Sinophone or Chinese?

sinophone studies

I’ve been thinking about the term “Sinophone” lately for a couple of reasons.

For one, over on Printculture Haun Saussy has recently posted on the dangers of assuming analogous relations among the various “-phones.” His target is the difference between the usage and set of historical and power relations connoted by the terms “Francophone” and “Sinophone.”

For another, a shiny new copy of Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader has recently arrived on my desk. Although I have an essay in the volume (which, amongst other things, defamiliarizes my discussion of Yang Lian in A Common Strangeness by placing his Auckland writing in the context of Sinophone New Zealand literature), I have to confess that it was only in writing the essay that I began to think more deeply about the term “Sinophone” and its possible meanings, including those that Saussy ponders.

During the writing and editing process, I received an education on the uses and possibilities of the term, in part through dialogue with Shu-mei Shih, who has done so much to establish the field of Sinophone studies, as this volume––edited in collaboration with Chien-hsin Tsai and Brian Bernards––attests.

Of course, I could see the utility of the “-phones” and have been a long-time user (perhaps excessively) of the term Anglophone, owing to my abhorrence of the nationalist and imperialist connotations of “English” and “American”––not least in the way they are combined in the names of academic departments in the United States. (The postcolonial addition of “American” seems only to reassure us that we need not fear encountering literatures in English outside the national traditions of the current and former world superpowers.)

I was therefore suitably chastised when Shih returned my manuscript with the insistence that many instances of “Chinese” be replaced with “Sinophone.”

On the one hand, I found Shih’s changes supported what I was already trying to do in the essay: to separate the study of literature and culture involving Chinese languages from an exclusive focus on the geopolitical entity called “China” (however fuzzy the borders of that entity may still be) and on a single standard Mandarin language to the exclusion of the many other Sinitic languages and dialects. Indeed, from the outset, I could see how useful this way of thinking was for addressing literature written in Chinese languages in New Zealand.

But on the other, I was still left pondering, as Saussy has been, the possible meanings and limits of the term “Sinophone.” Coming to my aid, Shih usefully concludes her introduction to Sinophone Studies with a definition: “Sinophone studies takes as its objects of study the Sinitic-language communities and cultures outside China as well as ethnic minority communities and cultures within China where Mandarin is adopted or imposed.”

And yet the book itself seems to offer a somewhat broader but also more self-questioning definition, one that allows the term “Sinophone” to interrogate rather than be defined by the “communities and cultures” to which Shih appeals––and so to question their apparently self-evident existence as discrete entities. For example, Sinophone Studies includes discussion of several Han Chinese writers who grew up in Mainland China––such as Yang Lian and Gao Xingjian. Both these writers live abroad and their place in “communities and cultures,” whether inside or outside China, remains, importantly, uncertain. In today’s Sinophone world, connected by rapid movements of people and data, such in-between positions are increasingly common. Perhaps rather than offering a definition, the term “Sinophone” and this volume might make us listen more carefully for the many contexts and inflections that shape––and continuously reshape––Sinophone languages and cultures, the words we use for them, and the uncertain and multiple terms of belonging that they name.

About Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019), A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012), and of numerous essays, which have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.
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