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.
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
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.
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.