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January 10, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright January 10, 2009 Peter Zarrow. Used by permission.


I want to share some impressions of a book that the sinologically inclined (like me) might otherwise ignore. Big White Lie, by John Fitzgerald, is most importantly a polemic about Australian history—subtitled “Chinese Australians in White Australia”—but it also has a lot to say about modern Chinese culture, politics, and business. What follows is not a systematic review but a few xinde: somewhat random and incomplete notes on what I got out of the book.

The study of overseas Chinese has always seemed to me like an orphan field—an interesting and important area of research that has long produced major scholarship, but lacking a home of its own. In the post-war American universities, it didn’t quite fit into Asian studies—sometimes researchers didn’t even know how to read classical Chinese!—nor history departments with their national pigeonholes. None of this prevented a rapid growth of the field (or subfield?), perhaps in part because of the rise of identity politics, at least in the case of the United States, since the 1970s. And there is no doubt today that more recent academic trends in global history (and real-life trends in international business), are showing up the inadequacies of national history, and the importance of diaspora studies. About a decade ago, one of its masters, Wang Gungwu, suggested that overseas Chinese studies couldn’t be just one thing: he highlighted the differences among the various Chinese communities that had emerged outside of China and the need for comparative work on them.

Whether overseas Chinese studies will become a key part of sinology, as Wang thinks, and a sub-field of ethnic and minority studies, as he hopes, remains to be seen. An explicitly comparative approach was followed by Adam McKeown in a stimulating attempt to break out of the national framework.[1] By highlighting the role of Chinese in the global circulation of people, goods, and money and Chinese networks in both local and transnational contexts, McKeown is able to transcend the limitations of national history and the “settler versus sojourner” debate of traditional migrant studies. Whether more assimilated or more tied to transnational Chinese networks (or of course both), Chinese migrants and their descendents around the world have always been active participants in constructing their identities.