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March 19, 2010

Chen Xiaomei. Occidentalism: A Theory of Counter-Discourse in Post-Mao China. New York: Oxford, 1995.

Sigrid Schmalzer (2003)

As the title suggests, this book is in many ways a response to Edward Said’s influential work, Orientalism. Chen Xiaomei seeks to rectify Said’s thesis by discussing aspects of cross-cultural images of the “other” that he neglected. While Said focused exclusively on western imperialist constructions of the “Orient,” Chen takes as her subject images of the “Occident” produced in twentieth-century China, and particularly in the post-Mao period. Her analysis of works from Chinese television, poetry, drama, and fiction lead her to challenge Said’s model in significant ways.

First, she argues that “counter-discourse” is possible – that is, that people living in colonized or semi-colonized countries are capable of constructing images of the West that do not merely reinforce the culturally imperialist discourse of Orientalism. Rather, as she demonstrates, such images have become powerful instruments of liberation and oppression in power struggles within China itself. This theme is worked out in the first three chapters (on the television series He Shang, on “Occidentalist” theater productions of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Brecht, and on western modernist poetry and the menglong movement) and in her postscript on the 1992 best-seller A Chinese Woman in Manhattan. In each case, Chen shows that glamorization of western society (in He Shang and A Chinese Woman) or the adoption of western literary techniques (in theater and poetry) served more as strategies of liberation against the oppressive Chinese political regime than as a form of “self-colonization” on the part of Chinese writers and audiences.

The second major contribution this book makes to the field of cross-cultural literary studies is to reveal how very interconnected are the histories of modern “Occidental” and “Oriental” literary forms. This theme is introduced in the chapter on menglong poetry and elaborated in chapters 4 and 5 on theater. In these chapters, Chen shows that poets and playwrights in China and the west have participated in a form of cultural exchange based on “misunderstandings” or “misreadings” of the “other.” In using these terms, she does not mean mistaken or false readings. Rather, she means “a view of a text or a cultural event by a ‘receiver’ community that differs in important ways from the view of that same phenomenon in the community of its origins” (p. 96). Examples of such back-and-forth reformulations include Ezra Pound’s use of the Chinese ideograph and his later influence on discourse surrounding menglong poetry in China, and Mei Lanfang’s influence on Thornton Wilder’s plays which later came to provide inspiration for Gao Xingjian’s Wildman.

Chapter 6 is slightly out of place, in that it moves back in time to the May Fourth period and in that it suddenly throws the spotlight on gender as a central category of analysis. Her main point here is to show that young Chinese men in May Fourth theater adopted western feminism to further their own attack against the Confucian establishment, which “turned out to be yet another way in which Western fathers subjugated and colonized non-Western women” (p. 138). While Chen could have improved the stylistic and thematic integration of this section into the rest of the book, there is a logic to its inclusion. First, it reveals that Occidentalist discourse has the potential to be liberating for some groups and simultaneously oppressive for others. Second, it forms a historical link between the work of post-Mao and May Fourth intellectuals.

R. David Arkush (Journal of Asian Studies 56.1: 144-7) justifiably questions Chen on a few points. Most importantly, he (and I) would have liked to see some more attention payed to the political context and the state’s forms of Occidentalist discourse. Nonetheless, I cannot agree with Arkush that there is little “of use in the concept of occidentalism” (p. 47). Rather, the book stands as one important corrective to the unifaceted model of Orientalism Said first advanced.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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