Edward Said’s claim that “Oriental studies” grew out of eighteenth and nineteenth century European imperialism is a controversial but well-known argument. His thesis is resonant in the context of Asian studies in the United States, which developed in part as a postwar initiative to better understand perceived outside threats emerging during the Cold War. It is no surprise that critics have characterized Asian studies, and area studies in general, as agents of the state and conduits for neoimperialism. Kuan-Hsing Chen’s Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization responds to this critique in an unexpected way. Far from being a helpless neoimperialist enterprise, Chen presents Asian studies as the key to radical social progress, if only Asian studies be moved to Asia, so to speak. “Asian Studies in Asia” (2), together with cultural studies as a whole, could be the driving force for a global de-imperialization movement.
Asia as Method provocatively challenges assumptions and practices in postcolonial studies, cultural studies, globalization studies, and Asian studies. Whether through a type of unquestioning fixation or obsessive critique, these fields have been guilty of [End Page 352] focusing too much on “the West,” leading to a “politics of resentment” (2) that perpetuate existing power structures. Chen’s turn toward Asia as a gesture to multiply the objects of identification and to construct alternative frames of reference is compelling. The question that this approach raises is whether his Asia-based paradigm and its geopolitical assumptions truly transcend the “West and the Rest” binary that he so effectively criticizes.
Chen believes that “Asian studies in Asia” can deconstruct and disarticulate colonialist and imperialist cultural imaginaries that are still actively shaping our present reality. The “turn to Asia” (2) is quite literal for Chen when applied to the field of Asian studies. He argues that the field has primarily been shaped outside of Asia, mainly in the United States and Europe, and that the first step toward recuperating it would be to extract it from the West. The reorientation of Asian studies to Asia, in which Asia becomes “an imaginary anchoring point that can allow societies in Asia to become one another’s reference points,” would help detach “Asia as method” from the imperialist imperatives that historically have shaped it “so that the understanding of self can be transformed, and subjectivity rebuilt” (xv).
Chen highlights the current state of decolonization in Asia by analyzing the discourses of Southeast Asia in 1990s’ Taiwan. Specifically, chapter 1 examines a 1994 special issue of the daily literary supplement in the China Times to show how natural, scientific, historical, and literary resources provided theoretical and ideological validation for Taiwan’s policy of southward advance: state-led aggressive capital expansion into Southeast Asia. Since Taiwanese capital was already in Southeast Asia long before 1994, Chen argues that the policy was “ideological maneuvering, the result of political anxiety brought about by stronger economic ties with China” (19). Taiwan’s policy of “southward advance” reflects the surge of Taiwanese nativism, which itself was a reproduction of the imperialist cultural imaginary constructed during the colonial era, and “subimperial desire,” a lower-level empire’s desire to resemble the higher-level empire on which it is dependent (18). Chen believes that the case of Taiwan falls into “the postcolonial trajectory” (63) in the Third World, a pattern in which decolonization is followed by recolonization or neocolonization. This pattern repeatedly reproduces itself, according to Chen, because of a dearth of critical reflection on decolonization.
Chapter 2 follows the emergence of psychoanalytic articulations of decolonization by examining the writings of Franz Fanon, Albert Memmi, and Ashis Nandy. In this chapter, Chen emphasizes that decolonization refers not only to the overtly political modes of [End Page 353] anticolonialism but also to the reflexive decolonization of thoughts and practices that might otherwise perpetuate the imperialist cultural imaginary. As such, he emphasizes a decolonization of subjectivity and insists that the cultural imaginary must also be the target of such a counterhegemonic...