Siting Postcoloniality:
Critical Perspectives from the East Asian Sinosphere

Edited by Pheng Cheah and Caroline S. Hau

Reviewed by Kyle Shernuk

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2023)

Pheng Cheah and Caroline S. Hao, eds., Siting Postcoloniality: Critical Perspectives from the East Asian Sinosphere Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022, xii + 331 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4780-1668-7 (cloth) / ISBN: 978-1-4780-1931-2 (paper) / eISBN: 978-1-4780-2395-1 (e-book).

Siting Postcoloniality: Critical Perspectives from the East Asian Sinosphere is an engaging volume that successfully expands our understanding of Postcolonial and East Asian studies, as well as these two fields’ many points of intersection. In his “Introduction,” Pheng Cheah traces the history of postcolonialism as a field and demonstrates how the histories of dynastic China, Republican China, and the People’s Republic of China are largely incompatible with existing models. In the East Asian context, Cheah identifies how individuals often changed subject positions over time, with the colonized becoming the colonizer or perhaps occupying both roles at once. He rightly argues that this reality challenges “two fundament axioms of postcolonial studies: the correlation of West and non-West with the opposition of colonizer and colonized and the power of colonial discourse as an ideology and technology of subjectification” (8). After rehearsing twentieth-century Chinese history and identifying the “semantic flexibility and referential elasticity” of the terms “Chinese” and “colonialism” (13), he articulates the volume’s two additional theoretical contributions. First, the volume exposes how the “mechanical application of Orientalist discourse analysis exaggerates the continuing hold of Western colonialism over the present”; second, it demonstrates that the “PRC’s position as a global hegemon is arguably secured at the infrastructural and ideological levels by networks and cultural resources that predate Western colonialism” (19). Importantly, this volume situates East Asia within prevailing debates of postcoloniality that simultaneously links it to postcolonial studies in other regions of the world.

“Part I: Framing the Postcolonial” contains two chapters addressing the concept of postcoloniality itself. Chapter 1, “Mythmaking: The Nomos of Postcoloniality,” by Robert J. C. Young, is the most anomalous entry and a strange choice for opening the volume because it makes no effort to connect its discussion of postcolonialism to the Sinosphere. The chapter also quickly alienates non-Francophone readers by introducing its argument through an analysis of various editions of Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to my Native Land and its predecessor texts, providing only the French original in-text and relegating the English to footnotes (33 and 51); in a volume devoted to analyzing colonial legacies, it’s unfortunate to present such Eurocentrism on page one of the opening chapter. Young’s subsequent argument, however, presents a compelling case for why we should be weary of Carl Schmitt and his theory of colonialism. Analyzing the historical and social contexts in which Schmitt wrote, Young demonstrates that Schmitt’s theory of colonialism was meant to justify Eurocentrism and, later, Germany’s rise, not to liberate or empower colonized peoples (45). Chapter 2, “On Twenty-First-Century Postcolonialism,” by Dai Jinhua—skillfully translated by Erebus Wong and Lisa Rofel—describes how “cultural theory, including postcolonial discourse, has lost its political basis in reality, becoming debilitated and even losing its momentum as effective social practice” (59). She argues that colonialism in the twenty-first century has been transformed into a kind of trope detached from the original practice, even as colonial-style economic practices have extended colonial relationships into the present moment.

“Part II: Chinese Socialist Postcoloniality” includes two entries that focus on the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chapter 3, “Who Owns Social Justice: Permanent Revolution, the Chinese Gorky, and the Postcolonial,” by Wendy Larson, continues Dai’s proposal to interrogate the mission and potential of postcolonialism as a literary and intellectual movement. Advancing a tripartite argument, she demonstrates that the Maoist idea of “continuous revolution” suggests that “social change could result from evolving thought and ideas as well as from material development” (85), which emerges out of the 1930s debates about typicality in socialist literature between Zhou Yang 周杨 and Hu Feng 胡风, themselves inspired by Russian writer Maxim Gorky. Larson closes with a discussion of postcoloniality and its mission, which she concludes has tried to force the issue of its transformative, political relevance in such a way that is not only unsuccessful, but also has backfired by assigning too much power to culture and, in turn, displaced a materialist focus on labor and class. Chapter 4, “De-Sovietization and Internationalism: The People’s Republic of China’s Alternative Modernity Project,” by Pang Laikwan, summarizes the PRC’s split with the Soviet Union and rise of a Maoist Third World. She focuses on the issue of modernity as a manifestation of postcolonial discourse and describes the Maoist project as one that unintentionally reifies modernist discourse. While a deeply informative summary of historical events, the chapter lacks a robust discussion of postcoloniality itself. Instead, it takes postcoloniality as a given and suggests that it could be a “helpful tool” in temporalizing discourses of modernity rather than focusing on its spatialization, which is what she contends Maoist and other failed “alternatives” have done. Although a provocative conclusion, it is not paired with any further rumination on the issue and leaves the reader wanting to know more.

“Part III: Hong Kong Postcoloniality among the British, Japanese, and Chinese Empires” comprises three chapters that center on different aspects of Hong Kong’s postcolonial experience(s). Chapter 5, “From Manchukuo to Hong Kong: Postcolonializing Asian Colonial Experiences,” by Lo Kwai-Cheung, provides an historical account of “postcolonizing” practices in Manchuria and Hong Kong. Coining the term “postcolonize” to bring attention to the role of governance in the postcolonial experience, the chapter provides an informative historical introduction to colonial practices in Manchuria under Japanese rule and a new lens for understanding the complex nature of the region’s history. The latter part of the chapter then describes postwar Hong Kong’s postcolonial trajectory, but its connection to the central argument is less clearly articulated. Regardless, it is a valuable resource that synthesizes a wide range of relevant resources and presents them in an innovative manner. Chapter 6, “Decolonization? What Decolonization?: Hong Kong’s Political Transition,” by Lui Tai-lok, analyzes how the PRC developed the “One Country, Two System” (OCTS) resolution to the British handover of Hong Kong, as well as the many shortcomings in the OCTS planning that have led to political disputes between local Hong Kongers and the PRC government in recent decades. It is an excellent narrative history with a light interpretive touch, which makes it an excellent resource for teaching. Chapter 7, “Locating Anglophone Writing in Sinophone Hong Kong,” by Elaine Yee Lin Ho, asks “how Anglophone Hong Kong writing can be read . . . as profoundly engaged with telling the story of place” (149). Analyzing a range of Anglophone writings by Western colonial, PRC, and native Hong Kong writers, Ho stitches together an Anglophone literary history of the place known as Hong Kong. The chapter also tries to think through how “a representation of Hong Kong in English can possibly develop traction as ‘local’” (154), but leaves unresolved the difference between “Hong Kong Literature” and “Literature about Hong Kong” and, consequently, loses some of its persuasiveness. For example, although W. H. Auden’s writing certainly generates a vision of Hong Kong as a place, why such writing should be considered “local” or what is gained from doing so remains unclear. The later examples, from Hong Kong natives Tammy Ho 何麗明 and Arthur Sai-cheong Leung 梁 世 聰 are more compelling, but could use further elaboration for non-Hong Kong specialists. While I agree with Ho that we need to “construe and explain the historical movements between” works such as those by Auden and Leung (164), the analysis provided does not sufficiently explicate such movements.

“Part IV: Taiwan Postcoloniality between Japanese and Chinese Colonialisms” contains two chapters. Chapter 8, “The Slippage between Empires: The Production of the Colonized Subject in Taiwan,” by Lin Pei-yin, offers an excellent survey of Taiwan literature from the Japanese colonial period to the present. Taking postcolonial to cover all things impacted in a society since the moment of its colonization (172), she describes the development of a Taiwan consciousness at different stages, from Japanese colonialism to the Nationalist takeover in 1945, and later the impacts of US neocolonialism on Taiwan society and culture. A comprehensive review of the major names and movements in Taiwan literature, it will also make for an effective teaching resource. Chapter 9, “Questions of Postcolonial Agency: Two Film Examples from Taiwan,” by Liao Ping-hui, addresses a wide range of issues, from democratic norms and the Black Lives Matter movement to the post-truth age and religion. The core of the chapter focuses on the rise of Buddhism in contemporary Taiwan society and its function as a justification for a wide range of morally abhorrent behaviors, which Liao demonstrates through insightful analyses of Huang Hsin-yao’s 黃信堯 Great Buddha Plus (+) (大佛普拉斯) and Yang Ya-che’s 楊雅喆 The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (血觀音). Perhaps due to its breadth, however, the chapter seems written out of order at times; although it later introduces the necessary background, it begins by presuming a level of familiarity with a number of Buddhist persons and sects in Taiwan that may make the intervention unclear for some readers.

“Part V: Diasporas in East and Southeast Asian Postcoloniality” concludes the volume with three chapters, including one from each of the volume’s co-editors. Chapter 10, “Sinophone Geopoetics: From Postcolonialism to Postloyalism,” by David Der-wei Wang, argues against Shu-mei Shih’s theory of the Sinophone by expanding a long-standing argument of Wang’s regarding the concept of postloyalism, which he defines with a postmodernist twist as “the (renewed) beginning rather than the end of a desired history” (218). Offering three examples drawn from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, Wang describes how Sinophone subjects of various national and cultural affinities deal with the trauma of colonial legacies by embracing, rejecting, and fundamentally reimagining the past in the present, the present-that-will-become-past, and the futures-that-will-have-been. It is a compelling summary of his many previous writings on the issue, with expanded examples. Chapter 11, “Multiple Colonialisms and Their Philippine Legacies,” by Caroline S. Hau, elaborates the “vicissitudes of Filipino cosmopolitan nation making” and the role of elites as Filipinos (232) in Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels. Through a close reading of Joaquin’s novel, Hau covers the modern history of the Philippines, from entrepôt to agricultural export economy and American colony. She demonstrates the central role of Hong Kong in this history as a site for exiles and a transitory space for those who desire and/or imagine an impossible homecoming. She also makes a clear case for the Philippines as a distinct example of knowledge production separate from European colonialism and, in so doing, makes her example intervene in not only East Asian but World Literature discourses. The volume concludes with “Diasporic Worldliness in Postcolonial Globalization,” by Pheng Cheah. In this chapter, Cheah argues against the North Atlantic model of diasporic subjecthood that conflates diaspora and cosmopolitanism. Through literary case studies of failed cosmopolitan Bildung trajectories for diasporic subjects on the subordinate side of the International Division of Labor, he identifies a new kind of diasporic identity. This new identity is subject to the temporal regime of global capitalist modernity, which is itself the hallmark of what Cheah calls postcolonial globalization. His analysis concludes on a sanguine note, whereby writers of this new diasporic position struggle to imagine their existence beyond global capitalist temporalities but still desire a return to a pre-capitalist time or “original worldliness,” in which he finds the seeds of hope for a new future.

While no edited volume can aspire to “complete” coverage, the title of the volume suggests a range of content that it does not contain. In the “Introduction,” Cheah defines the Sinosphere as “the region of East and Southeast Asia that has been significantly shaped by relations with various dynasties of the Middle Kingdom and the republican and communist regimes of modern China” (5). This suggests that the volume might include studies about historical Sinitic influences or contemporary studies about the lingering or residual impact of such Sinitic influence in places such as the Korean peninsula, Japan, and Vietnam; it does not. I am in favor of the expanded definition of “Sinosphere” proposed by Cheah and think that our knowledge of Sino-experiences is enhanced through such an approach, but there is little coverage of East Asia beyond the typical triad (China, Japan, and Korea), barring Hau’s excellent case study of the Philippines. There is also a notable lack of engagement with the situations of ethnic minorities and Indigenous populations throughout the Sinosphere, who are typically among the primary targets of colonial enterprises and also serve as key agents in the production of postcolonial experiences. While Cheah notes that the cases of Tibetans and Uyghurs fall “beyond the scope of this volume” (13), they should not, and neither should Formosan Austronesians (raised briefly in Lin’s chapter). Their inclusion would have expanded the volume’s engagement with and rethinking of race and ethnicity in the East Asian and Sino-contexts, in turn offering new perspectives on core issues of postcolonial studies.

Overall, this is a strong volume that both augments existing discourses and suggests new possibilities for postcolonial studies across a portion of the Sinosphere. Despite the gaps in coverage (notable only given the volume’s titular ambitions), the clarity and quality of writing is, on the whole, excellent, and chapters are either accessible as introductory pieces to specific topics or make clear and compelling intellectual contributions to their relevant fields.

Kyle Shernuk
Georgetown University