Siting Postcoloniality: Critical Perspectives from the East Asian Sinosphere

Tijs Hopman

East and Southeast Asia have been largely shaped by their postcolonial legacies, which, in turn, have determined the international context of the area as it is today. However, the postcolonial dimensions of these areas have been largely ignored in the scholarly debate on postcolonialism. In Siting Postcoloniality (2022), Pheng Cheah and Caroline Hau (eds.) explore the varying ‘sociopolitical, ideological, and cultural dimensions of colonialism and its legacy within a Sinitic geocultural context’ (p. viii), together with multiple scholarly experts on both the fields and areas. The resulting work is one in which postcolonialism within the Sinosphere – the region that is historically heavily influenced by Chinese culture, norms, and traditions and power – is analysed from multiple angles and through a multitude of different sources. Although the 12 chapters that make up the book provide different conceptual and thematic perspectives in a unique and scholarly way, they share the core notion that the study of postcolonialism in the Sinitic world is important for understanding the ‘pasts, presents, and potential futures’ (p. ix) of the area.

Peng Cheah and Caroline Hau, the editors, propose a number of objections towards the current field of postcolonial studies, which exhorted them to publish the book and which places the work within the postcolonial scholarly debate. They argue that since the emergence of the field of postcolonial theory and Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), studies have failed to link the different experiences of Western colonialism and their enduring legacies in Asia and Africa to postcolonialism by focusing primarily on the West. Postcolonialism, therefore, has largely failed to take those that were colonised themselves into account, leaving the colonised without a voice, and mystifying them in turn. Besides, the postcolonial narrative does not provide much attention to the (historical) relationship between colonialism and the contemporary capitalist world order. And, furthermore, through temporally anchoring postcolonialism to the historic end of (Western) colonialism, postcolonial studies fails to appreciate modern events, such as the Arab Spring, as events in which postcoloniality and colonialism were negated and – attempts at – new starts were made. In addition, Cheah and Hau argue, postcolonial theory has ignored the persistence of radical indigenous traditions.

Postcoloniality, Cheah and Hau stress, involves changes in global power relations in the wake of (Western) colonialism, and because of this, the focus on the Sinosphere is important due to the region’s complicated relationship to colonialism. As the editors and the other contributors illustrate, the region itself has had a complex history of colonialism from which a multitude of different postcolonial societies have emerged. The way in which postcoloniality has shaped these societies is, for example, clearly visible in the case of China. In China, the legacy of Western imperialism has helped shape the narrative of a ‘century of humiliation,’ in which China was held in a state of semi-colonialism by Western powers and Japan. Though this narrative can trace its origins to 1915, it was an important tool within the postcolonial period after 1949 for the Communist Party of China (CPC) to unify China and to set both a domestic and international political agenda. In this way, Cheah and Hau argue, postcoloniality was an active force that shaped modern China.

The effects of postcoloniality on different facets of societies in the Sinosphere are central themes in all chapters of the book. The book itself consists of 12 chapters divided into five parts – not counting the series editor’s preface, acknowledgements, introduction, references, information on the contributors, and index. These five parts are largely geographical subdivisions with the exception of the first part. The first part deals with the theoretical questions concerning the modern field of postcolonialism, and consists of two chapters. The next four parts all deal with geographical areas: (mainland) China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and diasporas in East and Southeast Asia, respectively. These parts comprise relatively equal chapters (2-3) making for a well-balanced whole. Though each chapter focusses on their own geographical location or theoretical dilemma, they do so in distinct and unique ways, which has the effect of a wide and diverse collection of chapters, making none of the parts identical to one another.

The variety of focus points, use of sources, and geographical diversity is among the strongest points of the book. The writers provide novel ways in analysing postcoloniality and succeed in demonstrating the complex influences of postcoloniality in the regions. Liao Ping-hui’s chapter (Chapter 9) on the question of postcolonial agency in Taiwan through film is one example. For many societies, the postcolonial phase saw the creation of a new elite exercising its new-found power in ways similar to those found in the colonial period. Ping-hui shows the struggles of the new postcolonial elite of Taiwan, together with the rise of Buddhist sects, and analyses their influence within society as well as the position and reaction of different groups and people within this society. Elaine Yee Lin Ho, on the other hand, looks at the relation between language and writing in postcolonial Hong Kong (Chapter 7). Through her analysis, Yee Lin Ho illustrates how usage of language in literature by writers from Hong Kong was influenced by the postcolonial power dynamics. These are but two of the 12 chapters found in the book, but they demonstrate the unique ways in which each chapter deals with postcoloniality in East and Southeast Asia.

The diverse and unique approach found in the book can also be counted among its weaker aspects. Because of the wide geographical range, none of the regions is fully explored and analysed. Merely two chapters on (mainland) China cannot suffice to provide a complete picture of the effects of postcolonialism and its scale on Chinese society under the CPC. This is a problem which occurs throughout the whole book. The same can also be said about the focus on the Sinosphere, because two important regions, namely Korea and Japan, are left outside the scope of the work, whilst it cannot be denied that each has had an extremely interesting and unique postcolonial experience. Another point worth mentioning is that because of the diverse focus points, the authors apply different meanings, methods, interpretations, objects, etc., which at times makes the work seem incoherent and vague. All of this can create the feeling that the book is more of an overview and introduction on postcolonialism in East and Southeast Asia.

Nevertheless, the book succeeds in what it set out to do: to illustrate the different effects of postcolonialism on societies in East and Southeast Asia, to show the complex depths of these effects, and to display how postcolonialism has shaped these societies and still does. Peng Cheah and Caroline Hau, together with the other contributors, have successfully worked towards remedying a grave problem within the field of postcolonialism, and they justly point out that East and Southeast Asia have an important and rightful place within this academic field – one can only hope similar works can claim the same for other parts of the world, most notably Africa. Though the work remains more of an introduction to postcolonialism in the Sinosphere, it is an important vantage point for further study, and invaluable to anyone interested in postcolonialism and/or East and Southeast Asia.