Volume 19, Issue 1, 2022
Conceptual History: China, Asia, and the Global
From Society to Shehui
The Early Configuration of a Basic Concept in Modern China
As a traditional term used in ancient Chinese, shiehwui社會 mainly implied the gatherings and meetings related to folk festivals for the worship of and making offerings to shie社, the gods of soil. The manifestation of shiehwui frequently was the target of condescension or outright condemnation from the government or Confucian elites. During the early dissemination of the western concept of society into China, one factor that facilitated its entry was the Christian missionaries’ knowledge of traditional Chinese shie and hwui會, especially the secret societies, which they applied to their translations from English into Chinese. When the modern concept of shakai (written as 社會, the same Chinese characters), formulated in Japan, was imported into Chinese at the turn of the 20th century, it became blended with the old word of shiehwui, and found a connection to the daily life experience of the lower classes in traditional China. As a result, the new concept of shehui in modern China possesses two kinds of connotations. On the one hand, it points toward the new direction of historical changes. On the other hand, it still retains the associations of condescension, dissatisfaction and anxiety that inform the perspective of the ruling class toward this term.