Matthias Niedenführ: Adapting Postmodern and Postcolonial thought to the needs of China

Matthias Niedenführ, European Centre for Chinese Studies (ECCS), Peking University / Tübingen University

Prof. Dr. Lei Yi (雷颐) is a renowned historian and intellectual at the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). He publishes extensively on late Qing history and frequently writes essays and comments on current events in the press and in his blog on Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter).

In his presentation “Interpretation of Post-modern Theory and Post-colonial Theory in the Context of China’s Modernity“ (中国现代语境中的后现代与后殖民阐释) he critically analyzes both the way that these theories have been adopted and interpreted in China and the contradictions that “Post-School” intellectuals in China tend to ignore. On top of that he also questions to some degree the legitimacy of the original proponents of Post-Colonial theory when it comes to “speaking for the Third World”.

“Third World” status of Post-Colonial theorists

Lei states that although many influential post-colonial theorists like Edward Said, Prasenjit Duara, Arif Dirlik, etc. are of Non-Caucasian ancestry and have a “Third World” background, they have long lived in Western countries and attained notable teaching positions there after having completely shed off the “Third World” label. Only after attaining a certain status did they start to criticize Euro-Centrism in “Western academia”. They declared themselves to be representatives of a “Third World” which they have left long ago and whose reality they have little knowledge of. Lei criticizes that for them “Third World” only is a useful tool, even ”academic capital” they can exploit to gain status. They have embedded themselves firmly in “Western academia” which they themselves criticize in their theoretic works.

Do some extent I agree with him that some of these theorists have attained a star-status in Western academia and actually have little in common with the societies they supposedly represent. Only when these Post-colonial intellectuals more or less play along the rules of the game they criticize with their theories do they reach an audience and gain a critical mass of academic prowess. While this makes them vulnerable for criticism that it itself does not completely discredit their arguments. It is not so much a lack of legitimacy but this actually brings us back to the original problem: Intellectuals of Non-Western countries tend to be marginalized. But this is also true of Western intellectuals of Non-English speaking countries (Russia, France, Germany, Italy, etc.) as long as they don’t publish in English and sustain close academic ties with the academic capitals in the Anglo-American world.

Lei Yi’s criticism of Post Modern and Post-Colonial theorists as being essentially nationalists 

Lei criticizes proponents of Chinese-style Post-colonial theory for indiscriminately targeting others with harsh language and labeling others to be “post-colonized” for making references to Western art or literature, such as a young nationalist scholar who branded Yang Jiang “post-colonized” for comparing a Chinese girl with Mona Lisa. Since said scholar himself compared fervent young Chinese to the adolescent in Salinger’s novel “Catcher of the Rye”, this form of branding others is not helpful. Lei points out that already in Zhang Zhidong’s time it was not possible anymore to completely avoid foreign influenced terms since Western terms by way of Japanese translation already were deeply engrained in the Chinese language.

Lei has a valid point here: “Post-Colonialized” can easily be used as a label to criticize others. A Chinese scholar’s reference to Western notions or his use of Western terms should not be the grounds to brand him. In so doing we would deprive him of his words. A very effective way of keeping someone’s mouth shut, but not something anybody should accept in academia, whether in China or elsewhere.

Application of Postmodern and Postcolonial thought in China

Lei argues that Chinese intellectuals who accepted post-modern and post-colonial theories have done so without duly processing them, without fully understanding their meaning and the context in which they emerged. These ideas underwent a “horizontal transformation” from Europe to China, something he calls a “dual dislocation” in time and space.

The adaption of these theories in China often disregards their original intentions and leads to “self-contradictions”. Postmodern intellectuals identified power relations and supported “weak groups” – women, ethnic and social minorities –  “vis-à-vis” the strong. In the same way, Post-Colonial thinkers criticize Euro-centrism in science which tends to overlook valuable input from intellectuals from other world regions.

But in China criticism of the Western dominated discourse concentrates on the criticism of enlightenment. They strongly question whether the value of “universal humanity” or “universal human rights” actually exist, or whether this was just another tool for “Western cultural imperialists” to subdue China. Post-Modern arguments are used – if not outright abused – to justify the exact opposite of what Post-Modern intellectuals tried to stand for. They favor the (politically controlled) mainstream and tend to overtone “noise” (i.e. differing or even dissenting views).

Lei argues that for Chinese intellectuals like Lin Zexu, Chen Duxiu, Lu Xun, etc. the Western model was not necessarily something to be implemented directly, but they rather reacted to internal needs of China and chose applicable elements of it. “Post-Modern and Post-Colonial theory” can only become something useful for China, when they are processed and adapted to the Chinese local context, the actual social conditions.

Lei knows how to walk the thin line. On one hand, in China’s current “maintain social stability environment” (维稳weiwen), Post-Colonial theory is still applied to support the Nationalist paradigm, to support China against the West. But since the balance of power is gradually shifting towards China, the validity of this argument can be doubted. The analysis of power relations within China by applying Post-Modern thought on the other hand can bring unwanted results and might better be avoided.

June 10, 2012