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Overseas Chinese literature in a global context

By Yang Kuanghan | 2016-04-14 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Poems inscribed in classical Chinese on the Walls of the Detention Barracks at Angel Island Immigration Station, California, are believed by some scholars to have marked the birth of overseas Chinese literature. 


In a global context, Chinese literature includes works by mainland authors as well as those abroad. Academic research on the history of literature has shown that the objective orientation and internal connotations of literature are cosmopolitan, with indivisible historical and regional ties.


As the Chinese literary scholar and writer Qian Zhongshu puts it: “Despite the national and regional cultural differences, the basic emotional appeals, psychological activities, and primal ideals of human beings from around the world are alike, and the same can be said about scholarship.”  Overseas Chinese literature, as an extension of Chinese literature and the Chinese ethos, originated around a hundred years ago. With unique cultural styles and temperament, it facilitated the transition of Chinese literature from its traditional era to modern times.

Opinions vary in academia about the origins of overseas Chinese literature. It is generally believed that overseas Chinese literature began to appear in the late Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). Some insist that the poems inscribed in classical Chinese on immigration station buildings in Angel Island, California, marked the birth of overseas Chinese literature, while others argue that the May Fourth Movement gave rise to the phenomenon. Such opinions are all reasonable, but they demonstrate a compartmentalized “global vision” that overemphasizes regional and national factors rather than chronological ones.

To discover the starting point of overseas Chinese literature, a global historical perspective is needed that combines spatial and temporal factors. Such a perspective allows scholars to transcend the confines of a single region, country and race to explore the path of literary interaction, which is cross-cultural, trans-regional, interracial and cross-linguistic. In this way, parochial concepts, such as Western centrism or Eastern subjectivism can be eradicated, and the cultural differences can be better grasped. As early as before the May Fourth Movement, overseas Chinese literature had gained a foothold within the world literature with its unique styles and wide dimensions.


The Opium War revealed a deep crisis in Chinese society. Chinese elites began to acquire new knowledge about the external world. In this context, many emissaries of Chinese folk culture left their country in search of new ways forward for the nation. These pioneers wrote about their exotic experiences, perceiving the world with a broad, open mind, setting the stage for overseas Chinese literature.

Wang Tao was the first Chinese writer and scholar to visit Britain. He started a tour of 10 countries, including France, and Russia in 1867. His book A Record of Travels recorded his experiences in these countries. He also edited the Veritable Records of the War between Prussia and France. What he saw and experienced in Europe made him realize that only by taking full advantage of the skills and concepts of the West and applying them to the social reality of China could Chinese culture take on a new look and achieve important breakthroughs.

In later years, diplomat and writer Chen Jitong and Qing scholar Ku Hong-ming also contributed to cross-cultural communication between the East and the West. Chen Jitong moved overseas in 1875 and lived there for nearly 20 years. He finished works like The Story of China, Chinese Drama, Self-Portrait of Chinese People and Happiness of Chinese People. He also wrote a long novel in French titled The Legend of Huang Shanke which introduced Chinese culture to foreign readers. The French dramatist and novelist Romain Rolland commended him as being “quite French but having more of a Chinese flavor.”

Ku Hong-ming traveled in Europe for 11 years. During that time, he mastered many languages and translated some of the Confucian classics into English, including The Discourses and Sayings of Confucius and The Conduct of Life (or The Universal Order of Confucius). At the same time, he established profound ties of friendship with the Russian master of literature Leo Tolstoy.

After the 1870s, the number of Chinese people that went abroad continued to rise. The History of Japan by Huang Zunxian, Record of a Visit to Paris Painting by Xue Fucheng brought overseas elements to the new style of Chinese prose and poetry.

Kang Youwei and Shan Shili are two other noteworthy figures. During the more than 10 years he spent in exile, Kang Youwei toured the continents of Asia, Europe, Africa and America. The large volume of Chinese poetry he created during his time overseas demonstrated his aesthetic aspirations. Shan Shili can be considered the first female writer to go abroad. Together with her husband, a diplomat, she went to Japan and Europe and wrote two overseas memoirs, Guimao Voyage and Gui Qianji, which are famous in the history of modern Chinese literature. In addition, Liang Qichao’s Hawaii Travel, My Life in China and America by Yung Wing and other works not only recorded the overseas experiences of their authors but also left a valuable legacy of China-West cultural communication.

Relations between history and text
To examine the origin of overseas Chinese literature, two questions will have to be addressed. One is the historicity of texts, and the other is the textuality of history. What the former stresses is the production, communication, circulation and reception of literary texts as well as the interaction among literary practice, social environment and cultural atmosphere. The latter focuses on how the history displays itself in the texts and how the partings and reunions, sorrows and joys of the overseas Chinese are condensed in the texts. The two concepts differ and overlap with each other.

Chen Jitong’s The Legend of Huang Shanke, taking The Story of Huo Xiaoyu as the blueprint, was rewritten and extended from the initial 40,000 words to 80,000 words. The first novel written by a Chinese writer in a Western language, it explored the themes of revolting against marriages between families fairly matched in their social and economic status as well as other forms of arranged marriage. With proficiency in classical Chinese literature, Chen Jitong decided to write the book in French because he felt Chinese literature was belittled by the Western writers, and he wanted to introduce and promote Chinese culture to foreign readers.

When it was published, the book won critical acclaim. It has since been translated into Italian and Chinese, and it remains in circulation today. As a diplomat, Chen Jitong tried to present an image of a culturally rich China with the Eastern sentiment by conveying his nostalgia and attachment to his homeland. In the book, the historicity of texts and textuality of history are both reflected by means of romantic techniques. With its accurate grasp of cultural resources and an interpretation of aesthetic value that is both classical and modern, the book is a good representative of the early overseas Chinese literature.

An examination of overseas Chinese literature in the context of global history reveals interactions between different civilizations and social groups, enabling a clearer picture of early overseas Chinese literature to come into focus. The May Fourth Movement and the literary schools it fostered led to a new flourishing of overseas Chinese literature, especially in Southeast Asia. World War II and the Cold War also created a complex and tense international environment for overseas Chinese literature on both domestic and foreign themes. After the Cold War ended, the emergence of the post-colonial literature and the new-immigrant literature further enriched the content, narration, writing and orientation. It took generations of constant struggle to cultivate overseas Chinese literature into what it is today.


Yang Kuanghan is chief supervisor of the China World Association for Chinese Literature.