Sinophone studies: the voice of subaltern?

Sinophone studies: the voice of subaltern?

Article by Lin Shih Chun.

Abstract: Sinophone, a concept that has been quite popular in Taiwan in recent years. The goal of this studies is to reveal the “voice” of minorities in the literature. However, the so-called “multilingualism” doesn’t actually resolve the problem brought by the “national language”. Based on this problematic, this article will discuss a community of voice in vernacular movement of China.

Keywords: voice, utterance, vernacular movement, multilingualism, nation
Header image: Map of Formosa (Taiwan) and Surrounding Countries by Dutch Frederik de Wit,1662.

Sinophone, a concept that has been quite popular in Taiwan in recent years. This post-colonial term includes many concept, for example, colonization, diaspora, etc. This actually reflects the fact that language is not just a kind of “communication” but also the political economy issue. Because Sinophone studies reject diaspora, this concept is quite attractive to countries who want to be independent (Taiwan), or immigrants (Malaysian Chinese, American Chinese). However, if we observe carefully this studies, we can find that the so-called “multilingualism” is just another kind of “diglossia”(言文分離) which is criticized in the Chinese vernacular movement(Baihu,白話). This “diglossia” can still be seen in East Asia, such as Hong Kong and “Japan.” However, unlike what has been criticized in the vernacular movement, the emphasis of Sinophone on diglossia comes from a desire to fight with Chinese’s hegemony. But, does the ” multilingualism ” really solve the problem of “national language”? In fact, “Japanese” is not included in the Sinophone sutdies. However, if we consider the hegemony of Chinese in East Asia, Japanese should be included in the ” Sinophone sutdies “.

According to Japanese scholar, Komori Yōichi(小森陽一), Motoori Norinaga((本居宣長) invent “Japanese” by extracting the ‘‘voice of Japanese’’ from the Chinese word. Following this kind of view, modern “Japanese” was just born through the so called” multilingualism ” in Sinophone. Therefore, although the purpose of the Sinophone sutdies is to counter the hegemony of Chinese in East Asia, the emphasis on ” multilingualism ” does not actually solve the problems brought by the “national language”, but make the problem more serious. In fact, the problem of modern national language (at least in China) comes just from the “voice”. We know that the vernacular movement advocates “the unification of the spoken and written languages”(言文一致) in order to to escape the “law” of classical written language(wenyan,文言). The so-called “colloquial style”(我手寫我口) is to use a “spoken language” to improve Chinese traditional literature. There are two ways to transform the literature. One is “pinyin”(拼音), another is “ancestor’s voice”(古音). Although these two directions are completely different, there is one thing in common: literature must be built around the “human voice.” In fact, we can observe an important shift, that is, literature gradually turn its focus to “people.” The intellectual want to evoke “people” from the transformation of literary, or “people” and “literature” influence each other in the vernacular movement. If we consider the historical background of the vernacular movement, it is no difficult to realize that Baihu is the so-called national language. Of course, this will immediately remind us of Benedict Anderson’s popular book Imagined community. However, the “printing” is not so important in the invention of “national image”, but the “voice”. But, how can we imagine a nation through a voice? This must mention the relation between “sense” and “community.” For the relations between voice, meaning, and community, it is necessary to deal with the problem between signified and signifier in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in general linguistics. Indeed, the problem between signified and signifier runs through the entire vernacular movement. Just take a look at the Zhang Taiyan’s(章太炎) analysis. What he wants to do is come back to the “original relation” between signified and signifier. For him, this“original link” represent the purest “Chinese nation”. The literature which was built around this original link is perfect Baihu. However, we know that the link between signified and signifier is not stable according to the study of continental philosophy. This unstable doesn’t meant that the link between signified and signifier is “conventional”, but just like the “utterance”(parole) discussed by Saussure. From this point of view, Zhang Taiyan imagine a nation from the “stable” link between signified and signifier. What “convention” means is just a “national history”. Of course, the history of the vernacular movement is not only related to voice, but to the socialism. The Discussion about the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies school, the publication of A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, these are good example. If we want to analyze this relation, we should analyze a determinism in Marx’s historical materialism. For example, according to the overdetermination of Althusser, it is necessary at least to recognize the contingency and the indeterminism which is ignored in the historical materialism. However, in this article, we will only focus on the question about Sinophone. The multilingualism in Sinophone didn’t get the point but repeat the what the national language to do. According to this problematic, this article analyzes the voice of national language.


What is Sinophone studies and the problem.

What is Sinophone studies? According to Shih Shu-Mei, this study concern three domaines: “continental colonialism”, “settler colonialism”, “diaspora”. Regarding the first domaine, the Anglo-Saxophone or francophone studies make often us believe that the “West” is the only one who have power to colonize people. However, what history shows us, in fact, there are an imperialism in China. When we face to such an imperialism, Shi Shu-Mei believes that we need Sinophone studies in order to reveal the existence of minorities in China. Following this “multilingualism”, we can understand the second domain of Sinophone studies: settler colonialism. “Diaspora” is a popular concept in the research of immigration. However, in such a concept, one thing is often overlooked: the immigrants themselves are also a colonizer. The settler colonialism didn’t just happen in China. Before the Qing Dynasty, many Han immigrants arrived in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. These Han immigrants themselves is one part of the Western colonizers. In Taiwan, for example, the aborigines were continuously oppressed by the Dutch, Han and Japanese. Shi Shu Mei called this: “serial colonialism”. Therefore, the concept of Chinese diaspora, in fact, cover up the violence of settled colonialism. Moreover, the diaspora presupposes also the “intimate relation” between immigrant and Chinese culture, even though these immigrants have lived outside of China for many decades. From this perspective, Sinophone studies are actually “anti- diaspora ” and “local”. Just like what Shi Shu-Mei talks: ‘‘Sinophone culture is therefore transnational in constitution and formation but local in practice and articulation.’’ Therefore, sinophone studies have a certain relationship with the question of identity. Shi Shu-Mei believes that the sinophone culture is not defined by ethnic groups, but by language. Thus “sinophone American culture is American culture, and Sinitic language spoken in the United States should be considered as minority American languages.” “Nostalgia for China in Sinophone American culture is nostalgia produced from the experience of the living in the United States, hence it is a form of American nostalgia’’[1].

Shi Shu-mei uses the contrast between “transnational” and “local” to emphasize the individual’s local experience. According to this perspective, we can’t imagine immediately “Chinese” as “Chinese” or the person who speak this language is the “Chinese”. However, when Shi Shu-mei emphasis on multilingualism, his Sinophone studies is nothing more than Saussure’s “convention” between signified and signifier. In more detail, although the instability between signified and signifier that continental philosophy want to show is also some kind of “mirage” about the language. But this is quite different from the “convention between signified and signifier.” When such difference is be ignored, Sinophone studies repeat the national language’s movement.


The vernacular movement: the literature of “people”.

Regarding the Chinese’s voice, it is necessary to discuss modernization of Chinese: vernacular movement. Hu Shi is a representative figure in this movement. Therefore, the analysis about the vernacular movement begins with Hu Shi. As everyone knows, Hu Shi wrote a book History of vernacular literature for the vernacular movement. There is a very important point in the history of vernacular literature: literature must start from “people”. The idea of transforming “wenyan” through “people’s voice” or discovering the ignored people through vernacular literature is a basic concept of Hu Shi’s History of vernacular literature. Therefore, the history of vernacular literature can basically be called the literature of “people”. This concern should be related to the “national sovereignty” as a tool of decolonization. However, this complicated history will not be discussed in this article. We will focus only on the issue between voice and the “Chinese”. In order to describe the history of vernacular literature, Hu Shi begin with the” spirit of the age” in the literature. According to him, there is a student asked him a question. Why we can’t identify a spirit of the age in Chinese literature?? In the West, we can always find a representative literature in every period. This kind of literature represent ” spirit of the age”. Hu Shi think that the history of literature readied by student is the history of wenyan. What we can see in this kind of literature is just an imitation. The writer imitates only the predecessors no matter an article or a poem. Everyone just wants to be a “filial son”. Therefore, if you want to find a literature that can represent the spirit of the times, you must find the literature written by “unfilial son”. However, it should be noted that Hu Shi’s “literature of unfilial son ” is not so disobedient. Instead, it means that literature must start from “people”. Therefore, literature that can represents the spirit of the times in Hu Shi’s understanding will be, for example, Officialdom Unmasked, The Travels of Lao Can, The Story of the Stone etc.

According to Hu Shi’s view, wenyan is preserved in the system of imperial examination(科舉制度) for two thousand years. In the West, only one language has the similar history: Latin. However, unlike China, the European tried their best to break away from the law of Latin and use their own “Baihu” to create “national languages” in the middle ages. The book Imagined Communities gave us a detailed historical analysis about the fall of Latin’s hegemony. However, Benedict Anderson did not notice that there was a totally different kind of national language movement in China. The imagination of the nation didn’t come from “printing” but the “voice.” Chinese intellectual use the voice to construct the literature. They want to evoke the “national subject” by shifting the focus of literature on the “human”.


National community in the ancestor’s voice

According to Hu Shi’s point of view, the disappearance of the imperial examination system finally allowed the nation which is repressed can be noticed. However, some reactions emerged in this vernacular movement. It is worth noting that this reaction doesn’t mean to return to the law of the wenyan, but to call out the national subject from the ” ancestor’s voice “. The most classic representative figure is Zhang Taiyan. Because Zhang Taiyan’s thinking system is too complicated, I can’t explain it clearly right now. Therefore, the analysis about Zhang Taiyan will be based on Ng Kim Chew ‘s(黃錦樹) studies. However, this does not mean that I will follow the Ng Kim Chew ‘s thinking. In fact, although Ng Kim Chew criticize radically the connection between ancestor’s voice and the Chinese nation, he did not explain this clearly. Why is the voice so important? I think it is necessary to return to the concept of ” convention” between signified and signifier. This “convention” offers the way to imagine the so-called ” Chinese community “.

I will not discuss in detail Zhang Taiyan’s linguistics here. Instead, I want just to propose two interesting point of view in his linguistics. First, Zhang Taiyan’s interest in ancestor’s voice seems come from a desire to integrate all dialects in China. According to him, all dialects in China have a common source in ancient times. This kind of view is described as a “plant physiology” by Ng Kim Chew. That is to say, the evolution of ancestor’s voice is like the roots and branches of a big tree. Following this “physiology of plant”, the second interesting thing I want to raise is “convention”. According to Ng Kim Chew ‘s analysis, Zhang Taiyan believes also that the link between signified and signifier is arbitrary. But, the link between signified and signifier will be fixed by “convention”. The arbitrariness is terminated by “history.” However, is the arbitrariness between signified and signifier really ended by “history”? If the continental philosophy shows us that the arbitrariness of the link is not be ended in “customary”, Zhang Taiyan’s imagination about the nation just comes from the “history” which ends the arbitrariness between signified and signifier. This “convention” confirms the history of Chinese nation. According to this view, we can push the discussion further. As everyone knows, Deleuze used the image of “rhizome” to criticize the western traditional philosophy. Therefore, if Zhang Taiyan’s language thinking is a “big tree”, continental philosophy’s language thinking will be “rhizome”. In addition, convention is often associated with a structure of consciousness. From this perspective, the contrast between “tree” and rhizome is equivalent to the contrast between “Chinese nation” and “the subject which grow up freelly.”


Conclusion: the voice of subaltern?

Starting from the analysis of the vernacular movement, this paper explains the relation between voice and nation, and then criticizes the “multilingualism” in Sinophone studies. In fact, no matter the Sinophone or vernacular literature, all of them can be called the “voice of subaltern”. In Spivak’s Can subaltern speak, what is be discussed is just a communication which is incorporated under the international division of labor. From this perspective, the point is that there is no “defaut setting” in the communication between the voices just like the “utterance” discussed by Saussure. In other words, although the utterance is one part of language, there are no sense which can be understood immediately. Therefore, the failure of dialogue must be noticed. When this possibility is be recognized, the subject will grow up freely just like rhizome. In contrast, “voice of subaltern” in Sinophoe studies will be easily transformed into a “national language”. The analysis of the relation between voice and community still needs to be sustained, especially with the help of Derrida’s research. That’s about “identity” which pretend to avoid the influence of “time”. This question is very similar to the Saussure’s question about “utterance”. We must first understand this question in order to understand what Benedict Anderson discuss the relation between time and the imagined community.



  1. Shu-mei, Shih; Chien-hsin, Tsai; Brian, Bernards, edt.,Sinophone studies : a critical reader, Columbia University Press, USA, 2012.
  2. 胡適,《白話文學史》,上海 : 上海書店, 1991。
  3.  費爾迪南·德·索緒爾,《普通語言學教程》,劉麗譯,中國社會科學出版社,2009。
  4. 小森陽一,《日本近代國語批判》,陳多友譯,吉林人民出版社,2003。
  5. Ng Kim-Cheu(黃錦樹),《章太炎語言之學的知識(精神)譜系》,淡江大學,中國 文學研究所碩士論文,未出版,台北。



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