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International Theory and the Transnational Critic: China in the Age of Multiculturalism

Author(s): Michelle Yeh


Source: boundary 2, Vol. 25, No. 3, Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age
of Theory: Reimagining a Field (Autumn, 1998), pp. 193-222
Published by: Duke University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/303594
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International Theory and the Transnational Critic:


China in the Age of Multiculturalism

Michelle Yeh

I begin with the ongoing debate in the field of comparative literature


as a point of departure for reflecting on the current state of Chinese literary and culturalstudies. There are several reasons for doing this. First,
by definition, comparative literaturecrosses many boundaries-linguistic,
national, and cultural,to name only the most obvious ones-therefore, the
transnational and transculturalthrust of comparative literaturemakes it a
logical site for discussions on multiculturalism.Second, as a modern Western discipline, comparative literaturehas exerted a significant influence on
Chinese literarystudies for decades. Quite a few scholars in the latterfield
in NorthAmerica and Europe are trained in comparative literatureand play
a majorrole in the introductionof contemporarytheory and practice, including multiculturalism,to Chinese audiences. Finally,comparative literature
distinguishes itself from other kinds of literarystudies by its comparative
I thank Professors A. Owen Aldridge, Rey Chow, Prasenjit Duara, Lydia H. Liu, Marjorie
Perloff, and Wen-hsin Yeh, as well as the audiences at the University of Notre Dame,
University of Georgia, Athens, and University of California, Berkeley, for their valuable
comments on earlier versions of the paper.
boundary2 25:3, 1998. Copyright? 1998 by Duke UniversityPress.

194 boundary 2 / Fall1998


perspectives, and these perspectives, as I hope to show by the end of
this essay, are urgently called for both in the practice of multiculturalism in
general and in Chinese literary and cultural studies in particular.
The above-mentioned debate in the field of comparative literature
in the United States is effectively summarized in Comparative Literature in
the Age of Multiculturalism, which centers around the report that Charles
Bernheimer was commissioned to write for the American Comparative Literature Association in 1992. The final report, entitled "Report on the State of
the Discipline," recognizes, as well as endorses, the expansion of the field
to include multiculturalism and cultural studies. In addition, the collection
includes three responses to the report that were originally presented on a
panel at the 1993 MLA Annual Convention, plus thirteen position papers
solicited from a diverse group of scholars who address the pros and cons
of the report's recommendations.'
The viewpoints presented in Comparative Literature in the Age of
Multiculturalism are too diverse and rich to be adequately summarized
here.2 Suffice it to say that despite the highly polarized positions, the contributors all agree that comparative literature is at a crossroads, and for quite
1. Charles Bernheimer,ed., ComparativeLiteraturein the Age of Multiculturalism
(Baltimore,Md.:Johns HopkinsUniversityPress, 1995).
2. Forinstance,on the positiveside, MaryLouisPrattcelebratesthe removalof "fences"
and
(58) and the new openness in the discipline;Fran9oiseLionnetsees multiculturalism
culturalstudies not as an attemptto "replacethe old with the new but to make room
forthose ancient civilizationsthat had been marginalizedand forthose subculturesand
counterculturesthat question the authorityof the past"(170-71). Others, however,are
concerned about how it can be done in realitywhen comparativeliteraturebecomes,
in Jonathan Culler'swords, "a disciplineof overwhelmingscope" (117).Or, as Marjorie
Perloffputs it, "Forcommon sense tells us that no one can in fact learn all there is to
know(or even a smattering)about 'global'literatureand culture;no one can study high
and low,FirstWorldand ThirdWorld,anthropologyand sociology,politicaleconomy and
feministtheory,as well as specific literarytexts"(177).The resultof such an "overwhelming scope," accordingto K. AnthonyAppiah,is that "whatwe are going to get is not
interdisciplinarity-thedisciplineswillhave disappeared-but an unstructuredpostmodern hodge-podge"(57). By the same token,althoughvirtuallyeveryoneagrees thatthere
is no hard-and-fastline between literaryand culturalstudies, there is no consensus on
how culturalstudies should be incorporatedintocomparativeliterature.Ifsome see the
emphases on gender,race, and class as ways of openingup the field,othersfeel uneasy
about the shiftof focus fromliteraryto culturalstudies, whichignoresthe specificitiesof
literatureand, in Peter Brooks'swords, "risksreplacingthe study of literaturewithamateur social history,amateursociology,and personalideology"(100).To TobinSiebers, it
literatureas a disciplineis dying"(196).
signals that "comparative

Critic 195
Yeh / International
Theoryandthe Transnational
a few contributors,it is a discipline in crisis. Regardless of whether one is for
or against the recommendations of the Bernheimerreport,the ironyremains
that expanding comparative literaturein the directions of multiculturalism
and culturalstudies may well be self-deconstructing and exacerbates rather
than resolves the currentcrisis, for if what distinguishes comparative literaknowlture from studies of national literaturesare multilingual/multicultural
edge and comparative perspectives, these two interrelateddimensions, instead of being maintained and strengthened, seem to be disappearing in
the process of broadening the field.
It is not the aim of this essay to take part in the debate. What I am
interested in are the differentimplicationsof multiculturalismwhen viewed
from a non-Western perspective. Primarilya Euramericanvision, multiculturalismnow enjoys a global currency and has, in fact, become a buzzword
in many parts of the world. For instance, the popularizationof the term coincides with the opening of China and the democratizationof Taiwanin the
1980s-1990s. Although multiculturalismas it is used in the Anglo-American
context may not be familiarto Chinese intellectuals, the respective claim
that China and Taiwan are culturally"diverse"(duoyuan) societies is so
often repeated that it has become a cliche.
On the surface, multiculturalismseems to be the logical extension of
comparative literature;after all, in its critique of Eurocentrism,defense of
cultures that are traditionallymarginalized, and advocacy of diversity and
equal respect for all cultures, multiculturalismforcefullyarticulates the ideal
of comparative literature.However, in practice, it is fraught with limitations
and contradictions. In her essay, "Inthe Name of Comparative Literature,"
included in the Bernheimer volume, Rey Chow points out that while multiculturalismseeks to correct Eurocentrism,the multiculturalrevision of the
curriculum"isprecisely the problem... because the teaching of, say, Arabic,
Hindi,Japanese, Chinese and so forth already has an institutionalhistory
in this country"and "ourEurocentricmultilingualcomparatists have always
had theircounterparts in the great Orientalists,Sinologists, Indologists,and
so on."3 Paradoxically,without a priorawareness and critique of the Orientalism underscoring the institutionof non-Western studies in the West,
multiculturalismhelps to reinstate ratherthan dismantle Eurocentrism.
The case in point is not unlike that of "worldliterature"in an earlier
era. Despite its foundingprincipleof equalityof all nationalliteratureson the
3. Rey Chow,"Inthe Name of ComparativeLiterature,"
in Bernheimer,ComparativeLiteraturein the Age of Multiculturalism,
108,111.

196 boundary 2 / Fall1998

face of the earth, "worldliterature,"according to Andrew F.Jones, only creates "culturalghettos" to which non-Western or "minor"literaturesare relegated; "the walls around this 'culturalghetto' [of 'Chinese literature']were
set (and continue to be held) in place by the very entity-'world literature'that was supposed to tear them down."4It is not surprising, then, to find
similar politics of representation in "worldliterature"and multiculturalism.
Both Chow and Jones direct their attention to Orientalism, which
is still prevalent in the West-whether it is found in the institutionof the
academy or the culturalmarketplace.Whatthey do not concern themselves
with is the other side of Orientalism:What happens when multiculturalism
travels to the non-West? How does it manifest itself in the 1990s? IfWestern institutions are the culpritfor not bringingabout true multiculturalism,
will we solve the problem by allowing the marginalizedto speak for themselves? To answer this question, we need first to understand the impulse
behind multiculturalism.
In his recent review article on why multiculturalismappeals to the
Americans, K. Anthony Appiah suggests that there is "a connection between the thinning of the cultural content of identities and the rising stridency of their [various culturalgroups'] claims."The middle-class descendants of European immigrants,in Appiah'sview, "arediscomfited by a sense
that their identities are shallow by comparison with those of their grandparents; and some of them fear that unless the rest of us acknowledge the
importance of their difference, there soon won't be anythingworth acknowledging."5American multiculturalism,in other words, is symptomatic of an
increasing insecurity about self-identity,an anxiety over the submergence
of difference in sameness. Insofaras American society becomes more and
more homogenized, there is a greater, conscious or unconscious, need to
assert difference, which, in turn, gives the assurance of individualityand
multiplicity.
One may argue that it is power ratherthan self-identity that drives
multiculturalistagendas. However, the two are opposite sides of the same
coin, in that a common impulse is expressed in two spheres, the political
and the cultural,and they are mutuallyenhancing. The implicationsof Appiah's remarkgo beyond the American context. Not only the United States
but the world as a whole is reaching an unprecedented degree of homoModernChinese
4. AndrewF.Jones, "ChineseLiteratureinthe 'World'LiteraryEconomy,"
Literature8 (1994):171.
New YorkReviewof Books,
5. K.AnthonyAppiah,"TheMulticulturalist
Misunderstanding,"
9 October1997,32.

Yeh / International
Critic 197
Theoryandthe Transnational
geneity at the end of the millennium.The "global village" that Marshall
McLuhanadvanced in the 1960s has already become a reality,not only economically and politicallybut also culturally.If in the 1950s-1960s Western
Europe expressed concern about losing its identityto the "Coca-Cola culture,"the time-space compression that David Harveytalks about has since
made societies more and more alike in many ways. Culturalglobalizationis
most observable at the popularlevel-for example, "McDonaldization,"
rock
and roll, Hollywoodfilms, media and sports celebrities, designer brands of
clothing and accessories, and the like. What is less obvious, at least for
the public, however, is that globalization is also taking place in intellectual
circles in many parts of the world. If consumers in China or Taiwan are
willingto pay several times more for a Mercedes or a Cadillac than what
these cars cost in Germanyor the UnitedStates, a similarphenomenon can
be seen among contemporary Chinese intellectuals who are keen on the
latest trends in Anglo-Europeantheory. If, according to Mary Louise Pratt,
globalization is one of the three historical processes, along with democratization and decolonization, that are changing the way we study literature
and culture, it manifests itself first and foremost in criticaltheory.6
In the past two decades or so, criticaltheory, especially as it originates and is popularizedand institutionalizedin the Anglo-Americanworld,
has spread internationally,enjoying a prestige in the non-West that is unprecedented. Many of the publications in the field of Chinese literaryand
culturalstudies today use theory, often in an extensive and overt fashion,
and most tend to be applications of theory to the interpretationof a wide
range of Chinese texts (broadlydefined). This is a phenomenon common in
literaryand culturalstudies in the West, of course. Afterall, Western theory
has become internationalin its reception and influence.
When we compare this kind of reception of Western theory among
Chinese scholars in the 1990s with the 1970s, the main difference lies in
the ubiquityand unchallenged authorityof Western theory at the present
time. For example, when New Criticismwas introduced to Taiwan in the
late 1960s and early 1970s, it was clearly based in English or foreign language and literaturedepartments. It was the faculty in those departments
that comprised its principaltranslators, promoters, and practitioners.New
Criticismwas perceived as a distinctly Western theory and methodology,
and was met with much opposition, or simply indifference, from depart6. MaryLouise Pratt,"ComparativeLiteratureand GlobalCitizenship,"in Comparative
Literaturein the Age of Multiculturalism,
59.

198 boundary2 / Fall1998


ments of Chinese literature.Questions about the applicabilityof Western
theory to the study of Chinese literaturevexed its proponents no less than
its opponents. When a professor of English at the NationalTaiwan University suggested in a close reading that the image of the drippingcandle in a
classical Chinese love poem was a phallicsymbol, he was publiclyrebuffed
by a leading authority on traditionalChinese poetry.7Anecdotes like this
suggest the great divide between English and Chinese literaryscholars in
Taiwanin particular,and the tension between Western theory and Chinese
studies in general.
Much has changed, however, in the past two decades. In Taiwan, a
wide range of Western theory is commonly practiced across departmental and disciplinarylines, by scholars in Chinese and Western literatures,
humanities, and social sciences alike. A few publications from the 1980s
suffice to show the widespread impact of Western theory in Taiwan:Zhou
Yingxiong's Structuralismand Chinese Literature(Jiegou zhuyi yu Zhongguo wenxue); WilliamTay's edited volume Phenomenology and Literary
Criticism(Xianxiangxueyu wenxue piping),which also includes deconstruction); Liao Binghui's Deconstructive Criticism (Jiegou piping); Cai Yuanhuang's From Romanticism to Postmodernism (Cong langman zhuyi dao
houxiandai zhuyi); and Lo Qing's What Is Postmodernism? (Shenme shi
houxiandai zhuyi?).
Across the Taiwan Strait, the situation differs only in the degree of
compression of time. Since the opening of China in the late 1970s, scholars
have been extremely receptive to Western theory. If1985 was dubbed "the
Yearof Methodology"(Fangfa nian), by 1988, younger intellectuals in China
had turned to "Foucault,Derridaand Lacan as their heroes and were en"8As Zhang Longxisummarized the
gaged in the deconstruction of 'Truth.'
situation a few years later in "WesternTheory and Chinese Reality,""After
the CulturalRevolution,Western theory of all kinds-from formalism, New
Criticism,and structuralism,to hermeneutics, reception theory, deconstruction, as well as feminism and Western Marxism-generated a great deal of
attention and enthusiasm among Chinese scholars and students of litera7. Fora summaryof the controversy,see Chen Fangming,"AClose Readingof YanYuanshu's PoetryCriticism"("XiduYanYuanshude shi ping"),in Poetryand Reality(Shi yu
xianshi)(Taipei:HongfanBookstore,1977), 9-39, esp. 19-21.
8. ZhangYiwu,"Landof Confusion"("Kunhuozhi yu"),Reading(Dushu)124-25 (JulyAugust1989):100.

Critic 199
Yeh / International
Theoryandthe Transnational
ture. In a short span of five or six years, roughlyfiftyor sixty years' worth of
Western theories were introducedto Chinese readers."9
Knowledge of Western theory is not only acquired through reading
but also through direct contact with theorists. While a sizable number of
Chinese students major in literaryand cultural studies in North America
and Europe, quite a few theorists fromthe West have visited Taiwan, Hong
Kong, and mainlandChina in the past two decades. The luminariesinclude
IhabHassan, Susan Sontag, FredricJameson, TerryEagleton, Charles Taylor,Tzvetan Todorov,RichardRorty,J. HillisMiller,MurrayKrieger,TrinhT.
Minh-ha,GayatriSpivak, Umberto Eco, Jonathan Arac, Stuart Hall,and the
list goes on. Leadingjournalsand book reviews in Chinese devote generous
space to Western theory-in the form of translations, introductions,interviews, and the like-and its applications to Chinese literatureand culture.
For instance, the table of contents of Con-Temporary(Dangdai), a
leading humanities and social sciences journalfounded in Taiwan in 1986
by Tu Wei-ming of HarvardUniversity,lists (in chronological order) special
issues on Foucault, Derrida, feminism, neo-Marxism, Heidegger, Althusser, Benjamin, Baudrillard,Bourdieu, Lacan, and Jameson. The focus on
contemporary theory finds another telling example in Chung-wai Literary
Monthly(Zhongwai wenxue), published by the Department of Foreign Languages and Literaturesof National Taiwan University.Founded in 1972, it
was the strongholdof New Criticismin the 1970s but in recent years has featured deconstruction, postcolonialism, French feminism, psychoanalysis,
chaos theory, Rorty,queer theory, and so on. Nowadays, reputable scholarlyjournals in Chinese don't look much differentfromtheir NorthAmerican
counterparts in terms of the range of theories used but differmainly in the
literaryand culturaltexts under analysis. If there were strong reservations
about, and resistance to, Western theory in Chinese studies in the 1970s,
by the 1990s, Western theory has come to occupy a uniquely privileged
position in Chinese intellectualcircles.
However,it is importantto qualifythe above remarks by pointingout
that, strictly speaking, contemporary theory should no longer be labeled
as "Western"-that is, Anglo-European-especially in the cases of postcolonial and feminist theories, to which critics of diverse ethnic and cultural
origins have made important contributions. Edward Said, Homi Bhabha,
9. LongxiZhang,"WesternTheoryand Chinese Reality,"
CriticalInquiry19, no. 1 (autumn
1992): 109.

200 boundary2 / Fall1998


Partha Chatterjee, Appiah, Chow, Trinh,and Spivak are only a few of those
we mightname. They represent a growingnumberof critics in the West who
come from biculturalor multiculturalbackgrounds that significantly shape
their theoretical perspectives and account for the contributions they are
able to make. However, scholars in Chinese literaryand cultural studies
generally make no distinction between those who come from non-Western
backgrounds but achieve distinction in the West and Anglo-Europeancritics. Both groups are categorized as Western. In other words, when critical
theory, as mediated by scholars in the West, is used by the Chinese, it
almost always takes place in a dualistic frameworkof "East versus West"
(Dong/Xi) or "Chinaversus the West" (Zhong/Xi).The lack of precise differentiation is not due to ignorance but is noteworthybecause it is embedded
in a particularcultural psychology, which will be the focus of the ensuing
discussion.
If contemporary theory can be regarded as a culturalsign, then its
role must be defined in relationto other signs in the semiotic system, which
in this case is China. It is understandable, and even predictable, that in
China, a cultural system vastly different from that of the United States,
France, or Germany, theory plays a differentrole and has a differentfunction. Or, to use another analogy, we may find a parallel between popular
culture and theory in China. Although the globalization of theory can be
seen as part and parcel of the culturalglobalization (of which Americanization is a major element) I mentioned earlier, its consumption inevitably
displays local variationsthat serve local agendas. Ratherthan seeing China
as a passive consumer of Western theory, we may ask how Western theory
is appropriatedfor Chinese purposes.
"Whatcan and does Western theory do in the culturaland political
environment of China?"When Zhang Longxi posed this question in 1992,
his answer was wholly positive: "Alltheories willy-nillyfound themselves to
be both foreign and Western and thereby acquired an oppositional status
with radicallysubversive implications."10The government clearly recognized
the subversive implications of Western theory and sought to contain its
influence, as was evident in such nationwide political campaigns against
intellectuals, known as the Anti-SpiritualPollutionCampaign of 1983-1984
and the Anti-BourgeoisLiberalizationCampaign of 1987. Ina more systematic analysis, Chen Xiaomei defines Occidentalism as the Chinese discursive construction of the West, which is "markedby a particularcombination
10. LongxiZhang,"WesternTheory,"129.

Critic 201
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of the Western construction of China with the Chinese construction of the
West."11
She distinguishes two types of Occidentalism:the "officialOccidentalism"of the state for the purpose of "supportinga nationalismthat effects
the internalsuppression of its own people"; and the "anti-officialOccidentalism,"which uses "theWestern Other as a metaphorfor politicalliberation
against ideological oppression within a totalitariansociety."12Whether the
West is understood or misunderstood by Chinese intellectuals is beside the
point, Chen suggests, since either way it contributes to the construction of
an emancipatory Occidentalist discourse in post-Mao China.
Both Zhang and Chen highlight the positive, subversive import of
Chinese appropriationsof Western theory in the 1980s. How has critical
theory fared as an oppositional discourse in China into the 1990s? Itseems
that the tables have turned. Although the oppositional edge of theory remains, it is aimed not at the establishment in China but at the West. Sheldon
Hsiao-peng Lu observes that the booming ThirdWorldcriticismin China is
the latest manifestation of resistance to the West's culturaland discursive
criticism empowers the nativist, indigehegemony. As such, "Third-World
nous critic vis-a-vis the domination of Western theory and culture."13
The
of
is
to
Chinese
critics
as
understandable,just it
appeal postcolonial theory
is in the cases of decolonized nations around the world. However,as many
critics (forexample, Bhabha, Chatterjee, and Sara Suleri) have pointed out,
postcolonialism should not stop at being "a theory of blame"but must take
an equally criticallook at the complex, ambivalent relationshipbetween the
colonizer and the colonized. When postcolonial theory is applied to Chinese
contexts, does it go beyond "resistance to the West's culturaland discursive
hegemony"? This is the question raised in essays by Zhao Yiheng (Henry
Yiheng Zhao) and Xu Ben, both of whom answered with a resounding "no."
Zhao's essay, "Post-Ismsand Chinese Neo-Conservatism,"and Xu's
essay, "'Third-WorldCriticism'in Contemporary China,"appeared in the
February 1995 issue of Twenty-FirstCentury (Ershiyi shiji), a Chineselanguage journal published in Hong Kong. For two years, in subsequent
issues of Twenty-FirstCenturyand elsewhere, the essays drew strong responses from scholars both in and outside China. What started out as
11.Xiaomei Chen, Occidentalism:A Theoryof Counter-Discoursein Post-Mao China
(New York:OxfordUniversityPress, 1995), 5.
12. XiaomeiChen, Occidentalism,5, 8.
13. SheldonHsiao-pengLu,"Art,Culture,and CulturalCriticismin Post-New China,"New
LiteraryHistory28, no. 1 (winter1997):129.

202 boundary2 / Fall1998


a critique of Chinese appropriationsof Western theory in the 1990s has
turned into a full-scale debate.14
Zhao's main argument is that radical Western theory-subsumed
underthe term post-isms to include poststructuralism,postmodernism, and
postcolonialism-is appropriatedby Chinese intellectuals for conservative
purposes in the 1990s. He cites four examples to substantiate his point
of view: (1) the backlash on the iconoclastic May Fourth movement and
the similarlycriticalCulturalSelf-Reflection movement of the 1980s; (2) the
totalistic negation of modern Chinese poetry written in the vernacular and
the call for a revivalof classical Chinese by the veteran poet Zheng Min;
(3) the Marxistcritique of de-ideologization of literatureand literarycriticism in the 1980s by Liu Kang; and (4) the emergence of "New National
Learning."In his conclusion, Zhao argues that Western theory should not
be used simply to critique the West, but it should also critique "the institutional culture (officialculture, popular culture, and nationalist culture)"in
China. The essay ends on a sarcastic note: "Wheneverwe [Chinese intellectuals] compete with the whole world on being 'radical,'the conservative
genes of our culture become active."15Althoughostensibly radical,the Chinese intellectuals under discussion are actually conservative in that their
appropriationsof "radical"Western theory implicitlyor explicitlydefend the
status quo in China.
The "taming"of critical theory in China is spelled out more clearly
in Xu's essay, which begins by noting that ThirdWorldcriticism has been
the most popular theory in China since 1990. However, in contrast to its
practice in such ThirdWorldcountries as India,where postcolonialism also
critiques the complicity between nationalism and colonial discourse, the
Chinese version of ThirdWorldcriticismfocuses on the oppression of China
by the West as a means of "evading, knowinglyor not, the violence and
14. Zhao Yiheng,"Post-Ismsand Chinese Neo-Conservatism"("'Houxue'yu Zhongguo
xin baoshou zhuyi"),Twenty-First
Century27 (February1995): 4-15; Xu Ben, "'ThirdWorldCriticism'in ContemporaryChina"("'Disanshijie piping'zai dangjinZhongguo
de chujing"),Twenty-First
Century27 (February1995):16-27. An Englishversionof the
essay and a Chinese-languagesummaryof the prolongeddebate, entitled"Howto Face
the State of ContemporaryChinese Culture?-A Debate,"were preparedfor the InternationalWorkshopon the LiteraryFieldof China,at the InternationalInstituteof Asian
Studies, Leiden,Netherlands,on 24-27 January1996. However,because of illness, the
authordid not attend.The variouspointsof viewwere publishedin Twenty-First
Century,
Tendency,and Today,all of which are publishedoutside mainlandChina.A workshop
devoted to the debate was sponsored by the Chinese Departmentof the Universityof
Stockholmin May1995.
14.
15. Zhao Yiheng,"Post-Isms,"

Critic 203
Yeh / International
Theoryandthe Transnational
oppression that exist in . . . indigenous society." Avoidingany analysis or
critique of official nationalism, postcolonial theorizing in China has only an
"internationaldimension" but no "domestic dimension."Xu concludes that
there do not exist as yet the sociopolitical conditions necessary for truly
oppositional culturalcritique in China. Expressing sympathy for his peers
in China who choose "low-risk"or "no-risk"topics, he concludes that "the
real oppression of ThirdWorldcriticismdoes not come from knowledge relations with the outside world ... but fromthe social and culturalstructures
within."16
Although I do not completely agree with their interpretations,Xu's
and Zhao's essays raise some provocative questions. Why do some theories appeal to Chinese critics more than others? Is it a historicalaccident, a
reflectionof access (forexample, translation),a choice based on intellectual
affinity,or a reflectionof contemporaryculturalpolitics? Most likelythere are
no definitiveanswers to these questions, and it may well be a combination
of some or all of these factors. Both Zhao and Xu suggest that it is no mere
chance that postmodernism and postcolonialism are popularin China in the
1990s. Ifthe critiqueand deconstruction of Western hegemonies define the
main thrust of contemporarytheory, the two authors discern a complicitous
relationship between Chinese intellectuals and the official ideology of the
Chinese Communist Party,whether it be described as neoconservatism or
nationalism. If in the 1980s the West provided a counterdiscourse against
the rulingideology in China,the situation has reversed. By Chen's definition,
the latest phase of Chinese appropriationof Western theory is much closer
to the "officialOccidentalism"than to the "anti-officialOccidentalism."
During the cold war era, a joke circulated in the United States. It
went something like this: an American and a Russian were arguing about
who had more freedom in their homeland. To prove his pointthat the United
States allowed more freedom, the American guy says, "Ican stand in front
of the White House and criticizethe President of the United States and not
get into any trouble. Can you do that in your country?"The Russian guy
retorts: "Ofcourse! I, too, can stand in frontof the Kremlinand criticizethe
President of the United States and not get into any trouble."17
The joke works because we all knowthat meaning is relationalrather
than absolute; it is determinable only in relationto a certain context, a specific frame of reference. While it proves the point of freedom of speech for
16. Xu Ben, "'Third-World
17.The last quotationin this paragraphis also from
Criticism,'"
this essay, 27.
17. I thankProfessorWen-hsinYehforremindingme of the joke.

204 boundary2 / Fall1998


the American to openly criticize his president in Washington, D.C., for the
Russian to criticizethe American president in Moscow is wholly conformist
and patriotic,given the open rivalrybetween the two nations duringthe cold
war era. The joke reminds us how crucial it is, when we study cultures other
than our own, to understand their practices and representations. It also
serves as an analogue to Zhao's and Xu's arguments summarized above.
When Western theory is transported to the Chinese context (that is, China
in the 1990s), its culturalsignificance undergoes a transformationand takes
on new meanings that are not only differentfrom, but even opposite to, the
original.
Another irony underscores the foregoing discussion, which derives
from the fact that the analytical frameworkof Zhao and Xu is basically no
different from that of Chen and Zhang. All of these critics recognize the
primacy of context in transculturaland transnational situations, and all of
them focus on the meaning of Western theory in Chinese contexts. The fact
that Zhao's and Xu's essays set off a widespread controversy both in and
outside China over the latest phase of Chinese appropriationsof Western
theory is in sharp contrast to the absence of controversy with regard to
Chen's and Zhang's studies a few years earlier.The contrast is a telling clue
that perhaps the Chinese geopolitical space in the 1990s is significantly
differentfrom that in the 1980s. Whereas Zhao suggests that culturaldiscourses in China are shiftingfrom liberalismto conservatism, Xu interprets
the change as indicative of acquiescence on the part of Chinese intellectuals to officialideology, of which nationalism is a pronounced component.
Ironically,if nationalism is subject to constant critical scrutiny and deconstruction in contemporary theory in the West, the same theory seems to
provide many Chinese intellectuals with a rationalefor culturalnationalism.
In a 1994 interview in the state-run journal Strategy and Management (Zhanlue yu guanli), Wang Hui repeatedly warns against the "merging" of Western theory and Chinese nationalism: "When[postcolonialism]
is transplantedto the unique context of China, it quite naturallymerges with
the indigenous traditionof nationalism."Nationalism,according to Wang, is
a conscious culturalchoice made by those who are deeply committed to
national interests. "Introducedto China in the early 1990s, radicalWestern
theory reinforcesthe mainstream discourse,"namely, "theculturalnationalism of some Chinese intellectuals."18
Why is it "natural"for Western theory
Chinese
18. WangHuiand ZhangTianwei,"Cultural
CritiqueTheoriesand Contemporary
Nationalism("Wenhuapipan lilunyu dangdai Zhongguominzuzhuyi wenti"),Strategy
and Management(Zhanlueyu guanli)3 (April1994):17;my emphasis.

Critic 205
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Theoryandthe Transnational
to merge with Chinese nationalism? Or, to put it in a differentway, why is
Western theory so quicklyand easily sinicized?
In recent years, there have been extensive discussions on Chinese
nationalismin the transnationalscholarly communities of Chinese studies.19
The phenomenon responds, on the one hand, to the proliferationof Western
scholarship on nationalism in recent decades (which is itself a response to
global politics), and to the changing situation in contemporaryChina, on the
other. Understandably,on a subject as elusive and complex as nationalism,
there is littleagreement among scholars, and nationalismitself is seen as a
"site of contestation and repression of differentviews of the nation."20The
"indigenoustraditionof nationalism"that Wang alludes to comprises at least
two related strains: culturalsinocentrism (Huaxiazhongxin zhuyi) and modern nationalism. Scholars have advanced differentviews that suggest both
continuities and discontinuities between culturalsinocentrism and modern
Chinese nationalism, and their changing relationship is often shaped by
the particular political need at a particulartime. Instead of nationalism,
perhaps it is less misleading to refer to Chinese nationalisms. Regardless
of the nuanced distinctions between them, there seems to be little doubt
that traditionalsinocentrism and modern nationalism combine to reinforce
nationalistic sentiments among the Chinese both at the popular level and
among intellectuals in the 1990s.21
Nationalist sentiments are clearly at work when we examine some
of the negative responses to Zhao's and Xu's essays. For instance, despite
the fact that the "conservative"intellectuals whom Zhao criticizes do not
all live in mainland China (for example, Liu Kang teaches at Penn State),
and ModernChina,"was spon19. Forinstance,an international
conference,"Nationalism
sored by the Chinese Universityof Hong Kong in December 1992. Fortypapers were
presented, some of which later appeared in Twenty-First
Century.In November1995,
the state-runjournalStrategyand Managementsponsored a conference, "Nationalism
at the Fin de Siecle" ("Shijizhi jiao de minzuzhuyi"),in Shenzhen, China.Some of the
paperswere publishedinthe journal.A special issue of the FarEasternEconomicReview
also came out in November1995, entitled"ChineseNationalism:New Hopes, OldFears."
MingbaoMonthlyin HongKongpublisheda special issue on new Chinese nationalismin
March1996. In English,see HarumiBefu, ed., CulturalNationalismin East Asia: Representationand Identity(Berkeley:Instituteof East Asian Studies, Universityof California,
1993);andJonathanUnger,ed., ChineseNationalism(Armonk,N.Y.:M.E. Sharpe,1996).
20. PrasenjitDuara,"De-Constructing
the Chinese Nation,"in Chinese Nationalism,43.
21. Fora discussion of widespreadnationalistsentiments in Chinese popularculturein
the 1990s, see GeremieR. Barme,"ToScrew ForeignersIs Patriotic:China'sAvant-Garde
in Chinese Nationalism,183-208.
Nationalists,"

206 boundary2 / Fall1998


Zhang Yiwu,a professor of Chinese literatureat BeijingUniversity,calls the
two authors Eurocentricand Orientalistbecause they create "asharp opposition between overseas and indigenous critics."22Zhang rightlypoints out
that the picturedrawn by the two authors of the Chinese intellectualscene
in the 1990s is far from complete, but his criticism displays a tendency to
refute Zhao and Xu not so much for what they say as for who they are, and
to dismiss the former on the basis of the latter.And he is not alone in this
in the debate. The fact that both Zhao and Xu are originallyfrom mainland
China and received advanced education in the West, where they now live,
leads to three assumptions shared by their critics.
First, Zhao and Xu are not familiarwith the reality in China today
since they have been living abroad for years. Second, their criticism of
intellectuals in China suggests that they "identifystrongly with the mainstream discourse and ideology of the West."23Finally,their complicitywith
the West is allegedly evident in the followingways: their approach to China
as an other to be gazed at, interpreted,and "domesticated";their negative
assessments of indigenous intellectuals;and their "pedagogical"or condescending attitude toward indigenous intellectuals. I would like to examine
these assumptions brieflyand to show how they all stem from a nationalistic, sinocentric frameworkthat reifies China and the West. Inproblematizing
such a framework,I will then suggest an alternative approach for Chinese
literaryand culturalstudies.
The logic behind the critics'claim that Zhao and Xu are out of touch
withChinese realitybecause they are not based in China is flawed. Granted,
it is common sense that just as a native speaker has an advantage over
foreigners tryingto learn the language, living in the country one studies is
an obvious advantage in terms of familiaritywith home perspectives and
access to information.But familiaritywith a culture on an experiential basis
and abundantdata alone do not account forthe qualityof scholarship, which
also depends on the theoretical frameworkand methodology that one employs. How valid and comprehensive the theoretical frameworkis and how
rigorousthe method of investigation is are more importantthan experience
and data per se. While local experience may help, it cannot take the place
of scholarly trainingand does not equal scholarship.
The fundamental problem with this line of argument is that it ex22. Zhang Yiwu,"TheAnxietyof Interpreting'China"'("Chanshi'Zhongguo'de jiaolu,"
Century28 (April1995):129.
Twenty-First
23. ZhangYiwu,"Anxietyof Interpreting
'China,'"129.

Yeh / International
Critic 207
Theoryandthe Transnational
alts local experience as a value in itself. Experience is treated, to borrow
Joan W. Scott's words, "as incontestable evidence and as an originarypoint
of explanation-as a foundation upon which analysis is based." Further,
the "evidence of experience ... reif[ies]agency as an inherent attributeof
individuals,thus decontextualizing it."24
Unfortunately,"evidence of experience" is a fairlycommon argument
among scholars of Chinese ethnicitywhen they criticize their non-Chinese
colleagues for their lack of "Chinese experience." For instance, a recent
essay in Dushu, the most influentialjournal among intellectuals in mainland China, claims: "Sinologists can speak Chinese, love to taste Chinese
cuisine, and often like to hang in their offices or homes a few scrolls of
Chinese calligraphygiven by their Chinese friends. But hardlyany of them
can trulyappreciate the 'spiritualrhythm'[shenyun] and the 'auraand structure'[fenggu]of Chinese calligraphy,because calligraphyrequiresan understanding of the spiritof the culture which flows in blood veins; it is not just
an intellectual issue."25Statements such as this are not only condescending and grossly generalizing, but, more seriously, they present a circular
argument about why non-Chinese sinologists can never "really"understand
China. In the example cited above, the circularityof the argument hides
behind a highly impressionistic language-shenyun and fenggu-typical of
traditionalChinese poetry and art criticism. It is futile to refute this kind of
argument because it cannot be substantiated objectively in the first place.
The emphasis on the uniqueness of Chinese experience-but which
culture's experience is not unique?-is inseparable from a defensiveness
against any criticismof China coming fromthose not livingin China. To give
another example, Lung Yingtaiis an influentialculturalcriticwho was born
and raised in Taiwan.She received her Ph.D. in English from an American
institutionand has been living in Germany for many years, although she
has published extensively in Chinese for more than a decade. After publishing an article entitled "A Bottle Filled with 'China China China'" in the
Hong Kong-based Mingbao Monthlyin 1992, she was inundated with criticism from readers in mainlandChina, as she recounts in an interview:"One
typical example [of the criticismshe received] was, 'LungYingtai,since you
have not gone through the suffering that we have, you really have no right
24. Joan W.Scott, "Experience,"
in FeministsTheorizethe Political,ed. JudithButlerand
Joan W.Scott (New York:Routledge,1992), 24, 25.
25. Xu Zhangruen,"Layman'sWords from Specialists" ("Neihangde waihang hua"),
Reading(Dushu)216 (March1997):104.

208 boundary2 / Fall1998


to criticize us." She proceeds to recall an episode that suggests a cultural
attitude:
"Ihad many chances to meet withChinese intellectuals[inGermany]
after the June 4 massacre in 1989. In my contacts with them, two
impressions stood out: ... I discovered that they were so obsessed
with China that they had hardlyany interest in the rest of the world. I
would take them around, show them Goethe's birthplaceor the first
parliamentof modern Germanyor Kafka'shome, but they would only
talk about China. Secondly, they were very defensive about China.
That puzzled me a bit, because at home, these were considered
the most liberal,outspoken critics of the culture. Now that they were
here outside China, all of a sudden they were metamorphosed into
apologists for China."26
The obsession with Chinese uniqueness and the concomitant defensiveness against criticisms of China, especially when they are perceived
as coming from "theoutside,"are clearly seen in the debate in Twenty-First
Century,where some critics of Zhao and Xu create an artificialpolarization
of emigre Chinese and intellectuals in China. The polarizationprivileges the
intellectuals in China supposedly because they alone have access to the
"real"China. In his response entitled "Bewareof Artificial'Pidgin Scholarship,'"LiuDong pushes this position to an extreme. Not only does he share
the above-mentioned assumption that only someone living in China can
trulyunderstand China, but, more significantly,he shifts the context of the
discussion from scholarship to cultural identity,from objective criteria to
subjective identification.Emphasizingthe primacyof "personalexperience,"
he predicates scholarship on "the foundation of culturalidentity."Liu'suse
of the mirrormetaphor is revealing. The real China, he claims, can only
of the indigenous scholar, who fully identifies
be reflected in the "mirror"
with China ("fromthe bottom of his heart")and who has "complete, intuitive
command of . . . comprehensive experience" so as to "'reconstruct'the
holistic atmosphere of Chinese culture."Native intellectuals are associated
with such positive notions as "truth,""identity,""self-conscious identification,"and "originalfacts about China,"while emigre Chinese scholars are
described as "deviating... fromthe true path of 'assimilatingthe West into
26. See the interviewconducted by TorbjornLoden,"ChineseIdentityin Flux:An Interview withChen Maipingand LungYingtai,"StockholmJournalof East Asian Studies 6
(1995):21.

Critic 209
Yeh / International
Theoryandthe Transnational
China'"and forminga "harmfulcounter-current."Emigre Chinese scholars
receive scathing criticismfor forgettingtheir "countryof origin"(guguo) and
losing their Chinese identity.According to Liu, "Inthe continuous experimental process of 'assimilation of the West into China,'the most wrongful
thing is the appearance of the 'marginal person' who finds no home on
either side of the Pacific Ocean, in other words, the person who has no
culturalidentitythat can endow him with a scholar's real sense of mission."
scholars-read "neitherChinese nor Western"-use their "pid"Marginal"
gin scholarship"merely to make a livingin the West, "a purelyprivateact."27
It is irrelevantto counter Liu's argument by noting that there are
mediocre China scholars within China as well as outside China. What
underscores his vehement assault is the "mythof authenticity"or, to borrow
Kristeva'sterm, "the cult of origin."China is reified as beyond the understanding of those outside China, both literallyand metaphoricallyspeaking,
and scholarship is equated withan emotional commitmentto, and identification with,China based on personal, experientialinvolvement.Itis interesting
to note that the "pedagogical"tone that Zhang criticizes in Zhao's and Xu's
essays is ubiquitous in Liu's. Being an "authentic"China scholar, Liu describes himself as "heart-achingand head-sickened" (tongxinjishou) when
he sees how "marginal"scholars create "chaos"and sell out to the West with
their "pidginscholarship."28And it behooves himto distinguishunintentional
misunderstanding, which characterizes much of the work of non-Chinese
sinologists, from "artificialpidginscholarship"of emigre Chinese scholars.
At one level, the debate is about self-legitimation.By insisting on the
uniqueness of Chinese culture and society-but, again, which culture or
society isn't?-and the mystique of China, which is impenetrable not only
to non-Chinese but even to emigre Chinese scholars, critics such as Liu
establish themselves as the legitimate spokespersons for China. Their defensiveness comes to the fore when their territorialauthorityis questioned
or challenged. The need forself-legitimationalso reveals an insecurityabout
Western theory on the part of intellectuals in China. For if we follow the
same logic that is used in the insistent claim that those who do not live in
China cannot really know China, then we are inadvertentlyadmittingthat
those who do not live in the West cannot really know Western theory,which
27. LiuDong,"Bewareof Artificial
renweide 'yangjingbang
'PidginScholarship'"("Xiaoxin
xueshu'"), Twenty-First
Century28 (April1995):7-11.
28. JuliaKristeva,NationswithoutNationalism,trans.LeonS. Roudiez(NewYork:Columbia UniversityPress, 1993), 3; and LiuDong, "Beware,"
10.

210 boundary2 / Fall1998


untilvery recently originates from an exclusively Anglo-Europeancontext.
The globalizationof Western theory heightens ratherthan lessens the insecurityand its concomitant desire to establish "Chineseness."This explains
why critics such as Zhang and LiuidentifyZhao and Xu withthe West; it also
accounts for the popularityamong some Chinese intellectuals of theories
of "Chinese alternatives"to Western models (such as modernization and
postmodernity),which assume the posture of self-assertion in the name of
hybridityor pastiche but are, for the most part, lacking in substance.29
We see this in Zhang's criticismof Zhao and Xu, where he advocates
the "new"postcolonial/postmodern position as one that analyzes the hybridityof contemporary China and promises a "transcendence of the hegemony of theory."30But despite his repeated denial of subscribing to the
China/West dichotomy,Zhang can only fall back on Chinese experience to
mount a superficial critique of Western hegemony. Equally problematic is
that his description of Chinese experience and his critique of the Western
discourse on modernityoffer littlethat is new in comparison with postcolonial and postmodern theory in the West. The fact that the so-called Chinese
alternatives often borrowfrom the latest Western theory (mainly postcolonialism and postmodernism) further illustrates that the West continues to
be the point of reference for China's self-positioning. In addition,those who
see Chinese alternatives as a way of going beyond the West seem to be unaware that the word alternative has long been incorporatedinto consumer
culture in the West, as seen in such terms as alternative rock and alternative lifestyle; any facile use of the term would carry littlecriticalvalue. It
is beyond the scope of this essay to deal with the full implicationsof Chinese alternatives; I point it out here to illustratethat China's appropriation
of Western theory is in direct proportionto its desire to assert Chineseness;
the more prevalentthe former is, the stronger the latterseems to become.
This perspective also helps us understand why there is a contradiction in the power hierarchy implicitin the criticisms discussed above. For
critics such as Liu, China lies at the center of knowledge, which is disseminated centrifugally,first and foremost to native scholars who have an
and the Chinese Alternativeto Modern29. See, for instance, LiuKang,"Globalization
Cende butongxuanze"),Twenty-First
xiandaihua
ization"("Quanqiuhua
yu Zhongguo
tury27 (October1996): 140-46; Zhang Yiwu,"Facingthe Challenge of Globalization"
Century28 (December1996):138-42;
quanqiuhuade tiaozhan"),Twenty-First
("Miandui
The Intellectual,the Artist,and
Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu, "GlobalPOSTmodernization:
China'sCondition,"
boundary2 24, no. 3 (1997):65-97.
30. ZhangYiwu,"Anxietyof Interpreting
'China,'"135-36.

Critic 211
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Theoryandthe Transnational
"intuitive"grasp of the true spiritof Chinese culture and then to those outside China. But according to this mode of thinking,emigre Chinese scholars should be placed in the second circle, outside the innermost one of
the natives; after all, they come from China and, generally speaking, have
closer personal and culturalties to China than non-Chinese sinologists. Yet
in the prolonged debate in Twenty-FirstCentury,they receive the harshest
criticism. Although it is true that location alone is not the basis of criticism,
when an emigre Chinese scholar criticizes China he or she is criticizedfor
being ill-intentioned,"pedagogical,"and complicitous with the West. The
reason, I reiterate, is that the real issue here is not scholarship but cultural
identity,or, more specifically, Chinese cultural identity,which is perceived
as feeble and diluted.
China's identitycrisis began with its unequal and asymmetrical encounters with Western imperialists in the second half of the nineteenth
century. Faced with the grim possibilityof fallingunder foreign domination,
China embarked on a long, tortuous course of self-strengthening that was
filled with tension and contradictions.Ying-shihYu views modern Chinese
intellectualhistoryas a continuing"process of rapidradicalization,"from interpretationand discovery at the turnof this century to wholesale radicalism
from the May Fourth period onward. In the first phase, the Chinese discovery of the West was disguised as a reinterpretationof China behind the
theory of "Chinese origins of Western learning."Inthe second phase, radicalism takes the form of "incessantly seeking to importthe latest products
in the culturalmarketfromthe West,"or "neoterism,""a mentalityobsessed
with change, with what is new."31
Yu sees the two phases of radicalizationof modern Chinese intellectuals as distinct, but it is not clear why and how one gives rise to and is
eventually replaced by the other. I would suggest that they are coexistent
and interdependent rather than distinct from each other. Throughoutthe
modern period, radical reformis propelled, above all, by nationalist agendas not only to make China "prosperous and strong" but also to restore
China's status as a center of culture comparable to that of leading Western nations. The dilemma that Chinese intellectuals face is this: Ifto import
Western learning enables China to catch up with the West, borrowingit
also makes China always one step behind. Thus, as China learns from the
West, it is necessary at the same time to emphasize the Chineseness of
31. Ying-shihYu, "TheRadicalizationof Chinain the TwentiethCentury,"Daedalus 122,
no. 2 (spring1993):125-50.

212 boundary2 / Fall1998


the undertaking,whether in terms of origin (forexample, the assertion that
such Western concepts as science, democracy, equality,and libertyalready
exist in ancient China in their embryonicforms) or result (forexample, many
Chinese intellectuals'acceptance of the theory of the "Westernoriginof the
Chinese race" at the turn of the century).
Nevertheless, the emphasis on Chineseness does not resolve the
dilemma, because, if to reinterpretChina in terms of Western values assures Chinese intellectuals that "to learn from the West was also the way
to bring China back to the center,"32what often escapes them is that the
China that is thus reinterpretedcannot be the "original,""pristine"China
that they think they are upholding. "China"is always already implicated in
"the West."
My interpretationfinds support in some recent work on China. In his
of
study Yan Fu, the late Qing reformerand influentialtranslatorof Thomas
Huxley and Charles Darwin,Theodore Huters argues that Yan's work adumbrates the "essential instabilityof modern Chinese culturaldiscourse,"
where we detect the coexistence of two opposite forces: conservatism and
iconoclasm. IfYan'spro-reformwritingsare underlinedby the "uneasy need
to find some sort of roots withinthe Chinese past for his reforms,"such a
need "was itself rooted in the powerfulWestern narrativeof a progressive
historythat he found ... indispensable to the possibilityforsocial change."33
Huters suggests that any efforton China's partto claim an equal status with
the West is invariablyaccompanied by an assertion of China's fundamental differences, which are nevertheless always already framed in Western
terms. Ifconservatism or nationalismseems diametricallyopposed to iconoclasm or Westernization,they are both predicated on Western assumptions
about the nation-state, national identity,and civilization.
A similarargument is presented by LydiaH. Liu,who points out that
such notions as nationalidentityand Chineseness are themselves products
of Western influence in the modern period. "The modern notion of wenhua
or culture has resulted from the recent history of the East-West encounter
that forces the questions of race, evolution,civilization,and national identity
One example is the two National
upon the attention of native intellectuals."34
of China,"139.
32. Ying-shihYu, "Radicalization
AnotherLookat WesternIdeasand ModernChina"
33. TheodoreHuters,"Appropriations:
for
Chinese
at
the
Center
Studies, Universityof California,Berkeley,
(paper presented
April1995), 19, 10. I thankthe authorforgivingme permissionto quote fromthis paper.
NationalCulture,and TranslatedModerPractice:Literature,
34. LydiaH. Liu,Translingual
Stanford
Calif.:
UniversityPress, 1995), 240.
nity-China, 1900-1937(Stanford,

Critic 213
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Theoryandthe Transnational
Essence (guocui) movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, in which the models for the conservative ("nationallearning")
and the progressive ("Western humanism")camps are both derived from
the West.
BorrowingMaryLouise Pratt'sdefinitionof "contactzone" to referto
the encounter between China and the West, Arif Dirlikpoints out that the
space is not only a "zone of domination"but also a "zone of mediation,"of
distancing fromthe society of the self as well as the other. Whereas the Orientalist is "'Orientalized'himself or herself in the very process of entering
the 'Orient,'"the same happens with the "Oriental,. . . whose very contact
with the Orientalistculminates in a distancing from native society, where
s/he becomes an object of suspicion."35I will returnto this last point shortly.
The above studies show that at least since the late nineteenth century, discourses on China are inextricablefrom discourses on the West.
Paradoxically,to understand Chineseness is to understand how the West is
"translated"into Chinese and vice versa. The contact zone between China
and the West in the 1990s is no longer limited,as it was in the early decades
of the century, to treaty ports in China or Western domains visited by the
Chinese but has greatly expanded as a result of the informationrevolution
and increasing transnationalexperience. Given China's traumaticencounters with the West and the resultant identity crisis, it is understandable
why it is always against the West, as the "preferredOther,"36that China
has sought to define and assert itself, but this tendency has also become
the source of the problem. For the identity crisis all too often leads to a
quest for culturalidentitybased on a reificationof China versus the West.
Although historically Chinese culture has always assimilated foreign (for
example, Buddhist and Islamic) elements and Western culture was introduced to China long before the nineteenth century,the dichotomy between
China and the West is new in the modern period. For the first time in Chinese history,the "identityspace" 37-to borrowfrom Jonathan Friedmanin which China defines itself is extensively and irrevocablyinfiltratedby the
West, which is seen as an indomitableother. The insistence that there is
35. ArifDirlik,"ChineseHistoryand the Question of Orientalism,"
in The Postcolonial
Aura:ThirdWorldCriticismin the Age of GlobalCapitalism(Boulder,Colo.:Westview,
1997), 118-19.
36. Rey Chow,"CanOne Say No to China?"New LiteraryHistory28, no. 1 (winter1997):
151.
37. Fora discussionof the concept, see JonathanFriedman,CulturalIdentityand Global
Process (London:Sage, 1994).

214 boundary2 / Fall1998


an authentic and unique China that cannot be really understood by anyone perceived as an outsider reflects a deep-rooted uneasiness with, and
distrust of, those who are culturallysituated between China and the West.
There is a long history of tension between native intellectuals and those
who are marginalizedbecause they are in the "contactzone,"as in the case
of those who study abroad or live in treaty ports in China.38In this sense,
the debate in Twenty-FirstCentury is only a contemporaryexpression of a
century-old problematic.
I recognize the deep and naturalneed, whether at the individualor
collective level, for a sense of belonging; culturalidentityis a powerfuldefinitionof the existential relation between the subject and the constitution of
a meaningfulworld. Ialso recognize the difficultyof the identityconstruction
process that China has been going through in the past century and a half.
What I question are notions of authenticitybased on nationalist, essentializing discourses. To the extent that critics such as Zhang and LiuDong reify
China they also reify the West. It is ironic that while Chinese intellectuals
rightlycriticize Samuel P. Huntington's"ComingClash of Civilizations?"for
his essentializing views on the Islamic and Confucian civilizations, many
are completely oblivious to their own assumptions about China's enduring
continuities, articulated in such phrases as "holisticatmosphere of China,"
"the spirit of the culture,"and the like.39Inasmuch as they are critical of
the civilizationalapproach when it is adopted by Western intellectuals, they
have not avoided the pitfallthemselves.
Ifcontemporarytheory has taught us anything, it is that China is not
an unchanging, homogeneous entity and that Chineseness is a continuing
38. ZhangQingand Yu Ying-shihbothillustrateclearlyhow HuShi, as an overseas Chinese student,gainedlegitimationand acceptance by intellectualsin Chinaby establishing
LucianW.Pye discusses howChinese intellechimselfas a scholarof "Chineselearning."
tuals intreatyportswere regardedas compradoresorsellouts;he sees the discrimination
as an impedimentto China'smodernization.See Zhang Qing, "TheDialoguebetween
the NativeLandand 'Beyondthe Realm':A HistoricalPerspective"("Conglishikanbentu
Century34(April1996):113-20;YuYing-shih,HuShi
yu 'yuwai'de duihua"),Twenty-First
in the IntellectualHistoryof ModernChina(HuShi zaijindaiZhongguosixiangshi shang
de diwei) (Taipei:Lianjing,1984), especially 35-42; and LucianW. Pye, "HowChina's
Nationalismwas Shanghaied,"in Chinese Nationalism,86-112.
39. Samuel P. Huntington,The Clash of Civilizationsand the Remakingof WorldOrder
(New York:Simon and Schuster, 1996); Chinese translation:Wenmingde chongtu mu
shijiezhixude chongjian(Beijing:XinhuaPress, 1997).A collectionof responses by Chinese intellectuals,edited by WangHuiand YuGuoliangis forthcomingfromthe Chinese
Universityof HongKongPress.

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Theoryandthe Transnational
process of self-constitution. To interpretChina is always already to construct China discursively. More importantly,theory has also taught us that
however "objective"scholarly studies may seem, they often operate with
implicitpolitical assumptions. The debate in Twenty-FirstCentury reveals
some of the recurrent politics of identity construction in modern Chinese
history. Chinese intellectuals who have emigrated receive scathing criticism fromtheir native counterparts because they are perceived as situated
between China and the West, occupying a position that can be variously
described as "neither. . . nor,""both . . . and," and "in-between,"a position that potentiallychallenges the nationalist narrativeof authenticityand
uniqueness exactly because it does not fit into it neatly.
Having said that, let me clarify that I am not suggesting scholars
in China alone reify China or are nationalistic, and that emigre Chinese
scholars are automatically exempt from these problems. Far from accepting the polarizationof indigenous and emigre critics that has unfortunately
persisted in the debate in Twenty-FirstCentury,I emphasize, firstof all, the
historicityof the debate, which reveals the resurfacing of a long-standing
anxiety of how to assert Chineseness, an anxiety that is exacerbated in
a world of accelerated globalization in the age of multiculturalism.Even
as Western theory, with its prestige and critical edge, provides Chinese
intellectuals with an effective means of self-empowerment (as is evident
in the ascendancy of postmodern and postcolonial theory in China since
the early 1990s), ultimatelyit has to be rejected because of its perceived
"Westernness" (as seen in Zhang's accusation of Zhao and Xu that they
have been co-opted by the West and try to impose Western values on
China). The debate under analysis fails to go beyond the dualistic framework that characterizes modern China's quest for culturalidentitythus far,
predicated as it is on an "authentic"Chinathat is to be defended at all costs.
Such nationalisticsentiments are worth our attention because, as Etienne
Balibarand ImmanuelWallersteinwarn us, every nationalismcontains "oppressive potentialities,"and the other side of "nationalismsof liberation"are
"nationalismsof domination."40
Going back to our opening discussion on comparative literature,if
Chow cautions us that Eurocentrismfinds its mirrorimage in multiculturalism "inthe name of the other,"then what I am suggesting is that the other
side of Eurocentrismis sinocentrism, and that the other side of Orientalism
40. EtienneBalibarand ImmanuelWallerstein,Race, Nation,Class: AmbiguousIdentities, trans.ChrisTurner(New York:Verso,1991),46.

216 boundary2 / Fall1998


is culturalnationalism.I do not undervalue how importantand, indeed, necessary it is to continue to critiqueOrientalismwherever it is practiced. I am
also well aware of the economic and materialinequalities between those of
us working in the United States and scholars working in mainland China,
which renders the issue of power relations between China and the West
even more sensitive. But I believe culturalnationalismcannot be an effective critiqueof Orientalismbecause it replicates and perpetuates the latter
epistemologically, and, in doing so, it falls short of fully deconstructing the
Orientalism without and elides the Orientalism within. If Chinese cultural
nationalism appears to be the antithesis of Orientalism,they are coterminous at a deeper level because both operate in a dualistic frameworkthat
reifies self and other, Chineseness and Westernness, and both oppress
dissenting approaches. This point is demonstrable not only in China but in
other non-Western cultures as well. For instance, Tapati Guha-Thakurta's
study of Indianart shows how, in the institutionalizationof modern Indian
art, Orientalism is inseparable from the nationalist discourse that establishes the "Indianness"of Indianart; both "mystifyand rarify"the "Indian
essence."41

In the final analysis, such notions as China and the West must be
used withcaution and qualificationso that they facilitateratherthan impede
cross-culturalcommunicationand understanding.Whilecritics chastise the
West forOrientalizingChina, they must not treat the West as an indomitable
other by reifyingits perennial, fundamentaldifferences fromChina. Ifterms
such as Asian values and the Asian wayonly really make sense in English,
as lan Burumasuggests, the West is all too often similarlyperceived by the
Chinese as monolithicand undifferentiated.Ina 1995 interview,Chen Maiping, a writer-criticfrom China who teaches at the Universityof Stockholm,
observes, "Concepts such as Asia, Europe,the West, etc., are so large that
generalizations easily become misleading. I have noticed, for example, that
people in Scandinavia often become irritatedif I refer to a certain attitude
as typically European. In such cases they often reply that what I speak
about is not a European attitude but a French, a German or an English attitude. Europe covers so much."42Ironically,when Chinese scholars, whether
41. TapatiGuha-Thakurta,The Makingof a New 'Indian'Art:Artists,Aesthetics, and
Nationalismin Bengal, c. 1850-1920 (Cambridge:CambridgeUniversityPress, 1992),
184.
42. lan Buruma,"TheSingaporeWay,"New YorkReviewof Books (19October1995):67.
Forthe interviewwithChen Maiping,see TorbjornLoden,"ChineseIdentityin Flux,23.

Yeh / International
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Theoryandthe Transnational
based in or outside China, claim that non-Chinese sinologists can never
really understand China because of their entrenched Eurocentrismor lack
of "intuitive"grasp of the Chinese spirit, they show such uncriticalconfidence in their own knowledge of the West to the extent that they decide
peremptorilywhat the West can and cannot understand.
For anyone who studies the non-West in the West, it is importantto
be wary of Orientalistassumptions. Butthere is a delicate balance between
studying the non-West in its proper context and privilegingthe non-West
over the West; the lattermerely reverses the Orientalisthierarchyand is just
as imperialisticas historical Orientalism.Appiah remarks, "The West has
no hard edges." It is equally true of China. China has no hard edges; culturally, it is always already "impure."Furthermore,when we speak of China,
especially contemporaryChina, it refers to a complex configurationof transnational and transculturalrealities. By China, do we mean mainlandChina
or both mainland China and Taiwan? How do we place Hong Kong culturally, which has only recently become part of China again? What about the
Chinese diaspora, or "Chinese overseas"?43When we speak of twentiethcentury Chinese literature,are we referringto works from mainland China
or do we also include those from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Chinese communities around the world where literaturein Chinese is writtenand read?
What kind of hierarchyexists, implicitlyor not so implicitly,in our study of
modern Chinese literature,and why?
When we realize that cultural identity is not an immutable set of
beliefs and practices, it is perhaps easier to transcend the limitationsof
nationalism. Clearly there are differences in linguistic, social, and cultural
backgroundsamong Chinese scholars all over the world,and they entail different vantage points, strengths, and limitations.We need to worktogether
not only because our differentperspectives may well complement and balance each other but also because we all share a pressing responsibilityto
study Chinese literatureand culture across geopolitical boundaries and to
resist the temptation of nationalistic,sinocentric premises.
What I am advocating, then, is a transnationalidentityor positionality
that challenges and problematizes the reificationof China and the West,
inside and outside, native and foreign. China provides an excellent example
43. K.AnthonyAppiah,"GeistStories,"in ComparativeLiteraturein the Age of Multiculturalism,57. On "Chineseoverseas,"a termcoined by WangGungwuas an alternativeto
"overseasChinese,"see Wang's"GreaterChinaand the Chinese Overseas,"in Greater
China:TheNew Superpower?,ed. DavidShambaugh(NewYork:OxfordUniversityPress,
1995), 274-96.

218 boundary2 / Fall1998


of theory's abilityto travel,often with the transnationalcritic,who serves as
the translatorand transmitterbetween the West, where most contemporary
theory originates, and the culture under study. Granted, the existence of
transnationalcritics has always been a given of comparative literature,but
the worldwideconsciousness of ongoing globalizationand growingmulticulturalawareness have catapulted them intoa position that is more prominent
and complexified than before. All of us are willy-nillytransnational critics
situated between languages, cultures, and nations. By the transnational
critic, I am thinkingof "the intellectual in exile" that Said describes as "between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages."
I also have in mind FrederickBuell's "new global cosmopolitan,"one who
evokes and yokes together "twovery diverse, even opposed, legacies" and
tries to find "a new constitutive, not exclusionary,logic of order."44The more
we participatein the transnationaleconomy of literaryand culturalstudies,
the more open the field will be, as we tear down old fences and resist, at
the same time, erecting new ones, such as the fence of nationalism in the
name of multiculturalism.
I thinkthis is where comparative literaturehas much to offer and is,
in fact, urgently needed. What is often lost in the actual practice of multiculturalismand the globalization of theory are comparative perspectives,
which, by alerting us to the pitfallsof ethnic or culturalnationalism,bringus
closer to a more viable multiculturalism.I fullyagree with Andrew Hatfelder
that "the nation [has to be read] against both other nations and other forms
of 'imagined community.'"In her study of the construction of culturalidentities in South China, Helen F. Siu remarks, "IfBeijingdoes not occupy the
privileged position as the center of Chinese history,that culturaldistance
from it does not mean marginalityor anomaly, then the entire process of
becoming Chinese needs to be seen as involvinga much wider range of
players and voices." Chow identifies the crux of the issue in her comments
on the papers presented at a recent conference, "CulturalStudies: China
and the West": "Anydiscussion of culturalstudies and China would be inadequate without some attempt to address-not the well-worn theme of
China's relation to the West, but-the scarcely touched issue of China's
relationto those whom it deems politicallyand culturallysubordinate. I am
referringspecifically to Tibet, Taiwan,and Hong Kong, cultures which, de44. EdwardSaid, Cultureand Imperialism(New York:Knopf,1993), 332; and Frederick
Buell,NationalCultureand the New GlobalSystem (Baltimore,Md.:Johns HopkinsUniversityPress, 1994), 341.

Yeh / International
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Theoryandthe Transnational
spite their own histories, are simply denied identityand validityin the eyes
of the People's Republic."45
Althoughthe domains that Chow mentions are all "Chinese,"to subsume them under such a rubricas "CulturalChina"is dangerous so long
as it presumes the centralityof mainlandChina, thus puttinga culturalhierarchyfirmlyin place that is at least potentiallyrepressive. The culturalhegemony that Chow critiques is unfortunatelyevident in the transnationalfield
of Chinese literaryand cultural studies, anywhere from college curricula
to scholarly publications having to do with modern China. The absence, in
most cases, of Taiwanand Hong Kong is simply taken for granted. To cite
two specific examples, despite the increasing attention to popular culture
in mainlandChina, few scholars study it alongside Hong Kong and Taiwan,
even though, as Thomas Gold has pointed out, the popularcultureof Hong
Kong and Taiwan-"Gangtai"-has been a major influence on mainland
China and is "corrosiveand potentiallydestabilizing"to the establishment.
Anotherexample would be the critiqueof modern Chinese poetry launched
by the poet-criticZheng Minin 1993-1994.46Zheng dismisses modern Chinese poetry in toto on the ground that it severs itself fromthe linguisticand
literaryresources of classical Chinese. Her historicalsurvey of modern Chinese poetry encompasses the MayFourthpioneers, the experimentalpoets
of the 1930s-1940s, the bleak poetry scene duringthe Mao period, and the
rejuvenationof poetry in the 1980s-1990s. Nowhere in her discussion, however, does she consider the remarkableartistic innovations in Taiwanand
Hong Kong. Regardless of the genre or topic, Hong Kong and Taiwanare
simply nonexistent in many literaryand culturalstudies of modern China.
In many cases, our understanding of China can benefit a great
deal from comparative perspectives across geopolitical boundaries. For in45. AndrewHatfelder,Literature,Politics,and NationalIdentity:Reformationto Renaissance (New York:CambridgeUniversityPress, 1994), 1; Helen F. Siu, "Cultural
Identity
and the Politicsof Differencein South China,"Daedalus122, no. 2 (spring1993):27; and
Rey Chow,"CanOne Say No to China?"151.
46. Thomas Gold, "Gowith YourFeelings: Hong Kongand TaiwanPopularCulturein
GreaterChina,"in GreaterChina:TheNew Superpower?273; and Zheng Min,"AFinde
Siecle Reflection:The LinguisticRevolutionof the Chinese Languageand the Creation
of New Chinese Poetry"("Shijimode huigu:Hanyuyuyan biange yu Zhongguoxinshi
chuangzuo")and "WhatProblemsHas OurNew PoetryEncountered?"("Womende xinshi yudao le shenme wenti?"),originallypublishedin LiteraryCriticism(Wenxuepinglun),
March1993and February1994.Theyare reprintedrespectivelyin ChinesePoetryAnnals:
1993 (Shige nianjian)(Chongqing:XinanShidaChubanshe,1994),353-80, and Chinese
PoetryAnnals:1994 (Chongqing:XinanShida Chubanshe,1995), 308-24.

220 boundary2 / Fall1998


stance, almost all the critics who participatedin the debate in Twenty-First
Century, regardless of their positions and despite claims to the contrary,
operate in a dualistic frameworkof China versus the West, or indigenous
versus overseas, and show little critical awareness of its problematic assumptions. Althoughit has become common among scholars to study postMao literatureand culture in terms of the dichotomyof officialand unofficial,
hegemonic and oppositional, I doubt if the analytic scheme is as viable for
the 1990s as it has been in earlier eras. Inview of the rapidcommercialization, the rise of a vitalpopularculture,and the gradualformationof a private,
civic sphere in mainland China over the past decade, it is conceivable that
culturaldiscourses can no longer be adequately described withinthis kind
of framework,in which such scholars as Zhao, Xu, Chen, and Zhang base
their arguments. In her pioneering study of modern fiction in Taiwan,Sungsheng Yvonne Chang draws on Raymond Williams'swork on hegemony to
develop a tripartiteparadigmfor studying the culturaldiscourses in postwar
Taiwan.She differentiatesbetween the discourse created by the Nationalist
and nativgovernment as "hegemonic,"modernist literatureas "alternative,"
ist literatureas "oppositional."While the modernists of the 1960s "adopted
literaryconcepts developed in Western capitalist society" and shared the
government's drive toward modernization,they simultaneously harbored a
skepticism toward the dominant culture's neotraditionalistdiscourse" and
took "such bourgeois social values as individualism,liberalism,and rationalism as correctives for the oppressive social relations derived from a
traditionalsystem of values."47In other words, despite its divergence from
the oppositional discourse of the nativists in the 1970s, modernistdiscourse
was a subversive force vis-a-vis official ideology.
The Williams model that Chang develops in her book suggests an
alternative perspective from which to view Chinese literary and cultural
studies in the 1990s. Even ifwe agree with Zhao and Xu that some Chinese
critics, both in and outside China, display nationalisttendencies, this does
not necessarily lead to the conclusion that they endorse officialideology or
that they do not, in fact, try to develop an independent position that only
intersects with official ideology on the issue of nationalism. In other words,
a more nuanced study of culturaldiscourses in contemporary China may
requirethat we go beyond the dualisticculturallogic and pay more attention
to existing or emergent alternative positions.
47. Sung-sheng YvonneChang, Modernismand the NativistResistance: Contemporary
Chinese FictionfromTaiwan(Durham,N.C.:DukeUniversityPress, 1993), 2.

Yeh / International
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Theoryandthe Transnational
Obviously, Taiwan is not the only vantage point from which China
be
studied comparatively.With regard to the debate in Twenty-First
may
Century, even a cursory glance at Russian intellectuals may yield meaningfulcomparisons with China. When LiahGreenfeld gave a seminar at the
Davis Humanities Institute in 1994, I asked her about Russian intellectuals' reception of criticaltheory in the post-Soviet era. Greenfeld, who came
froma familyof Russian intellectuals, answered that in her frequent contact
with Russian academics, none of them showed any interest in contemporarytheory. The sharp contrast with Chinese intellectuals could raise some
interesting questions.
Consider another comparative perspective. Local appropriationsof
Western theory in differentChinese contexts may providea unique perspective on Chinese societies and cultures. For instance, in Taiwan, feminism
and postcolonialism have been especially influentialnot only in intellectual
circles but also in the publicsphere in general. Besides books, magazines,
conferences, and newspaper columns devoted to feminist issues, feminism
has been a majorforce behind Taiwan'slegal reformand social movements.
In recent years, feminism in Taiwan has directed much attention to queer
theory; in 1995, a gay rights group advanced (or revived) the theory that
Qu Yuan (338-278 B.C.),"thefather of Chinese poetry,"was a homosexual.
As to postcolonialism in Taiwan, one of its agendas is to give voice to the
underrepresented aborigines against dominantethnic groups on the island,
includingthe Fukienese, the Hakka,and the Mainlanders(those who moved
from mainlandChina to Taiwanafter WorldWar II).
In contrast, both homosexuality and the empowerment of ethnic minorities are still by and large neglected (forbidden?)areas of intellectual
inquiryin China. In comparison, postcolonialism plays a much more prominent role than feminism in mainland China, despite the fact that feminism
has been around longer. According to a 1992 survey by Zhang Jingyuan,
while we find many histories and anthologies of women writers published
in mainlandChina, there are few books on feministtheory and criticism.Of
the three that she mentions, only one, published in 1989, "signal[s]the independence and maturityof Chinese feminist literarycriticism."48
Why has
feminism not made a more significant impact in mainland China? In what
way are feminist critiques undermined by the official, nationalist ideology
that, in claiming to subsume gender equality under its objectives, elides
it? What is the relationbetween feminism and "mainstream"scholarship in
48. Zhang Jingyuan, Comparative Literature Newsletter (1992): 386.

222 boundary2 / Fall1998


mainland China? In contrast to feminism, does not an implicitaffinitywith
official nationalism explain the easy acceptance of postcolonialism and its
high visibilityand prestige? When seen in a comparativecontext, these and
other questions willcontributeto a better understandingof Chinese social,
political,and culturalconditions.
To return to my opening discussion on comparative literatureand
multiculturalism,neither globalization nor the fear of the obliterationof cultural differences as a result of the former is new. But there is little doubt
that the decline in Western hegemony, decentralizationof capital accumulation, and fragmentationof the former world order in our time contribute
to the latest round of quests for, and debates about, national, ethnic, and
cultural identities in many parts of the world. The transnational identity of
the intellectual that I am proposing is defined neither by national, ethnic,
or culturalorigins nor by geopolitical locations. It is the comparative perspective across these boundaries that gives one that identity.As such, it is
the foundation of true multiculturalism.Withoutcomparative perspectives,
multiculturalismexists only in name.