deontic meaning in Chinese,” looks at interactionally negotiated modality in data from a Chinese-language classroom. In a series of examples, He shows how proposed deontic framings of a situation (that an action in some context is obligatory, suggested, or merely permissible, for instance) are negotiated across turns and between interactants. These negotiated meanings, moreover, feed into not just language acquisition, but also the socialization of children into “traditional” Chinese values and practices.

Chapter 5, the last in Part I, is Cher Leng Lee’s “English ‘then’ in colloquial Singapore Mandarin.” This chapter presents fascinating data from Singapore, in which speakers mix the English discourse marker ‘then’ into their spoken Mandarin. ‘Then’ serves several functions, including indicating temporal or causal sequence, securing the floor, requesting information, and conceding information, allegedly going well beyond the known functions of this discourse marker in English.

The second part of the collection, consisting of Chapters 6-14, is “Discourse analytic and social approaches to Chinese discourse.” The first offering is Yueguo Gu’s “Power in situated discourse.” This chapter draws on Gu’s participant observation at an event that attracted participation from political, academic and press actors, and the author describes models of the structure of the event and its participants, including their capacities and goals. These models are apparently implemented in an explicit format called Unified Modeling Language (UML), though this implementation is not fully described or tested in this contribution. Gu focuses on the place of power in the proceedings he observed, and advocates a view of power as relations of “mutual dependency” between individual actors.

Continuing Part II’s examination of discourse-mediated social processes, Wei-Lin Melody Chang and Michael Haugh’s highly interesting chapter, “‘Face’ in Taiwanese business interactions: From emic concepts to emic practices,” reports findings from an investigation of the idea of ‘face’ from two angles. Using data from ethnographic interviews, the authors reconstruct the ‘emic concept’ of face as formulated by participants in the Taiwanese business world. Supplementing this with data from business encounters, they show that the way interactants actually negotiate and respond to face concerns in interaction is not necessarily described by the explicit conceptualizing elicited in interviews.

Chapters 8 and 9 look at data from the participation of Chinese speakers in U.S. Census Bureau surveys. The former, Yuling Pan’s “What are Chinese respondents responding to? A close examination of question-answer sequences in survey interviews,” is a mostly qualitative examination of how Chinese speakers responded to questions during an in-depth face-to-face survey by census workers. It shows how participants’ responses, which were sometimes “indirect” or “off-topic,” were influenced by a variety of cultural and contextual factors, and brings welcome nuance to descriptions of Chinese interaction as characteristically indirect, delving into the whys and wherefores of such indirectness. Bringing Pan’s insights to a broader examination of Census Bureau practice and survey response behavior, Anna Yukyee Chan’s “Discourse analysis of Chinese speakers’ indirect and contrary-to-face-value responses to survey interview questions” is a mostly quantitative comparison of Chinese-speaking and English-speaking respondents to a U.S. Census survey. Chan finds that Chinese speakers provided more indirect responses, as well as responses judged by researchers as being contrary to the respondent’s actual intent. These patterns of response were unevenly distributed according to educational attainment and dialect background, highlighting internal diversity among Chinese speakers with regard to indirectness and other discursive behaviors.

Hao Sun’s “Customer-employee interaction from a diachronic perspective” compares recordings of customer service interactions on the telephone made in the mid-90s and 2009. Sun notes that the later interactions are markedly different in their closings, and feature more involvement overall on the part of the employee than the earlier recordings. Overall, this reflects large-scale changes in the service economy in mainland China and the uptake of consumer-oriented service practices.

“Chinese prenatal genetic counseling discourse in Hong Kong: Healthcare providers’ (non)directive stance, or who is making the decision?,” by Olga Zayts, Virginia Wake Yelei, and Stephanie Schnurr, looks at interactions between healthcare providers providing genetic counseling to expectant mothers in Hong Kong, and demonstrates how healthcare providers appear to be more “directive” in their interactions with patients than we would expect, given the emphasis on nondirective counseling in (Western) discourses of genetic counseling. Notably, directive stances and behaviors are clearly co-constructed, indicating that the apparently directive orientation of the counseling is based not on one-sided domineering or negligence on the part of the healthcare providers, but on shared expectations for directive behavior in situations involving status difference.

Winnie Cheng’s “The pragmatics of Q&A interactions: Public discourses in Hong Kong” returns to question-answer sequences to ask: What are the functions of questions and answers? Her data come from recordings of press conferences held by various Hong Kong government actors, and the questions, coming from members of the press, serve a variety of functions including elicitation of facts or opinions, criticizing the addressee, or providing commentary. Answers variously “comply” -- that is, answer the question with the expected format and information -- or fail to do so in one of several ways.

Dániel Z. Kádár turns our attention to written discourse in Chapter 13, “On the positive formation of Chinese group identity,” which is an exploration of a fascinating epistolary corpus from 18th-century China. The letter-writer (sadly the letters of his interlocutors are not analyzed, perhaps because they are not available), a member of the literate civil servant class in Beijing, hails originally from Shaoxing in southern China. Addressing other Beijing-based literati from his home region, he commonly laments the working conditions in Beijing, emphasizes his and his addressee’s shared connections to their home region, and thematizes the craft of letter-writing itself. Kádár analyzes these practices as partially formative of a Shaoxing “Community of Practice,” in Wenger’s (1998) sense, and goes on to analyze the Shaoxing community’s innovative use of highbrow “mock impoliteness.”

The final research chapter is another examination of written discourse: “‘Polysemous’ politeness: Speaker self-referring forms in Honglou Meng,” by Xinren Chen. Honglou Meng (‘A Dream of Red Mansions’) is the masterwork of vernacular Chinese novels before the modern era, and, as the editors point out in the introduction, the book is the subject of a sizable subfield of literary analysis in China known as Hongxue (‘Red studies’). This chapter investigates various strategies for speaker self-reference in dialogue in Honglou Meng including pronouns, kinship terms, and self-lowering and modest referring phrases. Speakers mostly use pronouns, but the smattering of other self-referential strategies is shown to have various pragmatic effects in context, especially for managing the relationship between speaker and addressee.

Rounding out the volume, Kenneth Kong’s epilogue identifies the different analytic strategies and theoretical approaches employed by the contributors, and makes valuable suggestions for future directions of research. I will address a couple of his points in my evaluation below.


This volume sets out to bring together diverse perspectives in order “to describe Chinese discourse and interaction in a wider sense” and “in a comprehensive way” (3). Certainly, the works represented here study phenomena spanning a range of interactional and linguistic scales, from Zhang and Chan’s analysis of repair on a single grammatical particle, to Chang and Haugh’s elucidation of interactional practices related to ‘face,’ all the way up to the establishment of community in Kádár’s analysis of 18th-century letter writing. The value of empirically grounded analyses of interaction in improving and complicating our picture of “Chinese communication” cannot be underestimated. The book’s diversity of approaches, as the editors point out, is valuable not just in the abstract, for providing multiple points of view, but also for helping destabilize Chinese culture as a single, monolithic object of study, which allows us to appreciate its variability in time, space, and along a number of social dimensions. And the fact that such a volume is appearing in English, in the “West,” bodes extremely well for the future of the study of Chinese discourse in the English-speaking world.

While there are occasionally distracting inconsistencies between contributions in terms of style and adherence to mechanics and convention, Pan and Kádár’s volume contains a wealth of detailed attention to the empirical details of interaction. Pragmatic multifunctionality and the capacity of linguistic forms to manage social relations are, unsurprisingly, foregrounded in a large majority of the pieces. Additional themes that emerge are the distinction between ‘normative’ and ‘strategic’ politeness (in Chang and Haugh’s and Chen’s pieces, in particular), and inter-speaker variability, especially between speakers of different dialects (illustrated most clearly by Zhang and Chan on repair and Chan on survey responses). The intersubjective negotiation of power and status is another prominent theme, addressed by He, Gu, Pan, Zayts et al., and Chen, among others.

The volume’s breadth of subject matter is matched by the theoretical multiplicity that emerges from the volume as a whole, satisfying the stated aims of the editors. Individual pieces occasionally leave the reader wanting more data, deeper analysis or more conclusive theorization, but as one of the first edited volumes in the area of Chinese discourse, it is perhaps best to conceive of this volume as opening doors rather than making final statements. I agree with Kong when he advises that future research on discourse in Chinese would do well to locate itself more actively in approaches (Kong suggests Scollon’s (2001) Mediated Discourse Analysis) that link individual texts and discrete moments of interaction to the larger social processes with which they stand in dialectic relation. Especially since so many of the pieces in the present volume address discourse in “institutional” contexts (e.g. the classroom, mass-mediated political communication, genetic counseling, capitalist enterprise, state-sponsored demography, etc.), it is important to begin explicitly tracing such “micro-macro” dialectics where they can be found. He’s piece on classroom interaction, Pan’s and Chan’s work on U.S. Census Bureau surveys, and Cheng’s contribution on politician-reporter interactions, among others, make important gestures in this direction, not just in theorizing these links, but also in making real-world adjustments to institutional practice (for instance, at the Census Bureau).

‘Chinese Discourse and Interaction: Theory and Practice’ is a delight to read and a welcome challenge for any scholar of discourse in Chinese contexts, as well as for researchers in cross-cultural politeness and pragmatics, and students of Chinese communication, more broadly. The volume skews “micro,” though it addresses a dizzying array of interactional situations, and many linguists and discourse analysts will appreciate the contributors’ attention to the nuances of function and meaning in context. I hope, evidently along with the editors, that this volume heralds even more efforts toward collating and synthesizing the findings on the empirical study of Chinese discourse and interaction, thus permitting us to arrive at a more valid critical understanding of what makes interaction in Chinese “distinctive” and worthy of broader theoretical attention.


Kärkkäinen, Elise. 2006. “Stance Taking in Conversation: From Subjectivity to Intersubjectivity.” Text & Talk 26 (6): 699-731.

Scollon, Ron. 2001. Mediated Discourse: The Nexus of Practice. New York: Routledge.

Wenger, Etienne. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Patrick Callier is a 5th-year Ph.D. student in Linguistics at Georgetown University. His primary research interests lie in sociophonetics, stylistic variation and social meaning. His dissertation research is on the linguistic distribution and stylistic meaning potentials of creaky voice in Mandarin Chinese, and he conducted sociolinguistic fieldwork in Beijing, China in the 2010-2011 academic year as well as summer 2012. He is also interested in mass-mediated discourse—especially TV dramas and Twitter—in addition to gender and social class.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781845536329
Pages: 338
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