February 6, 2015, by Tony Hong

Post-colonialism Backfires: Be Proud of My Chinese Name Please?

By Flair Shi,

Currently Studying Comparative Literature (MA) at University College London,

Graduate of the School of English University of Nottingham Ningbo,

BA in English Language and Literature.

As Walter Benjamin poignantly points out in his essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”, the philosophy of language surely starts from the act of naming. It is generally agreed upon that language is one of the most important defining characteristics of the human species, and in utilizing our cognitive-linguistic abilities, we human beings give worldly objects names to bring them into proto-sociopolitical fabrications. In such cases naming is simply a form of designation, a way for us to bestow meaning onto the world, a space where the metaphysical and the physical intersect and interact, a process Derrida calls emplacement. However, while semiotics primarily focuses on the arbitrariness of such bestowing, post-colonialism stresses the inevitable and inherent power relations embedded in such action. Indeed for post-colonialism, naming is a form of mapping, othering and worlding. For example, Bill Ashcroft, in illustrating his statement that “to name the world is to know it and to have control over it”, raises the immediate example of the word “Africa”, which is of course, etymologically European. Similarly, the polysemous conflation of the country “China” and the ceramic “china” indicate none other than old Europe’s fascination about ancient Chinese art, while of course, the Chinese equivalent “The Middle Kingdom” is just as self-centric if not more so. A more direct example in the colonial context would be Hong Kong, where every British governor that ruled the city “bestows” their names to many of its main streets. As a mainland Chinese person, I could not help but feel this sense of weirdness when I took the buses around Hong Kong for the first time: “Austin Road, Chatham Road, now we are approaching Salisbury Road!”

However, what post-colonialism is most concerned about is the transformation of the act of naming from a form of designation into a form of addressing, or calling, when it is used against subjects, namely human beings rather than physical objects or environments. To name an individual is also to know him/her and to have control over him/her, such is the “epistemic violence” Spivak Gayatri is talking about when she addresses the existential dilemma of the subaltern. Indeed, when we think about the acting of naming used upon another individual, the image that comes to mind is that of a parent naming his/her baby. The baby in its situation calls for such an action because it is new, speechless and powerless, and quite naturally so. But in turn, such a situation also clarifies for us that naming, when used upon another individual, always involves an infantilization of the Other, a denial of his/her agency by assumption. Therefore, embedded in the core of any type of authoritarianism is a paternalistic attitude, and colonialism is an extremely malicious manifestation of both. Franz Fanon, in his essay “The Negro and Language”, provides an analysis of the biosemiotic nature of colonial naming, in which the black man acquires a layer of “whiteness” in his bestowed name. To use Althusser’s term, the subaltern almost has no way to resist such “racializing interpellation” because his very existence was triggered by this connectivity with the white Other. Therefore, in the British colonies, might it be the case that it were the colonizers that initiated this naming practice of bestowment in the name of the spread of civilization, very quickly the colonized natives would be eager to wear such “white masks” and form vested interests in the symbolic capitals their English names carried. Therefore, if you don’t want to sound like that evil Fu Manchu, you’d better find yourself a more attractive name like Charlie Chan.

But all these, of course, have changed significantly since the end of colonialism, and it is exactly the emergence of such post-colonial reflections on cultural imperialism that have helped to change Western thinking on intercultural communications. With the end of colonialism in the 1960s, the West underwent many important waves of political emancipation, of women, of racial minorities, of LGBT people and etc. The spotlight that has shone upon the melting borders of these social margins is essentially a decentering force, a leftist, egalitarian tendency striving for a dreamed equality. Thus Western identity politics is keen to overturn the shame that the dominant Western patriarch used to inject into all forms of subaltern others, and its mechanism has revolved around its opposite form, pride: to be proud of your vagina, to be proud of your skin color, to be proud of your sissy-ness and butch-ness! Before, English missionaries in Hong Kong gave their students English names so that they themselves could be spared the ching-chong-ching of the twist of the tongue, now the new political correctness is for them to learn our names, and tell us “by the way, you should be proud of your Chinese names”. I myself have encountered numerous times this kind of situation: “Flair? But that is not your real name, is it?”; or on other occasions friends would sincerely warn me not to put my name as “Flair Shi” on my CV, “Donglai Shi” is much better, it shows my authenticity and my being proud of who I am. Indeed, who am I? Should I be proud of Chineseness if there is such a thing that is Chineseness? Or should I be proud of “being” anything? Derrida of course would see through the persistence of the binarism in such pride and argue any category is hegemonic, and Spivak would similarly observe the forever voiceless position of the subaltern: shame or pride, he/she is still being told what to do, how to do, and how to feel about doing it.

It is almost for certain that such Western ethos of an egalitarian, cosmopolitan leftism will not any time soon be fashionable in a rapidly modernizing country like China, especially when it is a place that carries the deep scars left behind by extreme leftism. So while the West works hard to rid its Orientalism, a crazily capitalistic China will remain romantically, or in some cases fanatically, Occidentalist: the English mania will not stop, foreign universities are going to earn more Chinese money, and more and more fashionable English names are going to appear on names of Chinese employees. But it completely depends on how we read such Occidentalism, do we see it as Chinese people’s loss of agency in their craving for Western “bestowment” or can we actually view it as an active seeking of a global membership? James Ferguson, in his essay “Of Mimicry and Membership”, vouchers for the latter interpretation: according to him, the Africans dancing in European clubs in Nigeria are not opting for a self-orientalizing subordination, instead, they are shedding the burden of being African, that has been imposed upon them by the rhetoric of authenticity, and enjoying their freedom in the choice of an alternative way of enjoyment of life. Therefore, what I have chosen by and for myself is not Donglai Shi, but Flair. Don’t tell me to be proud of either.

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