Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in
Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature

By Brian Bernards

Reviewed by Alison M. Groppe
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2017)

Brian C. Bernards. Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015. 288 pp. ISBN: 9780295995014 (Hardcover: $50.00).

Brian C. Bernards. Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015. 288 pp. ISBN: 9780295995014 (Hardcover: $50.00).

Over the last decade or so, the field of Sinophone studies has witnessed impressive growth, thanks in no small part to Brian Bernards, an editor of and contributor to the essential Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader (Columbia University Press, 2013). Bernards’s most recent and substantial contribution to the field of Sinophone and modern Chinese literary and cultural studies—and, indeed, to postcolonial studies, ethnic studies, and Southeast Asian studies, among others—comes in the form of a well-researched, dense yet eloquent book called Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature. As its title suggests, the book focuses on what is variously called “the Nanyang imagination” and the “South Seas trope” or “Nanyang trope” that takes shape in predominantly, but not exclusively, Sinophone literary writings produced in the Southeast Asian (or Southeast Asian and Taiwan) context. A critical writing and re-writing of the Nanyang term characterizes the book from the start. It is not just the authors he studies who write and rewrite the Nanyang, in other words, but Bernards himself who, as he defines and expands on the concept, similarly discovers its theoretical fecundity.

As Bernards makes clear from the start—and as many readers will already know—the Chinese term Nanyang literally means the “South Seas” and conventionally refers to the region of Southeast Asia, comprised of what are now Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines. It is the book’s identification and highlighting of para-geographical features of Nanyang, as literary device and imaginary, however, that comprises one of its primary contributions. First and foremost, Bernards introduces Nanyang literary texts from multiple time periods, geographical sites, and languages, the majority of which have received scant, if any, attention in English-language scholarship. By examining these fictional works together, Bernards demonstrates the relevance, significance, and power of the Nanyang trope to constitute and convey shared histories of migration, creolization, and relations to the environment:

Like the Chinese sojourners and settlers in Southeast Asia themselves, the literary trope of the Nanyang crosses colonial, national, and linguistic borders to express cultural affiliation through the multiple trajectories of migration and creolization. Authors evoke the Nanyang to explore divergent migratory itineraries and relations to the dynamic environment of this tropical region [….] and endow the Nanyang with creative cultural, political, and ecological significance (8).

Bernards frames the Nanyang and demonstrates its theoretical possibilities by tapping into sources from a variety of traditions and disciplines. For example, he traces appearances of the Nanyang in Chinese imperial dictionaries and in texts that recount the famous voyages of Zheng He (1371-1433), the palace eunuch and admiral whose missions did the most to introduce the Nanyang in China (15-20). Yet it is not through the early history of exploratory, commercial, diplomatic, or other oceanic exchanges between the Chinese mainland and the Nanyang that Bernards explores the South Seas. Rather, it is via the concepts of archipelago and creolization that he persuasively demonstrates the significance of the Nanyang as space, place, imaginary and literary device. In his not-to-be-skipped preface, Bernards skillfully delineates the history of Chinese migration that informs the narratives under discussion. He emphasizes that the Nanyang does not just connote a desirable destination for Chinese sojourners and settlers, it also “maps a network—an archipelago—of cultural, political, and economic exchange” (x).

In his Introduction, Bernards cites the work of Francophone Martinican writer Edouard Glissant, whose writings help to show how the “archipelagic imagination” privileges “contact, exchange, heterogeneity, and creolization instead of racial, ethnic, or linguistic uniformity and singularity” (13). Such ideas give rise to Bernards’ understanding of the Nanyang as “an archipelagic trope of symbiotic, interdependent relations” that “defies demands for uniformity, homogeneity, and dependency based on racial, ethnic, or linguistic criteria” (19). Bernards handles creolization similarly, first tracing how scholars like Benedict Anderson and Françoise Lionnet have defined and examined the phenomenon before describing its relevance to the Nanyang: “As a postcolonial literary trope, the Nanyang is a natural illustration of creolization that reframes the category of the ‘Chinese diaspora’ as a network of variable cultural relations in Southeast Asia” (22). Significantly, in this book the notions of archipelago and creolization prove more integral to the Nanyang than those of “Chineseness”: “As a literary trope, the Nanyang is not a singular ‘Chinese’ motif, but one that traces archipelagic routes of Sinophone creolization, which ‘write back’ to that idea of totality” (23).

Bernards addresses the diversity inherent in his project from the start of his Introduction, which begins with epigraphs taken from four texts that represent “specific moments, contexts and articulations . . . in the evolution of the Nanyang, the ‘South Seas,’ as a postcolonial literary trope of Chinese travel, migration, settlement, and creolization in Southeast Asia” (3). The first passage comes from a 1939 newspaper editorial written by Yu Dafu shortly after he arrived in Singapore; it represents Chapters 1 and 2, in which Bernards examines the “South Seas”-focused travel-fiction and essay-writing of Yu Dafu along with other New Literature authors who traveled from China to the Nanyang in the early part of the twentieth century: Xu Dishan, Xu Zhimo, and Lao She.

In Chapter 1, Bernards examines depictions of the Nanyang in texts by Xu Zhimo and Xu Dishan, proposing that these texts’ emphases on travel, routes, and travelers’ subjectivities succeed in critiquing the conditions of colonial modernity and are imbued with a “discrepant cosmopolitanism” important for broadening the China-West-Japan worldview associated with the New Literature’s enlightenment mission (24). In Chapter 2, Bernards analyzes texts by Lao She and Yu Dafu to reveal how their Nanyang portrayals can be read as condemnations of ethno-nationalism in China and Southeast Asia. Besides demonstrating the Nanyang’s significance for early twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals (as a group), these chapters offer valuable new insights into the works, lives, and critical imaginations of canonical authors.

The second epigraph presented in the Introduction comes from a 2001 short story (“Back Inscriptions”) by Ng Kim Chew and is keyed to Chapters 3 and 4, which treat the fiction of Sinophone Malaysian writing from Taiwan, specifically that written by authors Ng Kim Chew, Chang Kuei-hsing, and Pan Yutong, who received Sinophone educations growing up in Malaysia, then went to Taiwan for university education.[1] In these chapters the emergence of what is called a “transnational Sinophone Malaysian literature” is aptly described as having been, on the one hand, pressured by an“exclusionary, hierarchical multiculturalism in postcolonial Malaysia” and, on the other, “sustained and replenished through economic, educational, and cultural ties initially forged with Taiwan during the Cold War” (82). It is worth pointing out that, as the relationship is presented here, Sinophone Malaysian writings from Taiwan contribute as much to Taiwan literature as they themselves are shown to have benefited from the Taiwan literary establishment and publishing industry.

In Chapter 3, Bernards insightfully analyzes several of the most important short stories of scholar-author Ng Kim Chew, many of which have recently been made available in English thanks to Carlos Rojas, editor and translator of a recently-published collection of Ng’s short stories called Slow Boat to China and Other Stories (Columbia University Press, 2016). Invoking Ng’s fiction as an example of a “Taiwan-based practice” of Sinophone Malaysian literature that invents a “creolized aesthetics of Malaysianness” (106), Bernards explains how Ng’s scholarly expertise allows him to develop metafictional techniques that interrogate Sinophone Malaysian literary history and critique conventional notions of “Chineseness,” diaspora, and assimilation. Bernards’s keen sensitivity to the intricate histories and politics of colonial Malaya, postcolonial Malaysia, and Taiwan that are woven into Ng’s highly referential short stories make this chapter a particularly useful study of this increasingly-important author. In Chapter 4, Bernards explores an “ecopoetic” mode of Sinophone Malaysian writing from Taiwan manifested in texts set in Borneo’s incredibly diverse but increasingly endangered rainforest. Contextualizing these works of “rainforest modernism” by authors Pan Yutong and Chang Kuei-hsing within recent developments in Taiwan literature, Bernards points out how both authors “evoke Borneo as an island trope of the South Seas in a way that blends the abstract, melancholic longing and psychological distance of the China trope in Taiwan modernism with the engaged cultural, political, and ecocritical agenda of Taiwanese nativist writing” (115). This chapter offers a fine example of ecocriticism; furthermore, in addition to considering texts by Chang Kuei-hsing, whose remarkable fiction has already received considerable attention (in English and Chinese), it also interprets the work of Pan Yutong, who writes prolifically and is critically-acclaimed in Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan, but whose work has yet to receive sustained attention from scholars outside of the region or in English-language scholarship.

The Introduction’s third and fourth epigraphs accentuate the translingual dimensions of Bernards’ project and further distinguish an already very impressive book. Representing Chapter 5, the third emanates from a 1992 Anglophone Singaporean novel by Christine Suchen Lim, A Fistful of Colours. In this chapter, Bernards discusses Lim’s novel alongside Sinophone Singaporean fiction written by Yeng Pway Ngon and Chia Joon Ming against the backdrop of Singapore’s official policy of multiracialism. Traceable back to Singapore’s colonial history, it classifies Singaporeans according to “race”: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and “Other.” Bernards calls attention to both Anglophone and Sinophone Singaporean authors whose texts rewrite the Nanyang trope in order to challenge this “multiracial logic” and counter essentialist notions of Singaporean-Chinese identities (140). Representing Chapter 6, the fourth epigraph comes from a popular Thai-language novel, Through the Pattern of the Dragon (1989), which invokes the Nanyang in the course of presenting a narrative of Sinophone (Teochew) immigration to and integration in Thailand. Like Chapter 5, this chapter demonstrates the Nanyang trope’s relevance for multiple linguistic communities within a single nation, as Bernards argues that in both Sinophone Thai and Thai-language popular novels, authors’ invocation of the “South Seas trope” suggests that Sino-Thai integration, contrary to conventional understandings, is “neither a process of complete assimilation nor bicultural accommodation, but rather the production of more than one creole space” (175, original emphasis). Not only does this chapter provide one of the very few English-language treatments of Sinophone Thai literature and literary history, it also showcases Bernards’s unique ability to analyze both Sinophone and Thai-language literary texts in their original languages as well as point out instances when Sinophone texts strategically deploy “Thai Teochew” phraseology that alludes to the “Swatow-Bangkok [migration] corridor” and constructs its own site of Sino-Thai creolization (180-181).

Among Writing the South Seas‘ many strengths are the perceptive, persuasive, and well-contextualized literary analyses it offers, but, like many texts that deal with long marginalized or difficult to access literary texts, Writing the South Seas often relies on extensive plot summaries to illustrate its points. Some readers may find these challenging, though others will appreciate the thorough representation of the texts under discussion. Another challenge posed by the project’s very nature is the diversity of sites covered. While this reader appreciated the meticulous historical expositions that paved the way for each chapter’s literary analysis, others might prefer more brevity or slightly less detail in this regard. These are minor quibbles, however. In Writing the South Seas, Bernards brilliantly illuminates and argues for the significance of the Nanyang imagination and the “South Seas” trope—not just in the literary texts under discussion, but also, as the book’s Conclusion proposes, in audiovisual texts—such as a hit Singaporean TV serial drama as well as the filmmaking of auteurs like Tsai Ming-liang, Eric Khoo and Royston Tan—and in literary works from countries like Indonesia and the Philippines (191-95). A must-read for literary scholars interested in broadening their horizons, Writing the South Seas will no doubt inspire much important future work in these directions.

Alison M. Groppe
University of Oregon


[1] Ng Kim Chew and Pan Yutong were both born in West Malaysia; Chang Kuei-hsing was born in Sarawak on the island of Borneo. All three authors went to Taiwan for university. Ng and Chang both still live in Taiwan. Pan received a PhD in the natural sciences from Oklahoma State University and now lives in Malaysia.