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  • Worüber man nicht spricht: Tabus, Schweigen und Redeverbote in China ed. by Rüdiger Breuer and Heiner Roetz
  • Anna Stecher (bio)
Rüdiger Breuer and Heiner Roetz, editors. Worüber man nicht spricht: Tabus, Schweigen und Redeverbote in China. Jahrbuch der Deutschen Vereinigung für Chinastudien 12. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2018. 241 pp. Paperback € 50.00, isbn 978-3-447-10807-2.

Whether to talk or not to talk, and, assuming one decides to talk, how to talk about something—these appear to be quite topical issues of our times: times in which scholars of Chinese present their work differently in and outside of China, engage in long meditations about how to use a specific word, or bury themselves in the endless material of Chinese texts of all ages still awaiting their philological exploration. Fortunately, this book is not about sinologists but rather about China and, as is revealed in the subtitle, more specifically about "taboos, silence and bans on speaking." Therefore, the authors of the book undertake the challenging experiment of talking about issues of non-talking. In doing this, they touch on questions related to freedom of speech, censorship, and related issues with communicative processes They have wisely chosen, however, not to frame their questions in terms of these buzzwords but rather to sketch out their program simply as "What one should not talk about."

The title of the book could be seen as a free translation of buyu 不語 and bujiang 不讲. These two concepts were at the center of the 2015 meeting of the German Association of Chinese Studies (DVCS) and the book is a collection of some of the presentations made there. As the organizers of the conference and editors of the book point out in the preface, they have consciously opted for the combination of traditional and simplified characters in order to embrace topics related to different times and areas of Chinese studies.

In the opening chapter, Heiner Roetz directly addresses some key questions regarding these seminal Chinese notions of buyu 不語 and bujiang 不讲. The source for 不語 is one of the most famous ancient Chinese texts, Confucius's Lunyu, more specifically passage 7.21, which runs: zi bu yu guai li luan shen 子不語怪力亂神 ("The Master did not talk about extraordinary [End Page 14] things, feasts of strength, disorder, and spiritual beings") (trans. Legge as quoted in Roetz). Discussing different translations as well as interpretations of this passage, Roetz points out that there is no consensus regarding its meaning. To summarize briefly the differing views: some scholars say that it means that Confucius did not speak about spirits because he had no interest in religion. Others explain that he didn't dare to speak about them because of respect. Roetz also mentions a further reading which understands the passage to mean simply that Confucius remained silent.

The background for bujiang 不讲 is a text from twenty-first century China, specifically the so-called Document Number 9 from 2013, also known as the "Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere" attributed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. It mentions seven issues that should not be talked about. These are: 1, constitutional democracy; 2, universal values; 3, civil society; 4, neoliberalism; 5, Western journalism; 6, historical nihilism; 7, questioning Reform and Opening and the socialist nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics (trans. loosely based on ChinaFile, mentioned by Roetz). As Roetz points out, in contrast to the Lunyu passage, there can be no doubt regarding the meaning of this text. And, if anyone could have had doubts about its relevance in 2013, it appears to have become common knowledge in the meantime that a new emphasis on ideological tightening is one of the characteristics of Chinese propaganda of the "New Era."

As the reader of Chinese will immediately notice, by addressing buyu and bujiang together in this way, the editors establish a bridge not only between different forms of Chinese characters but also between the field of literature and philosophy and the field of history and politics, between the times of Confucius and the times of Xi Jinping.

The result is a book dealing with a wide area of topics ranging from taboos...


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