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positions: east asia cultures critique 8.1 (2000) 101-149

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Suborientalism and the Subimperialist Predicament:
Aboriginal Discourse and the Poverty of State-Nation Imagery

Fred Yen Liang Chiu

1. The Suboriental/Subimperial/Subcolonial Triad in East Asian Context

IMAGE LINK= It has been more than a decade and a half since Edward Said made his debut with Orientalism. Since then, according to some academics and scholars, the world, that is, its power constellation, together with the discursive structure engendered from it, has been irrevocably transformed. As N. B. Dirks wrote in 1992, "During the last decade, it has been impossible to engage in the study of the colonial world without either explicit or implicit reference to his [Said's] charge that not only our sources but also our basic categories and assumptions have been shaped by colonial rule." 1

Nevertheless, the world is too fragmented to warrant either Dirks's general [End Page 101] claim or the claim of an overarching orientalist reflexivity. The East Asian corner of the globe--were it not so easily (too easily) dismissed, either despite or precisely because of its heavy involvement in a neocolonial project of co-option--has so far been safely immune from any orientalist sensitivity as such. To be specific, one would have tremendous difficulty in locating any significant or meaningful orientalist critique--or, for that matter, colonial discourse--from either the Japanese, the Koreans, or the Han-dominated fragments of "Chinese" societies that are Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and mainland China. This needs some qualification, as Japan has never been really colonized, while it, of course, colonized Taiwan and Korea. We, at the same time, should remember that both Singapore and Hong Kong were colonized by the same British Empire that also colonized Egypt, India, Jamaica, and Turkey, while China itself has been repeatedly proclaimed by its revolutionaries, on the left and the right, as either a semicolony or a subcolony of the various West(s).

What has made such a conspicuous absence of colonial discourse perverse is that the silence signifies not an exception but an anomie. The no-show, no-sell of this Western academic "fashion" item in these nation-states has to be noted and explained, as the self-fashioned cultural compradors here have been monopolizing the business of marketing and modernizing everything--from McDonald's to Madonna--for decades. It is not because this new fetish seemed stingy or unsavory--not, at least, in Taiwan--to the comprador elites. After all, Western-trained returning scholars had succeeded in marketing the dependency theory and co-opted it into a statist apologia through their aerial acrobatics termed take-over-ism. So the answer must be sought instead on the demand side of the question.

In the past few years I have tried to understand such an immunity to reflexivity by looking at the epistemological dynamics and structure of the uninterested, at how they objectify their existence and construct their social practice through a constant process of re-centralization. I found that two sets of Han-related modes of group-identity valorization schemes and imagery--the dragon and the phoenix--offered cognitive frames for an inverted ideological interpellation, enabling parts to claim totality, peripheries to claim centrality, and so forth. All such claims have operated in terms of a historical totemistic configuration. 2 This totemicity has been instrumental [End Page 102] in and constitutes a deep-rooted Han psyche. Yet it is constantly suppressed and twisted, operating under layers of guises of a modern ethnocentric split personality. But how does such a totemicity actually operate in realpolitik circumstances that constitute a dominant power/knowledge constellation?

Two events propelled my inquiry forward and prompted this present research. The first was a seminar held by the editorial collective of Isle Margin, which resulted in the July 1993 publication of its special issue titled Jia (false) Taiwanese on ethnicity and the state-nation imagining complex. 3 It trespasses freely on the taboo territories of various hegemonic projects that [End Page 103] have tried to unify...


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