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Doctoral Project

Eco-literature, environmental activists, and the Green Public Sphere in China.
Matthias Liehr (M.A.)

Among the major social changes China has been experiencing for the last thirty years, one of the most notable is the rise of what some scholars have called a “green public sphere" in China. This observation refers to the emergence of new social organizations such as environmental NGOs, as well as particular discourses on environmental issues, sometimes referred to as 'greenspeak' . However, every analysis of these phenomena encounters several caveats:

First, the notion that concepts such as “civil society” or “public sphere” – ideal cases which have been devised to accurately describe and explain social phenomena in Western countries – are immediately applicable for non-Western cases such as China is highly problematic.

The second problem lies in the fact that too often, studies on the topic remain within an analytical framework of “methodological nationalism” that does not sufficiently emphasize the transnational and transcultural dimension of the social developments to be analyzed.

Thirdly, even on cursory observation, there is overwhelming indication that the concepts, ideas, images, representations, and vocabularies which constitute environmental discourses in China have not evolved sui generis within a national framework, nor can they be described as "essentially Chinese”. Instead, they constitute an amalgam of old and new, something hybrid.

Thus, a study of the emergence of an environmental public sphere falls in the larger analytical context of an academic field that deals with questions of cultural hybridity (Bhabha), traveling theory (Said), multiple modernities (Eisensztadt), cultural globalization (Appadurai), transculturality (Welsch), and the global flow of cultural objects (Hannerz).

The central question my dissertation aims to answer is How are socio-cultural and political preconfigurations shaping the way in which a green public in China is emerging, both in terms of structure (institutions) as well as content (discourses)?

To answer this question, the study draws on a body of literary works called “eco-literature” or "ecological literature" ("shengtai wenxue 生态文学 in Chinese). Although a significant body of textual material (textbooks, reportages, novels) has been produced by a number of Chinese environmental activists and writers over the last three decades, these sources remains surprisingly under-researched, as scholarly analysis in Western academic literature so far has largely focused much more on the institutional and organizational aspects of China's civil society.

My study presupposes the relevance of literary texts as a valid source for the analysis of political developments in China. I employ a methodology that combines insights from neo-institutional political theory and framing theory to show how specific ideas, concepts and discourses of global environmentalism have been culturally appropriated within the particular Chinese socio-cultural context.