Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Kuo Pao Kun's Zheng He Legend and Multicultural Encounters in Singapore

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Kuo Pao Kun's Zheng He Legend and Multicultural Encounters in Singapore

Article excerpt

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Kuo Pao Kun's Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral ... (1995) (hereafter Descendants) dants) is a Singaporean play that provides intriguing perspectives on the impact of Zheng He's voyages to Southeast Asia and their relevance to the sociopolitical, cultural, and economic issues of an entrepot through a literary lens. By reappropriating the Zheng He theme, Kuo re-presents the eunuch admiral as the ancient paradigm of a modern multicultural man in an increasingly globalized and transnational world. Through storytelling, Kuo prompts people in Singapore to show a greater willingness to live together as a multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious nation. Although recurring themes of plurality are sustained throughout the play, this paper argues that Kuo draws upon the Zheng He story to articulate disaffected critiques against the Singaporean bureaucracy and negotiate an ethnic Chinese Singaporean identity vis-à-vis Communist China in the 1990s.

Kuo Pao Kun (..., 1939-2002) is one of Singapore's foremost cultural icons, renowned for his monumental contribution to Singaporean literature and theater. He wrote 24 bilingual and multilingual plays, translated 6, and directed 28.1) In the foreword to Images at the Margins, an anthology of his plays in English, Kuo describes unique multinational and cross-cultural life experiences as someone "permanently on the move" (Kuo 2000, 3).2) Throughout his life works, one can ascertain Kuo's sustained engagement with "invent[ing] vocabularies" to portray "images at the margin" and construct enlightening spaces located beyond the limits of racial, language, religious, and cultural segregation amidst environments marked by modernism, globalism, and capitalism (ibid.; Kwok 2003).

Kuo has won a unique position in the modern theater of Singapore not only for what he produced on stage, but also for what he practiced and advocated off stage for Singaporean society (Koh 2002; Quah 2005).3) Krishen Jit comments that Kuo's theater "is nothing if not purposefully persuasive about his social philosophy," as Kuo himself saw "no sense in a theatre that is aesthetically exquisite but morally empty" (Jit 1990, 18). Indeed, Kuo consistently promoted the arts as a practice of "open culture" to celebrate the intermingling of cultures-both past and present, local and global-beyond the constraints of racial and linguistic origins (Kuo 1998; Devan 2000).

Descendants is unique in Kuo's oeuvre as its focal theme draws upon a classical Chinese character to create a text riddled with cryptic historical references. To date, scholars and reviewers who have commented on the multilayered play point out its overt allusion to Zheng He's maritime legacy in presenting the tensions between Chinese tradition and Sinophone4) modernity; they emphasize the contemporary reappropriation of Zheng He to evoke themes of harmonious multiculturalism and Kuo's notion of an "open culture" in Southeast Asia, especially Singapore. However, more somber and personal undercurrents saturate the play; Kuo draws upon an intimate understanding of the classical Zheng He story to record shrewd observations and criticisms about the Singaporean bureaucracy, intermingled with philosophical reflections addressing geopolitical dimensions of contemporary Sinophone lived reality.

The Grand Eunuch as Modern Expatriate in Southeast Asia's Entrepot

A common starting point for discussion of Zheng He's influence in contemporary Chinese studies begins with the revival of the maritime theme with Liang Qichao ... and Sun Yat-Sen ... in the early twentieth century. Both men commented on the early Ming voyages in the context of tumultuous periods in modern Chinese history, marked by decay and imperialistic foreign aggression against China (Low 2005; Ptak 2007). In the perspectives of these two men, Zheng He was held in high esteem as a national hero, representing China's more prosperous times when the country stood out as a leading world power, enjoying peace and material wealth. …

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