Just a little puzzled: What are the selves and the identities in the Chinese webs?

By now it is nearly commonsensical to assume that individuals use different social network and communication platforms in order to perform different aspects of one’s identity – for this Goffman’s book from 1959 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is frequently used. Researchers also find patterns of use of different platforms in different cultures and relate them to indigenous concepts – which often have something to do with outside/inside; public/private or similar dichotomies. In the discussions of those patterns, then, the term ‘identity’ and also the ‘self’ pop up.

Numerous excellent books present studies about identity and the self and link it to modernity, postmodernity and other eras. Asking google to define ’identity’, it will show you a graph about the use over time for identity, and you see that the term started to soar from the 1950s onward. However, the emergence of self and identity are so much tied into Western conceptual, as well as socio-economic history and the evolution of the individual that the discussions become somewhat blurry when these topics are dealt with in other cultural contexts where they are largely confined to the emergence of the market and consumerism.

Thus now comes my puzzlement: Goffman’s book is translated as日常生活的自我呈現。While the self is mostly expressed with zi 自or also the ’face’ 面子 - which in their historical evolution in the Chinese context are complex enough – ’identity’ in translation finds different terms: national identity for example is 国家认同, online identity is 网身份, true identity is 真面目. Tricia Wang’s talk and dissertation provide some suggestions to tackle ’identity’. However, it would be quite revealing to study the term as well as the social relations connected with it for a longer period in time (and perhaps also beyond ‘Confucianism’) in order to make it comparable to the Western application of ‘identity’ in research. Moreover, it is of course also possible to use the different Chinese terms of identity and the self in order to reflect upon the Western application.

November 23, 2014

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