Old adversaries, new understanding: A rhetorical analysis of Chinese and American narrative templates

Date
2011-05-30
Authors
Zhang, Lei
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Abstract

This dissertation seeks to enhance mutual understanding between China and the United States through an examination of historical and contemporary discourses. I analyze the formation, distribution, and maintenance of the dominant narrative templates in China and the United States. I draw on the concepts of two contemporary theorists—James Wertsch's schematic narrative template and Michel Foucault's theory of discourse and power—to conduct the discourse analysis. Wertsch defines narrative template as a generalized and abstract narrative structure that functions as a cognitive tool to assist people in interpreting a wide range of events. These templates are deeply rooted in particular narrative traditions and often lie at the core of national and ethnic identity, thus rendering them difficult to challenge with counter-evidence and logical argument. Foucault's theory of discourse and power provides a broad theoretical framework to help analyze the relationship between discourse and the legitimization of state power.

In the first chapter, I outline the theoretical framework and explain Wertsch's and Foucault's theories with respect to this research project. In the second, third, and fourth chapters, I analyze the formation and promulgation of the Chinese narrative of the Century of Humiliation and the Resistance-to-Imperialism narrative template. Chapter five delineates the development of the American Exceptionalism narrative template from the early Puritan days to the present. This chapter demonstrates how literary works, religious sermons, and presidential speeches have contributed to this narrative template's lasting influence on the American cultural and political landscape. The conflict caused by the belief in the universality of American values and the Chinese preference for economic development over democratic reforms is also discussed. Chapter six examines a second important American narrative template, Americanism versus Communism, that deeply inform the Americans' perception of contemporary China. I analyze news coverage of the Paris Commune uprising of 1871 and discuss how anticommunist rhetoric has been used as a weapon against American labor movements long after the Paris Commune uprising was crushed. The selling of foreign policies by Cold War presidents through the Americanism versus Communism antithesis is studied as well.

The final chapter suggests ways to defuse the explosive potential of conflicting American and Chinese narrative templates and utilize them for mutual benefit. I argue that that we need to better understand these narrative templates' characteristics and resist the manipulative efforts of nation and demagogues. The chapter ends on the guardedly optimistic note that the two countries might not stumble into war if we try our best to understand the dominant thinking patterns embedded in the narrative templates.

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Keywords
Social sciences, Language, literature, and linguistics, China, China-U.S relations, Contemporary discourses, Historical discourses, Narrative templates
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