Re-producing Chineseness in Southeast Asia – Scholarship and identity in comparative perspectives

Re-producing Chineseness in Southeast Asia-Scholarship and identity in comparative perspectivesEditor:       Chih-yu Shih

ISBN:          978-1-138-94645-3

Publisher: Routledge

Year:           2016

Pages:         116

Price:          $116.22 (Amazon)


Reviewed by Dr. Andra le Roux-Kemp, Assistant Professor, School of Law, City University of Hong Kong

Identifying Chinese in Southeast Asia, and identifying as a Chinese in Southeast Asia, are both equally fraught with difficulties. As in most other parts of the world, the population of Southeast Asia are increasingly diverse with expats and migrants now prosaic in the locality. For such ethnic non-Chinese, the political effects of their intellectual and social activities on traditional Chinese communities are often at the forefront of their minds, while conventional Chinese, in turn, are confronted with the necessity of integration and adaptation in a globalised world. Then, there are also the diasporic Chinese who are for all intents and purposes outsiders looking in. Diasporic Chinese are outsiders in their non-Chinese environments and they stand outside the local, indigenous Chinese scene, never really able to truly blend in. But more still, Chineseness also face another agitator, and that is politics. Political China asserts, provokes, and challenges political ideologies, value systems, and modes of existence. It creates rifts, binds together, and leaks from its Chineseness into matters that are altogether not Chinese. Chinese identification therefore generally, and in Southeast Asia specifically, is often both a catalystof, and an obstacle for self-understanding as well as self-representation.

Under the editorial guidance of Chih-yu Shih (Chair Professor at the National Taiwan University), the authors of the six chapters in Re-producing Chineseness in Southeast Asia: Scholarship and identity in comparative perspectives re-examine individual and group Chinese identity (p. 2).These essays were previously published as a special issue of the journal Asian Ethnicity (January 2015) and collectively challenge an essentialising assumption of China and being Chinese. Chih-yu Shih explains that being ethnic Chinese should not be the basis for predicting Chinese beliefs in identities, ideologies, loyalties, class and ethnic consciousness, religions, languages, customs, and most importantly, strategies of survival (p. 2). Shih submits that racial China is authentic China, and thus, “research that resists authentic China deconstructs the relevance of racial China in the practices of daily life” (p. 2). This is an important claim to grasp in the context of scholarly endeavours about China in the context of social science and humanities research. The contributors of the chapters in this book submit that research(ers) should not only convey correct knowledge on the objective conditions of China, but should also portray a distinct sensibility that is empathetic to the complex and constantly evolving nature of Chineseness (p. 2).

Chineseness, according to Pi-Chun Chang (Chapter 2), has both an indigenous as well as a diasporic meaning. The indigenous conception of Chineseness is based on a firm rejection of Western modeled “modernity” and aims to contribute to world culture in a unique Chinese manner. The indigenous conception of Chineseness also has at aim to establish “a rim of Chinese culture” which includes five separate but intertwined elements: “They are the Asian-Chinese economy, Chinese ethics, the ‘Han language’ (the Chinese language), the Chinese aesthetic style, and the Chinese way of thinking and reasoning” (p. 31 and 39). The diasporic conception of Chineseness, on the other hand, is less cohesive and more problematic as it involves an intricated mesh of cultural and decentered lateral connections, as well as attachments to an ethnic homeland, real or imagined (p. 31).In addition to these insider and outsider social claims for Chineseness, Jean Michael Montsion also writes about a more formal, state ascribed meaning of Chineseness; “a top-down government approach that defines racialized categories in terms of cultural competencies and skill sets…” (p. 96).

In this book, the complex and constantly evolving nature of Chineseness is considered in the context of Southeast Asia, and the primary focus is on the encounters and methodological choices of individual scholars in the social sciences and humanities in terms of their Chineseness. This is an important undertaking as many countries in Southeast Asia no longer consider China as their motherland, but the people of these countries still maintain varying degrees of ancestor consciousness and inevitably therefore, also Chineseness.

For example, in Singapore, the diasporic conception of Chineseness and the formal state ascribed Chineseness are combined in terms of the Singaporean government’s various linguistic, educational, and immigration initiatives which form part of the national Singaporean ethos of maintaining the already defined and potentially unstable ethnic diversity of the city-state (p. 96). Montsion explains that Chineseness in the Singaporean context is therefore a “culture-performing Chineseness, which expresses itself through a significant attachment to specific language, food and family value choices” (p. 95). Chineseness so defined through local performances rather than broader questions of race and culture, ultimately becomes an everyday matter of individual choice and border patrolling in order to maintain some collective coherence (p. 95). The nature and extent of a Singaporean’s Chinesenessare furthermore determined by a number of factors, including the sources from which one’s sense of Chineseness can be acquired, the different knowledge categories of Chineseness – i.e. knowledge of cultural (traditional) China versus an understanding of contemporary China – and also the extent to which differences in class and status determine access to knowledge about China and ultimately also Chineseness (p. 14). Even with a shared Chinese identity therefore, different Singaporeans may have a different sense of Chineseness, and may produce and reconstruct knowledge on China in different ways (p. 15). The identity of Southeast Asian Chinese in Singapore has also “waxed and waned” over time, having transformed from “overseas Chinese to ethnic Chinese, from Straits Chinese to Chinese Singaporeans” (p. 28), and the operational qualities of Chineseness for Chinese Singaporeans exemplifies a bifurcated character; simultaneously allowing for a Chinese perspective on Singaporean affairs, whilst distancing Singapore from the People’s Republic of China (p 4).

Scholarly endeavours in the realm of social sciences and humanities have utilised and presented the conception of Chineseness, as explained here and in the context of the book under review, in creative ways. For example, late Pao-kun Kuo (1939-2002) in Singapore and contemporary Denny Yung (1943 – ) in Hong Kong, have made particular ontological and epistemological choices in representing China in experimental theatre (Chapter 3). Authors Chih-yu Shih and Celine Yi-Chin Lee explain: “Epistemologically, since a creative work makes sense to its audience because it is embedded in an image of the world that its author shares with the audience, the author has to decide whether the creative work should attract a sympathetic audience or impart a legacy in the thought process of subsequent generations. This epistemological choice between market and legacy at different times and places involves the relevance of the authors’ judgment in the creative art and its complex meanings” (p. 43).In the works of these two artists China is represented as a collective subject to accommodate the changing world and China is also presented as an individualised object that emerges in each narrator’s chosen perspective (p. 44). In the work of Kuo, a second generation migrant to Singapore, an element of strong patriotism toward China can be seen, while Yung, already from a young age, consciously and deliberately choose a depolitisising strategy in his work (p. 44-45). The differences in the approach of these two scholars are closely connected to place: Kuo, in Singapore, aspires toward the development of a Chinese multi-culturalism while Yung in Hong Kong, and sensitive to the political discomfort, tries to represent Chinese culture in ways that do not subsume Hong Kong’s identity (p. 46). Chih-yu Shih and Celine Yi-Chin Lee therefore identify two comparable agendas of Chineseness that emerge: “The first agenda deal with how we are Chinese as a community. The second agenda involve how we are each Chinese in our own way” (p. 47).

A particularly interesting development in terms of Chineseness in Southeast Asia, is in the context of Malaysia. In Malaysia, the conflation of ethnic and religious identities, particularly that of Malay and Muslim, has long historical and political roots (p. 78). Thus, Muslims of various ethnic origins, such as Indians and Arabs, are able to claim Malay ethnicity through their shared faith of Islam. Yet, and despite the Chinese being the second largest ethnic group in Malaysia, Chinese Muslims living in Malaysia were generally not able to also make the claim of being Malay (p. 78). Author Pei-Chien Wu explains that especially in the 1970s, the Chinese control of the Malaysian economy, and the subsequent threat felt by the Malays, put the two communities in constant tension, and ultimately also lead to the boundaries of the two communities being strictly maintained (p. 78). In recent years however, social changes including the rise of Islamic modernity, civil rights, and the widespread prevalence and use of information technology, have allowed for the decoupling of identities and also provide for more flexibility in the exercise of being Chinese Muslim in Malaysia (p. 79). Yet, “[a]t the same time as Islam is gradually being considered a universal religion that encompasses all cultures, a space has [also] emerged for Chinese Muslims to demonstrate their cultural identity without the risk of contravening or undermining their Muslim status” (p. 79). Pei-Chien Wu explains that “[t]he identity of the Chinese converts may be interpreted differently by the Malays and by the converts themselves, that is, ‘Malay’ and ‘Muslim’, respectively, but as long as it is not expressed explicitly and exclusively, both sides are usually content with the ambiguous but amicable relationship between them” (p. 82). Nevertheless, this need to maintain a Chinese identity always comes second to the desire of Chinese Muslims to build and consolidate their newly acquired Muslim identity, maybe, in part, because of the rejection they encounter from their Chinese social circle (p. 79). Another interesting observation made by Pei-Chien Wu during her fieldwork conducted between 2008 and 2009 in the State of Penang, Malaysia, is that many Chinese converts claim that they have learned more about their Chinese culture after having converted to Islam: “Before they converted to Islam, everything Chinese was taken for granted, and they had no incentive to know more about the culture. However, once they had become Muslim, they soon realised that an understanding of the Chinese culture was necessary. [For example] [a] problem Chinese converts often encounter is whether certain Chinese cultural practices go against Islamic teachings. Take Chinese New Year…whether it is a religious event or a ‘pure’ cultural celebration is a constant matter for debate” (p. 87).

This book certainly offers valuable food for thought to all those interested in identity politics in Southeast and East Asia. However, given that the content of this book was previously published as a special edition of the journal Asian Ethnicity (January 2015), it is regrettable that the editor and the contributors did not make the effort with this re-publication to ensure that language and grammar errors, although minor, are rectified. Moreover, while the title of the book promises an analysis of Chineseness in Southeast Asia, the primary focus is actually on Chineseness in Singapore, with only Chapter Four introducing Chineseness in Thailand, and Chapter Five focusing on the Chinese Muslim identity in Penang, Malaysia. Chapters Three and Six juxtaposes the Singaporean Chineseness with Hong Kong, the latter which technically does not form part of Southeast Asia.

Despite these shortcomings, editor Chih-yu Shih and the authors of Re-producing Chineseness in Southeast Asia: Scholarship and identity in comparative perspectives provide the reader with more than just a critical reflection on the nature of Chineseness and sinicization in Southeast Asia. On a more general level, the authors of this book also succeed in destabilizing and dislocating identity from fixed locales, reminding us of how different encounters impact on self-other relations, and how identity is ultimately not a fixed, essentialist and absolute marker, but a mere fleeting dimension that is constantly being renegotiated and rearticulated, both individually and collectively, and also across place and time.


Suggested Citation:

Dr. Andra le Roux-Kemp (2017), Review of “Re-producing Chineseness in Southeast Asia – Scholarship and identity in comparative perspectives”, by Chih-yu Shih (ed.), East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 10, no. 6.