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Reviewed by:
  • Sinographies: Writing China
  • Andrea Bachner (bio)
Eric Hayot, Haun Saussy, and Steven G. Yao, editors. Sinographies: Writing China. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. xxi, 408 pp. Paperback $27.50, ISBN 978-0-8166-4725-5.

What do Milton’s Paradise Lost, Victor Segalen’s Steles, Athanasius Kircher’s China Illustrata, and Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon have in common? As ways of framing China, they join the vast array of texts—in different genres, from different cultural contexts, and produced in different centuries—that are subjected to the critical gaze in the fifteen essays (including the introduction to the volume) that form Sinographies: Writing China. The contributions in this volume—only four of which are reprints of previously published pieces—range in topic from early modernity to the present, from impressionistic accounts of ethnographic fieldwork to literary analyses, from the construction of interculturality [End Page 341] in Chinese texts to visions of China and “Chineseness” in non-Chinese texts. Nevertheless, Sinographies reads less like a collection of essays on a general topic and more like a polyphonic exploration of the same conceptual quandary: how to think (and write) about representations of cultural alterity, taking as its example the trope of China.

The volume’s focus on China and Chinese culture as the object of a global, intercultural fascination takes into account both the long tradition of orientalist inspirations in the West and the timeliness of a renewed interest in China as one of the most powerful players on the world stage. Indeed, as Eric Hayot foregrounds in his essay, “Chineseness: A Prehistory of Its Future,” China today is written in a paradoxical double time that contrasts the age-old prejudice of stasis, China’s supposed frozenness in time, with a narrative of acceleration and progress. Only such a temporal duplicity allows for a framing of China as at once inferior and threatening, at once fascinating and inscrutable. Together with the preface, Hayot’s text, the first essay in the volume, sets the tone for the collection. The editors define the objective of the book and the individual essays: “[T]hey explore the particular forms of writing that produce and convey (within China as well as without it) the meanings of China; they try to understand those writings analytically, symptomatically, and historically, in relation to multiple determinants. Sinography would be to sinology (a debated discipline in its own right) as historiography is to history, a reflection on the conditions, assumptions, and logic of a set of disciplinary and cultural practices” (p. vii). Here, a theoretically sophisticated perspective on the intricacies, complexities, and paradoxes inherent in the multiple processes of writing China programmatically replaces a binary narrative of cultural authenticity overwritten by an ideologically invested discourse that produces another culture as an Other. The essays inscribe themselves in the critical discourse on the cultural production of difference founded, in large part, by Edward Said’s Orientalism. Their authors no longer presuppose any real China out there, below and beyond its appearance in different discourses, without, however, becoming oblivious to questions of power inherent in act of “writing” the cultural self and other. Instead, China is nothing more (and nothing less) than the sum of all possible sinographies.

Given the diversity of topics and texts involved in the process of writing China, the five parts or subdivisions of Sinographies with their—at times—esoteric titles, cannot and are not intended to set up strict categories: (1) “The Language and Rhetoric of ‘China,’” (2) “Early-Modern Cultural Production,” (3) “Testimony, Reportage, Meddling,” (4) “Minority Discourses and Immigration,” and (5) “Mediated Externalities.” Given that they differ in type—some are temporally organized, some generically organized, some topically organized—the purpose is clearly to group essays that profit from a contiguous reading process, rather than building rigorous categories for a mapping of sinographical practice. [End Page 342]

The project of Sinographies invites its contributors not only to produce analyses of the multiple practices of writing China, but requires them to lay the theoretical groundwork for a shift in disciplinary perspective at the same time. Most of the essays take up this call, some in implicit ways, others in ways that...