Is “New Culture” a Proper Translation of Xin wenhua?

Some Critical Remarks on a Long-Overlooked Dilemma


  • Joseph Ciaudo Ghent University, Belgium



New Culture Movement, historiography, conceptual history, culture, China


For several decades, we have been witnessing a profound renewal in our understanding of the “New Culture Movement”. However, the aptness of “new culture” as a proper translation for xin wenhua 新文化 has almost never been discussed. The present paper argues that uniformly translating xin as “new” and wenhua as “culture” tends to blur the picture instead of making it clearer, for by so doing one unconsciously endorses the narrative of radical Chinese intellectuals while silencing other voices. Furthermore, the article puts forward the idea that terms such as wenhua 文化 encompassed a “multiplicity of potential readings” that have much to do with the transformation of Chinese language at the beginning of the 20th century, and with the emergence of a new conceptual repertoire. In their attempts to appropriate xin wenhua and turn it into a seemingly coherent movement with an agenda, Chinese intellectuals were fighting a war over the topic of “civilization/culture”, but also, and perhaps primarily education. Yet, by employing the term “culture” in academic writing today, we tend to produce a historical dissonance for their use of this term is not our own: we thus fall into the trap of semantic transparency, and forget that the concept of “culture” has a problematic history in both China and the West. By questioning the use of wenhua with regard to the May Fourth Movement, I provide evidence that the accepted translation of culture can be problematic if one does not clearly spell out the meaning located behind it, as the Chinese wenhua often did not mean “Chinese culture” in our modern, all too modern, anthropological sense.


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7. 05. 2021

How to Cite

Ciaudo, Joseph. 2021. “Is ‘New Culture’ a Proper Translation of Xin Wenhua? Some Critical Remarks on a Long-Overlooked Dilemma ”. Asian Studies 9 (2): 13-47.

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