Laobaixing Discourses and Social Change in China

by Dr Wei Wang
CSC academic group:Language, Discourse & Communication

Dr. Wei Wang is a Lecturer in Translation Studies with the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Department of Chinese Studies. His publications appear in Discourse Studies, Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, Translation and Interpreting Review, and other international academic journals. He is the author of Genre across Languages and Cultures (2007). He has published book chapters with Continuum, Benjamins, the University of Michigan Press, and Wiley-Blackwell. His research interests include contemporary Chinese discourse studies, translation studies, second language acquisition and Chinese language education.


In the past three decades the economic development of China has been rapid and impressive. The changes in economic, geopolitical and international position that China enjoys and the internal and global issues that these developments represent have become the object of intense interest and concern among scholars in a wide range of disciplines, not only in various Chinese regions and communities, but also in the rest of the world. In this complex social transformation process, discourse not only reflects social change, but is integral to, and constitutive of, this process, so the study of socio-political transformation in Chinese society requires research into discourse in contemporary China.

Trends in Discourse Analysis amongst Chinese scholars

There have been various models and conceptualisations of discourse and discourse analysis in contemporary Chinese settings by scholars in linguistics, sociology, pedagogy and cultural studies. It has been shown that social change and economic conditions have multiple impacts on rhetorical practice, political communication, and cultural behaviour (e.g.Chu & Ju, 1993; Kluver, 1996; Lu, 1998; Chilton, et al. 2010; Wu, 2007). Scholars both in and outside of China have conducted research which investigates contemporary Chinese discourse and the representation of China in Western media. They acknowledge that the economic, social and political changes taking place in China are bound up with changing discourses, reflecting new practices, identities, values and attitudes. This represents a growing wave of scholarship, producing analyses of the discourse of China’s political, social and cultural transformation. A variety of approaches and methods have been adopted, including conversational analysis, genre analysis, rhetorical analysis, narrative theory, critical discourse analysis, historical discourse perspective, and cultural political economy developed within the fields of politics and international relations. The data analysed include TV blockbusters, government work reports, teaching quality assessment reports, speeches made by party leaders, and recorded face-to-face interactions.

quote As a term referring to ordinary people or the “person in the street” who are outside of the elite or the nomenklatura class, the concept of laobaixing has come to occupy a central position in contemporary Chinese social life

However, such research is generally limited to the discourses around elite classes of the society, while the majority of the society – laobaixing (老百姓,ordinary people) in Chinese – has been much neglected. As a term referring to ordinary people or the “person in the street” who are outside of the elite or the nomenklatura class, the concept of laobaixing has come to occupy a central position in contemporary Chinese social life. Laobaixing, often regarded as the “silent majority” in China represent the governed and underprivileged individuals distant from power, wealth, and glory. Perhaps because of this, laobaixing have attracted less academic and journalistic attention than the elite classes in Chinese social discourse.

Current Research
Duzhe (The Reader): Constructing Identities through Narrative and Narrativity

Duzhe (The Reader) is seen as the top general interest magazine for the laobaixing in China with an average monthly domestic and international circulation of over nine million. Statistics from the International Federation of the Periodical Press show that Duzhe ranks the fourth worldwide and the first in Asia and China by circulation. Duzhe now has a large readership in the Chinese communities of more than 80 countries and regions including the United States and Australia. As a digest type of periodical, Duzhe is published twice a month with articles from various sources including a large proportion written or recommended by its own readers. Launched in 1981 with just 30,000 copies per month, this magazine has become a legend in the Chinese magazine industry and has been enthusiastically welcomed and enjoyed by people in every walk of life in China and overseas in the past 30 years, years which coincided with the 30 year open-reform era from 1978 in China’s history.

With its high quality texts devoid of sex and sensationalism and concerning the needs of laobaixing, Duzhe is filled with human-interest stories containing profound inspirations. This magazine is an unparalleled print media outlet for constructing discourses on laobaixing in China. How have identities of laobaixing been constructed and represented in Duzhe through narrative and narrativity? How have the agents or agencies manipulated the discourses on the laobaixing in relation to sociocultural development in China? By answering these questions, this project generates new knowledge about the significance of the laobaixing discourses and develops a profound understanding of identities of the Chinese grassroots in the process of China’s social change.

quote This project elucidates the ties between the narratives that have appeared in Duzhe and the turbulent social situations in contemporary China that have intensified social relationships along with its rapid economic boom

Narrative/storytelling as a social practice exhibits complex and fascinating relationships with its sociocultural context. This project elucidates the ties between the narratives that have appeared in Duzhe and the turbulent social situations in contemporary China that have intensified social relationships along with its rapid economic boom. It analyses how identities of laobaixing are constructed in the stories, with the protagonists resembling and elevating the personas of laobaixing in China. As Pierre Bourdieu (2002[1977]: 179) argues, the position of groups within the social world is given not only by their economic power, but by their cultural power, which in turn is determined by their ability to acquire distinction through the accumulation of “a capital of honour and prestige”. In this sense, the social order is never given, but is renewed and modified through concrete action and interaction of social agents, and power is not only a matter of economic domination, but rather of economic and symbolic domination.

Duzhe and social class construct

Duzhe as a press constructs the identities of laobaixing with a view to imposing new perceptions about this social class. It could be argued that what the writers or narrators attempt to acquire is symbolic power, which aims to secure more prestigious positions for these social groups. This endeavour to attract social attention and recognition is through “narrative activities that impose interpretation or reinterpretation of the narrator’s experiences and affirmation of the moral virtues with which this group is associated” (De Fina 2008:437). Through the construction of positive identities of laobaixing, these social groups at the lower spectrum of society could accumulate symbolic power and ultimately achieve changes in their social positions. This process, which is very important for the press – Duzhe, is particularly significant for the laobaixing groups who are struggling in the social and economic margins of ever-changing Chinese society. On the one hand, the positive images of these social groups can be represented and reinforced through the narratives. More importantly, those less privileged groups, which are the majority in Chinese society, might gain symbolic power through reading and appreciation of the stories told in the magazine. It is simply through these narratives/ stories and narrativity strategies that Duzhe as a responsible and sensible press achieves its fame and prestige as a haven for the laobaixing’s souls.

Some key common features of the laobaixing represented by the protagonists in the stories include the following: first, most protagonists in these stories have been positioned as someone inferior, naïve, immature, or in trouble of some kind, who are expecting to be educated, inspired and edified so as to become responsible and mature citizens in psychological and spiritual terms. More importantly, these protagonists, located in a fiercely competitive society and at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, show self-endeavour, retrospection, rectification and self-development that could inspire, enlighten, encourage or empower the common readers. This project also demonstrates that Duzhe serves its mission as the “soul stock” for Chinese laobaixing through various narrative and narrativity strategies including highlighting the theme of “kinship”, “resolution” of the trouble or crisis, “introspection” of the protagonists and “human interest” stories. Duzhe as a press strives for a grassroots-concerned approach in its institutionalised representation of narrative identities of laobaixing so as to gain symbolic power for these social groups on the one hand, and on the other, win symbolic power for itself as a gigantic popular media outlet in China.


Bourdieu (2002 [1977]). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chilton, Paul; Hailong Tian and Ruth Wodak (ed.) (2010) Journal of Language and Politics. Volume 9:4. (Special issue on new discourses in contemporary China).
Chu, G., & Ju, Y. (1993). The great wall in ruins: Communication and cultural change in China. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.
De Fina, A. (2008). Who tells which story and why? Micro and macro contexts in narrative. Text & Talk 28(3):421-442.
Kluver, A. R. (1996). Legitimating the Chinese economy reforms: A rhetoric of myth and orthodoxy. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.
Wu, D. (Ed.). (2007). Discourses of cultural China in globalizing age. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.