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  • Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature by Brian Bernards
  • Kien Ket Lim
Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature by Brian Bernards. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016. Pp. xv + 270. $60.00 cloth, $30.00 paper.

This is the third book-length study, after E. K. Tan's Rethinking Chineseness and Alison M. Groppe's Sinophone Malaysian Literature, to tackle the writings in Chinese from Southeast Asia, especially from Malaysia and Singapore.1 Bernards's scope, it seems to me, is more ambitious. Whereas Tan's book limits itself to the 1965–2013 period and Groppe's to authors in one nation-state, Bernards's Writing the South Seas adopts a bird's-eye view over a grand narrative that finds its genesis in Republican China. The life and work of a handful of southbound New Literature (xin wenxue 新文學) luminaries—Xu Dishan 許地山, Lao She 老舍, and Yu Dafu 郁達夫—are laid out in a series of refined vignettes in chapters 1 and 2. In the 1960s, we find homegrown sinophone fiction writers of Malaysia migrating up north to Taiwan, including Li Yongping 李永平, Pan Yu Tong 潘雨桐, and Chang Kuei-hsing 張貴興 (chapter 4). We also see Ng Kim Chew 黃錦樹, who entered the literary scene in the late 1980s (chapter 3). Next, Bernards considers writers who stay close to their homestead, such as Singapore's sinophone authors Yeng Pway Ngon 英培安 and Chia Joo Ming 謝裕民, as well as anglophone novelist Suchen Christine Lim. All three authors see their island republic's policy of racialization as an eyesore (chapter 5). Finally, in chapter 6, readers find a "success story" of integration, that of the sinophone Thai writer Fang Siruo 方思若 (Phonlachet Kitaworanat), whose case represents a permanent state of irreversible creolization.

Nanyang 南洋, or "South Seas," is an age-old poetic idiom in Chinese for Southeast Asia. This locale, which is under scrutiny in this book, must be understood as a place of many nations where Chinese is not the state language. Even in Singapore, where Chinese is a state language, anglophone culture dominates. To survive in Nanyang, then, [End Page 286] sinophone authors go about their daily routines as polyglots, but in their writing, they consciously choose Chinese. They often lie low, because they are fully aware that the Chinese spoken by the Nanyang sinophone community is a tongue without an army or a navy behind it.

When a language is left to itself, semi-stateless almost, creolization becomes its fate. It is on this inadvertent trend that Bernards's presentation is predicated: he traces how creolization is mobilized, willfully or not, by sinophone writers to confront the official racialization policy at home, a policy practiced long ago by the colonial lords. This historical backdrop explains why Bernards prefers "the Nanyang (a maritime Sinophone concept foregrounding creolization)" over "Southeast Asia (a Western imperial projection)" to be the geographical term he employs (p. 196).

Taking creolization as his core idea, Bernards echoes Tan's effort of "rethinking Chineseness." This idea, in turn, is indebted to Shu-Mei Shih's view on the Sinophone to disperse the purist myth of "Chineseness."2 But Bernards goes one step further: he takes pains to paint the political backdrop against which the sinophone literary imagination in Nanyang is produced. As a result, he is faced with literary migrations that go both ways. One migratory trend goes southbound from China in the prewar years, as I noted earlier; the other goes subsequently northward, resinicizing the Chinese Malaysians. Bernards's finding contradicts Shih's view that the sinophone literature can never be diasporic.3 Perhaps it contradicts Tan's also in that Chineseness gets reinstated in the migratory process despite creolization.

Bernards's endeavor complicates the modern Chinese writing scene (the New Literature especially) in a refreshing manner. This field of study has long been confined to events in areas known as "Greater China." To include the South Seas as part of this scene does not imply that the area belongs to China but brings forward a vital part of this scene that has been left out of sight. Most students of modern Chinese literature today largely...


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pp. 286-291
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