Tracking the Chinese
- Xiao-huang Yin (Author)
Chinese American Literature Since the 1850s. University of Illinois Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Geremie R. Barmé (Author)
In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture. Columbia University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jan Wong (Author)
Jan Wong's China. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Ng Wing Chung (Author)
The Chinese in Vancouver, 1945-80. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Wang Gungwu (Author)
The Chinese Overseas. Harvard University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Maria Noëlle Ng
The Chinese are much in the news these days. Gao Xingjiang won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has been one of the most popular foreign movies in the United States, and China is hosting the 2008 Olympics. But who are the billion and a half Chinese, not only in China, but also around the world? To some people, the answer might be self-evident. They look different from Caucasians, or they write in ideograms, or they eat different food. But these are characterizations based on superficial differences. The five books to be reviewed show that the category "Chinese" is diverse and changing, and that it contains built-in contradictions.
A good place to start is Wang Gungwu’s The Chinese Overseas. Based on a series of lectures, the volume is handsomely edited and informative while remaining concise. Wang, noted sinologist and director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, provides a sweeping historical survey of Chinese migration and trading movements from the Three Kingdom period (220-280) to the present day. The first chapter begins with what Wang calls an "earthbound" mind-set that "served as the fundamental precondition of agrarian power for all Chinese emperors." Though opportunities and technologies existed for expansion, and though there were sporadic ventures into Southeast Asia, Chinese trading and overseas settlement did not take place until the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries.
From early Chinese trading patterns Wang turns to the Sojourner phenomenon. This category applies to the early generations of Chinese immigrants before the twentieth century who left China with the intention of returning one day. While the term "pioneering" conjures up the western frontier, intrepid settlers from Europe, cowboys and wagon trains, Wang’s description of the early Chinese immigrants conjures an equally pioneering spirit: "Whether in an exodus in search of gold in California or Victoria in Australia, or as contract labor organized for work in industrial teams, there had never been such kinds of Chinese leaving China before. They had no connection with influential people in China or abroad . . . Never had so many traveled such long distances to places where there had not been earlier Chinese trading communities . .. And never before had the Chinese encountered fellow workers, equally disadvantaged and equally untutored, who considered themselves racially and culturally superior as well." This extended quotation gives an indication of Wang’s rhetoric: it is little short of a eulogy.
The Sojourner community changed with historical and political events. While there were overseas Chinese who remained loyal to the idea of the Chinese nation, some began to take into account the conditions of being in a foreign, and often hostile environment. Thus also began fractious developments within overseas Chinese communities. For instance, while the Chinese took pride in their ethnic heritage, with the rise of communism in China, many also felt the ideological stigma of siding with a communist regime. The Guomindang-run Taiwan became the other option for national affiliation. But with the acceptance of China by the international community in the 1970s, some overseas Chinese began to realign themselves accordingly. Whatever political regime overseas Chinese choose, Wang maintains that they "have always sought as much cultural autonomy as they could get wherever they have gone," a goal relatively easier before "modern nation-states demanded assimilation." But with the multicultural alternative, overseas Chinese can currently develop their ethnic communities with greater freedom.
It is well known that a major destination for overseas Chinese is Vancouver in British Columbia. In 1991, Kay Anderson wrote one of the first critical studies on Chinese Canadians, Vancouver’s Chinatown. Although Anderson’s book broke new ground in Chinese Canadian scholarship, it is also a critical, "Foucauldian gaze," as Ng Wing Chung calls it in The Chinese in Vancouver 1945-80, and Ng’s book is a kind of the-Chinese-write-back project. Ng objects to "the absence of initiatives and conscious motivations" amongst the ethnic Chinese as represented by Anderson. What Ng attempts to achieve in his own historical study is "to hear a subaltern community speak" by turning to "the ethnic Chinese media and public organizational life."
Using statistics and materials written in Chinese, as well as general studies on Chinese immigration in Canada and around the world, Ng provides a well-rounded picture of the varied and complex cultural structures that constituted the Chinese community in Vancouver for the last century. One aspect he highlights is the cultural animosity between the tusheng (local-born Chinese) and the immigrants who came from Mainland China in the post-1947 period. The derisive attitude towards the tusheng is exemplified by the following quotation from the "first book-length study of the Chinese in Canada": "Local-born Chinese usually [mis]take things in Chinatown as representative of Chinese culture. They consider lion dance, traditional opera, and martial arts our cultural heirlooms ... They think Chinese culture is despicable." While Chinese from a more "authentic" Chinese culture attacked the tusheng population, the latter went on to form their own cultural identity as part of Canada, and, in Vancouver, instituted or helped the founding of successful charity organizations and essential services such as hospitals and retirement homes.
These disputes imply that the ethnic Chinese in Canada are not one homogeneous group. And what happens on a mundane level is repeated in the field of scholarship. As Ng points out, the self-righteous condemnation of "the tusheng’s identification with White stereotypes of the exotic ’Orient’ is eminently in line with the critique of postcolonial scholarship." Another area where the varied experiences of Chinese immigrants merge with academic study is that of transnationalism. In his conclusion, Ng notes that "the most significant development since the 1980 has been the rise in transnational practices and consciousness among the ethnic Chinese." However, he warns that the language of transnationalism might also lead to "cultural essentialism and the concomitant erasure of the historical specificity and complexity of identity formation in different locales." He also claims that in Canada, "critical reflections on transnationalism similar to those undertaken by ... Asian Americanists are relatively few." This reviewer would like to dispute that. There is increasing Canadian scholarship on transnational practices and their impact on ethnic identity formation and politics. Overall, however, The Chinese in Vancouver, 1945-80 is a valuable addition to the growing number of works on, not only Vancouver or Canadian Chinese, but Chinese around the world. Furthermore, Ng’s meticulous scholarship provides insights from a combined Chinese and western perspective.
While Ng’s work looks at a specific ethnic group within a defined period, Yin Xiao-huang’s Chinese American Literature since the 1850s is a sweeping study. So sweeping is Yin’s approach that Sui Sin Far, the first published Chinese Canadian writer, is analyzed in a complete chapter without any reference to her Canadian past. Apart from Sui Sin Far, who has been the subject of articles and books, Yin devotes further chapters to much discussed and debated works, such as Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter, cited as published in 1950 (but actually 1945), as well as Maxine Hong Kingston’s and Amy Tan’s popular titles. For me, the interesting focus of the book is Yin’s writing on Chinese-language literature.
Yin offers three points to help readers "understand the significance and characteristics of Chinese-language literature in America." These points are useful, but they are also problematic. He claims that writers who compose in Chinese have more freedom and can take "liberty" with "subject matters of great sensitivity." While Chinese American writers who use English "are silent on the problems in American society," Chinese-language writers "do not worry about responses from outsiders. Hence they are more outspoken."
First, it is doubtful that writers who use Chinese automatically enjoy more freedom. Cultural and linguistic restrictions do not stem only from the usage of English and from the mores of American society. The Chinese language itself constrains the articulation of certain ideas and actions. And while it might be true that some American Chinese literature glosses over social problems (and this is certainly not the case in Chinese Canadian writing), this general statement cannot possibly apply to a whole body of work.
Chinese American Literature since the 1850s is strong when it deals with the history of Chinese press and publications, as well as insightful in examining China-born writers such as Lin Yutang. Its treatment of well-known subjects such as the cultural and gender wars between Chinese American writers is a useful reminder of the conflict, but adds no new analysis. Essentially, the study is fairly conservative in its approach to literary analysis.
The three works reviewed thus far deal with the articulation and formation of Chinese immigrant culture in North America. In Jan Wong’s China, a Canadian-born writer of Chinese descent dissects the culture of the ancestral homeland. Jan Wong’s China is a follow-up to Wong’s Red China Blues (1996), which entertained readers with Wong’s experience of the Cultural Revolution. The last chapters of Red China Blues take a sombre look at the end of the great experiment and the Tiananmen massacre. Jan Wong’s China continues where the earlier book ends, as Wong tells the reader: "I chronicled my Maoist misadventures in Red China Blues. That book was really about me. I wanted to write another book, about China ... I wanted to write a bigger book, certainly based on my stories, but incorporating the wealth of my 12 years [sic] experience in China. And I wanted to report on the latest changes. . ."
The first chapter in the new book revisits some of the key figures involved in the rebellious 1990s. Ironically, though the chapter is called "Tiananmen," its locations are New York, where Wei Jingsheng stayed after being released from jail in China, and Niagara-on-the-Lake, where diasporic dissidents met for a conference. Wong’s report makes the dissidents sound like a group of bored students waiting for something to happen. And when it did—the arrest of a democracy activist—Wong accentuates the allure of the dissidents’ condition by deciding that she "had to sneak back in myself for another round."
Wong’s technique is juxtaposition. For example, in the chapter "Foreign Devils," Wong compares Chinese treatment of outsiders, especially blacks, with the Chinese treatment of their own people. This is a refreshing change from the politically correct view—without any specific historical analysis or reference that the Chinese have been unfairly subjugated by the white dominant culture. In Beijing, Wong’s Chinese staff "blithely stated that all African men made passes at Chinese women," and recalcitrant workers were punished by being assigned to African families as servants. Racial relationships between the Chinese and Africans deteriorated so much that the first secretary of the Benin Embassy said, "Our students are ready to go home rather than be treated as dirty beasts."
While the reports are always interesting and told in lively prose, they also turn the reader into a voyeur. An example is the chapter on homosexuality. Wong describes her recruiting of gay informants with humour, but one cannot but feel depressed by the stories of these sexual dissidents who would have zero opportunity of enjoying social acceptance. No doubt it is a tenet in journalistic writing that one reports what one sees and hears, but the rhetoric can still betray admiration, contempt or disgust. When meeting a group of lesbians, Wong found herself being interrogated by, not surprisingly, suspicious women: "There were nine women present, including a banker, an engineer ... I sat meekly on the couch in their meeting room while the three most aggressive hammered me with questions . . ." Is Wong being funny? Judging by her own writing, meekness is not a quality one would associate with Wong. If she is being ironical, is it at the expense of the lesbians?
Geremie R. Barmé’s In the Red is the counterpart to Jan Wong’s China, except that it is written from the perspective of an Australian sinologist who, like Jan Wong, was enamoured of Mao’s China in the seventies. Since this reviewer grew up too close to the communist regime and witnessed its brutal oppression through the fates of family members, this foreign fascination for what seemed an obviously flawed political system continues to be a puzzle.
Again, like Wong, Barmé has now learned the error of his ways and has decided to become a trenchant critic of Deng Xiaoping’s "’soft’ technocratic socialism." Some of the same characters appear both in Wong’s and Barmé’s books, but his style is in stark contrast to Wong’s. Though his chapters and sub-sections have pop-style titles—"To Screw Foreigners is Patriotic" and "Literary Lip Service"—the book is supported with a considerable academic apparatus. Each chapter is generously footnoted, one with as many as 182 detailed notes. The research is exhaustive, and at times, the book reads like a long classic Chinese novel with a cast of thousands, or an edition of Confucian teachings with annotations for each word. Could this echoing of the Chinese classical style be intentional?
The chapter on intellectual diaspora in North America is an important addition to the study of Chinese writing overseas. Barmé compares the diaspora culture constituted of older exiles (pre-1989) to "the newly arrived dissidents in the late 1990s, who were embroiled in petty feuds and struggles over both money and media attention." Instead of a picture of principled educated youths who continued to write and disseminate democratic ideals, Barmé shows us that "[m]any of the activists and intellectuals simply found themselves lost in the West... many of them indulged in an orgy of what in party jargon would be called ’extreme individualism.’" And though these mainlanders received much of their support from Hong Kong and Taiwan, they "tended to look down" on these Chinese outposts. Intra-ethnic conflicts carry on as usual, except now they are moved into a larger geopolitical arena. More so than Wong, Barmé dissects Chinese modern culture and society with merciless cynicism; one is reminded, in his trenchant analysis, of a reformed rake’s attitude towards sex. Perhaps he feels that through his cutting criticism, he is avenging the years he was a dupe of Chairman Mao’s teaching.
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Books reviewed: Diamond Grill by Fred Wah
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Books reviewed: Ten Thousand Sorrows: The Extraordinary Journey of a Korean War Orphan by Elizabeth Kim and Inside the Hermit Kingdom: A Memoir by Yi Sun-Kyung
- Visit-Stay by Gili Bethlehem
Books reviewed: Sulha by Malka Marom
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Books reviewed: Asian Skies by Ken Norris, Sharawadji by Brian Henderson, Swimming Ginger by Gary Geddes, and The Terracotta Army by Gary Geddes
MLA: Ng, Maria Noëlle. Tracking the Chinese. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #174 (Autumn 2002), Travel. (pg. 141 - 145)
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