Indigeneity, Map-Mindedness, and
World-Literary Cartography: The Poetics and Politics of
Li Yongping’s Transregional Chinese Literary Production

By Cheow Thia Chan

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 30, no.1  (Spring 2018), pp. 63-86

Reflecting on the multi-sited production of Chinese literature, this article adapts Pascale Casanova’s Eurocentric notion of “world literary space” to envision how the expansive domain of Chinese literature can be mapped through authorial imaginaries and practices that do not assume dependency on dominant cultural centers, but instead recognize the power of transperipheral relations for literary world-making. Illustrative of what Chan calls “world literary cartography,” these exercises of geographical affiliation and disaffiliation actively conceive and materialize authors’ subjectivities that unsettle national and cultural borders.

Taking Malaysian Chinese literature in Taiwan as exemplifying this variant cartographic principle that shifts the focus away from China, this article examines the tactical dimension in naturalized Taiwanese author Li Yongping’s (李永平, 1947-2017) decision to write about his native land Borneo in the 2000s. Chan’s analysis explicates three cartographic moments in Li’s novel Where the Great River Ends (Dahe jintou) that involve the characters’ subjective apprehension of maps, which engenders the protagonist’s ambivalent sense of attachment to the Southeast Asian island. Read together, the episodes evince the way in which the author uses the trope of indigeneity to resist the ­­­prescriptive nativism of Malaysian critics and to perpetuate his cosmopolitan inclination. Ultimately, the tale communicates the projection of Li’s search for his distinctive positionality in the “world Chinese literary space” vis-à-vis his colleagues in both Malaysia and Taiwan, who are likewise invested in fashioning Borneo as a prominent literary locale. What the novel throws into relief is the simultaneous dynamic of Li’s self-positioning, which bestrides intra-national and transnational concerns. On the one hand, the interplay fuses indigenous and diasporic elements to modulate literary relations between locales marginal to the mainland state; on the other hand, it also performs nuanced calculations about sociality to produce and maintain national literary spaces from within. By channeling literary cosmopolitanism through representations of indigeneity, Li ushers the consequential politics of sub-national and transregional Chinese cultural identities into the horizon of modern Chinese literary studies alongside its recent global turn.