The Cultural Turn in the Study of Modern Chinese
Literature: Rey Chow and Diasporic Self-Writing

By Li-fen Chen

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, pp.43-80

This essay examines the historical and political significance of a recent reorientation in Chinese literary studies from the ontological imperative to culture-specific ways of thinking. With the decline of East-West comparative literature discipline, to hisoricize and reconstruct the Chinese experience of modernity. As the privileging of the West as the standard of values associated with modernity has met with resistance globally, this critique of Eurocentrism in Chinese studies is further complicated by the reassessment of the very notion of Chineseness. The view from the diaspora, in its emphasis on the particular and the multifarious, has forcefully challenged Chinese essentialism and opened up intellectual spaces for the active contestation of meanings with political and cultural implications.

As positionality is key to this new mode of intellectual practice that has significantly effected a methodological and ideological shift in Chinese studies, this essay argues for the importance of understanding differenct versions of scholarly self-representation in terms of premises, orientations, and strategic deployments, as well as different contexts that have produced them. Through the example of Rey Chow, whose polemical and repeated exposure of marginality dramatizes the radicalness of a postcolonial/diasporic position, the article contextualizes postcoloinal criticism as a site for the enactment of anxiety and wishfulfilment of critics in coming to terms with their cultural and professional identities. Chow’s criticism represents the development in the China field that has come to theorize, in both content and form, a subaltern position as an alternative to the nation-centered theory of Chinese literature and culture.

By examining one of the most important critical voices in modern Chinese literary studies today, this essay addresses the complex issues of identity constructions under the rubric of “Chinese diaspora,” in particular, the ideological and cultural difficulty in the current Hong Kong situation. It attempts to bring to light the emancipatory potential as well as ironies of diapsoric discourses, in short, the complexity of postcolonial self-positioning both within and against the dominant cultures.