From Chineseness to Sinophonicity

On a particularly cold and dark Monday evening, some of us stayed warm by attending the most recent seminar in the Research in Oriental Studies series; this seminar was led by Flair Donglai Shi, who presented his paper entitled ‘From Chineseness to Sinophonicity: Reading non-Chinese texts in the Chinese/world literature debate’.

Opening the talk, Flair discussed the debates that surround his area of research, and how these have evolved over the centuries: from Oriental Studies, Area Studies, and Postcolonial Studies, to identity politics such as Sinophone Studies and World Literature Studies. The main question here is: what is modern Chinese literature? For example, should a Chinese writer writing in English be studied under Oriental Studies, English Studies, or both? This then leads onto the question: what does it mean to be Chinese outside of China? The Sinophone, as theorized by Shu-mei Shih, is defined as ‘cultural products on the margins of China and Chineseness’, and therefore focusses on the identity of the writer, whereas the world literature debate focusses more on the hierarchical relationship between Asia and the West.

However, Flair responded to these ideas by arguing that placing labels on literature and focussing on the language or author of a text only distracts from the text itself; he argues that ‘we have been too focussed on what a writer, or a text, is, rather than what it says and does’. For him, it is the literary characters and worlds created, and the literary techniques used that we should focus on when analysing a text. Flair shifts the debate to focus on the ideational (what a text says and the ideas it expresses); to move from the idea of Sinophone to Sinophonicity as a psychological dialectic between loyalist desires and post-loyalist conditions; and to look at the meta-allegorisation used by authors and the translational (novels that use translation as a technique rather than as an afterthought), and the literary acts that are born from these. He then analysed two books, Orphan of Asia by Zhuoliu Wu and I Am China by Guo Xiaolu, with these ideas in mind.

This talk prompted much engagement from the audience, and attendees posed many thoughtful and challenging questions. Flair said that he received great feedback because of this.

Flair Donglai Shi is a DPhil candidate in English at the University of Oxford. His thesis focuses on the Yellow Peril as a traveling discourse in modern Anglophone and Sinophone literatures. His research interests include postcolonial and queer theories, Victorian literature and modern East Asian literatures. His articles have been published in many academic journals, including Women: A Cultural Review, CLEAR, Comparative Literature & World Literature, and Subalternspeak. He is currently working on an edited volume in Ibidem's World Literature Series entitled World Literature in Motion: Institution, Recognition, Location.

This seminar was organised by Marilyn Booth as part of the Research in Oriental Studies Seminar series, and is a great opportunity for students and staff of the Oriental Institute to share and discuss their research with others. The next seminar will be held on Monday 27 November, where Professor Henrietta Harrison will be presenting a talk entitled ‘Interpreting Lord Macartney: The Interpreters for the First British Embassy to China in 1793’.