- China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the PRC by Daniel F. Vukovich
Pity Daniel Vukovich for the task he has given himself in this collection of essays. Reading his critique of Western writing and knowledge on China, and his attempt to rehabilitate the Maoist era, one cannot but think of the professor of Hitler studies in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise whose mission is to make his object of study as popular as Elvis. An assistant professor in comparative literature at Hong Kong University, Vukovich, however, has a strong point in arguing that the discourse on the non-West is ruled by a desire to make the world the same, to turn it into a mirror image of a liberal and capitalist United States.
China and Orientalism consists of a collection of texts on seemingly disparate topics. One of the chapters deals with Mao’s great famine, another deals with Western studies of Chinese film, a third digs deep into the novel Mao II, and still another dissects our understanding of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. This diverse collection is held together by a postcolonial critique of “Sinology”—in Vukovich’s terminology, all Western knowledge production on China. Referring back to Edward Said, Vukovich argues that this “Sinology” rests on both Cold War thinking and earlier European Orientalism; Western knowledge and writing on China are thus “part of a neo-colonial or imperialist project: not just the production of knowledge about an ‘area’ but the would-be management and administration of the area for economic, political, and cultural symbolic benefit.”
As Vukovich sees it, the Mao era is furthermore “demonized” by Western scholarship: The reality of revolutionary China overwritten by a narrative on “Mao the monster.” Vukovich instead proposes a study of Chinese revolutionary discourse in earnest with the aim of presenting revolutionary China on its own terms. He thus argues for a strictly historicist understanding of Maoist China not tainted by any Western liberal understanding of human rights, which at the time the Chinese had never heard of. The citizens of the People’s Republic of China, Vukovich believes, perceived the incarceration, mass campaigns, forced labor, collectivization, thought control, and violent punishments of the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution as fully normal. Those who later witnessed otherwise, Vukovich explains in a twisted logic, did so [End Page 165] since they were the victims of this political regime: The majority of the population were content with what was going on. It is rather we in the West who exert “epistemological violence” on the memory and historiography of a period, which in reality, Vukovich argues, saw the introduction of general health care and education as well as an increase in agricultural production so big that China could assist the Africans and the Vietnamese.
Rather uncannily, then, Vukovich brings up the great famine as a historical example to debunk Western sinology and its demonization of Mao. Here he jumps right into a chapter-long critical assessment of the number of deaths caused by the Great Leap Forward, shrinking the estimate considerably while arguing there exists an ideological colonialist complot by scholars in the West to “rack up the numbers.” The tens of millions of people said to have perished because of the economic policies implemented by China’s Communist Party are just figures thrown out by various individuals: in reality there are simply no adequate records that can tell us right, Vukovich continues. He thereupon provocatively argues that four million more people died in democratic India during the same time period, proving the relative efficacy of the Maoist model. He concludes that in the context of the international 1950s, the Chinese famine was perfectly normal. As a counternarrative to what he sees as the dominant discourse on the Great Leap Forward, Vukovich thus argues that the thinking behind the project that led to dire loss of life was actually good and sound. It was only that its implementation was made difficult by the Russian withdrawal of experts, the existence of...