Visuality and Identity:
Sinophone Articulations Across the Pacific

By Shu-mei Shih

Reviewed by Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2008)

Shu-mei Shih. Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations Across the Pacific. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. xii + 243 pp. ISBN: 978-0-520-22451-3 (cloth); ISBN: 978-0-520-24944-8 (paper)

Shu-mei Shih. Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations Across the Pacific. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. xii + 243 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-520-22451-3 (cloth); ISBN: 978-0-520-24944-8 (paper)

This new book is a study of contemporary visual culture (film, television, art) in Chinese-dialect using communities outside mainland China and inside Asia Pacific: Taiwan, Hong Kong, and America. It proposes the term “Sinophone” to describe and demarcate this vast zone of cultural production and circulation. It reconfirms the primacy of visuality in the construction of identities and subjectivities across national borders in the age of global capitalism.[1] Once again, Shu-mei Shih deserves our admiration for writing a book filled with illuminating insights and rich details. She astutely navigates a series of complicated issues with theoretical sophistication and analytic rigor. Although the writing style is occasionally repetitive and inconsistent, overall the book breaks new ground by making a forceful argument about what is called the “Sinophone.” In publishing this provocative book, the author has created an opportunity for any serious reader to enter into a fruitful, honest dialogue on a number of important issues.

Right in the first sentence of the book (“Acknowledgments,” p. xi), the author clearly spells out the intellectual origin of the book. Her colleague’s work in Francophone studies inspired her to launch “Sinophone studies” as a new field of inquiry. By using this colonial European paradigm on pan-Chinese materials, the strengths and weaknesses of the book become equally clear right in the beginning. The Francophone (or Francophonie) denotes cultural production in French-speaking colonies outside the sovereign state of France. Hence, Francophone cinema and literature do not include French cinema and literature. This usage of the Francophone is different from the notion of the Anglophone in terms of inclusiveness. The Anglophone includes all English-speaking places such as the USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, and Malaysia, and does not exclude Britain.

Shih follows the model of the Francophone in the demarcation of the Sinophone. The Sinophone is defined as “a network of places of cultural production outside China and on the margins of China and Chineseness, where a historical process of heterogenizing and localizing of continental Chinese culture has been taking place for several centuries” (p. 4). “The Sinophone, therefore, maintains a precarious and problematic relation to China, similar to the Francophone’s relation to France. . .” (p. 30). The Sinophone is a counter-hegemonic formation against China-centrism and a deconstruction of essentializing notions of “China” and “Chineseness.” The exclusion of China itself from the domain of the Sinophone may seem liberating and progressive at first glance in academic discourse; but ultimately, this is unsound theoretically and inaccurate empirically. A major theme throughout Shih’s book is the ineluctable condition of transnationality in the Sinophone region at the present historical juncture. But does transnationality only gather momentum in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and stops short of crossing the Chinese border? The transnational is by definition border-crossing. China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora are mutually imbricated in the globalizing world. The concept of “Sinophone” loses its critical edge in this exclusionary approach to China and the Chinese diaspora. If we have to use this imperfect label, the Sinophone would include all Chinese-speaking communities in the world, including, not excluding, China itself.[2]

The Francophone/Sinophone analogy is heuristic and insightful in some respect, but misleading and imprecise in other ways. China is indeed the ancestral home of numerous Chinese-dialect using settlers around the world, whereas France is not the ancestral home of French-speaking people in its former colonies in Africa, the Middle East, Latin American, and Indochina. The Chinese diaspora speaks of varieties of Chinese dialects (Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Shanghainese, etc.) not because of forced colonial education in the way the French language was imposed on the indigenous population during colonization. The concept of Sinophone works in the case that Mandarin was imposed on the local population of Taiwan during the Kuomindang rule.

Chinese-language cultural production expands and spreads across regional and territorial borders in the pan-Chinese region and globally. Certain terms have been commonly used and accepted to indicate those modes of transnational, translocal production: Huayu dianying (Chinese-language cinema), Huayu yinyue (Chinese-language music), Huawen wenxue and Zhongwen wenxue (Chinese-language literature). China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora are thoroughly intertwined in such Chinese-language cultural production and consumption. But the idea of the Sinophone would artificially divide Chinese-language expressions between China, on the one hand, and whatever is outside China, on the other hand. This model would not work if we look at specific cases. For instance, Is Jin Yong, the most popular Hong Kong-based novelist in the pan-Chinese world, a Sinophone writer? Are his martial-arts novels anti-Chinese Sinophone novels?

The Introduction begins with an interesting account of the author’s and Taiwanese audience’s experience of viewing Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in Taiwan. The mixing of heavily accented Mandarin spoken by the actors and actresses from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia sounds strange to the ear of the local audience, and breaks the conventional illusion of the fourth wall–namely, cinematic verisimilitude. Shih seizes the moment in rightfully arguing that this phenomenon illustrates the heterogeneous, heteroglossic nature of the Sinophone world. Chapter 1, “Globalization and Minoritization,” also discusses Ang Lee’s films, among other things. In Shih’s analytic framework, Ang Lee’s films constitute a major instance of Sinophone cultural production hailing from Taiwan and America. However, the problem with this narrow definition of the Sinophone is that it only looks at the national/diasporic identity of Ang Lee, the director, and ignores the transnational composition of his films. The very films that Shih analyzes, such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, involve the participation of many sources, including China (Zhang Ziyi, China Film Co-Production Company, Chinese locations of shooting, etc.). It is difficult to say when and where China begins and ends in the frequent cultural co-productions in the pan-Chinese area of the mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. And to be theoretically consistent, we may ask how Ang Lee’s films exactly resist China-centrism? Take other examples: Are the films of Wong Kar-wai, Jackie Chan, Stanley Kwan, and John Woo China-centric, or Sinophone?

Chapter 2, “A Feminist Transnationality,” takes up the artworks of Liu Hung, who immigrated from China to America. Shih explores four prominent themes in her works: feminist antagonism against Chinese patriarchy, liberal antagonism against the Maoist state, antagonism of a minority subject, and antagonism against the western gaze. Shih urges the reader to notice the fine distinction between her notion of “feminist transnationality” and what was known as “transnational feminism” or “transnational feminist practice.”

Chapter 3, “The Geopolitics of Desire,” discusses a host of intriguing issues and phenomena, such as the trafficking of mainland Chinese women in Taiwan and Hong Kong. “Mainland sisters” (dalumei) have been lured to Taiwan to work as prostitutes. Some of these women also live with rich married Hong Kong businessmen and produce children with them. Shih’s discussion is highly interesting and engaging. But a problem occurs when we switch critical frames of reference. It is customary in American cultural studies to speak of a divide between the metropolitan centers of the West and the vernacular backwater of the Third World. The Third World native attempts to shake off or absorb the cultural and material dominance of the former colonial masters. But let’s pause a moment as we take a closer look at this “geopolitics of desire”–namely, the phenomenon of mainland Chinese women becoming the prey of Taiwanese and Hong Kongese sex predators. Who are the haves and have-nots? Subsisting in the primitive villages of Sichuan and Hunan, or toiling in the antiquarian factories of Northeastern China (Dongbei), Hong Kong and Taipei look more like metropolitan centers. In other words, it is the Sinophone world that would be the source and site of the exploitation and debasement of women. Again, the theoretical divide between the counter-hegemonic Sinophone Pacific and the domineering nation-state of China loses explanatory power. A more flexible and inclusive depiction of the global and regional libidinal economy is in order.[3]

Chapter 4 “The Incredible Heaviness of Ambiguity” traces the ambiguous geopolitical and cultural identity of Taiwan, and describes Taiwan’s search for a viable relationship with mainland China in its TV programs. Chapter 5 “After National Allegory” probes into Hong Kong’s sense of its own identity, and analyzes the films of Hong Kong independent director Fruit Chan such as Made in Hong Kong, Little Cheung, and The Longest Summer. Shih also ventures beyond film by looking at other mediums–a book of design and fashion and an archeological exhibition–in order to demonstrate Hong Kong’s complex relationship to the mainland.

Chapter 6 “Cosmopolitanism among Empires” looks at the difficult subject position of the Taiwanese people as the island is sandwiched between two great empires: China and the US. Shih singles out the Taiwanese woman artist Wu Mali as a “minor transnationlist artist” (p. 182) and an exemplary expression of “vernacular cosmopolitanism.” Wu “refuses the strategies of national allegory in transnational consumption” (p. 180). Commenting on the problems of current critical fashions, the author perceptively points out that “decades of postcolonial studies have flaunted binaric, Manichean models of criticism privileging a model of resistance and containment” (p. 171). Is this a self-ironic comment? A central organizing principle of the book is precisely an overarching binarism between China-centrism and the resistant Sinophone.

The “Conclusion” wraps up the main points of the book, with this ending note: “When Sinophone expressive cultures become complicit with China-centrism, they lose their articulatory function as the fulcrum of resistant and transformative identities” (p. 192). There seems to be only one proper function for the Sinophone: resisting China. If it does not do this job, it is bad. Once again, my question is: what is China? Or what is China-centrism? Is it the sheer dominant size of the landmass and population? Is it the government’s policy toward Taiwan and Hong Kong? Is it how language and dialects are used on a daily basis by the Chinese people? Are 1.3 billion people one monolithic entity? What is the relationship between, say, a Minnanese-dialect user in Fujian Province, and China-centrism? Does this particular dialect-user under direct Chinese rule within the Chinese nation-state feel less frustrated (and angry) than the Sinophone (Taiyu) user from across the Straits?

It is easy for us academics to juggle abstract notions of “China” and Chineseness” as theoretical problems. What about the concrete day-to-day reality of “Chinese people,” as many as 1.3 billion of them, who inhabit mainland China? There are speakers of all sorts of languages and dialects throughout China: Tibetans, Mongolians, Uighurs, Kazaks, Sichuanese, Shanghainese, Hunanese. . . . The list goes on and on. What is the linguistic politics among these speakers, and between them and the Sinophone?

I understand, admire, and sympathize with the subject position and aspirations of the minor transnationalist artist or critic, especially if her/his locale of struggle is situated between giant superpowers. Hence, it is all the more important to form an inter-Chinese, trans-Chinese, pan-Sinophone, regional, and global solidarity among all subalterns, proletarians, rebels, and progressive people, above and beyond fragmented identity politics. Minor transnationalism is limiting in its self-styled cosmopolitanism, and a bit too timid in political agency. It appears that what is urgently needed is to ponder the renewed possibility of the cosmopolitanism of major transnationalism (read: the Subject or subjects of History) in the classic Marxian sense of the Internationale. “Workers of the world, unite!”


The back cover blurb of the book says that the Sinophone Pacific “comprises Sinitic-language-speaking communities such as the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Chinese America.” Is this a printing error? Or has the author changed her mind?

Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu
University of California, Davis


[1] See Sheldon Lu, China, Transnational Visuality, Global Postmodernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001). However, I did not, and still would not, make a distinction between China and the Sinophone world. I discussed materials from both the mainland and the Chinese diaspora.

[2] See Sheldon Lu, “Dialect and Modernity in 21 st Century Sinophone Cinema,” Jump Cut no. 49 (Spring 2007). A shorter version of this essay appears as Chapter 8 in my book Chinese Modernity and Global Biopolitics: Studies in Literature and Visual Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007), pp. 150-163. See also Sheldon Lu and Emilie Yeh, “Introduction: Mapping the Field of Chinese-Language Cinema,” in Lu and Yeh, eds., Chinese-Language Film: Historiography, Poetics, Politics (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005), pp. 1-24. The term “Sinophone film” was coined on p. 4.

[3] See my “Introduction: China and the Global Biopolitical Order,” Chinese Modernity and Global Biopolitics, pp. 1-19.