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Reviewed by:
  • Sound and Script in Chinese Diaspora
  • Karen Thornber
Sound and Script in Chinese Diaspora BY Jing Tsu. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. Pp. xii + 306. $45.00.

Jing Tsu's outstanding new book Sound and Script in Chinese Diaspora perceptively analyzes the institutionalization and dissemination of the modern Chinese language from the late nineteenth century to the present by focusing on sinophone writing in the Chinese-speaking world and on key bilingual forays. This study investigates everything from recent calls for the merger of simplified and traditional Chinese scripts—calls that reflect not only the largest divide in the modern Chinese language but also the greater, enduring conflict between spoken sounds and written script—to lesser known contentions about the modern Chinese language in the literatures of its diasporic communities around the world. Discrediting common perceptions of the "native language," including renowned literary scholar Claudio Guillén's assumption of "biological delight" in the literature of one's "mother tongue," Tsu rightly argues that with global migration, multilingual [End Page 195] upbringings, and forcible alienation from early languages, linguistic nativity no longer can be taken as a "once-and-for-all endowment" (p. 12). Instead, to use Jing Tsu's words, this nativity is a "repeating process of acquisition"; entry into language is a privilege, one that, marketed under rubrics such as "mother tongue," "literacy," and "standard language," is unevenly distributed. The implications of this insight are significant and require us to rethink the production of national languages and literatures, as well as that of literature and criticism more generally. Tsu analyzes "sinophone" as primarily a problem of sound and script, making her book a groundbreaking work in sinophone studies. This volume is also essential reading for scholars and students of Chinese literature, comparative literature, world literature, cultural studies, and diaspora studies.

One of the most important contributions of Sound and Script is its introduction of the concept of "literary governance," which Tsu describes as a global process that "emerges wherever there is an open or veiled, imposed or voluntary coordination between linguistic antagonisms and the idea of the 'native speaker'" (p. 2). Literary governance, as Tsu understands it, differs from Michel Foucault's notion of governmentality and from similar conceptions of state power. At the core of literary governance is the notion of linguistic nativity—something that can be both deeply personal and explicitly institutionalized but tends to support a range of linguistic allegiances, from centers of literary and cultural prestige to disregarded margins. The term "governance" emphasizes strategies of collaboration across different occasions of language use, and Tsu is careful to note that her use of the concept of governance does not signify control from the top down, but instead points to the ways that "linguistic alliances and literary production organize themselves around incentives of recognition and power" (p. 12). The "linguistic antagonisms" of literary governance result from tensions between, on the one hand, the political and material processes of accessing language and script through learned orthography and, on the other, reliance on a notion of a primary, naturalized linguistic home (the "mother tongue") to support cultural cohesiveness. The conflicting dimensions of such phenomena as language standardization and reform, native speakers and mother tongues, and national literatures and diasporic writings can result in strong rivalries. But they also somewhat paradoxically can facilitate local, national, and global [End Page 196] literary cooperation. Ingeniously examining language as a "medium of access" rather than a "right to identity," Sound and Script reveals how the Chinese language, as "national" or "mother" tongue, travels across borders of all kinds. This allows us to reconceptualize notions of identity—and concepts such as nativism, nostalgia, and nationalism, as well as "Chineseness"—as spaces for manipulating linguistic capital. Even more importantly, especially for scholars of comparative literature, Tsu highlights how scholars have minimized subnational differences in order to highlight nation-based comparisons. The book more than lives up to its stated aim of providing "a framework that compels an account of the hidden linguistic assumptions that support the governance of any literary field" (p. 14).

Sound and Script is divided into eight chapters, including an introduction, each of which insightfully discusses an aspect of...


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