The Contents of Different Forms of Time On Ancient and Modern Concepts of Geming (Revolution) in China

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Sinkwan Cheng


Conceptual hybridization can occur either through internal evolution, when new historical circumstances invest an existing concept with new semantics, giving rise to a commixture in it of both old and new meanings. It can also occur when a concept is used to translate a foreign idea, creating a composite of native and imported semantics. The new semantics a concept acquires when used to translate foreign ideas are usually more radically heterogeneous to the target culture than those it can engender through internal evolution. Conceptual hybridization effected by translation could thus be revolutionary, as was the case with the Chinese concept geming when used to translate the modern Western concept “revolution.”

However, as is generally the case with conceptual change, the old semantics of geming did not immediately get displaced by the new. More often that not, old semantics linger on, because old institutions and old worldviews continue to hold sway over a people and their language for a period of time, till the old ways of thinking and historical circumstances have disappeared.

In the case of geming, an old worldview which prevented an immediate takeover of the concept’s old semantics by the new was the traditional Chinese cyclical time in which geming was embedded and from which the concept derived its meaning in pre-modern China.

The classical Chinese term geming was used by the Japanese and then readopted by the Chinese to translate the modern western concept “revolution”. The modern concept was shunned by the Chinese until after 1898.

Scholars have so far focused on the contents of traditional Chinese values to explain this initial cold reception. I, by contrast, argue that the cold reception was rooted in the conflicts between the old cyclical and new linear temporalities framing respectively classical and modern gemings, causing the shared sets of contents in the two gemings to be inflected differently by two temporal forms. Before the Chinese could embrace the modern western concept “revolution,” they needed to have first developed the modern western linear time consciousness.

My paper examines how the Chinese population’s change of heart toward the modern concept of “revolution” was intertwined with the Chinese assimilation of modern western linear time. I examine how China’s embrace of the modern concept of “revolution” was made possible by its adoption of linear temporality, evident from how the country’s new positive stance toward modern geming roughly coincided with its newborn enthusiasm for progress.

Keywords: Revolution and Time, Translation, Geming, Cultural Revolution, Hybridization of Ideas


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