Version classiqueVersion mobile

Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 1

Judith Misrahi-Barak
Claudine Raynaud

Questioning Diasporas

Against Diaspora: The Sinophone as Places of cultural Production1

Shu-mei Shih


The term ’Chinese diaspora’ is a construct sponsored by the Chinese state to call its ’overseas’ subjects to its fold by demanding their loyalty and longing. Used uncritically by Chinese immigrants, it can also imply a disengagement from the realities and concerns of the places of their residence. Against this paradigm, this chapter argues that Sinophone communities should be defined by the multiple Sinitic languages they speak rather than ethnicity, and that diaspora has an expiration date.

Texte intégral

  • 1 This chapter is based on excerpts from Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the P (...)

1This essay is a broad, programmatic piece to parse out a space for Sinophone studies (huayu yuxi yanjiu), situated at the intersection of postcolonial studies, transnational studies, global studies, Chinese studies, and ethnic studies, as the study of Sinitic-language cultures and communities on the margins of China and Chineseness. Here, ’the margins of China and Chineseness’ is understood not only specifically but also generally, to locate those Sinophone cultures situated outside the geopolitical China proper and found in many parts of the world through historical processes of (im) migration and settlement spanning several centuries, as well as those non-Han cultures within China where the imposition of the dominant Han culture has elicited numerous responses from assimilation to anti-colonial resistance in the dominant language, Hanyu. Sinophone studies as a whole is therefore inherently comparative and transnational, but it is everywhere attentive to the specificity of time and place configurations of its different objects of study. In this spirit, this chapter does not focus explicitly on literature, but lays out the broad contours of Sinophone studies through an analysis and critique of what I consider to be the misconceived category of ’the Chinese diaspora’.

2The scattering of peoples from China across the globe over a millennium has long been an object of study as a subfield in Chinese studies, Southeast Asian Studies, and Asian American Studies, and also has a small presence in European Studies, African Studies and Latin American Studies in the United States. This subfield, whose parameters are set by wherever the peoples from China have gone, has been called the study of the Chinese diaspora. The Chinese diaspora, understood as the dispersion of ’ethnic Chinese’ persons around the globe, stands as a universalizing category founded on a unified ethnicity, culture, language, as well as place of origin or homeland. A Uigur from Xinjiang province, a Tibetan from Tibet and surrounding regions, or a Mongolian from inner Mongolia who has immigrated out of China is not normally considered part of the Chinese diaspora, for instance, while the Manchus may or may not be included. The measure of inclusion appears to be the degree of sinicization of these ethnicities, because what often gets completely elided is the fact that the Chinese diaspora refers mainly to the diaspora of the Han people. ’Chinese’, in other words, is a national marker passing as an ethnic, cultural, and linguistic marker, a largely Han-centric designation, since, in fact, there are altogether fifty-six official ethnicities in China and there are far more diverse languages and topolects spoken across the nation. The Chinese language, as it is generally assumed and understood, is nothing but the standardized language imposed by the state, that is, the language of the Han, the Hanyu, also known as putonghua (literally, the common language); the Chinese, as is generally assumed, are largely limited to the Han people; and Chinese culture refers mainly to the culture of the Han. In short, ’Chinese’ functions as a category of ethnicity, language, and culture only to the extent that it designates the Han, excluding all the other ethnicities, languages, and cultures. The term ’ethnic Chinese’ is therefore a serious misnomer, since the ’Chinese’ includes not one but 56 ethnicities, if not more. There is no such a group called ’ethnic Chinese’, in short. There can be ethnic Tibetan Chinese or Uigur Chinese, but not ’ethnic Chinese’ as such. The reduction of Chineseness to Han ethnicity in places outside China is the inverse of the hegemonic claims on Chineseness by the Han majority within China. Historically, various ethnic peoples have contributed significantly to what ’China’ has become today, such as the important legacies of the Manchu dynasty of the Qing (1644-1912). Hence, this procedure of ethnicized reductionism of the Chinese as the Han is not unlike the racist misrecognition of authentic Americans to be white Anglo-Saxons. In each case, a different but similar form of ethnocentrism is in operation.

  • 2 The early twentieth version of national characteristics is evinced in the work of no other than the (...)

3To elaborate further on how the uniform idea of ’the Chinese’ were co-produced by agents inside and outside China, we may trace it back to a racialized ideology of the Western powers since the nineteenth century that presented Chineseness along the color line, which disregarded the many diversities and differences within China. This was when the Chinese became ’yellow’ and reduced to one ethnicity, when in fact there were historically people of many different phenotypes in changing geopolitical boundaries of China. The external production of Chinese uniformity paradoxically worked well with the unifying intent of the Chinese state, especially since the end of Manchu rule in 1912, which eagerly presented a unified China and Chineseness to emphasize its cultural and political autonomy from the West. Only in this context can we understand why since the turn of the nineteenth century the notion of ’Chinese national characteristics’ that had been propounded by Western missionaries became popular among Westerners and the Han Chinese alike, inside and outside China, and why it would continue to be a compelling idea for the Han majority in China in the present.2 On the one hand, there is no better way to understand this desire to universalize Chineseness as a racialized boundary marker then that, for the Western powers, it legitimated the semi-colonization of the Chinese up until 1949 and the management of their Chinese immigrants and minorities within their own nation-states since the late 19th century to the present, for both of which the discourse of ’the Yellow Peril’ served distinctly useful purposes. On the other hand, for China and the Han Chinese, the racialized concept of ’the Chinese’ correlates at least with three different purposes: the unified nation’s resistance against imperialism and semicolonialism in the early twentieth century; a practice of self-examination that internalized Western categories of the self; and, finally and most importantly, the suppression of its ethnic minorities for their claims on and contributions to the nation in addition to dispelling some of the sovereignty claims of some of these minority groups.

4What is abundantly clear from this very short and broad exposition of the problems of such umbrella terms as the ’Chinese’ and ’Chineseness’ is that the terms were activated through contacts with other peoples outside China as well as confrontations with their internal others. These terms not only dwell on the most general level for their signification, but also on the most exclusive; thus they are universal and particular at the same time. More precisely, they are hegemonic particulars passing themselves off as the universal, which is complicit with the crude generalizations imposed on China, the Chinese, and Chineseness by the West, and to a certain extent, other Asian countries such as Japan and Korea where resistances to the Chinese sphere of cultural and political influence were prominent since the nineteenth century, if not earlier. Both Japan and Korea had explicitly engaged in ’de-Hanification’ campaigns in their movements to define their national languages against Chinese cultural and hegemony, for instance, undermining the importance of Kanji (Japanese for the Han script) and Hanja (Korean for the Han script) in their respective languages.

  • 3 Trade routes between China and Southeast Asia were opened as early as the second century, and by th (...)
  • 4 Instructive comparisons can be made between Sinophone societies and those European countries where (...)

5As much as the study of the Chinese diaspora has tried to broaden the question of the Chinese and Chineseness by emphasizing the localizing tendencies of those peoples migrated out of China in their countries of sojourn and sometimes colonial settlement, such as in various countries in Southeast Asia (especially Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore), Chineseness continues to be the major category within this field. It is important to interrogate, however, the unifying category of the Chinese diaspora in the present moment, not only because it is complicit with China’s nationalist calling to the ’overseas Chinese’ who are supposed to long to return to China as their homeland and whose ultimate purpose is to serve China, but also because it unwittingly correlates with and reinforces the Western and other non-Western (such as American and Malaysian) racialized construction of Chineseness as perpetually foreign-’diasporic’-hence not qualified to be authentic locals. In postcolonial nation-states across Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America, it is not far-fetched to argue that the Sinophone peoples there have been historically constitutive of the local. After all, some of them have been in Southeast Asia since as early as the sixth century, long before nation-states had ever existed, and surely long enough to last many identity labels tied to nationality.3 The question is then who is preventing them from being just a Thai, a Filipino, a Malaysian, an Indonesian, or a Singaporean who happens to have ancestors from China and who can be recognized as simply multilingual and multicultural like their fellow citizens.4 Similarly, who is preventing the immigrants from China in the United States (who immigrated since as early as the mid-19th century) from simply being or becoming Chinese Americans with emphasis on the latter of the compound term, American? We can consider the various racialized acts of exclusion such as the Chinese Exclusion Acts in the United States, the expulsion of the Hoa (local construction of the Chinese) by the Vietnamese government, ethnic riots against the Chinese in Indonesia, the massacre of the Chinese by the Spanish in the Philippines and by the Dutch in Java, the kidnapping of Chinese children in the Philippines, and many other such examples to see how the reified category of ’the Chinese’ as a racial and ethnic marker readily serves such purposes of exclusion, scapegoating, and persecution. While Italian, Jewish, and Irish immigrants have gradually become ’white’, merging into the mainstream white American society, the yellow-ness of ’the Chinese’ has continued to plague Chinese Americans’ struggles for recognition.

  • 5 ’Dual domination’ is Lingchi Wang’s descriptive term for this condition. See Lingchi Wang 1995.
  • 6 Lynn Pan lists these peoples under the category ’Hybrids’, which is also a chapter title in Pan’s b (...)

6Paradoxically, scholarship on the Chinese diaspora provides ample evidence of the desire of these immigrants to localize within their lands of settlement. In Singapore, even before it became an independent city-state, intellectuals who migrated from China there saw that their culture was centered in the land of their settlement. They coined the category ’Nanyang’ (the South Seas) for themselves, and many rejected the claim that their culture was an overseas Chinese culture (Kenley 2003: 163-185). The locally born Peranakans in Indonesia and mixed race babas in Malaysia-the so-called Straits Chinese-developed their own particular cultures of hybridity, and resisted the ’resinicization’ pressures from China (Wang 2000: 79-97). Many Chinese Americans have long considered themselves to be the children of the civil rights movements and refuted the ’dual domination’ and manipulation by both the Chinese state and the U.S. state.5 The Sino-Thais have localized their surnames and have more or less completely integrated into the fabric of Thai society. The Malaysian Communist Party, established in 1930, was one of the most active anticolonial units against the British and the Japanese, and its membership was mainly Chinese Malaysians of Han ethnicity (Cartier 2003: 69-96). The racially or ethnically mixed populations with some traceable ancestry in China such as the Lukjins of Siam, Metis of Cambodia and Indochina, the Injerto and Chinocholos of Peru, the Creoles in Trinidad and Mauritius, and the Mestizos of the Philippines present us with the question whether it makes any sense to continue to register these categories at all and what purposes and for whose benefit such registration serves.6 We continue to see a certain ideology of racial and ethnic purity mandating the tracing of origins even after centuries have passed. Whether racialized pressure from the outside or internalized racialization, the basis of such an ideology is not unlike the one-drop-of-blood rule for African Americans in the United States.

  • 7 See Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians, Leo Suryadinada, ed. (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asi (...)
  • 8 Both Gungwu Wang’s and Lynn Pan’s books referred to earlier exemplify this.
  • 9 See, for instance, Immanuel Wallerstein’s three volumes, The Modern World-System (San Diego et al: (...)

7The sentiments of Sinophone settlers in different parts of the world of course are various, and there was a strong sojourner mentality in the earlier phases of the dispersion since many were traders and coolies. Their different intentions for staying or leaving provide different measuring mechanisms for their desire to integrate or not. But the fact of the Sinophone peoples’ dispersion through all continents and over such a long historical span leads one to question the viability of the umbrella concept of the Chinese diaspora where the criteria of determination is Chineseness, or, to put it more precisely, different degrees of Chineseness. In this scheme, for instance, one can be more Chinese, and another can be less Chinese, and Chineseness effectively becomes evaluatable, measurable, and quantifiable. Wang Gungwu, the renowned scholar of the Chinese diaspora, therefore posited the idea of the ’cultural spectrum of Chineseness’. As an illustration, he notes that the Chinese in Hong Kong are ’historically’ more Chinese, even though they are ’not as yet fully Chinese as their compatriots in Shanghai’, but the Chinese in San Francisco and Singapore have more ’complex non-Chinese variables’ (Wang 1999). Another renowned scholar of the Chinese diaspora, Lynn Pan, states that the Chinese in the U.S. have lost their cultural grounding and are therefore ’lost to Chineseness’. Pan further charges that the Chinese Americans’ involvement in the civil rights movement was nothing short of ’opportunism’ (289-295). Here, we hear echoes of the accusation by immigrant parents, in the early twentieth century San Francisco Chinatown, that their American children were less than satisfactorily Chinese by calling them empty bamboo hearts (juksing), or the nationalistic Chinese from China claiming their Chineseness to be the most authentic in comparison to those living outside China. If one Chinese American can be complimented for speaking good English in the United States due to the racist equation of whiteness and authenticity, he or she can be equally complimented for speaking good Hanyu in China for someone who is not authentically Chinese enough. Two major points of blindness in the study of the Chinese diaspora reside in its inability to see beyond Chineseness as an organizing principle and the lack of communication with the other scholarly paradigms such as ethnic studies in the United States (where ethnic identities and nationality of origin can be disaggregated), Southeast Asian studies (where the Sinophone peoples are inevitably seen more and more as Southeast Asians), and various language-based postcolonial studies such as Francophone studies (where the French-speaking Chinese are French per the ideology of French Republicanism).7 In most of the scholarship on the Chinese diaspora, furthermore, the ’Chinese American’ is a missing person, and even the Hongkonger or Taiwanese are missing persons who are only recognized as Hong Kong Chinese or Chinese in Taiwan.8 The over-investment in the notion of the homeland in the study of the Chinese diaspora cannot account either for the global dispersion of Sinophone peoples or the increasing heterogenization of ethnicities and cultures within any given nation. From the perspective of the longue durée of globalization, Samir Amin tells us, heterogenization and hybridization have been the norm rather than the exception since time immemorial.9

8I coin the notion of the Sinophone to designate Sinitic-language cultures and communities outside China as well as those ethnic communities in China where Sinitic languages are either forcefully imposed or willingly adopted. The Sinophone, like the history of other non-metropolitan peoples who speak metropolitan and/or colonial languages, has a colonial history. When China was a cultural empire, the literary, classical Han script was the lingua franca of the East Asian world where scholars could converse by conducting so-called ’pen conversations’ (bitan) through writing. Studies of Qing imperialism of the 18th and 19th centuries have, in the past two decades, also shown the continuous effects of this imperialism on those internal colonies within China today: Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang, for instance. This is similar to the official Francophonie whose existence owes largely to the expansion of the French empire and its cultural and linguistic colonization of parts of Africa and the Caribbean, as was the Spanish empire in Hispanophone America, British empire in India and Africa, Portuguese empire in Brazil and Africa, etc. Not all empires acted the same way, it goes without saying, and linguistic colonization and influence did occur through varying degrees of coercion and cooperation and to different degrees of success. What these empires uniformly left behind, however, are the linguistic consequences of their cultural dominance. In standard Japanese and Korean languages, for instance, there is a lasting, clearly recognizable, presence of the classical Han script in localized forms. In today’s China, the imposition of the Hanyu and the Han script on its non-Han others-Tibetans, Uigurs, Mongolians, etc.-is akin to a colonial relationship, a relationship that most dare not criticize for fear of China’s ire.

9Contemporary Sinophone communities outside China, however, are not strictly colonial or postcolonial in relation to China except in a few cases. This is the major difference between the Sinophone and the other postcolonial language-based communities such as the Francophone, the Hispanophone, etc. Singapore as a settler colony with the majority of population being Han is akin to the United States as a settler, Anglophone country. By historical developments in the twentieth century, Singapore’s postcolonial language is Anglophone, not Sinophone. Taiwan, whose majority population is Han who settled there during the seventeenth century and later, is also similar to the colonial United States in its intention to become formally independent from the country of immigration. Furthermore, Taiwan’s situation is akin to Francophone Quebec. In Quebec, roughly 82 % of the population is Francophone, and a similar percentage of the Taiwanese speak the standard Mandarin. The French-Canadian identity in Quebec has increasingly given way to a localized, modern Quebecois identity through what has been known as a process of Révolution Tranquille (Majumdar 2002: 210, 217), just as the imposed uniform Chinese identity by the Guomindang regime in Taiwan has gradually given way to a localized New Taiwanese identity in today’s Taiwan. Mandarin is now only one of the official languages in Taiwan’s multilingual society where the majority of the people actually speak the Minnan, while the rest speak Hakka and various aboriginal languages. As settler colonies, however, Han peoples of Singapore and Taiwan, no manner which Sinitic language they speak (Minan/Taiwanese, Hakka, Cantonese, Teochiu, or others), are colonial vis-à-vis the indigenous peoples there. From the indigenous perspectives, the history of Taiwan is a history of serial colonialism (Dutch, French, Chinese, Japanese, etc.), which has never ended. Taiwan has never been postcolonial.

  • 10 Victor Mair ’s important work shows that what we know to be standard Chinese belongs to the Sinitic (...)

10For those who settled in various parts of Southeast Asia, they also rarely speak the standard language defined by the Chinese state, but various old forms of topolects from the time when and the place where they had emigrated.10 ’The time when’ is important, since the topolects would have evolved differently inside and outside China. The Han people living in South Korea, for instance, speak a mixture of Shandongnese and Korean, often creolized to the extent that the semantics, syntax, and grammar of the two languages are intermingled to a very high degree that the two seem to be organically interdependent. This is especially true for second and third generation Shandongnese in South Korea, even though the standard Hanyu was taught in the educational system set up by the locals originally supported by the Taiwan government, and now by the Chinese government after the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between South Korea and China. Like elsewhere, Hanyu there is standard only to the extent that it is a written language; when spoken, it is sounded out in Shandongnese. The Shandongnese they speak is also different from Shandongnese spoken in the Shandong province of China, where there are in fact many topolects all calling themselves Shandongnese. The same can be said about the speakers of Teochiu, Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, and Hailam in Southeast Asia, Cantonese in Hong Kong, and all the different topolect speakers and Chinglish or pidgin speakers in the United States. The Straits Chinese (who settled in the British Straits Settlements) such as the babas speak English as well as patois Malay (Cartier 2003). It goes without saying that there are various degrees of creolization of the Sinitic languages as well as outright abandonment of any ancestral linguistic links to China. Increasingly, for instance, the main linguistic influence on Sinophone Chinese Malaysians is Hong Kong television shows and movies, a Hong Kong-style Cantonese with distinct divergences from the Cantonese spoken in the Guangdong province in China. Essentially, creolized to different degrees, these Sinitic languages comprise a multilingual Sinophone world across national borders.

11The Sinophone recognizes that speaking fractions of different Sinitic languages associated with China is a matter of choice and other historical determinations, and hence the Sinophone exists only to the extent that these languages are somehow maintained. The Sinophone recedes or disappears as soon as these languages in question are abandoned, but this recession or disappearance should not be seen as a cause for lament or nostalgia. Francophone African nations have, to varying degrees, sought to maintain or abandon the colonial language, and to devise their own linguistic futures. Hence, unlike the conception of the Chinese diaspora, the Sinophone foregrounds not the ethnicity or race of the person but the languages he or she speaks in either a vibrant or vanishing community of those languages. Instead of the perpetual bind to nationality, the Sinophone may be inherently transnational and global and includes wherever various Sinitic languages are spoken on the margins of China and Chineseness. By virtue of its residual nature, the Sinophone is largely confined to immigrant communities across all of the continents as well as those settler societies where the Han are the majority. As such, the Sinophone can only be a notion in the process of disappearance as soon as it undergoes the process of becoming, when local concerns voiced in local languages gradually supercede pre-immigration concerns for immigrants and their descendents through generations, with the Sinophone eventually losing its raison-d’être. The Sinophone as an analytical and cognitive category is therefore both geographically and temporally specific.

12From the perspectives of Democratic Party members in Hong Kong or independentists in today’s Taiwan, Sinophone articulations, furthermore, may contain an anti-colonial intent against Chinese hegemony. The Sinophone is a place-based, everyday practice and experience, and thus it is a historical formation that constantly undergoes transformation reflecting local needs and conditions. It can be a site of both a longing for and rejection of various constructions of Chineseness; it can be a site of both nationalism of the long-distance kind, anti-China politics, or even non-relation with China, whether real or imaginary. Speaking Sinitic languages with certain historical affinity to China does not necessarily need to be tied to contemporary China, just as speaking English does not tie oneself to England per se. In other words, Sinophone articulations can take as many different positions as possible within the realm of human expression, whose axiological determinations are not necessarily dictated by China but by local, regional or global contingencies and desires. Rather than a dialectics of rejection, incorporation, and sublimation, there is at least a trialectics, since mediation is exercised by more agents than one, the so-called perennial other. The Sinophone, therefore, maintains a precarious and problematic relation to China, similar to the Francophone to France, the Hispanophone to Spain, the Anglophone to England in its ambiguity and complexity. The dominant Sinophone language may be standard Hanyu, but it can be implicated in a dynamic of linguistic power struggles. As a major language, standard Hanyu is the object against which various minor articulations are launched resulting in its de-standardization, creolization, fragmentation, or sometimes outright rejection.

  • 11 ’Farewell China’ is the title of a film made by then Hong Kong-based, Britain-trained filmmaker Cla (...)

13The Sinophone may articulate a China-centrism if it is the nostalgic kind that forever looks back at China as its cultural motherland or the source of value, nationalist or otherwise; but, the Sinophone is often the site the most powerful articulations against China-centrism are heard. The Sinophone Taiwan, for instance, is only an aspect of Taiwan’s multilingual community where aboriginal languages are also spoken, and post-Martial law Taiwan cultural discourse is very much about articulating symbolic ’farewells to China’.11 The Sinophone pre-1997 Hong Kong also saw the emergence of a nativist fetishization of Cantonese against the looming hegemony of Beijing standard Hanyu.

14It goes without saying that the Sinophone is a very important, critical category for literature. In the past, the distinction between literature written in the standard Sinitic language from inside and outside China has been rather blurry, and this blurriness has had the effect of throwing literature written in Sinitic languages, standard or otherwise, outside China into neglect and marginalization, if not total oblivion. What used to be categorized in English as ’Chinese literature’ (Zhongguo wenxue, literature from China) and ’literature in Chinese’ (huawen wenxie, literature from outside China) added to the confusion. The singularity of the word ’Chinese’ in both terms shows the ’Chinese’ as the hegemonic sign and easily slips into or becomes complicit with China-centrism. In effect, the notion of ’literature in Chinese’ or ’world literature in Chinese’ places Chinese literature as the hegemonic model in relation to which the various different kinds of ’Chinese literature’ are categorized and organized. There is a bourgeoning industry of studies of ’world literature in Chinese’ (shijie huawen wenxue) with established scholarly associations and academic programs in China, the political intensions of which are probably not very dissimilar to the official notion of the Francophonie of the French state. Much like the model of categorization where European and American literatures are deemed normative, universal, and hence generic, while the rest of the world produced literature of ’the world at large’, ’world literature’ as such was therefore often a code word for all of those literatures that are non-European and non-American. ’World literature in Chinese’ exercises a similar function where ’Chinese literature’ is its unnamed but hegemonic, generic and empty signifier, with the rest of the world producing ’world literature in Chinese’. In this construction, the ’world’ is the gathering of particular places beyond the universe of China proper but everywhere connected to China in their insistence to write in the Sinitic script. The historical coincidence of the expansion of studies of ’world literature in Chinese’ in China with China’s global ambitions presents itself for a critical analysis of political economy.

15The Sinophone therefore usefully designates Sinitic-language literatures in various parts of the world without the assumed centrality of Chinese literature. It is multilingual in and of itself by virtue of the simple fact that the Sinitic language family consists of many different languages, and different communities tend to speak a particular Sinitic language in addition to its non-Sinitic inflections. Sinophone Malaysian literature, for instance, vividly captures Cantonese and other Sinitic languages alongside the standard Hanyu, not to mention their sometimes occasional and sometimes extensive creolizations by Malay, English, and Tamil. Similarly, in Sinophone Taiwan literature, the body of works written by indigenous Austronesian peoples often mix their various indigenous languages with the imposed Hanyu by the Han settler colonizers in a dialectical confrontation and negotiation. To a different extent, one sees the drive towards writing explicitly in a newly invented script of Minnan in Taiwan literature, just as Hong Kong writers have tried to invent a Cantonese script to register the distinctness of Sinophone Hong Kong literature in contradiction to Chinese literature.

  • 12 ’Sinophone Asian American literature’ may simply be changed to ’Sinophone American literature’, as (...)

16In the different context of American literature, there had been no clear way to designate Chinese American literature written in a given Sinitic language, hence Sau-ling Wong’s recent, important distinction between ’Anglophone Chinese American literature’ and ’Sinophone Chinese American literature’.12 In the case of Chinese American literary history and criticism, literature written in the Sinitic languages has been systematically marginalized, if not considered politically suspect for its presumed ’un-Americanness’ that can arouse fears of charges of unassimilatability. Dismissed in both the cannons of ’Chinese literature’ and ’Chinese American literature’, which are both based on models of nationality and ethnicity with standard Hanyu and standard English as their languages of choice, the Sinophone literally had been crying for a name for itself. Early Sinophone American literature had largely been written in Cantonese or with Cantonese inflections, while the post-1965 body of literature is largely in standard Hanyu, refracting the particular geographical contours of immigration from China, Taiwan, and elsewhere in different historical periods. The English-centrism of American literature is clearly refuted by the prolific production of Sinophone American literature by generations of immigrants from various other Sinophone communities. American literature, like all national literatures, is a multilingual literature. This is a simple and obvious fact that is often occluded by linguistic and literary politics exercized by the dominant.

  • 13 See for instance Pamela Kyle Crossley, Helen F. Siu and Donald S. Sutton eds. 2006; and Joanna Wale (...)
  • 14 The phrase, ’cross-epistemological conversations’, is from Walter Mignolo (2000): 85.

17If both Sinophone Taiwan literature written by the indigenous peoples and Sinophone American literature written by Chinese American minorities register their discontent against the respective dominant cultures in Taiwan and the U.S. and express anti-colonial or decolonial intent (the former does so more than the latter), we must consider Sinophone Tibetan or Sinophone Mongolian literature in a similar vein. Many Sinophone Tibetan writers, for instance, are themselves to be subjects living under a colonial condition, external (if their desire is sovereignty) or internal (if they feel oppressed). They may write in the standard Hanyu, but their sensibilities are ambiguously positioned vis-à-vis politico-cultural China and a uniform construction of Chineseness as Han-centered and Handominant. As historians tell us, it is the expansion of the Qing empire that brought the far-flung regions such as Tibet, present-day Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia into the fold of China with effective military conquests and cultural managements in a typical colonial fashion.13 A case must be made, therefore, about internal colonialism in China where Han hegemony over its linguistic, cultural, and ethnic others needs to be thoroughly investigated. Ethnic writers such as Tibetans and Uigurs who choose to write in the standard Hanyu do so with a distinctively bicultural, if not bilingual, sensibility where ’cross-epistemological conversations’14 take place in antagonistic, dialectical, or any other number of ways. The Sinophone, like the category of the ’Third World’, which can also exist within the First World, then also exists on the margins within China.

18Similar to its complex relationship to China and Chineseness, the Sinophone also evinces a complex relationship with the sites of its settlement and lived experience. For first generation Chinese Americans who have immigrated from various other Sinophone sites or China, for example, their relationship to the cultures and languages of the United States is, though equally ambivalent and complex, of a qualitatively different kind. As the Sinophone distinguishes itself from the dominant construction of Chineseness, it also distinguishes itself from the dominant construction of Americanness in a way that is borne out by the exigencies of lived experience in the United States. Via heterogenizing both the dominant constructions of Chineseness and Americanness, it maintains its own subjectivity. Some might flaunt this as the postmodernist in-between-ness, others see this as the existential condition of the Sinophone as a local practice. Place matters as the grounding where Sinophone acquires its valance and relevance.

  • 15 Choson Korea considered itself the ’sojunghwa’ (literally, small China), that was more authenticall (...)

19The definition of the Sinophone must therefore be place-based and it must be sensitive to time, being able to attend to the process of its formation and disappearance. For recent immigrant communities in the United States that speak Cantonese, Minnan, and various other Sinitic languages, their political allegiances often run the gamut of extreme positions at odds with each other, while their psycho-social investment in the land of settlement may increasingly outweigh older attachments. The Sinophone is kept alive by successive waves of new immigrants while earlier immigrants may move further toward mainstream to heterogenize the mainstream culture in a bid for pluralism and equality. The history of the official Francophonie cautions us that the notion of the Sinophone also bears the risk of being appropriated by the Chinese state. In the case of the Francophonie as an institutional concept, the French state can willfully neglect the anti-colonial character of the Francophone and instead highlight the state’s potential as the champion of pluralism in order to refute the overpowering pressure of American cultural hegemony (Majumdar 2003: 4-5). The Francophonie can be partly seen as spectral remains of the French empire under whose shadow contemporary France’s waning cultural influence in the globe can be temporarily displaced. Unfortunately it can be turned into a new fantasy of French global influence, if not a point of mobilization for imperial nostalgia. The notion of the Chinese diaspora has led to similar consequences: it centered China as the place of origin and implicitly demonstrated China’s global influence. Rather than a testament to the classical Chinese empire, such as the pre-modern Sinophone worlds of Vietnam, Japan and Korea, or an emerging Chinese empire that claims the sole right to Chineseness, contemporary Sinophone articulations may determine whether to respond to such claims or to ignore them altogether. In the last two centuries, Japan tried to ’overcome’ China militarily by instigating the two Sino-Japanese Wars, and symbolically through a vernacular movement that displaced the Han written script. For Korea, the resistance was more circuitous: denouncing the ideology of ’serving the great’ (sadae chuui) in the seventeenth century was simultaneously producing its authenticity as preserver of Chinese culture against the Manchus,15 but twentieth century history saw a gradual move away from Chinese influence until the rise of China in the global scene in the early twenty-first century.

20To sum up then, the conceptualization of the Sinophone here emphasizes two major points:

  1. Diaspora has an end date. When the (im) migrants settle and become localized, many choose to end their state of diaspora by the second or third generation. The so-called nostalgia for the ancestral land is often an indication or displacement of difficulties of localization, voluntary or involuntary. Racism and other hostile conditions can force immigrants to find escape and solace in the past, while cultural or other superiority complexes can estrange immigrants from the locals. Emphasizing that diaspora has an end date is therefore to insist that cultural and political practice is always place-based. Everyone should be given a chance to become a local.

  2. The linguistic community is a community of change and an open community. When the descendants of immigrants no longer speak their ancestors’ languages, they are no longer part of the Sinophone community. The Sinophone community is therefore a community of change, occupying a transitional moment (however long in duration) that inevitably integrates further with local communities and becomes constitutive of the local. It is an open community, furthermore, because it is defined not by race or nationality of the speaker but by the languages one speaks. Just as Anglophone speakers are not necessarily British or American, Sinophone speakers need not be Chinese by nationality. To the extent that communities are most often multilingual, linguistically-determined communities necessarily trace porous and contingent boundaries.

21What does Sinophone studies do, then? Or rather, what can Sinophone studies do? To these questions, I offer several tentative answers by way of proposals below:

  1. By debunking ’the Chinese diaspora’ as the organizing concept for the study of various immigrant peoples who left China from centuries ago up to the present, it is possible to propose organizing concepts other than such essentialist notions as ’Chineseness’ and ’the Chinese’. Instead, rigorously re-articulated concepts such as multiplicity, difference, creolization, hybridity, métissage/mestizaje, and others can be deployed for more complex understandings of histories, cultures and literatures. Ethnic studies, other ’phone’ studies such as Francophone studies and Anglophone studies, postcolonial studies, transnational studies and additional relevant modes of inquiry may all be drawn from for Sinophone studies in a comparative vein.

    • 16 The term ’wandering Chinese’ had enjoyed much currency. See for instance the now classic group of e (...)
    • 17 Sau-ling Wong analyzed racism against African Americans prevalent in overseas Chinese literature or (...)

    Sinophone studies allows us to rethink the relationship between roots and routes by considering the conceptions of roots as place-based rather than ancestral, or routes as a more mobile conception of home-ness rather than wandering and homelessness.16 To decouple home-ness and origin is to recognize the imperative of living as a political subject within a particular geopolitical place in a specific time with deep local commitments. To link home-ness with the place of residence therefore becomes an ethical act that chooses concrete political engagement in the local. The claim of rootlessness by some nostalgia-driven, middle-class, first generation immigrants is, for example, oftentimes narcissistic to the extent that it is not aware of its own trenchant conservatism and even racism.17 The place of residence can change-some people migrate more than once-but to consider that place as home may thus be the highest form of rootedness. Routes, then, can become roots. This is not a theory of mobile citizens who disidentify from the local nation-state and disengage from local politics, but the politicization of that mobility.

  2. When routes can be roots, multi-directional critiques are not only possible but also imperative. Transcending national borders, Sinophone communities can maintain a critical position towards both the country of origin and the country of settlement. It is no longer an either/or choice between the ancestral land and the local place, which has been shown to jeopardize the well-being of the immigrants and their descendants. A Chinese American can be critical of China and the U.S. at the same time. In the case of Taiwan, this double critique allows for the emergence of a critical, articulatory position beyond the conventional association of Taiwan with the American Right, so that Taiwan can be critical of Chinese and U.S. policies of containment as well as their collusion and complicity without being forced to choose one over the other. The Sinophone as a concept, then, allows for the emergence of a critical position that does not succumb to nationalist and imperialist pressures, and allows for a multiply-mediated and multiply-angulated critique. In this way, Sinophone can be considered a method. Starting from being a historical and empirical category of communities, cultures, and languages, the Sinophone can also be re-articulated as an epistemology.

22By way of conclusion, Malaysian writer He Shufang’s intriguing short story ’Never Mention It Again’ offers a refreshingly sharp and critical look at the world from Sinophone perspectives (He 2004: 228-234). In this story, a married Chinese Malaysian man has secretly converted to Islam in order to take advantage of tax breaks and other economic benefits provided by the government. In Malaysia, a policy of ’positive discrimination’ has been practiced for the past 40 some years as a way to guarantee Malay success in economy and government, while restricting Chinese Malaysian and Indian Malaysian access to success. This man has also apparently married a couple of Muslim women without his Chinese Malaysian wife’s knowledge. Things were going really well until he dies. At his funeral planned as a Daoist ritual by his Chinese Malaysian wife and children, government officials storm the funeral and announce that only Muslims can bury a Muslim. What ensues is a physical struggle over the corpse of the man, with two sides grabbing and holding onto one half of the corpse in a tug-of-war. In the height of this tug-of-war, the corpse defecates. Small, hard, broken pieces of his feces lands on everyone, as the violent motion of the tug-of-war creates a large radius for their spread. In the end, the Muslims take his corpse, the Chinese Malaysians are reduced to gathering the feces and burying them in a family grave, and the Chinese Malaysian wife is, by Malaysian law, disinherited of all her husband’s property because she cannot inherit a Muslim’s property. This theatre of the absurd may serve as a perfect allegory for a multidirectional critique of state racism (of the Malaysian state) and Chinese cultural essentialism (of the Chinese family), both as flipsides of each other that reinforce and enhance each other, while no one is immune from the feces of the corpse, which contaminate everyone equally. This is the ugly and smelly picture of hybridity, not the hybridity that is celebrated by some scholars of postcolonial theory, ugly and smelly precisely because hybridity as a difficult, lived condition is not acknowledged by state racism and Chinese cultural essentialism, and thus can only be experienced through unexpected, and sometimes shocking, manifestations. The Sinophone articulates itself into being through such difficulty and complexity.


Works Cited

Amin, Samir. Capitalism in the Age of Globalization. London and New York: Zed Books, 1997.

Cartier, Carolyn. ’Diaspora and Social Restructuring in Postcolonial Malaysia’, in The Chinese Diaspora, Lawrence J.C. Ma and Carolyn Cartier, eds. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford: Roman & Littlefield, 2003; 69-96.

Crossley, Pamela Kyle, Helen F. Siu and Donald S. Sutton eds. Empire at the Margins: Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early Modern China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

Suryadinada, Leo, ed. Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1997.

FitzGerald, C.F. The Third China. Melbourne: F.W. Cheshire, 1965.

He, Shufang. ’Never Mention It Again’ (biezai tiqi), in The Man Who Longed for a Far Away Home (yuanxiang’ren), David Der-wei Wang and Kim-Chew Ng, eds. Taipei: Ryefield, 2004; 228-234.

Kenley, David L. New Culture in a New World: The May Fourth Movement and the Chinese Diaspora in Singapore, 1919-1932. New York & London: Routledge, 2003.

’The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today’, Daedalus 120: 2 (Spring 1991).

Mair, Victor. ’What is a Chinese ’” Dialect/Topolet”? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms’, in Sino-Platonic Papers 29 (September 1991): 1-31.

Mair, Victor. ’Introduction’, in Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture, Mair et al. eds. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005; 1-7.

Majumdar, Margaret A. Francophone Studies. London: Arnold, 2002.

Majumdar, Margaret A. ’The Francophone World Moves into the Twenty-First Century’, in Francophone Post-colonial Cultures, Kamal Salhi, ed. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford: Lexington Books, 2003; 4-5.

Mignolo, Walter. Local Histories/Global Designs. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000; 85.

Pan, Lynn. Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora. Boston, Toronto, London: Little Brown and Company, 1990.

Shih, Shu-mei. Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the Pacific. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.

Waley-Cohen, Joanna. The Culture of War in China: Empire and the Military Under the Qing Dynasty. London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World-System. San Diego et al.: Academic Press, 1974, 1980, 1989.

Wang, Gungwu. ’Chineseness: The Dilemmas of Place and Practice’, in Cosmopolitan Capitalists: Hong Kong and the Chinese Diaspora at the End of the Twentieth Century, Gary Hamilton, ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999; 118-134.

Wang, Gungwu. The Chinese Overseas: from Earthbound China to the Quest for Autonomy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000; 79-97.

Wang, Lingchi. ’The Structure of Dual Domination: Toward a Paradigm for the Study of the Chinese Diaspora in the United States’. Amerasia Journal 21: 1 & 2 (1995): 149-169.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. ’The Yellow and the Black: The African-American Presence in Sinophone Chinese American Literature’, in Chung-Wai Literary Monthly 34: 4 (September 2005): 15-53.


1 This chapter is based on excerpts from Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the Pacific (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007) but has gone through extensive revision for the present volume.

2 The early twentieth version of national characteristics is evinced in the work of no other than the reputed ’father’ of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun, who saw his mission to be curing the diseased Chinese people inflicted with a host of recognizable, negative characteristics as a literary doctor. The contemporary version of the idea of national characteristics is the hot topic of the ’quality’ (suzhi) of the Chinese people. The argument goes that the quality of the Chinese needs to be improved in order for China to advance quickly on the path of modernization.

3 Trade routes between China and Southeast Asia were opened as early as the second century, and by the sixth century, communities of people from China could already be found in port cities throughout the region. See FitzGerald, C.F., 1965.

4 Instructive comparisons can be made between Sinophone societies and those European countries where nationality and ethnicity are clearly not equated. We can think of Latvia, for instance, where only about 56 % of its population is Latvian, and the rest are Russians and others.

5 ’Dual domination’ is Lingchi Wang’s descriptive term for this condition. See Lingchi Wang 1995.

6 Lynn Pan lists these peoples under the category ’Hybrids’, which is also a chapter title in Pan’s book, Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora (Boston, Toronto, London: Little Brown and Company, 1990): 156-158.

7 See Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians, Leo Suryadinada, ed. (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1997).

8 Both Gungwu Wang’s and Lynn Pan’s books referred to earlier exemplify this.

9 See, for instance, Immanuel Wallerstein’s three volumes, The Modern World-System (San Diego et al: Academic Press, 1974, 1980, 1989) as well as Samir Amin, Capitalism in the Age of Globalization (London and New York: Zed Books, 1997).

10 Victor Mair ’s important work shows that what we know to be standard Chinese belongs to the Sinitic language group, where the mistakenly named ’dialects’ are not variations of standard Chinese but are actually different languages. Minnan and Cantonese are thus different languages from Mandarin (Taiwan standard) and putonghua (China standard). See Victor Mair, 1991. See also Victor Mair, 2005.

11 ’Farewell China’ is the title of a film made by then Hong Kong-based, Britain-trained filmmaker Clara Law. Taiwan cultural critic Yang Zhao’s famous book, Farewell China (gaobie Zhongguo), captures this sentiment vividly.

12 ’Sinophone Asian American literature’ may simply be changed to ’Sinophone American literature’, as this literature is categorized by language. Similarly, one can make a distinction between Chinese America and Sinophone America, the latter referring to sinitic-language speaking American communities. Again, linguistic designation allows the possibility of overcoming distinctions made solely based on ethnicity or race. See Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, 2005. See this volume for the shorter English version.

13 See for instance Pamela Kyle Crossley, Helen F. Siu and Donald S. Sutton eds. 2006; and Joanna Waley-Cohen, 2006.

14 The phrase, ’cross-epistemological conversations’, is from Walter Mignolo (2000): 85.

15 Choson Korea considered itself the ’sojunghwa’ (literally, small China), that was more authentically Chinese than the Manchu Qing dynasty.

16 The term ’wandering Chinese’ had enjoyed much currency. See for instance the now classic group of essays under the special issue title ’The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today’, Daedalus 120: 2 (Spring 1991).

17 Sau-ling Wong analyzed racism against African Americans prevalent in overseas Chinese literature or Sinophone Chinese American literature written by first-generation immigrant students in the United States. While wallowing in self-pity over a sense of rootlessness, some of these writers had the most conservative tendencies towards questions of race, gender, and class. See Wong 2005: 15-54.


University of California Los Angeles

© Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2014

Licence OpenEdition Books

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search