From the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century more than 20 million people migrated out of China. Shelly Chan analyses the emergence of China as a nation state from the vantage point of the Chinese diaspora around the world.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen is a historian and freelance journalist. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: September 23, 2018

Diaspora’s Homeland: Modern China in the Age of Migration

Shelly Chan

Duke University Press, 2018

The scale of Chinese exodus from the 1840s to the 1940s has been surpassed only by European emigration to the Americas and beyond, and later by mass migration from India. By stating this fact, Shelly Chan in her new book Diaspora’s Homeland reminds us of two important points: That Europe was once the main sending region rather than destination, and that Chinese circulations have spanned the world for centuries. More than 20 million people left China from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th, and this diaspora can, in Chan’s view, serve as a vantage point for understanding the making of modern China.

«All eyes are increasingly on China and its place and role in the global order.»

As all eyes are increasingly on China and its place and role in the global order, Chan’s analysis of historical migration dynamics as a window to the present-day contesting of US hegemony is a timely and thought-provoking enterprise. Her claim is that «diaspora moments» have played a key role in the development of, among other things, sovereignty and diplomacy, debates over tradition and modernity, and struggles between socialism and capitalism in China.

Flows of people and things

Chinese Immigrants to the US

Diaspora moments are for Chan «momentous encounters» in which migrations or migrants produced unexpected reverberations in the nation state of origin. Among these moments she looks at «coolie» migration from China to the Americas in the late 19th century and how it pulled Qing China into Western social, political, and economic geography; at how national identity in Republican China was – not only, but also – produced through the power of Chinese merchants in Southeast Asia; how Confucianism was reinterpreted through migrant experiences of being colonial subjects in the British empire; at the contradictions and conflicts that emerged when a socialist mode of production was confronted with households split between home and abroad, as well as how diaspora returns were simultaneously encouraged and seen as potentially embodying a «capitalist threat».

In revisiting these diaspora moments as keys to the emergence of the present national narrations and political economy of mainland China, Chan follows and expands a tradition of transnational inquiries. Diaspora’s Homeland presents new insights, but also places itself in conversation with related publications such as Wen-Chin Chang and Eric Tagliacozzo’s Chinese Circulations (2011), an anthology about Chinese economy seen through flows of capital and commodities in Southeast Asia.

Temporary absence

In Chinese the word huaqiao was historically used to refer to Chinese diaspora, and according to Chan it literally means «Chinese who are temporarily located». The term thus served to discursively create a permanent national homeland by emphasising migrants’ temporal absence from it, while at the same time indicating that the absence was forced or unwilling. Not until the 19th century was it officially recognised that migration could lead to settlement in another place.

«Diaspora returns were simultaneously encouraged and seen as potentially embodying a «capitalist threat».»

Just like in Europe, those who are mobile have in China traditionally been viewed with suspicion and paranoia, unless part of a political, diplomatic, economic or scholarly elite. In fact, emigration was in long periods of Chinese history banned, not just under Mao but also in the preceding centuries. Such a ban was lifted in one of the diaspora moments that Chan identifies, namely in 1893.

Gusu City, Jiangsu in Qing dynasty

That the Qing government lifted the ban in 1893 has been viewed by historians as a somewhat meaningless gesture as the ban was already systematically circumvented by, for instance, the coolie migration/trade. Chan then asks the observant question: If it had no real meaning, why then was the ban lifted? The quest to find the answer leads her to discover that the point was less to endorse exits and more to invite and encourage returns of the many who had already left: By legalising emigration, the diaspora fear of retaliation upon return was removed.

Just as Deng Xiaoping and succeeding Chinese leaders did later, the Qing government in the late  19th century had realised that the diaspora possessed resources that could be most useful for the homeland nation if mobilised to its ends. These attempts of forging and reinventing ties between the Chinese diaspora and the Chinese nation state have since been refined and retooled as also the cultural anthropologist Aihwa Ong has described in contemporary studies.

Time unbounded

Chan argues that Chinese history is «fragmented and networked» like migration itself, and writes about the heterogeneity of Chinese migrants:

«Some became major players in commerce, industry, government, education, and culture; others were the ubiquitous street peddlers, shopkeepers, vegetable gardeners, laundrymen, cooks, fishermen, and factory workers […] numerous studies have detailed its impact around the globe. Yet one question is often not asked: How did it change China?»

Shelly Chan

The migrations pulled China «into the orbit of empires, nations, and markets far beyond its shores», Chan contends, and analyses how relations were maintained, remade and invented between the migrants and the «homeland». She also makes a call for taking the «transnational turn» to the next level: Now that our understandings of history have been spatially unbounded by inquiries that trace people, ideas and goods across and beyond national boundaries, it is time to free the imagination from periodisation and national chronologies.

Chan points out that scholarship in migration is preoccupied with movement in space, but rarely with movement in time, and argues that one cannot be fully grasped without the other: «It is common to understand diaspora as dispersed communities, while the comparable idea of fragmented temporalities has not attracted much discussion.»

Apart from diaspora moments, Chan also introduces the concept of «diaspora time» to describe «the diverse, ongoing ways in which migration affects the lifeworlds of individuals, families and communities».

With well thought out questions and original vantage points as well as inventive conceptualisations, Diaspora’s Homeland enriches both the knowledge about the making of present day China and the tools for writing history.

Modern Times Review