Beyond chinoiseries? Examining how Chinese students are represented
'If one says: "You think like this and we think like that", then we just stare at each other and "dialogue" stops here' (Cheng, 2010, n.p.).
The word chinoiseries is derived from the French words Chine (China) and Chinois (Chinese). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it refers to 'a decorative style in Western art, furniture, and architecture, especially in the 18th century, characterized by the use of Chinese motifs and techniques.' In colloquial French, the expression Arrete tes chinoiseries! means Stop being silly! In this section, we problematise ways of moving research on the Chinese student abroad beyond chinoiseries (i.e., static and biased ways of understanding this figure in research commonsensical discourses). Chinoiseries also correspond to the ideas of Orientalism (how the West constructs the East) and Reverse Orientalism (how the East recycles constructions of the West).
First, returning to Haag and Lemieux's book on Critiquer, we agree with the authors that research should lead to a decalage (a gap) beyond common sense, beyond unquestioned beliefs and categories that often find their ways in research (2012, p. 15). The anthropologist Francois Laplantine, who has recently worked on China, suggests that the work of the researcher should introduce 'trouble, perplexity and complexity' in his/her research (2013, p. 30). This is very much what the applied linguist and educationalist Adrian Holliday (2010) proposes in his work on intercultural communication, especially in relation to the dichotomy of the West and the East. He examines how representations of culture and prejudice operate hand in hand in everyday life (ibid., p. ix) through a postmodern critical qualitative approach that refrains from generalising about self and other (ibid., p. x), especially as this often leads to the 'demonization of a particular foreign Other' (ibid., p. 1). Holliday shows how, in relation to the Chinese, the following themes are often used to differentiate the West and the East, and to put a more positive emphasis on the West: individualism vs. collectivist but also autonomy and the lack of autonomous behaviours and thinking (ibid.). The problem with these aspects is that they give an appearance of neutrality but are actually very ideological (ibid., p. 8); they also lead to inequality (ibid.). For Holliday, like Haag and Lemieux, 'the aim must be to put aside established descriptions, seek a broader picture and look for the hidden and the unexpressed'(ibid., p. 27). This does not mean that only discourses produced by the West should be scrutinised for essentialism and cultur- alism, as the East (and the Chinese!) also produce such discourses about themselves and others. This is what we call Occidentalism in this chapter.
For Anne Cheng (2007, p. 7), professor of the intellectual history of China, this decalage has not really reached full strength in research yet. She criticises, for example, the fact that the Chinese are always conceptualised as thinking necessarily in ways different from 'ours'. The consequence is often either admiration or (implicit) denigration from researchers (ibid.). This is the case, for example, in the idea that the
Chinese are 'pragmatic', that they only believe in efficacy, and that they ignore abstraction (ibid., p. 11). Cheng thus calls for an end to binarism (Orient/Occident-China/Greece) but also to the well-rehearsed argument that Chinese thought ended in the antiquity or that the Chinese do not have a system of thought today (ibid.). Amartya Sen fully shares Cheng's argument when he writes,
There is an odd dichotomy in the way in which Western and nonwestern ideas and scholarship are currently comprehended, with a tendency to attribute a predominant role to religiosity in interpreting the works of non-Western intellectual who had secular interests along with strong religious beliefs. ( . .. ) For example, there is widespread tendency to presume that none of the general intellectual works of Buddhist scholars or of Tantri practitioners in India or China could be 'properly understood' except in the special light of their religious beliefs and practices. (2005, p. 165)
A reference to the Chinese language and its impossibility to theorise and to develop science is often used to justify such dangerous and ethnocentric arguments (ibid.). For Chemla, China is also often depicted as being intellectually 'immobile' (2007, p. 366). Cheng counterattacks this fallacy by explaining that 'China has never ceased to move. Today she moves more than ever. Every culture changes, otherwise it is not a culture but a piece from a museum' (2010, n.p.). In her seminars at the College de France, Cheng shows, for example, how Confucius has been remodelled throughout Chinese history and how today his voice is (re)created as an authority. She adds, 'Everyone (in China and elsewhere) does this, it is a big mishmash' (ibid.). But using Confucianism to explain how 1.4 billion Chinese people function, think and act is 'surely as absurd as trying to derive the behavior of contemporary Europeans from the Bible or from Plato's Republic' (Breidenbach & Nyiri, 2009, p. 50).
Difference is almost exclusively the element used to analyse phenomena related to China and the Chinese but also to examine interaction between the Chinese and other people. Laplantine (2013) finds this to be problematic and limiting. For example, in terms of literary production, the anthropologist reminds us that there are many similarities between authors such as Su Dongpo and Montaigne, Lu Xun and Kafka, Shen Congwen and Rousseau, or Lao She and Bertolt Brecht, and that this should inspire researchers to look into these elements. Jullien is of the mind that 'difference is not an adventurous concept' (2012, p. 29).
Ways of looking into how Chineseness, Otherness and self are constructed have been proposed by many scholars in different fields. Wimmer (2013, p. 1) explains how research into ethnicity, for example - and that is also true increasingly for research on the 'intercultural' - has moved from primordialism (ethnicity is natural) to instrumentalism (people choose identities as they see fit); essentialism (ethnicity is stable) and situationalism (people identify with different categories depending on the situation); perennialism (ethnicity is stable) and modernism (ethnic distinctions are changing). In our research on the Chinese and in this chapter, through applying the more critical sides of Wimmer's continuum we examine how the opposite sides are put into play in discourses of Otherness. In relation to Chineseness, we are especially interested in culturalism. For Eriksen and Stjernfelt, this notion refers to the argument that 'individuals are determined by their culture only; that these cultures constitute organic and closed wholes; and that the individual, because of this over-determination, is unable to emancipate and free from her culture: on the contrary, she can only blossom in this culture' (2012, p. 249). According to Laplantine, culturalism stops the flux of movement, and in a sense, it can easily lead to stereotypes about self and Other through distinguishing and creating only contrasts. As such, culturalism 'erects a wall of opacity between continents and isolates "cultures" in unchangeable oppositions' (2013, p. 43).
But all these imagined characteristics of the Other often tell us a lot about self. For Laplantine again 'when a Frenchman speaks of China and a Chinese person of France, s/he often talks about themselves through what s/he imagines of the other' (2013, p. 23). As such in the analysis of the novel under review we shall be able to examine both how the Chinese student represents China and other 'cultures'.
Finally the 'magical power of culture' can lead people to accept negative phenomena such as attacks against freedom of speech, violation of human rights, misogyny, etcetera (Eriksen and Stjernfelt, ibid., p. 261). This is why, for Dhamoon, it is important to analyse and critique how power shapes difference and what the consequences are. Dhamoon calls this 'examining the critical politics of meaning-making, such as culture as a proxy for race', and the following list of questions, which will guide us in our analysis:
• How are meanings of difference constituted relationally through discourse (historically, institutionally, and practically)?
- • How do the forces of power constitute subjects differently and differentially, why, and with what effects?
- • How are meanings of difference constituted in different historical social contexts, and how do these meanings constitute social-political arrangements?
- • How can penalising and privileging meanings of difference be disrupted? (2009, p. 31)
Dhamoon calls for the notion of intersectionality - that is, the intersection of systems of race, language, gender, class, sexuality, etcetera - to be taken seriously into account in research on the Other (ibid., p. 61).
In this chapter, we examine how a fictional character, a Chinese student in England, expresses, (co)constructs and imagines both chinoi- series and the Other (mostly British people). The themes of difference, cultural identity, power and imaginaries are central in what follows.