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Politeness in contemporary Chinese: a postmodernist analysis of generational variation in the use of compliments and compliment responses

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posted on 13.03.2012, 11:25 by Yun He
There is some evidence from scholarship that politeness norms in China are diversified. I maintain that a study aiming to provide systematic evidence of this would require an approach to politeness phenomena that is able to address such diversity. Drawing upon the insights of recent scholarship on the distinction between the modernist and postmodernist approaches to politeness, I survey relevant literature. I show that many current works on politeness argue that the modernist approach (Lakoff 1973/1975, Brown and Levinson 1987[1978], Leech 1983) generally tends to assume that society is relatively homogeneous with regard to politeness norms. By contrast, I demonstrate that the postmodernist approach to politeness (e.g. Eelen 2001, Mills 2003, Watts 2003) foregrounds the heterogeneity of society and the rich variability of politeness norms within a given culture. I argue that, by using a postmodernist approach to politeness, it is possible to show evidence of differences between groups of the Chinese in their politeness behaviour and the informing norms of politeness. I then explore this issue in depth by focusing on compliments and compliment responses (CRs). I show that studies on these speech acts in Chinese have to date tended to adopt a modernist approach to politeness and often assume a compliment and a CR to be easily identifiable. Moreover, I show that they do not address the heterogeneity of Chinese society and generally assume interactants to be homogeneous in terms of politeness norms that inform compliment and CR behaviours. On this basis, I raise the questions as to whether, by adopting a postmodernist rather than modernist approach, there is empirical evidence that politeness norms informing compliments and CRs vary among the Chinese, and whether these norms correlate with generation. v To this end, by audio-recording both spontaneous naturally occurring conversations and follow-up interviews, I construct a corpus of compliments and CRs generated by two generations of the Chinese brought up before and after the launch of China’s reform. Quantitative and qualitative analyses of these data show that there is variation in compliment and CR behaviours in Chinese and the informing politeness norms. Furthermore, the result shows that this variation is correlated with generation. I then show how, by using a research methodology which emphasizes the interactants’ perceptions obtained through follow-up interviews, my study brings to light problems with previous studies on compliments and CRs which hitherto are not addressed. By showing evidence that compliments and CRs are not as easy to identify as many previous researchers have indicated. I argue that my emic approach to data analysis provides a useful perspective on the complexity of intention in studies on speech acts and perhaps beyond. My study, therefore, makes an interesting contribution to the debate over this notion central to politeness research. Moreover, I argue my methodology which is able to categorize and analyze data according to participants’ self-reported perceptions allows me to draw out differences in the two generations’ compliment and CR behaviours and the informing politeness norms.



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© Yun HE

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.

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