“Diaspora” is now a word in the popular domain, but its popularization presents challenges to the field of diaspora studies, namely how to regain some control over its meaning and parameters before it is totally reduced to a simple and simplistic essentialism denoting any kind of human mobility and scattering, or any kind of sentimental yearning by upper-class exiles. World history has been replete with diasporas, starting with the ancient Greeks who gave us the word “diaspora” (to sow or scatter) with their practice of intentionally planting colonies in other lands for cultural propagation and to advance trade. New ones continuously arise from different corners of the world, or emerge reshaped from the bowels of existing diasporas. From the ancient to the modern world, diaspora has been most frequently associated with the traumatic forced expulsion of Jews from their ancestral homeland of Israel and subsequent worldwide dissemination over the course of centuries (Safran 1991). In the modern world, accompanying the rise of capitalism and its corollary, the colonial reach of Europe to Asia, Africa, and Latin America for markets and raw materials, is the great and terrible African diaspora, created by the traumatic forced removal of tens of millions of men and women of many ethnic groups out of Africa over four centuries, to be dispersed throughout the Americas as chattel slaves. Unified initially by the dehumanizing regime of slavery and later reinforced by the demeaning regime of racism, descendants of slaves identify with each other through race, as “black people,” and have created multiple, dynamic expressions and meanings of blackness through culture—music, dance, art, literature—throughout the diaspora.
Next to the African and almost contemporaneously, another great modern diaspora evolved from China, beginning in the mid-sixteenth century of the late Ming. In mapping this diaspora, we see that it shares some of the central characteristics of other large diasporas, but also differs in notable ways. If not among the oldest, it is certainly one of the longest, most persistent, and ongoing mass migrations from one central location, today represented by the estimated twenty-five to fifty million peoples of Chinese descent living outside China. They and their ancestors cannot be said to have been traumatically expelled from China en masse, although severe hardships, violent conflicts, and natural disasters played their role in impelling so many to leave home and seek new livelihoods far away in alien lands. To be sure, when out-migration greatly accelerated around the mid-nineteenth century, the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, and other local and regional peasant uprisings acted as push factors that induced many to leave China. Many more were forced to leave by floods, famines, and the oft-cited demographic growth and subsequent pressure on arable land; still others not necessarily in dire straits left China in search of trade and business opportunities. Their reasons for leaving home were not materially different from those of the Irish, the Lebanese, the Japanese, the Italians, and South Asians of many different ethnicities and religions (R. Cohen 1997).
Following China, Asia has spawned many other diasporas: Japanese, Indian, and South Asian, Hindu, Sikh, Tamil, Muslim, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Southeast Asian, most recently Korean, the proliferation occurring from the late nineteenth, throughout the twentieth, and into the present moment of the twenty-first century. During this tumultuous period, revolutions giving way to civil wars, world wars, anticolonial armed struggles and guerrilla movements (“wars of national liberation”), old empires falling, and new imperial regimes rising have complicated out-migration from homelands, which has manifested in new forms, such as exile, banishment, expulsion, expatriation, and, notably, refugee flows and asylum seeking. In other words, with many and varied reasons for leaving home and staying away for long periods eventually extending into generations, these global migrations have given rise to a “range of phenomenon” that can be said to constitute diasporas (Clifford 1997).
Diasporas are most often defined in terms of race (black), ethnicity (Jewish, Chinese, Lebanese, Vietnamese), nation (Japanese, Indian, Cuban, Mexican), and also religion (Hindu, Muslim, Tibetan Buddhist), region (South Asian, Caribbean), and other categories. Incorporating all these mass human migrations and resettlements over space and time under the expanding rubric of diaspora has given rise to the fast growing academic project of diaspora studies. Precisely because so many of the world’s human experiences now qualify as diaspora, it is imperative that diasporas be studied respectively and in their distinct and particular historical contexts in order for this common experience to be appreciated comparatively. The following synopsis of the Chinese experience with migration over time and space illustrates how one might go about studying this ever-growing phenomenon of diaspora.
Since at least the sixteenth century, southern Chinese (from Guangdong and Fujian provinces) had been leaving home to trade, and later, to settle, throughout Southeast Asia—today’s Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand. Migration to the Americas—North to South and including the Caribbean islands—took off in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, consisting overwhelmingly of working-age men, although not necessarily unmarried and without families (Mazumdar 2003). Wives and children were often initially left behind (Qing policy actually prohibited out-migration of Chinese women and children), then later beckoned to join husbands and fathers. Migrants also formed first or secondary families with local women. Furthermore, Chinese men were attracted to a range of frontier and newly developing economic regions of Southeast Asia, the Pacific (the small islands as well as Australia and New Zealand), California and the American West, the borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico, and plantation societies of the Caribbean and Latin America. In all these vibrant spaces, both labor and business opportunities abounded. Whether the places of settlement were still European colonies or recently decolonized, Chinese migrants were introduced as a deterritorialized intermediate sector between natives bound to their land and villages, and colonial and neocolonial masters and administrators determined to extract wealth and maintain social control. Encouraged by the white masters to feel superior by race and civilization to the subjugated and darker-skinned native populations, they were nevertheless denied acceptance as social equals and were rarely accorded metropolitan citizenship no matter how successful or prosperous they may have become.
In European settler societies—the United States, Canada, Australia—which upon shedding their colonized status installed white supremacist social structures, Chinese and other Asian immigrants were denied the political right to citizenship as well as most of the important economic and social rights, such as landownership, interracial marriages, access to education, well-paying jobs, and the professions. The sum of these deprivations sheds light on one of the most common reasons why migrations become diasporas: a tense, troubled, tenuous, and tortuous relationship with the state and key elements of the receiving society with whom migrants interact and compete. When faced with these challenges, Chinese migrant communities have developed ways of overt resistance as well as accommodationist practices, all for the purpose of self-defense, preservation, and survival. This common experience of rejection, marginalization, discrimination, and oppression by host societies encourage diasporic Chinese communities to forge a strong sense of identification and empathy for each other’s common plight, and develop mechanisms for quick mobilization in mutual support when one of them comes under vicious nativist attack.
For all of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, their inability to fully penetrate host societies for social acceptance and political integration has trumped whatever aspiration diasporic Chinese might have harbored to assimilate into another cultural and national identity, ironically the only way they could have ended their sense of displacement and exile. In this diasporic condition, the final reference for home remained their native village and region, the guxiang (Sinn 1997), and eventually China itself, which incidentally has never been occupied or destroyed. So for diasporic Chinese, the return-to-homeland yearning and practices unfold in a different context than for Jews, Africans, Palestinians, and Armenians, who must first reconquer and reestablish a home before they can return to one. Instead, Chinese desire to return in order to compensate for their deterrorialization abroad by reterritorializing at home, that is, by strengthening their roots to village and nation.
Chinese diasporics reconnect with home in another significant and now increasingly problematic way: when shut out of citizenship and political participation, they become susceptible to the siren calls of homeland politics. In the case of the U.S., beginning with the fiercely competitive factions of reformers and revolutionaries of the turn-of-the-century plotting to overthrow the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty, followed by the bitter and protracted political rivalry between the Kuomingtang regime under Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan and the Communist regime in China, Chinese in America have found it difficult to distance themselves from such politics (Ma 1990; Tsai 1983). But identification and involvement with homeland politics have come at a costly price for many Chinese communities in the diaspora, for these practices often clashed with other imperatives, fears, and anxieties of the larger societies, notably rising new nationalisms in postcolonial societies such as Indonesia, Malaya (before the split into Chinese-dominated Singapore and Malay-dominated Malaysia), and the Philippines, where even well-established Chinese communities are seen as untrustworthy, undependable allies of the nationalist project.
Because China itself was not lost, diasporic Chinese were always able to make home visits if they had the financial means. For several decades, however, after the Communists took power in 1949, the doors were closed to movements of people and capital in and out of the country, and were not reopened until later in the twentieth century. During this period, the world changed dramatically, highlighted by further decolonization in the Western empires; the challenge of socialism in the Third World and the rise and fall of the Cold War; the triumph of liberal democracies worldwide, accompanied by the dismantling of legal racial segregation and racially exclusive policies in white supremacist societies such as the U.S., Canada, and Australia; and the advent of late-capitalist globalization. These worldwide social transformations brought about conditions in which, for the first time in history, diasporic Chinese everywhere are finally accorded the rights of citizenship and belonging where they have settled. In so doing, the dynamics of their relationship change: instead of guest and host, it becomes citizen and government. At this moment, we also ask of the Chinese diaspora, is it drawing to a close? It seems that, like diasporic Jews, Chinese overseas are becoming ever more transnational, even as they become more rooted and integrated into host societies. If diaspora is—as Khachig Tölölyan argues in the inaugural issue of Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, which he founded and edits—the classic exemplar of transnationalism (Tölölyan 1991), I would add that transnational practices did not just give rise and shape to diasporas at the point of their formation, but new transnational practices are invented to help them at their points of expiration or transition to a new era.
In the present moment, when most diasporic Chinese are no longer marginalized outsiders but active citizens and aggressive businessmen of multiple nation-states around the world, their traditional voluntary associations (huiguan), which had once helped migrants become localized, turned into global instruments of networking, drawing upon deeply seated sub-ethnic identities. For example, Hakka (kejia) around the world organize international reunions, Teochow (Chaozhou) people hold international conventions, and not to be outdone, Fujian associations have their own world meetings. The same is true of surname associations such as the Guan clan, which has held its own World Guan Association meeting. These global networks facilitate transnational practices of postcolonial, postmodern Chinese capitalists of the Asia Pacific (Nonini 2001; Hu-DeHart 1999).
Meanwhile, China itself is generating another diasporic spurt, once again sending out migrants in large numbers, and to places where they had not been prominent before, such as Eastern Europe. Not only China, but parts of the original diaspora itself—Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand, as well as Cuba and Peru, Jamaica and Guyana—have been leaking ethnic Chinese migrants to other parts of the world, complicating the pattern of migration and disrupting a common association of place of origin with ethnicity. A new immigrant to the U.S. self-identified as “Chinese” may originate from any of a multiplicity of places in addition to China itself, and speak primarily English or Spanish rather than Mandarin, Cantonese, or Fujianese. For their part, much as in the case of most Jews in the world, who have elected not to return to the re-created Israel, the longtime imagined homeland of diasporic desire, so most Chinese are happy only to visit China from many points in the diaspora, and not to stay forever. Diasporic Chinese today are self-identified as such ethnically and maybe culturally as well, but not nationalistically. And the Chinese identities and cultures they have invented in the diaspora are as varied and diverse as the places they have settled; multiple, creolized, flexible, contingent, situational, adaptable, changeable, malleable, these diasporic Chinese identities have been the subject of numerous studies (Ang 2001; Ho 1989; Ong 1999 are three good examples among many).
In the same inaugural issue of Diaspora, Tölölyan also proposes that “[w]e use ‘diaspora’ provisionally to indicate our belief that the term that once described Jewish, Greek, and Armenian dispersion now shares meanings with a larger semantic domain that includes words like immigrant, expatriate, refugee, guest workers, exile community, overseas community, ethnic community. This is the vocabulary of transnationalism” (1991, 4–5). Old diasporas fade while new ones arise, because more than anything, diasporas describe relationships and human drama across time and space, that is, history itself. Nor surprisingly, diasporas reflect and display usual conflicts along class, gender, and generational lines. Moreover, modern diasporas seem to emerge, unfold, move, change, recede, or come alive within successive modes of capitalist production, be they colonialism, new world slavery and plantation, free market capitalism and imperialism, state and monopoly capitalism, and currently, late capitalist or neoliberal globalization. For this reason, state actions and policies on both the sending and receiving ends of migration play crucial roles in diaspora formations.
One notable example of a new kind of Asian diaspora is the massive, state-sponsored, and state-directed out-migration of Filipino workers, predominately women, to Europe, Asia, and America, a migration, it can be argued, that resembles a guest worker program more than a diaspora. Children remain behind to be raised by grandparents while occasional fathers and many mothers depart under contract to work as maids, nurses, nannies, and other gendered forms of labor (Parreñas 2001). The billions of dollars remitted back to villages and towns in the Philippines sustain entire communities. Because workers often remain overseas on multiple renewed contracts for ten or more years cumulatively, their regular remittances become dependable and concrete links to home; moreover, modern technology such as phone cards and the internet provide additional ways to connect. The Filipino model has motivated Thai, Indonesian, and Bangladeshi women to follow their sisters into overseas contract work. While their work stints are supposedly temporary, marriage with foreign men can make their overseas sojourns permanent.
The explosive breakup of empires has often resulted in voluntary and involuntary departures from unstable, violent, and often corrupt postcolonial societies. Thus we can speak of the out-migration of Caribbean peoples of African and Asian descent (Chinese and South Asians) to Canada, the United States, France, and Spain (Humanities Institute 1987). We can point to the forced removal of South Asians from Idi Amin’s Uganda almost half a century ago, only to find them returning decades later, picking up businesses they had once lost, and thriving again. Most diasporic Chinese today, especially those in officially recognized multicultural, pluralistic liberal democracies, assertively exercise their coequal citizenship and political rights alongside other groups, including privileged whites in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, where whites constitute the majority and continue to monopolize wealth and power.
In the case of Singapore with its majority Chinese population and Chinese-controlled government, diasporic Chinese have created an ethnic Chinese nation not controlled by the motherland. Taiwan Chinese would like to achieve the same autonomy, while the moment for Hong Kong Chinese might have passed.In all these places, can we now speak of the Chinese as entering the post-diasporic era, in which they can avail themselves of social capital accumulated in the diaspora to strengthen guanxi (connections) and xinyong (trust) in order to gain business advantages over competitors under globalization (Nonini 2001;Kiong and Kee 1998), or to reinforce a distinctive Chinese ethnic identity in avowedly multicultural and pluralistic democracies that no longer, at least officially, demand assimilation to a dominant majority culture? At the same time, in these various postcolonial and postmodern environments, are diasporic Chinese not also motivated to engage in a larger dialogue about building civil society along with other ethnic groups?
A notable kind of post-diasporic practice is embracing official multiculturalism. It is telling that when Hakkas gather, for example, the lingua franca is more likely to be English (or French) than any of the several Hakka languages, for participants consist of many second and third generations born in the diaspora to societies that have fully integrated them. For example, at Canada’s First Annual Conference on Hakka Heritage and Culture, held in Toronto in December 2000, York University Professor of Chinese Studies Pietro Giordan (who is obviously not Hakka) read a poem written in French by a contemporary Mauritian writer of Hakka descent, Joseph Tsang Mang Kin. The poem was appropriately entitled “Le grand chant Hakka” (“The Great Hakka Song”). Officially opening the ceremony in English was Canadian senator Vivienne Poy, whose Hakka sister-in-law, the Canadian television personality Adrienne Poy Clarkson, was even more prominent in her role as the governor-general of Canada, appointed by the prime minister to be the face of Canada to the queen of England and to the vast British Commonwealth that stretches from Canada to the Caribbean, to Asia, and to Africa. These transnational Hakkas are easing effortlessly into the post-diasporic moment in numerous multicultural societies while celebrating their global diasporic ties (Toronto Hakka Heritage and Cultural Conference 2000).
As more and more diasporas come into academic focus, we can begin to identify a growing list of tensions between sets of, if not opposing, then at least contesting forces or tendencies. These tensions define diasporic subjectivity; explain decisions made by individuals, communities, and the state, or delineate their options; and maintain the diasporic condition while also destabilizing diasporas. In random order, some of these tensions can be framed as: tradition and modernity; localization and globalization; territorialization and deterritorialization; belonging and leaving; integration and separation; exile and return; sojourner and citizen; national and transnational; nation-bound and border-crossing; purity and hybridity; ethnicization and assimilation; localism and nationalism; parochialism and cosmopolitanism; displacement and integration; cooperation and competition; rigidity and flexibility. No doubt, students of diasporas will add to this list.