Whose dream? Renmin (People) as A Floating Signifier in Contemporary China

Author: Beatrice Gallelli (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and Università di Bologna, Italy)
Speaker: Beatrice Gallelli
Topic:Language Ideologies
CALA 2020 General Session


Launched in 2012 by the current president Xi Jinping, the ‘Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ has become a key political concept, used to sum up China’s goal in the 21st century. In the various descriptions provided in official documents and media as well as speeches and writings by Chinese politicians, a constant and steady feature is its being a dream of the renmin “people”. Renmin is indeed a keyword in the ongoing discourse on the Chinese dream. Yet, what still needs to be uncovered is: who is the renmin in Chinese official discourse? Who is included and who is excluded? This paper aims at answering these questions by critically analyzing (Blommaert 2005) the meanings covered by the signifier renmin in political speeches delivered by Xi Jinping in key political events as well as the political implications brought about by the act of naming who is the renmin. Moving from Laclau’s notion of floating signifiers (Laclau 2005; 2014), this paper argues that the meaning of renmin cannot be seen as given once and for all. On the contrary, the signified of renmin is the unstable “result of a process of political becoming” (Bosteel 2016: 5). In the contemporary Chinese context, renmin is the site of an ideological struggle viewed from a diachronic perspective. This is precisely because it still carries the “taste” – to use Bakhtin’s terminology (Bakhtin 1981: 271-272) – of the meanings it used to cover in previous historical contexts. Uncovering who is the renmin and what the act of naming the renmin “does” in contemporary Chinese politics contribute to shed light on the process of construction of a Chinese collective identity in the era of globalization. This, in turn, helps understand what the larger implications of such a way of shaping a Chinese collective identity are in domestic politics as well as in the global context.


Blommaert, Jan. 2005. Discourse. A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bakhtin, Michail Michajlovič. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essays, ed. by Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Laclau, Ernesto. 2005. On Populist Reason. London/New York: Verso.
Laclau, Ernesto. 2014. Post-Marxism, Populism and Critique, ed. by David Howarth. London/New York: Routledge.

Keywords: the people, contemporary Chinese political discourse, floating signifiers, discourse analysis