Patron: President of Austria, Dr. Heinz Fischer

KCTOS: Knowledge, Creativity and
Transformations of Societies

Vienna, 6 to 9 December 2007

<<< Re-writing linguistic history – (post)colonial reality on the fringes of linguistic theories


What Happened to the Honorifics?
Reconstructing the (Post-)Colonial Collapse of the Traditional Chinese Honorific System

Dániel Z. Kádár (Head of Department of Chinese Language and Culture, B. B. U., Hungary)





Studying the (post-)colonial history of Chinese linguistic politeness is a challenging topic for politeness researchers, historical pragmaticians, and experts of post-colonial language studies, due to the fact that the system of Chinese polite communication underwent a dramatic transformation during this period. While in ‘traditional’ Chinese deferential communication the honorific lexicon played a dominant role (Todo 1976), in similar manner to Japanese and Korean (Kádár 2007a), this lexicon virtually disappeared from post-colonial Chinese polite communication where formulae were displaced by linguistic strategies(1) (Kádár 2007b). The collapse of the traditional Chinese honorific system – consisting of several thousands of formulae (Jiang 2003) – and its replacement with a ‘modern’, or post-colonial, system can be claimed to be unprecedented amongst Asian languages. That is, although modern historical events exerted an influence on many other traditional Asian politeness ‘systems’ (cf. the case of Javanese, Yamazaki 1974), the explicit break between pre-colonial and post-colonial Chinese politeness norms is a unique phenomenon.

The aim of this study is to reconstruct the aforementioned transformation process of Chinese deferential communication that occurred during the colonial and early post-colonial period in China, that is, the nineteenth and the early twentieth century. This transformation process – in the course of which the traditional Chinese system of deferential communication collapsed and the new system emerged – is a neglected issue in historical Chinese pragmatics. Although several scholars (Peng 1999, 2000, and Kádár 2007b) have touched upon the collapse of traditional Chinese politeness and have argued that it was a result of some large-scale social changes boosted by the foreign colonisation of China, they did not define its exact timeframe and stages. However, the in-depth examination of this process is of importance from both practical and theoretical perspectives, since it can not only contribute to Chinese politeness studies but also to historical politeness theories. Regarding the latter point it should be mentioned that although many politeness theorists have addressed the issue as to how social changes manifest themselves in the diachronic development of certain politeness systems, these studies basically focus on the politeness of ‘Western’ languages (see e.g. France 1992, and Watts 1999) where the extent of change was much less than in post-colonial Chinese.

In order to study the (post-)colonial disappearance of the traditional Chinese honorific system, the present study analyses a collection of private letters written by the Chinese man of letters Liu Yazi (1887–1958). Private letters are particularly apt for the analysis as they were written for practical purposes, and so they reflect the use of politeness formulae and strategies in a more realistic way than literary works. Furthermore, most of these letters, arranged chronologically in the collection, were written during the early twentieth century, thus they document the language use of the Chinese colonial and early post-colonial period (see above).

The present work adopts historical pragmatics (Culpeper and Kytö 2000, and Taavitsainen and Jucker 2003) as a basic research methodology.

Chinese; honorifics; deferential communication; (post-)colonial; historical pragmatics

1 The term ‘strategy’ is used here in a Brown and Levinsonian (1987) sense.


Primary Sources
Liu Yazi (1985). Shuxin jilu (A Collection of Letters). Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe.

Secondary Sources
Brown, Penelope and Levinson, Stephen C. (1987). Politeness – Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Culpeper, Jonathan and Kytö, Merja (2000). Data in historical pragmatics: Spoken discourse (re)cast as writing. Journal of Historical Pragmatics 1, 175-199.
France, Peter (1992). Politeness and its Discontents: Problems in French Classical Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jiang, Zhusun (ed., 2003). Shuxin yongyu cidian (A Dictionary of Letter Phraseology). Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe.
Kádár, Dániel Z. (2007 a). On historical Chinese apology and its strategic application. In K. Grainger and S. Harris (eds.) Journal of Politeness Research (Special Issue on Apologies) 3, 125-150.
Kádár, Dániel Z. (2007 b). Terms of (Im)Politeness – A Study of the Communicational Properties of Traditional Chinese (Im)Polite Address Terms. Budapest: Eötvös Loránd University.
Peng, Guoyue (1999). Chugokugo ni keigo ga sukunai no ha naze? (Why are there only few politeness forms in Chinese?). Gengo 28, 60-63.
Peng, Guoyue (2000). Kindai Chugokugo no keigo shisutemu (The Polite Language System of Pre-modern Chinese). Tokyo: Hakuteisha.
Taavitsainen, Irma and Jucker, Andreas H. (eds., 2003). Diachronic Perspectives on Address Term Systems. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Todo, Akiyasu (1974). Chugokugo no keigo (Politeness in Chinese). In S. Hayashi, and F. Minami (eds.) Sekai no keigo (Politeness in Various Languages). Tokyo: Meiji Shoin, 139-162.
Watts, Richrd J. (1999). Language and politeness in early eighteenth century Britain. Pragmatics 9, 5-20.
Yamazaki, Satoshi (1974). Jyabago no keigo (Politeness in Javanese). In Hayashi S., and Minami F. (eds.) Sekai no keigo (Politeness in Various Languages). Tokyo: Meiji Shoin, 94-120.



Patron: President of Austria, Dr. Heinz Fischer

KCTOS: Knowledge, Creativity and
Transformations of Societies

Vienna, 6 to 9 December 2007