Sinophone literature, a term coined by Shu-mei Shih in 2004, denotes Sinitic-language literature written “on the margins of China and Chineseness.” As an emerging field of inquiry, the Sinophone provides a conceptual alternative to the paradigm of China-based national literary studies; as an organizing category, the Sinophone evinces the plurality of cultural identities, linguistic practices, and ethnicities of Sinitic-language communities around the world. It also crystallizes discussions—the destabilization of Chineseness in the era of transnationalization and the reflections on the hegemony of China and Sinocentric discourses—that have penetrated the field of Chinese studies since the 1990s.
One may immediately recognize the affinity between the Sinophone and ideas of Francophone or Anglophone studies, all of which, theoretically indebted to postcolonialism, propose a reconceptualization of center and periphery, empire and colony, imperialism and the colonial language. Yet the Sinophone is not a simple derivative from the Francophone or the Anglophone, but represents a more intriguing dynamic between geographical entities and linguistic practices that may complicate and complement the existing postcolonial articulations. Drawing from recent historiography on Qing China (1641-1911), Shu-mei Shih identifies Qing China as an empire—not the mere victim of Western imperialism—that manifests distinctive forms of colonialism: continental, internal and settler colonialisms. However, it remains much disputed whether the modern empire-colony relationship would be an effective explanatory model for the complex historical interactions between China and Sinophone locales since the pre-modern age and whether Chinese would qualify as a colonial language, as the decision to preserve Sinitic languages as well as the Chinese literary traditions in overseas communities is often made by choice rather than by force.
As the idea of the Sinophone rejects a monolithic representation of Chineseness, similarly the concept of the Sinophone defies a uniform definition. Distinctive articulations are constantly evolving under the same name of Sinophone, demonstrating contending ideologies and politics of culture and identity that endeavor to construct, deconstruct or reconstruct Chineseness at a time when China stages itself as a world power.
For Shu-mei Shih, the creator of the Sinophone, the imperative for the coinage of the term is to confront the hegemony and homogeneity of Chineseness and the marginalization of cultural productions outside China. In spite of the constant call to return to the ancestral land or claims of China-centrism, Shih takes a resistant position in search of local identities, urging the Sinophone population to live “as a political subject within a particular geopolitical place in a specific time with deep local commitments.” Shih strategically excludes Chinese literature produced in China from the world map of the Sinophone, demonstrating that the center is continuously threatened to become the new margin.
A more inclusive definition of the Sinophone as “Sinitic-language speaking” would include literary productions from China and thus piece together a global picture of the Sinophone. Despite the differences, both the inclusive and the exclusive perspectives subvert “the hegemonic focus of a ‘national’ Chinese literature” but aspire to a reconfiguration of it. For David Wang and Jing Tsu, the Sinophone is less a choice of localization as opposed to Sinicization than the removal of disciplinary and geographical boundaries, on the premise of which Sinophone studies would be able to engage in inter-disciplinary and transnational dialogues:
Looking at Sinophone writing as an interaction between the production of literatures and moving agents, one might subject the narrative of customary disciplinary divides and national literary histories to similar shifts. More important than the coinage of new terms is the creation of new dialogues among the fields of area studies, Asian American studies, and ethnic studies.
Shih, Shu-mei. “Against Diaspora.” Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader. Ed. Shu-mei Shih, Chien-hsin Tsai, and Brian Bernards. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Print.
---. “Global Literature and the Technologies of Recognition.” PMLA 119.1 (2004): 16–30.
---. “The Concept of the Sinophone.” PMLA 126.3 (2011): 709–718.
Tsu, Jing, and David Der-wei Wang, eds. Global Chinese Literature: Critical Essays. Leiden, The Netherlands ; Boston: Brill, 2010. Print.