A blogger (sorry, I lost the link) led me to look for a book by Lydia He Liu called "The Clash of Empires". I was luck to be able to read almost the whole thing on Google Books.
From the publisher's review:
"What is lost in translation may be a war, a world, a way of life. A unique look into the nineteenth-century clash of empires from both sides of the earthshaking encounter, this book reveals the connections between international law, modern warfare, and comparative grammar--and their influence on the shaping of the modern world in Eastern and Western terms.
The Clash of Empires brings to light the cultural legacy of sovereign thinking that emerged in the course of the violent meetings between the British Empire and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Lydia Liu demonstrates how the collision of imperial will and competing interests, rather than the civilizational attributes of existing nations and cultures, led to the invention of "China," "the East," "the West," and the modern notion of "the world" in recent history. Drawing on her archival research and comparative analyses of English--and Chinese--language texts, as well as their respective translations, she explores how the rhetoric of barbarity and civilization, friend and enemy, and discourses on sovereign rights, injury, and dignity were a central part of British imperial warfare. Exposing the military and philological--and almost always translingual--nature of the clash of empires, this book provides a startlingly new interpretation of modern imperial history. "
Liu argues for semiotics as the defining aspect of the invention of China in the modern world, and as the defining moment of modern sovereign thinking in the nineteenth-century clash of the British and Qing Empires. Yet, if these are primarily semiotic events, what historical claim is being made? As Liu notes toward the end of the book, the science of philology privileged a putative transparency between language and culture. Liu's semiotics twists the emphasis: it retains language in its privileged position, even as the focus on historically produced translingual practice disavows transparency. This focus allows for a number of fascinating insights and accounts that should alter the narratives China studies textbooks continue to hold dear. Not many post-modernist academics would enjoy/accept her findings, though - they find them too reductionist. One of those unhappy readers' reviews can be read here.
I did find Chapter 2, discussing the semiotics of "yi" fascinating. Maybe not many would agree, but it kind of reflects my understanding of the term "goy" - something crass, vulgur, unclean, impure. I wonder if one could take Liu's discussion further, and do a cross-cultural study on terms used to describe the other in Arabic - kafir, khawaja, etc.