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Forgetting “Chineseness”

Forgetting “Chineseness”

Allen Chun at UCLA's Asia Pacific Center. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)

When we say “Chineseness,” what exactly do we refer to? Allen Chun recently raised this question at a UCLA Taiwan Studies Lectureship event hosted by the Asia Pacific Center.

"What it means to be Chinese was and has been constructed in completely different ways in different societies.”

By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)

UCLA International Institute, March 8, 2017--- From Mainland China to Taiwan to Hong Kong to Singapore and overseas, Chinese identity is far reaching and has many different iterations.


Allen Chun of Academia Sinica addressed this theme as part of the UCLA Taiwan Studies Lectureship, speaking on February 2, 2017, about his forthcoming book, Forget Chineseness (SUNY Press), at the UCLA Asia Pacific Center. The event was cosponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies, the UCLA Dean of Humanities and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Organization in Los Angeles. Chun’s remarks served as a springboard to a discussion of changing constructions of Chinese identity and their relevance to politics and academia today.


The Taiwan Studies Lectureship is a joint program of the Asia Pacific Center and the UCLA Division of Humanities, with funding from the Taiwan Ministry of Education. It takes an expansive view of Taiwan studies, aiming to explore how contemporary cultural, social and political life in Taiwan relates to traditions with deep historical roots. Chun is currently (winter quarter 2017) a visiting scholar affiliated with the UCLA Department of Anthropology, where he also presented a lecture in January.

New China, New Chineseness

“The emergence of a new China in the last decade has redefined the political and cultural ground rules for many things,” Chun explained. Mainland China has made large economic strides over the last half century. The growing dominance of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in trade and media has not only altered the balance of power with societies on its periphery, but also given Chineseness a new politicizing spin. The advent of this new “Greater China” has not coincidentally paralleled the gradual renaissance of Chinese national consciousness and a new politics of inclusion.

In some contexts, Chineseness has become so politicized that one can question whether its propagation really has anything to do with culture. This new geopolitics of Chineseness contrasts with the ways in which Maoist China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and other Chinese-speaking communities have diversely defined Chinese identity in various contexts.

“What makes Chineseness relevant?” Chun asked. As one approach to the question, he contrasted the way ethnicity has been thoroughly politicized in Taiwan with the insignificant role that ethnicity has played in Hong Kong, despite their similar demographic profiles. The early postwar period in Taiwan was famous for its heavy-handed politics of culture, while Hong Kong’s free-trade port has been well-known for its utilitarian mindset in which even culture is understood in terms of market value.


 “Prior to the 1980s, the official term in Taiwan for mainland China was '(communist) bandit country.'” The term “mainland” first appeared during the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, partly as a way of recognizing the participation of its team in international sports. In recent decades, following indigenization in Taiwan and the rise of ”Taiwanese consciousness,” the mainland has increasingly been referred to as “China” and its citizens as the “Chinese” other. At the same time, Chinese everywhere have gradually avoided referring to themselves as zhongguoren (literally Chinese people in the sense of citizen and compatriot), while preferring to use the politically neutral terms huaren and huayu. These developments have been part of an ongoing and subtle shift in the meanings and usages of “Chineseness.”


Chineseness as academic identity

The field of Asian studies in the West was to a large degree a response to the Cold War, but this is not the only example of the influence of politics on academic identity. Chun noted the curious fact that in the Third World, most anthropologists have tended to study their own society and culture. This typically begins with the way “natives” are trained in the “West.”

“We all learn in Anthropology 101 that anthropology is the study of other cultures,” said Chun, “but only if you happen to be a white European. For all others, once a local, always a local.”


“Not coincidentally, most of the Chinese Sinologists in the previous generation were trained in English and Western studies, more than in Chinese or China studies,” Chun observed. The fact that they were able to transform themselves into China specialists despite this training says much about the power of “identity” and more precisely the ethnic stratification that ultimately drives academia.

Perspectives from Taiwan

Many in the audience were Taiwanese, who commented on and asked questions about “Chineseness.” One woman questioned his use of the term “indigenization.” Chun explained that the gradual “othering” of mainland Chinese in Taiwan and the heightened awareness of “foreigners” were both the consequence of a policy of “multiculturalism,” paradoxical as this may appear.


A UCLA student noted, “The inclusion of indigenous Taiwanese people into the mainstream is a very recent thing.” He foresaw further inclusive changes in Taiwanese identity, insisting adamantly that Taiwan “embraces foreigners and other cultures, especially allies like Japan and America.”

Chun ended his presentation with a cartoon satirizing the incident over Zhou Ziyu, a 15 year-old Taiwanese member of a K-pop group who was forced to apologize (by her Korean boss, under pressure from his PRC sponsors) for making comments about Taiwan, saying tearfully now that “she was proud to be Chinese.” As this incident demonstrated, “how can we forget Chineseness?”


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Published: Wednesday, March 8, 2017