China out of China5 min read

A new column on the Chinese diaspora – Rebecca Choong Wilkins

China and Chinese are slippery terms. As a political entity, ‘China’ can refer to the People’s Republic Of, or at least twenty-four different dynasties before it. It can be a geographic territory, an empire, or even its most famous porcelain export. ‘Chinese’, meanwhile, is used to describe an ethnicity, a nationality, and a cuisine. Multivalent and polyphonic, eventually these terms always require qualification.

This year, 16 out of 39 of The Economist’s front covers so far have featured one of these terms. Their use assumes geopolitical definitions of a cold war monolith. But we know that alongside mainland China’s Han majority, the Chinese Communist Party recognizes 55 other ethnicities. Other than Mandarin, there are 300 living languages spoken on the mainland, many of which remain unacknowledged. Even within the Han Chinese ethnicity, we find linguistic and cultural diversity among Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew and Hoochew-speaking communities.

“Today’s geopolitical borders, or indeed Economist editors, should not define ‘China’ or ‘Chinese’”

How should we understand Chinese influence, Chinese business, or Chinese identity under these circumstances? Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau complicate any kind of inside-outside dichotomy when defining mainland China and the Chinese diaspora. As do Singapore, Thailand or Vietnam, each of which provides a distinctive vision of Chinese inheritance. For different expressions of identity, we could also look to Chinatowns in South America, or the extraordinary dominance of Hakka leaders in governments across the world.

Or we could trace the journeys of nearly 20 million people migrating from China to Southeast Asia from the mid-19th century up to WWII, a period usually described with stories of colonial occupation but equally defined as an age of unparalleled Sinophonic mobilization. This can in turn be compared to modern patterns of migration – with many millions more Chinese resettling all around the world – dictated by the limitations and freedoms presented by citizenship.

Placing the peripheral at the center, this column aims to challenge the way we think about Chinese influence and diaspora across the globe. Every month, we will journey through some of these topics to explore the contradictions, exceptions and realities of China out of China.

In academic circles, these questions are at the heart of a relatively new field called Sinophone Studies. Though prominent Sinophone scholars were initially based in American universities, institutions elsewhere have increasingly begun to include the field within more traditional ‘Chinese Studies’ or ‘East Asian Studies’ programs.

A decade ago, Professor Shih Shu-Mei, a scholar of comparative literature and Asian languages at University of California Los Angeles, popularized the idea of “Sinophone cultures outside of the geopolitical China proper” to resist what she identified as China’s continental colonialism. She suggests we embrace heteroglossia in the form of the “the Sinophone: a network of places of cultural production outside China and on the margins of China and Chineseness, where a historical process of heterogenizing and localizing of continental Chinese culture has been taking place for several centuries.”

Sinophone Studies has since encouraged debates on the limitations of narrowly defining Chineseness. Professor Rey Chow, a cultural critic at Duke University, dismissed the term Chinese as an “ethnic supplement,” while May Ien Ang, at the University of Western Sydney, rejected the Han ethnocentricism of arguments for a “cultural China.” Since then, Professor David Der-wei Wang, at Harvard University, and Professor Jing Tsu, at Yale University, have argued that Sinophone Studies is most radical when it includes the pluralism within mainland China, dispensing with a geopolitical border entirely.

Personally, I’m inclined towards this inclusive vision of the Sinophone world. As a young scholar, to me it bursts with creative potential. In practical terms, it’s less time spent on not-so-patiently spelling out why a broader mix of authors or regions makes for richer discussions on identity. It’s more time spent getting on with the job at hand, trimming the fat and digging into the meat of my primary material. And it gives prominence to communities, cultures and experiences that are otherwise deemed peripheral.

“Placing the peripheral at the center, this column aims to challenge the way we think about Chinese influence and diaspora across the globe”

It also makes sense to me that today’s geopolitical borders, political leaders, or indeed Economist editors, should not define ‘China’ or ‘Chinese.’ The largest concentration of Sinophone populations live in a region where nation states, as they exist in their current form, are less than a century old. In the People’s Republic of China, Mandarin only became the “common language” (普通话 pǔtōnghuà) in 1955. In Singapore, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that Mandarin became the only state-sanctioned Chinese language. Who decides that all other Sinitic languages be deemed dialects?

In the Sinophone world, the very term diaspora can be contentious. Many scholars will avoid using it altogether. In some cases, the diaspora description seems neutral, appropriate, or else forms a central part of an individual’s self-identification. But in other cases, it can seem like a more explicit and insidious attempt to create a hierarchy of “real” Chineseness. What does it mean to describe populations of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as a Chinese diaspora? In each case, it would be a deeply political and historically fraught term, though for very different reasons.

Until our everyday vernacular catches up with academic consensus, the term diaspora will have to do, at least as a starting point. In this column, language matters. In the months ahead, from the smallest corner of unknown Chinatowns to epic journeys across the South Seas, we shall probe some of these questions – what is China out of China? Who defines it, and why? But we also aim to blur definitions and confound assumptions, so you can also expect essays from others, which argue precisely why I’m wrong. ∎

This column was made possible by the generous support of Stephen O. Lesser on Patreon.
Header: Chinese merchants outside their club house on Penang Island, Malaysia, 1881 (Wikimedia Commons).