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Book Review


Shelly Chan, Diaspora's Homeland: Modern China in the Age of Global Migration. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. Pp. xiv + 264. Bibliography and index. $26.95 (paper).


     The title is precise rather than expansive: this is intellectual and political history more than cultural or social history, more a history of Chinese modernist reactions to diasporas than a history of the diaspora itself or the broader effects of the diaspora on modern Chinese history. Chan's thesis is that the very concept of China as a coherent nation is a result of conversations that involved, and may have required, the diaspora as an object of analysis, and that interactions with overseas Chinese in the context of international relations and domestic policy shaped the modern Chinese state, or at least repeatedly forced it to engage constructively with elements of modernity. Chan invokes previous theorists' work on the concept of time that suggests a complex temporal disjunction between the nations of origin and multi-generational Chinese diasporic communities. If a nation has a single progressive chronology, "diaspora time" intersects it at odd angles, producing tension punctuated by "diaspora moments" of reckoning (1213).

     Chan's introduction and conclusion consider diaspora as an interpretive lens for critical questions around the integration of Hong Kong and Taiwan into mainland China's national identity and narrative. The multi-generational nature of overseas Chinese communities: what Chan calls the continuities of "diaspora time," suggests the difficulties of a fully satisfactory resolution. The work of Valerie Hansen, Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, and others suggests that the pragmatic and adaptive approach that the Qing, Nationalists, and Communists took to ruling a diverse Chinese empire that included relations with overseas Chinese is in fact a long-standing domestic model; the harder adjustment is to a nation-state concept, which has never been fully coherent or realistic.1

     Theoretical issues aside, the episodes Chan highlights are worth integrating into our narratives of Chinese modernization and socialist reform. The first chapter argues that the 1893 proclamation legalizing emigration was not a delayed reaction to a century of change, but a deliberate attempt to promote and reap economic and social benefits from return migration, and the culmination of a process that began with the Zongli Yamen over three decades earlier. Engagements with international law to try to vouchsafe the welfare of overseas Chinese at the height of coolie indenture forced Chinese officials to confront, adopt, and manipulate a modern system of state sovereignty. Though the focus is on the Qing government, Chan describes and credits overseas labor migrants in forcing the issue through petitions and journalism.

     Two patterns explored in this chapter persist through the book: the Chinese state trying to leverage overseas Chinese for diplomatic and economic benefit, and the political and intellectual discourses that tended to sideline the voices and actions of migrants and diasporas. Chan acknowledges the weakness in some of her archival sources, and consistently highlights those in which emigrants and returnees speak for themselves. Chan provides enough background information, but the focus on intellectual and political discourses obscures many social, economic, and cultural aspects of the Chinese diaspora. The structure seems somewhat strained: these "diaspora moments" are mostly decades-long processes, and while the last two chapters certainly address different aspects of diaspora, it's not clear they represent separate moments.

     The next section focuses on what earlier scholars might have called Westernization. Southeast Asian Chinese diasporas creatively adapted Victorian ideas of progress and gender, as well as settler colonialism and social Darwinism, from Britain and Japan. Chan distinguishes her approach from outdated impact/response or tradition/development models by centering Chinese and overseas Chinese as active and thoughtful users of ideologies of state, race, and development.2 Chinese thinkers tried to integrate diaspora conceptually with the nation and concretely with the state as an agent of progress and power. China as a nation was expressed in modernist terms: as an empire, as a modernizing society with a privatized religious sphere, as a people unified by language and culture (even though they were manifestly not unified by either, at this point). Chapter Two analyzes Chinese scholarship responding to Imperial Japanese studies of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, adapting Japanese arguments about emigration as a frontier and echoing nationalist tropes decrying assimilation into local culture among those they hoped to claim as their citizens. Chapter Three focuses on a single diaspora thinker, Lim Boon Keng, who famously clashed with Lu Xun in 1926 over the application of Confucianism in a modernizing China. Lim spent a good portion of the previous three decades theorizing a kind of Enlightenment Confucius as part of a Victorian-style Chinese modernity, featuring education for men, domesticity for women, and a monochrome nationalism with standardized rituals and language.

     The last two chapters focus on the challenge of diaspora to communist China in its high Maoist phase, mostly the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s. The tension between pragmatism and political orthodoxy was intense, and it is no surprise that diaspora produced policy vacillations. The state valued the economic power of migrant remittances and the accumulated capital of diasporic entrepreneurs, and struggled to apply standardized models of "modern marriage" and rural reform without alienating independent-minded and mobile overseas Chinese. In Chapter Four, Chan shows socialist leaders stumbling over gender: complex issues created by male emigrants connected to local families through marriages that permitted extended absences, tolerated adultery on both sides, and empowered women as money and property managers in their own right. Officials first encouraged divorce so local women could establish proper labor-oriented families then actively discouraged divorces so as to maintain remittance flows, but in all cases failed spectacularly to reckon with women's agency. This is a powerful example of the general failure of the communist state to seriously engage gender beyond the blanket condemnation of "feudal attitudes."

     Chapter Five looks at returnees from Southeast Asia in the 1960s, refugees of policy and often violence from anti-Chinese and anti-Communist attitudes of post-colonial nationalism. Again, the political dictates of socialism were repeatedly overwhelmed by the desire to preserve the economic vigor these new citizens could provide with their personal fortunes and their overseas connections. Attempts to impose socialist education, ruralization, and other forms of discipline, including political violence after returnees were labeled subversive capitalist elements, foundered on complexity and exceptions persisted.

     There is additional discussion of post-Maoist diaspora in the conclusion: new flows of educated and prosperous overseas Chinese were subject to active engagement by the nominally communist state but also difficult to capture and manage. One of the most powerful vectors of control is the deployment of a unitary nationalism: Chineseness as an inherited essence, unaffected by assimilation, undiluted by diversity, subjecting all overseas Chinese to a kind of mainland Han hegemony. Diaspora time will continue to resist the imposition of any state's disciplined chronology or ahistorical uniformity, though understanding that disjunction could help Chinese leaders craft a diaspora policy that does not collapse on contact with reality, Chan argues.

     Diaspora's Homeland is a bracing read for anyone teaching or writing the history of modern China or diaspora, well worth the time and effort, though the writing is sometimes careful to the point of seeming repetitive. Chan's emphasis on the Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora is an important counter to the tendency of English-language scholarship to focus on smaller flows of Western immigration. Graduate students in history and Asian studies should encounter sophisticated transnational history early in their education, and this certainly qualifies. Advanced history undergraduates could learn a great deal from the historical episodes, though how they would handle the theoretical complexity would depend on how it was framed and taught. The lack of a glossary for Chinese-language words isn't a serious flaw, but it may make the reading more difficult for people who aren't used to dealing with a steady accumulation of foreign terms.

     The historical work in this book is impressive, delving into sources and episodes that have not been well-developed in existing scholarship. This is a thought-provoking beginning to the development of a modern Chinese history that integrates diaspora, and diaspora history that understands how China has constructed itself as a homeland over the last century and a half. The difficulty of holding both in mind together is considerable, as evidenced by how many other histories fail to account for the temporal realities on one side or the other.

Jonathan Dresner is Associate Professor of East Asian History at Pittsburg State University of Kansas. His research is primarily on Japanese migration and modernity. He can be reached at



1 Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 2015). Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

2 Paul Cohen. Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).


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