On “Chineseness”

Justin Wu is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has reviewed Allen Chun’s Forget Chineseness: On the Geopolitics of Cultural Identification, published by the State University of New York Press.

Chun’s central questions are: “why identify? Why is (Chinese) identity so important?” In responding to these questions, readers are reminded that “[c]ulture, like
identity, does not determine, but is malleable and contested.”

The author’s book draws on his experience from Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Singapore and the diaspora. Chun “argues that to understand the role of Chineseness in these predominantly ethnic Chinese societies, one must consider both global phenomena (such as empires, capitalism and globalisation) and locally grounded geopolitics.” He argues that to “forget” refers to the notion that there “is inherent and homogenous” Chineseness. In essence, Chun’s main point is that:

we need to consider both local and global historical processes in order to understand identification. In this sense he follows a number of globally-minded scholars in suggesting that concepts like “culture” or “Chineseness” are constantly shaped by the global circulation of ideas and capital, through forces of imperialism, capitalism and modernity, along with the respective political conditions of each locale.

Wu concludes that Chun’s book is a “timely reminder of how global and historical phenomena continue to shape identification, a process that is certainly not limited to ‘Chineseness’ but applicable to other presumed identities as well.”

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