Interview with Rachel Leow

This interview is with Rachel Leow, the author of “The Patriarchy of Diaspora: Race Fantasy and Gender Blindness in Chen Da’s Studies of the Nanyang Chinese,” which appears in the October 2022 issue of Twentieth-Century China. Rachel Leow is an Associate Professor in Modern East Asian History in the Faculty of History at Cambridge University, and a Fellow in History at Murray Edwards College. Read her article here

Before we start into the article and your research, could you tell us a bit about your academic background?

I was educated in Malaysia and then did all my post-18 higher education in Britain: a BA in History at Warwick University and an MPhil and PhD in History at Cambridge University. I moved to the US to take up a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for History and Economics at Harvard University. Amid all this, I also did several stints of Chinese language training at National Taiwan University in Taiwan and Arabized Malay (Jawi) language training the School of Oriental Studies in London. My first book, Taming Babel, was a critical account of how Malayness and Chineseness have been constructed historically through race and language governance in modern Malaysia, which is a space very much constituted by a long history of transregional and transnational mobilities among China, India, Europe, and the Malay world and which is poorly reflected in nation-state historical approaches to it.

Your article critically analyzes Chen Da’s sociological studies of Nanyang Chinese diaspora communities. How did you choose to focus on Chen Da?

The choice to write directly about him was quite serendipitous, though in some ways not surprising: in researching anything to do with prewar Chinese emigration to Southeast Asia, as I have been doing, it’s actually hard to avoid coming across Chen Da! As my article explains, he wrote the only available prewar studies of the Nanyang Chinese and their qiaoxiang (僑鄉, emigrant districts), and they are empirically very rich. Like Paul Siu’s classic investigation of Chinese laundrymen in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s, these sorts of sociological studies give an extraordinarily vivid snapshot of life and times past and offer data we can no longer access. And a lot of scholars have used Chen Da precisely for the valuable data he gathered and the social trends he was able to observe with them. But because these studies were conducted by particular individuals at particular times, they are always going to be marked by their intellectual, political, and social contexts. Data, as we know, is not neutral. We have long stopped regarding the observations made by Victorian colonialists, missionaries, and anthropologists of Asian and African peoples as unproblematic reflections of reality. So why should we take Chen Da’s supposedly empirical and sociological observations, now almost a hundred years old, as given, rather than something we should also be critically historicizing?

In reading Chen Da, I got curious about those contexts and how we came to have all this historical data about Chinese emigrants from the 1930s, which, up until now, we (myself included!) have tended to just use fairly uncritically. I got curious about who he really was: his views, his politics, why he had conducted this study on the Nanyang Chinese. And reading him in both the original Chinese and the English translation, I was astonished to find critical discrepancies and to discover the fascinating intermediary role played by Bruno Lasker, whom I’d encountered briefly in my previous research into the mui tsai (Chinese female bond servitude in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong). So it was really just pulling hard on all these threads that took me into this unexpected line of inquiry.

Your article highlights how Chen Da’s limited views helped construct a restricted definition of the Chinese diaspora. After conducting this research, would you like to offer a more inclusive definition?

I actually don’t like the term “diaspora” very much. I see its usefulness in describing, expediently, certain forms of mobile ethnic communities. But as someone who comes to the topic of Chinese emigration from a strong grounding in Southeast Asian history, I’m often disturbed by how many problematic assumptions are packed into that word, and by how it can sometimes facilitate a politics of ethnic chauvinism in assuming an always present relationship of Chinese people to China as a “homeland,” when in fact other historical dynamics, pressures, and orientations are more often at play, particularly for Southeast Asia’s Chinese populations. In a sense, I think the concept itself necessarily selects a restrictive understanding of who counts as Chinese, which is fine if people who use the term recognize that limitation, but not fine when the part is assumed to stand in for the whole. It’s even more important, in our current political climate, to exercise care about ethnic Chinese communities outside China who may not wish to be understood as diasporic and whose long histories of settlement and acculturation in fact do not easily warrant such an inclusion. So I guess I would say that I think it isn’t really possible or desirable to have “diaspora” be an “inclusive” term, and I’m interested, with Chen Da, in actually giving a critical appraisal of it, showing how and where assumptions don’t match reality. And, of course, Chen Da himself did not use the word “diaspora,” since there isn’t such a word in Chinese. But there is a very long history of debate around this matter, so I’m sure people will beg to differ.

Your article offers a critical history of Chen Da’s sociology, expanding beyond both histories of science and diasporic studies. How have you drawn on different concepts and methodologies in the humanities and social sciences to conduct this research?

As is probably fairly clear from the article, I have learned a lot from the critical tools developed by scholars who think a lot about postcolonial knowledge production vis-à-vis China, particularly Arif Dirlik, as well as theorists from South Asian subaltern studies, like Ranajit Guha. And I have an instinctively constructivist stance on race, gender, and nationalism that I’ve taken to heart from my grounding in Asian history and social science through people like Benedict Anderson, Clifford Geertz, Ann Laura Stoler, James Scott, and others working in that genre, as well as a long-standing theoretical engagement with Foucault, whom I know a lot of scholars hate but who, I think, did say some very insightful things about power and the genealogy of concepts, even if he said them badly. Perhaps a bit more surprising is how far I realize I’ve also been influenced by the “texts-in-context” approach to intellectual history pioneered by scholars of European political thought—J. G. Pocock, Quentin Skinner, and so on—whose writings I encountered early on in my graduate career and took to heart methodologically, if not topically. I’m no student of early modern European thinkers, and I didn’t precisely set out to write an intellectual history of Chen Da, but approaching Chen Da by taking his “texts in context,” both in original and in translation, was a very natural move for me.

You argue that Chen Da’s work transformed a diverse Nanyang culture into a homogenous, patriarchal group focused on the modernization of China. How should future scholars reconsider Chen Da’s work in light of your research?

I’d simply like future students and scholars to bear in mind where Chen Da was coming from when he talked about Chinese emigration. I think he’s a fascinating individual worthy of further and more critical study, and there’s a lot I didn’t explore about him and his work, which could furnish a lot of future lines of inquiry. But I also think students and researchers interested in the topic of Chinese migration should still continue to read him and make use of his work, though perhaps armed with a fuller understanding of his strengths and limitations, which I explore in my article.

You focus on Chen Da and the formation of Chinese sociology and diasporic studies in the 1920s and 1930s. What does your study unveil about the intellectual and political climate of the era?

It was a tremendously rich period. The emergence of the social sciences in Republican China is a fascinating lens onto how outward facing and globally oriented some Chinese elites were in the 1920s and 1930s. A few, like Chen Da, were looking to America, certainly: in Chen Da’s case it was practically preordained, since he was educated at the Tsinghua School in Beijing, which had been set up with US funds from the Boxer Indemnity and explicitly prepared students for study in the United States, sending the best over on scholarship. And many of the pioneering Chinese sociologists of the day studied with Americans: Sun Benwen (孫本文), who studied with Robert Park at Chicago and Franklin Giddings at Columbia, Wu Wenzao (吴文藻), who studied with Frank Boas and Ruth Benedict at Columbia and was also a student of Chen Da, and so forth. But there were also other Chinese social scientists looking in other directions: Xu Deheng (許德珩) and Chen Hansheng (陳翰笙) were educated in Germany, for instance, while Qu Qiubai (瞿秋白) had formative educational experience in the Soviet Union instead and came back and served briefly in the Sociology Department of left-leaning Shanghai University. A good number looked to Japan: Li Da (李達), for instance, as well as a number who studied the Nanyang, like Li Changfu (李长傅), as I mention in my article. So what’s really striking about this period, for me, is how eagerly, brazenly, and eclectically Chinese intellectuals were looking outward into the world—eastward, westward, southward—for ideas and solutions to the perceived intellectual and political crises of the day. I always think of Lu Xun’s notion of “grabbism” or “bring-it-here-ism” (拿来主义)—grabbing things in from everywhere—as really capturing something of the intellectual spirit of the age.

You discuss the transnational ties between Chen Da and Bruno Lasker regarding their respective work on Chinese communities. How does your research contribute or complicate our view of international intellectual exchange in the Republican era?

Chen and Lasker were connected through the Institute for Pacific Relations (IPR), which was an absolutely fascinating international nongovernmental organization that shaped public knowledge and both elite and popular discourse throughout the Asia-Pacific region and beyond during the interwar years. It had members all over the world who tended to move quite fluidly in and out of government service and private or academic research. As I discovered in the course of writing this article, it hosted and connected an astonishing network of expertise about Asia under its auspices in the 1920s until the 1950s, when many of its associated members became targets of anti-Communist hysteria in the early Cold War precisely owing to their deep but now-suspect intellectual engagements with China—Owen Lattimore, perhaps most famously. The IPR really did seem to connect people internationally, even if on a somewhat idealistic platform, with a shared mission of researching and addressing great problems of the world. Even in the extraordinarily fractious 1930s, when tensions between China and Japan were on the rise, the IPR was still one of the few avenues available for allowing Chinese and Japanese members to speak beyond the official policies and nationalist stances of their respective governments. I think it’s quite understudied as a space for international and trans-Pacific intellectual exchange in Republican China. Though my article does a deep dive into one very small aspect of its work and just one of the kinds of personal relationships it engendered, I think there is so much more to do: it would make a great PhD topic.

You describe Chen Da as one of many “world-makers,” social scientists whose research was used for national or imperial purposes. Through this, how do you place Chen Da in the greater history of China in the twentieth century?

The concept of social scientists as “world-makers” is best elaborated in Jeremy Adelman’s edited volume Empire and the Social Sciences, which I found helpful in situating Chen Da’s contributions to Republican sociology in world-historical terms in my article. Adelman’s volume contains numerous other examples of “world-makers” in this sense, so, beyond my article, I would point readers there.

Ultimately, you conclude that Chen Da’s empirical research went beyond empiricism to make general conclusions about Chinese identity and formed a type of homogenous Chineseness. How did this conclusion influence later sociological studies in China?

A good question but difficult, and it goes beyond the remit of my research. I would point readers to the magisterial surveys of the historical development of Chinese sociology by Han Mingmo (韩明谟), who was himself Chen Da’s student, and Yang Yabin (杨雅彬) for better answers. It strikes me that sociology as a discipline and field of study in China, as much in Chen’s time as now, is still clearly intended to function as a handmaiden to government policy and national interests. And it was suppressed for nearly thirty years in the Maoist era because it was thought to be harboring agendas that ran counter to those national (or at least party) interests. So there is, we might say, an inherently nationalist and political bent to the Chinese social sciences that could conceivably produce similar partialities in social science research into the huaqiao today.

Can you give us a bit of background on this project? Is it part of a wider research project?

I am writing a kind of critical social and intellectual history of Chinese communities in the Southern Seas (Nanyang), and the inadequacy of Sinocentric “diasporic” perspectives in understanding them.

In what ways would you like your research to change the field of Chinese history as a whole?

I’m not sure I have such large ambitions myself, but I would like to see more transnational and transregional approaches to Chinese history. Much of my past research has led me to see how inadequate nation-based histories are to understanding and fully representing complex historical phenomena in the modern period, especially where migration and mobilities are concerned. While area studies are extraordinarily rich, area studies of different areas don’t connect very well to each other, even when the phenomena they describe are, in fact, connected and related. I think trying to bring them into dialogue yields different and valuable lines of questioning—for instance, I think there aren’t many in “China Studies,” narrowly defined, who would have asked the kinds of questions I did about Chen Da or subjected his “Sinocentrism” to the kind of critical scrutiny I do in my article. And yet doing so has demonstrated his surprising imbrication in both transnational (or trans-Pacific, US/China) as well as transregional (East Asianist, China/Nanyang) discourses. I think there can be a lot more work done here, not just this one paper, nor indeed only by me.

Where do you see your research going in the future?

Wherever curiosity takes me! After finishing this book, of course.

What historiography shaped this project? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?

I’ve already mentioned a lot of the theorists whose work I have found and continue to find influential. For this paper, specifically, I also found Tong Lam’s Passion for Facts (2011) illuminating, as well as Yung-chen Chiang’s Social Engineering and the Social Sciences in China (2001). There isn’t a huge amount on the IPR, but I learned a lot from John Thomas’s early study Institute of Pacific Relations (1974) and Tomoko Akami’s Internationalizing the Pacific (2001), although it’s more focused on Japan than China. I’m generally very interested in the way seemingly stable and unquestionable ethnic and racial categories, like “Chinese,” are formed and constituted through history, power, and knowledge, and, for that, there is a whole host of fantastic reading. For instance, I return frequently to Tom Mullaney’s edited Critical Han Studies (2012) and its many excellent constituent contributions by Emma Teng, James Leibold, and others. I have engaged with the extensive scholarship on ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia—and with a similar though oddly disconnected body of scholarship on Chinese communities in North America—and learned a great deal from that too.

Do you have any closing comments for our readers?

Just because he’s been in the news recently—I always think of Salman Rushdie’s injunction in Midnight’s Children: “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.” In trying to understand just a little chunk of Chen Da’s life, I did, indeed, have to swallow the world. Thank you for these wonderful questions and for the opportunity to speak at greater length about the research. I hope readers will find something useful or interesting in it!