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The Sinophone Discourse at Penn

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The Sinophone Discourse at Penn

By Francis Miller

What is "Sinophone literature?" This was the central question tackled by Dr. Ping-hui Liao. Simply defined, it is literature produced by Chinese. This definition is not satisfactory, because what “Chinese” means is not entirely agreed upon -- Chinese might include people living outside of mainland China, including in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other parts of the world. Also, language is a contentious issue. Literature in Chinese languages or topolects besides Modern Standard Mandarin must be considered.

Dr. Liao began his discussion by comparing Zhang Yimou’s epic film Hero, which aims to build a presumably authentic Chinese identity, with such multiculturally influenced Sinophone films as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, to capture some of the conflicts inherent in contemporary Chinese-language cultural productions. He examined the Sinophone discourse as a vital critical interphase to address the hybrid, expressive cultures that have been developed across a rich diversity of Chinese speaking communities. Dr. Liao mapped out the vibrant literary productions by writers in global Sinophone communities, minor Sinophone writings in mainland China, as well as bi-lingual or multi-lingual works by writers such as Eileen Chang at the intersection of the Sinophone and the Anglophone. Whereas China remains a symbolic homeland to the many Chinese living outside of China, Han ethnocentrism has proved to be a powerful vehicle for realizing political ends and has resulted in the exclusion of many great works of literature from the mainland China discourse. Dr. Liao stressed that while Sinophone writings are a way to respond to the changing of what it means to be Chinese over the globe, writers of Sinophone literature are entering new territory and face complex cultural and political obstacles.

After his final thoughts, Dr. Liao turned the discussion over to the panel, where Dr. Victor H. Mair clearly articulated just how politically controversial and linguistically nuanced the Sinophone discourse is. Dr. Mair viewed the Sinophone world as referring to Sinitic-language cultures and communities born of colonial and postcolonial histories on the margins of geopolitical nation-states all across the world. There are many authors of Chinese ancestry in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Korea. However, the languages in which they write are not always Modern Standard Mandarin, but rather are influenced by topolectical characteristics. Dr. Mair concluded by affirming that whether or not this kind of literature can be considered Chinese remains contentious.

Dr. Suvir Kaul contributed his conceptualization of Sinophone literature as minor literature that escapes mainland China's nationalizing forces. Dr. Kaul explained that "minor" literature is political, escapes or even challenges national authority, and moves into the main discourse from the margins of society. As the centralizing process of cultural canonization provincialized minor writings and discourses and put them in lower hierarchy, these provincial writers pushed back to the metropolitan center. Literature in a place as diverse as China naturally becomes "provincialized," or associated with a particular region. Such a decentralized literary tradition will inevitably present a challenge to any literary canonization.

Finally, Dr. Xiaojue Wang concluded the panel discussion by asking, "While the Sinophone discourse helps to resist the cultural hegemony of the Chinese mainland, how can we avoid viewing Sinophone writings in ways that simply increase their marginality?" Dr. Wang discussed a Sinophone discourse that is predicated not on the dichotomy of resistance/subjugation, center/periphery, but on an exclusive inclusion that considers the heterogeneous, uneven nature of literary productions at the heart of Chinese mainland as well as in Sinophone localities outside of mainland China. A notion of global Sinophone humanities also allows us to discuss other expressive forms in addition to print culture, such as film, radio programs, theater, and music. 


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Dr. Ping-hui Liao, Chuan Lyu Endowed Chair Professor in Taiwan Studies, University of California, San Diego.

Dr. Victor H. Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature, University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Suvir Kaul, A. M. Rosenthal Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Xiaojue Wang, Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, University of Pennsylvania.

The Modern China Seminar at Penn on November 21, 2013 was made possible by sponsorship from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Inter-University Center for Sinology. 

Francis Miller is an MA student in in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. When not attending various events on campus, he can be found giving tours of the Chinese Rotunda at the Penn Museum. After graduating in December of 2013, he is planning to do educational consulting in China.