University of Hawai'i Press
Reviewed by:
Formations of Colonial Modernity in East Asia. Edited by Tani E. Barlow. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. Pp. vi + 453. $54.95 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).

Formations of Colonial Modernity in East Asia brings together thirteen essays originally published between 1993 and 1996 in the journal Positions. Though they share a regional focus on East Asia (China, the two Koreas, Japan, and Taiwan), their subject matter ranges widely, from literature and art to science and police surveillance. What unites these papers, in other words, is less a common topic of discussion than a common approach to the East Asian past and present. The nature of this approach is made particularly clear by volume editor Tani Barlow’s essay “Colonialism’s Career in Postwar China Studies,” which originally appeared in the journal’s first issue. Barlow acknowledges the influence on her ideas of the tradition of critical Asian scholarship represented, in the 1960s and 1970s, by publications such as the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (BCAS). Like the Concerned Asian Scholars, Barlow and the other contributors to this volume pursue [End Page 485] questions of imperialism and its continuing legacies in East Asia. Barlow, however, also criticizes the BCAS tradition for a weakness in its theorization of imperialism and colonialism, and for a tendency to present imperialists and victims as monolithic categories. She and the other writers in this volume endeavor to overcome these lacunae in critical scholarship by applying insights from the realm of thought that (by way of shorthand) we may call postmodern theory, and by exploring some of the internal contradictions and ambiguities that permeate the history of colonialism and postcolonialism in East Asia.

The results are often fascinating and rewarding. As well as emphasizing the unequal and frequently violent nature of encounters between East Asia and “the West” (in its many manifestations), several essays also address issues of imperialism within the region itself. Two particularly interesting examples are Alan Christie’s essay on Okinawan identities and Tomiyama Ichir̄o’s study of Japanese colonial ethnography in Micronesia. Christie’s examination of the effort to transform Okinawans into imperial Japanese subjects reveals the complex dynamics of the assimilation process. As he concludes, assimilation ultimately “functions to homogenise the culture that is established as a standard as well as the culture which is compelled to change” (p. 163). In other words, “Japanese culture,” as well as “Okinawan culture,” was itself in part constituted by the processes of colonial expansion and assimilation. Tomiyama’s research, meanwhile, probes the multilayered structure of Japanese “South Seas” colonialism, in which migrants from Okinawa formed an ambivalent stratum between indigenous Micronesians and “metropolitan” Japanese. Charles Armstrong’s innovative study of surveillance and punishment in North Korea also shows how much the North Korean police system owed, not just to Soviet models but also to the legacy of the Japanese colonial police system.

A key part of the volume’s project is a reexamination of the meaning of the “modern” in the East Asian context. Almost all the essays in some way address the problems of reexamining the notion of “modernity” in the light of East Asian experience. This reexamination involves recognition of the central role that colonialism played in the construction of “modernity” both in colonized and colonizing nations. But it also involves a reconsideration of the interaction between the indigenous and the imported in the evolution of those ideas and institutions which we commonly see as quintessentially “modern”—notions of the individual, of scientific objectivity, of participatory democracy, and so forth. Lydia Liu takes up this issue in her essay on the discourse of individualism in China. In a particularly insightful piece of writing, Liu rejects the image of a single, reified, Western [End Page 486] notion of the self, against which Chinese notions are then judged and (as often as not) found wanting. Instead, she suggests the need to explore the dynamism and fluidity of the meaning of words such as self, subject, and individual in English, and of their approximate Chinese equivalents, such as ziwo, geren, gewei. Her careful account of debates around the notion of the individual in early twentieth-century Chinese journals highlights the importance of sensitivity both to the historical burden that words carry, and to the political context in which words are used. “It is not enough,” observes Liu, “to grasp what a discourse says . . . one must be attentive to what the discourse does as well” (p. 105).

Precisely because they range over such a diversity of topics, the essays help to highlight some of the inherent ambivalences and tensions in the notion of “modernity” itself. These tensions are perhaps best illustrated by considering the differences in meaning between two Japanese translations of the term modern—kindai and modan. As Miriam Silverberg points out in her essay on the culture of 1930s Japan, to be modan was to be characterized by “identity, fluidity, the consumption of images, and a focus on ‘play’” (p. 255). In this sense, it was not only distinct from, but in some ways contradictory to, the older notion of kindai, which evoked images of order rather than fluidity, production rather than consumption, diligence rather than playfulness. “Modernity,” in short, was not some coherent system that could be “imported,” with marginal adaptations, by East Asian nations. Rather, it was a shifting, contradictory, and deeply ideological set of images deployed in many varied ways in the social and political struggles that beset the region during the course of the twentieth century.

Minor quibbles may be directed at the essays in this volume and at the editing of the volume as a whole. The postmodern influence at times takes the form of heavy prose style, which makes some contributions to the volume fairly heavy going. In editorial terms, I also longed for a more consistent policy on the inclusion of Chinese characters in the text. They are included in a few places, but absent from the two chapters where they would have been particularly welcome: Lydia Liu’s chapter on the Chinese discourse of individualism and Wang Hui’s chapter on “the fate of ‘Mr. Science’ in China.” In general, however, this volume makes an exciting and significant contribution to the reinterpretation of modern East Asian history, and of notions of modernity and colonialism in general.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki
Australian National University

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.