The Dilemma of Postcolonial Criticism in Contemporary China

By Kuan, Zhang | ARIEL, January 2009 | Go to article overview

The Dilemma of Postcolonial Criticism in Contemporary China


Kuan, Zhang, ARIEL


I. Background

Postcolonial criticism in the Chinese context has become too sensitive, almost irrational and sometimes even dangerous, particularly after the publication of Zhongguo keyi shuo bu [China That Can Say No] and Yaomohua zhongguo de beihou [Behind the Demonization of China], two provocative books that sophisticatedly blend political undertones and commercial features. Unrelated to and before the publication of these two books, in the mid-1990s, I was personally involved in the debate on so-called Orientalism versus Occidentalism in Mainland China. The task of this essay is to sketch the background of this debate, to try to explain why all of a sudden postcolonial criticism became such a heated topic on the Mainland. Then 1 will go on to discuss the challenges and problems that practitioners of postcolonial criticism are facing in Western academia today. The last part is to sketch a reconsideration of my previous work on this topic and a reply to various criticisms my colleagues and I have received while promoting postcolonialism in China.

It is generally agreed that since the last quarter of 1993, postcolonial criticism has constituted a new trend in Mainland China, to quote a passage from the editorial of Wenhui dushu zhoubao [Wenhui Book Review Weekly] based in Shanghai, dated May 21, 1994:

  About half a year ago, most of the reading public in Mainland China
  had no idea about who Edward Said is. But ever since Dushu (Reading)
  magazine published Zhang Kuan's 'Oumeiren yanzhong de feiwozulei'
  [The Otherness in the Eyes of the Europeans and Americans] and other
  two related articles about Edward Said last September, a heated
  debate was ignited, which led to an intellectual shock. All of a
  sudden everyone is talking about Edward Said and postcolonialism. (my
  translation)

Or, to quote another passage from the Sydney-based New Asia Pacific Review:

  With over a decade of deployment as an academic trope, Orientalism
  has enjoyed an extraordinary career and has achieved the dubious
  status of an international intellectual cliche. In the case of
  Mainland China, however, Orientalism along with the deconstructive
  strategies of which it is a part, has a far more recent history, one
  that dates in particular from the early 1990s and the era of renewed
  nationalist debate. [...] One of the most energetic participants in
  this debate is Zhang Kuan, a specialist in comparative literature
  focusing on German studies. A graduate scholar in the United States,
  in recent years Zhang has been a key promoter of Edward Said's
  writings on Orientalism in the Mainland. Zhang's concerns, however,
  have not merely been those of an independent deconstructionist. His
  promotion of Western theory has been part of an evolving political
  agenda. (Barme "On Orientalism" 84)

Contrary to the claims in the foregoing passages, I was not the first one to introduce Edward Said to the Chinese reading public. (1) As a matter of fact, there were critical introductions and review essays on this very sensitive topic before September 1993 written in Chinese by well-known Chinese critics, to name a few, Chen Xiaoming, Wang Ning, Wang Yichuan, and Zhang Yiwu. Some of their works were written as early as in the late 1980s and also published in influential periodicals and academic journals such as Wenxue pinglun [Literary Review] and Wenyi yanjiu [Literature and Art Studies] in Beijing. But, as far as I know, no major responses or feedback are traceable. Aside from the works done by people in the Mainland China, there was abundant literature on or related to this topic written by overseas Chinese scholars, both in English and Chinese, for example, the debate on modern Chinese literature between Liu Kang and Zhang Longxi (English in Modern China and Chinese in Ershiyi shiji [Twenty-first Century]), Chen Xiaomei's work on Chinese Occidentalism (which was written at Stanford Humanities Centre where Edward Said completed his book Orientalism) and Lydia Liu's study of the debate on Chinese national characteristics [guomin xing] during the May Fourth Period. …

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