Chinese Overseas: From Earthbound China to the Quest for Autonomy, The

Chinese Overseas: From Earthbound China to the Quest for Autonomy, The

Chan, Anthony B

The Chinese Overseas: From Eanhbound China to the Quest for Autonomy. By Wang Gungwu. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. Pp. 148.

Scholars and students of the overseas Chinese and Chinese Diasporic Studies have long grown accustomed to the thoughtfulness and insights of the works of Professor Wang Gungwu. His influence is everywhere. When I published Gold Mountain: The Chinese in the New World (New Star Books, 1982), his works had a profound impact upon my insider’s interpretation of the Chinese in Canada, especially his theory of the sojourner. Even today, Professor Wang’s body of work has influenced my biography of Chinese America’s first female film star in Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong, 1905-1961 (Scarecrow Press, 2003). Engaged in cultural transformation, Anna May Wong epitomized Wang’s premise that many overseas Chinese are occupied in their quest for autonomy.

As one of the foremost scholars of the history of the overseas Chinese, his publications are always noteworthy. This publication, first introduced as a 1997 Edwin O. Reischauer Lecture at Harvard University, is concisely rendered in three vivid and informative chapters. The Chinese Overseas: From Earthbound China to the Quest for Autonomy opens provocatively with a discussion of the dialectics between an earthbound China based on agrarian power of the emperors and their many dynastic followers and the seafaring proclivities of Chinese traders and adventurers. The continental values of the Chinese empires were often manifested in laws prohibiting travel abroad (1370s to 1893) and the curtailing of seafaring voyages of such explorers as the eunuch, Zheng He. Thus, the lack of a pronounced world or global view that encompassed entities beyond China was shattered once Western nations began their overt exploiration and colonization of Asia. The earthbound view of dynastic China clashed with the seafaring notions of the Western imperialists. The result was disastrous for China.

The second chapter is the best of the three. Professor Wang argues that despite the earthbound, continental policy of Chinese dynasties, some Chinese have always looked beyond China for their livelihood or for survival in the case of the Ming loyalist, Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) escaping the wrath of the Qing swordsmen. When the government ban on travel was abolished in 1893, Chinese could now travel or sojourn freely with the term huaqiao describing the Chinese temporarily locating outside of China. The reference to Chinese overseas as huaqiao was not a term that appeared overnight. With an “ancient and distinguished pedigree,” it referred to prominent families and government exiles who were forced to relocate south of the Yangzi River from the fourth to the sixth centuries.

During the nineteenth century, huaqiao took on a more significant meaning as the emigration of Chinese workers, especially to North America and Southeast Asia, introduced the dialectics of the Chinese as modern emigrants and permanent settlers in a place outside of China and the Chinese as mere sojourners always seeldng to return to China.

In the final chapter, Professor Wang is more circumspect as the world of the overseas Chinese has changed dramatically. Whereas the opportunity for social upward mobility for many overseas Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore opened up new worlds and settlement patterns, those in Canada and the United States remained cocooned in their own indigenous Chinese communities of predominantly bachelor societies and service workers because of the racist practices of those Western societies. But after 1949, when China was closed to many overseas Chinese because of its own internal revolution, the quaint notion of the huaqiao returning to China evaporated. These men and women began to consider staying permanently in their adopted countries to the extent that these places became their primary homes.

By the twenty-first century, the issue was not whether the overseas Chinese ought to return to China, especially after 1978 when that country opened to the world again, but whether there was any semblance of being Chinese after decades of being outside of China. This will be one of the major issues as many overseas Chinese no longer considered themselves “overseas,” because of their non-Chinese place of birth, but of the “diaspora.”

This short volume introduces the notion of the Chinese diaspora as a significant concept in the study of the Chinese outside of China. Indeed, Professor Wang Gungwu continues to influence recent publication in Diasporic Studies, especially Wei Djao’s provocative and revealing Being Chinese: Voices from the Diaspora (University of Arizona, 2003). Moreover, he has elevated the discussion from the Chinese as buaqiao to the Chinese as diasporic in their ambition for autonomy. This book then is a must read for those interested in the study of the overseas Chinese and the new issues surrounding the Chinese diaspora.


University of Washington

Copyright Center for Migration Studies Summer 2003

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