- Chinese Among Others: Emigration in Modern Times
Philip Kuhn has once again written a disarmingly important book. A five-hundred-year history of global Chinese emigration would have more than sufficed, but Chinese Among Others also broadly reframes modern Chinese history in the context of translocal flows of Chinese people (domestic and transnational); networks of trade, remittance, and travel; and evolving ideas of state, nation, and Chinese identity. The challenge, for historians of China and of Chinese overseas, will be to appreciate the manifold ways in which Philip Kuhn’s dense synthesis reworks the boundaries that have separated these fields and reconfigures ideas of China, Chinese, and Chineseness. Scholars and theorists of colonialism and of ethnic studies will also find a great deal to interest them. Packaged as a textbook, Chinese Among Others offers the promise of wide accessibility but also runs the risk of escaping the attention of scholars who have trained themselves to look for more explicitly theoretical interventions.
Kuhn chooses the symbolic date of 1567, the official lifting of an abiding if often unavailing imperial ban on private maritime trade, to begin his story of the longue durée of Chinese emigration. What follows is a China-centered, if not China-bound, narrative of enduring connections between Chinese soil and Chinese emigrants worldwide. Also central to the story, not surprisingly for Kuhn, is China’s polity “in its successive avatars: dynastic empire, embattled republic, socialist-revolutionary nation-state, and capitalist autocracy” (pp. 3–4).1 The relation between Chinese emigrants and the state is neither direct nor uncomplicated, nor is it controlled by the Chinese state. The emigrants are connected to China through their ties to Chinese soil and because they find it useful in specific times and places to claim, and to leverage, multiple territorial or national identities.
At the outset, Kuhn connects overseas emigration to the flows of the domestic population within late imperial China, and defines it as a “subset of a vaster scene of human movement of which the major part [End Page 422] was internal migration” (p. 4). These links are crucial and transgress the imagined territorial boundaries that still separate China studies and the study of overseas Chinese, and divide area studies and ethnic studies. Although theoretical challenges to these divisions abound, what is especially valuable is that Kuhn substantively works out interconnections across five centuries and upon a global frame. In the process, Kuhn introduces a metaphorical language of “corridors,” niches, and a shape-shifting but traceable “cultural palette” (p. 161) of associational forms that morph as they move from the domestic arena to the sojourners’ transnational locations. The “corridors” of emigration, linked by native-place ties, stretch from hometowns to sojourner settlements beyond China’s borders. Emigrant-sending homeland areas (qiaoxiang) are within Chinese borders but are often more closely linked to overseas emigrant communities than to “China.” These communities are simultaneously transnational and particularistic, existing “in a special zone that is neither fully part of the homeland nor fully part of the adopted land of the émigrés” (p. 50). They are not free-floating zones of diasporic identity but “social and economic organisms” (p. 49), anchored in time, place, and niche businesses that provide access to economic opportunity. The opportunities they offer are brokered by inclusive but hierarchically affiliated organizations that direct intersecting flows of capital and labor.
The dynamics of the emigrant community organizations that evolved under these conditions varied considerably in accordance with local ecologies at both ends of the qiaoxiang arc. Within the “epicenters of emigration” (p. 28), the coastal provinces of south and southeast China, Kuhn traces the variant ecologies of particular locales, in which distinctive dialect groups provided the bases for community bonds, self-protection, and commercial integration. Kuhn introduces readers, in turn, to coastal Fujian (Minnan) and the “Hokkien Maritime Pioneers”; the Pearl River delta and the Cantonese; Chaozhou prefecture in northeast Guangzhou and its “Teochiu” people; Hakka “borderland frontiersmen,” Hailam, Hokchiu, and Henghua/Hokchia; and “late-blooming” emigrants from...