Friday, June 10, 2016

Some thoughts on Chi-ming Wang's "Writing across the Pacific: Chinese Student Writing, Reflexive Poetics, and Transpacific Modernity"

Wang, Chi-ming. "Writing across the Pacific: Chinese Student Writing, Reflexive Poetics, and Transpacific Modernity." Amerasia Journal 38:2 (2012): 136-154.

 I just came across this article when I was looking up Chi-ming Wang after having read his article on The Jing Affair, a 1965 suspense novel about a U.S.-backed overthrow of the KMT government on Taiwan. (That book is an interesting read, by the way, as is the article.) I was attracted by the phrase "Chinese student writing" in the title because, of course, as a writing teacher who works a lot with Chinese students, I'm very well acquainted with (some) Chinese students' English writing. I should note from the outset that Wang's definition of "Chinese student writing" is somewhat broad--he characterizes it as "the literary and cultural discourses produced by 'Chinese' diasporic intellectuals who initially came to America as students" (139).

I've also been interested in how scholars like Xiaoye You and Wen-hsin Yeh have discussed the role of Chinese students' English and Chinese writing in the formation of modern Chinese identities. Like You and Yeh, Wang takes a historical perspective, ranging from the 1880s to the present in his discussion. He begins "Writing across the Pacific" with a reproduction of an open letter to President Nixon and Congress that was published in The New York Times in 1971 and calls for the U.S. to recognize Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyutai (written as "Tiao Yu Tai," 鯛魚台) islands. By "Chinese sovereignty," they mean the Republic of China, since the people who wrote and signed this letter are apparently primarily students and scholars from Taiwan. Wang argues that the "Baodiao" movement ("Baodiao," [保鯛] means "protect the Diaoyutai Islands") "symbolized a moment of political awakening and critical reflection" among Chinese students-cum-immigrants in the United States (144). 

Wang gets back to this movement (though he doesn't mention the "student writing" exemplified by the open letter--something I would have been interested in reading more about), but first he gives some background about the writings of Chinese students in the U.S. since the late nineteenth century. He introduces us (me, anyway) to several early English-language publications produced by and for Chinese American audiences, such as The Chinese Students' Monthly (originally The Chinese Students' Bulletin) that was published between 1905 and 1931 by the Chinese Students' Alliance of America (I'm oversimplifying this a bit--see Wang 139-140 for more details and for citations). Wang points out the emphasis on a modern sense of Chinese patriotism that was exemplified by students who wrote about their experiences and perspectives living in a racist and imperialist United States (140-142). The selections he chooses from various works such as "Shadow Shapes," an anonymously written novella published in The Chinese Students' Monthly in serial form, are fascinating, and I find myself wanting to look up this magazine. (It looks like it's available through Brill, for only $4800.)

Wang moves on to discuss the Chinese student writing of the Baodiao Movement era, arguing that for the writers in that movement, "literature was a social platform for reflection and action which must begin with the self-critique of the intellectuals" (144). He argues that although the movement failed to change the U.S. viewpoint on the status of the Diaoyutai islands, the experience led Chinese writers like Zhang Xiguo and Zhang Beihai to examine more critically the deceptive American dream that many Chinese student/immigrants were pursuing (146).

Interesting for its general absence in Wang's article is how Taiwan itself is reflected in the lives and writings of the Chinese ("Chinese" in quotation marks, as Wang sometimes writes it) students/immigrants in the U.S. Most (if not all) of the Cold War era writers that he discusses, like Zhang Beihai, Zhang Xiguo, and Bai Xianyong, were Mainlanders raised in Taiwan. (One exception is the poet Yang Mu.) Wang does gesture at this fact in his discussion of Zhang Xiguo's (張系國) Rage of Yesteryear (昨日之怒, 1978), in which the character Shi Ping "defiant[ly] return[s] to Taiwan" from the U.S. (146). Wang quotes Shi Ping as "'wanting to be a Chinese rather than an overseas Chinese'" and remarks that "[t]hough it may seem odd that a student from Taiwan should wish to be 'Chinese,' Shi’s thinking was not strange in the political context of the 1960s and 1970s, when it was believed that China would one day be reunited and when Taiwanese national consciousness was still nascent" (146-147). I would argue that here Wang ignores the fact that Shi Ping is a Mainlander (as is Zhang Xiguo), a status that colors his sense of identity and leads him to equate Taiwan with China. Shi's status as a Mainlander also brings up the interesting factor in this whole discussion of identity and the sense of displacement that Chinese (Mainlander) students/immigrants in the U.S. felt: that they cannot simply be viewed as displaced in terms of being in the U.S., but that they were displaced in the first place, when they retreated to Taiwan or were born to parents who retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Perhaps Wang doesn't address this because the writers themselves don't dwell on it; this is something I might explore in the future.

I would also question the assertion that "Taiwanese national consciousness was still nascent" in the 1960s and 1970s. Wang observes in an endnote that "in the 1960s and 1970s, [Taiwan's] national ideology was more Chinese than Taiwanese" (153, n. 43), which is true to an extent. A post by Michael Turton cites an article from 1963 that discusses "Chiang Kai-shek's Silent Enemies," which would suggest that the Taiwanese/Mainlander divide was strong then.

This divide is also neglected earlier in Wang's article when he writes of the motivations that students from Taiwan had to stay in the U.S. after graduation: "At a time when another war was a real fear in Taiwan, many students came to America not only to study, but also to stay, seeking permanent residency and U.S. citizenship at the end of their studies" (142). This explanation ignores the experiences of Taiwanese students in the U.S. who stayed as a result of their pro-Taiwan independence work in the U.S. Some, like the uncle of Wang Benhu, were blacklisted from returning to Taiwan (see the video linked to in my previous post).  

I have written briefly before about the Taiwanese students at Kansas State University who worked for the Taiwan independence movement. Will Tiao, as I mention in that post, came from Manhattan, Kansas, and has observed that KSU was known as the "military school for Taiwan independence" (台獨軍校). I have written elsewhere about the "student writing" (to use the phrase in Wang's sense of it) that went on among Taiwanese and Mainlander students at KSU regarding Taiwan's identity. This conflict is relevant to Wang's discussion because it illustrates the complexity of "Chinese" modernity and "Chinese" students. As Wang notes early on in his article, "Due to the complicated history of modern China, Chinese student writers arrived in America at different historical junctures, bearing imprints of their origins" (139). The Taiwanese students at KSU who engaged in a "battle of the pens" in the KSU newspaper with their Mainlander schoolmates in the mid-1960s could also be said to be engaged in a battle over what it meant to be (seen as) a Chinese person in the United States. (See the oral history, 一門留美學生的建國故事, for reproductions of the letters published in the KSU paper.) Both through their words and through their requests to have their names withheld out of fear of reprisals, the Taiwanese students called into question the dominant depictions of Taiwan as "Free China."

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