"Home Sweet Home": Displacement and Belonging in Post-1960s Diasporic Chinese Literature


Melody Yunzi Li

PhD defended at: 

Washington University in St.Louis


Writing about The Wizard of Oz, Salman Rushdie says, “there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us.” This viewpoint rejects the conventional interpretation of the movie, which reads Dorothy’s return to Kansas as a happy homecoming; it also suggests that home is not so much a place as a willful creation of the imagination. Current theories in cultural geography and diaspora studies define “home” as a flexible and dynamic space where diasporic identity and belonging are constituted. In the current age of globalization, the notion of “home” is constantly redefined between the local and the global, between dislocation and relocation. While exploring how these theories are or could be applied to Chinese diasporic literature, I ask the following questions: what is “home” to Chinese diaspora who leave their families and homeland in a time of turmoil; how does “home” come into being in their migranthood; how does the construction of home by diasporic writers reflect or challenge the mapping of literary fields including Chinese studies, Chinese diaspora studies and Chinese American studies?

My dissertation, “Vulnerabilities of Home in Post-1960s Chinese Immigrant Writings,” investigates literary texts written by Chinese immigrants to the United States. Situated at the intersection of Sinophone and diaspora studies, it explores how Chinese immigrant writers in the U.S. from the 1960s to the present—student writers like Yu Lihua, Nie Hualing and Pai Hsien-yung and Chinese-American writers like Ha Jin—construct “imaginative homes” in response to the absence of their physical homes. Previous scholarship on these writings tend to be either Sino-centric or Western-centric. The writers in my study are largely categorized as “lü mei zuo jia” in Chinese, a term that implies the Chinese writers’ status in the U.S. as sojourners or travelers, who cannot fully belong to the U.S.. This thinking is very Sino-centric whereas its closest equivalent term in American context—Chinese American, which mostly refers to those who have already earned U.S. citizenship, is equally Anglo-centric. These two nation-centric terms in two different cultures set up the binaries in the field and limit the scope of scholarship on Chinese expatriate writings in the U.S..

My research addresses this problem by focusing on the rhetoric of home in Chinese immigrant writings that capture both their uprooting, rerooting experience and, more importantly, the dynamic of the pull-and-push on diasporic routes. In these circumstances diasporic subjects experience a sense of national and racial non-belonging, which I call “vulnerabilities of home.” I focus on how Chinese diasporic subjects formulate their identities in the constant shifting dynamics between homeland and adopted land. Far from being a binary, Chinese diasporic subjects often experience home and homelessness, uprooting and re-rooting simultaneously. Besides shifting between the two poles of experiences, Chinese diasporic identities’ experience of home shifted from being national in 60s-70s overseas Chinese student writings to being personal in contemporary Chinese immigrant writings. The “home” I envision is not limited to actual places but what one identifies as home—a geographical locale or space, family, nation, or a body, as well as an emotive concept that defines itself in relation to homelessness, homesickness and home-ness. Through examining how the notion of “home” is recreated and redefined in Chinese diasporic literature, I find theories of Sinophone and diaspora are not exclusive but closely interact with each other. By bringing Chinese-American and new Chinese immigrant Sinophone writings together and examining them through a comparative lens, my project further problematizes the notion of “home” in diasporic Chinese literature, thereby manifesting the dual spaces of Sinophone and diaspora.

My first chapter reexamines the notion of home and homesickness in overseas Chinese student literature during the 60s and 70s. Overseas Chinese student writers, active during the 1950s to 70s, are waisheng ren, who moved from Mainland China to Taiwan at youth for political and cultural reasons, which they had no control over. They struggle to define themselves as Chinese or Taiwanese because of their experience of anti-Japanese war, Civil War and their exile. Through the theoretical framework of Sinophone Studies and the notion of “obsession with China,” I argue that the idealized homeland in their mind—the cultural and historical China, with which they had hardly any real experience, becomes an object of their obsession. This diasporic yearning for the lost cultural center of Han civilization becomes both a cause and cure to their homesickness in Taiwan. This chapter problematizes what Shih argues about the localized identity of Sinophone subjects, as these waishengren carry with them memories and obsession with their motherland and insist an imaginary home that no long exists.

Chapter two discusses Chinese American writer Yan Geling’s two Scar Literature novels, The Criminal Lu Yanshi (Lufan Yanshi, 2011) and A Woman’s Epic (Yige Nvren de Shishi, 2006). It examines when the disrupted political regime and destroyed homeland force intellectuals into exile, how individuals sustain and re-establish their sense of home through love, marriage and family. The movie “Coming Home,” directed by Zhang Yimou, adapted from The Criminal Lu Yanshi and the TV series “A Woman’s Epic” adapted from Yan’s book, further personalize the sense of “home” in the big historical narrative by undermining “sensitive” topics to avoid censorship in China, focusing on love stories in the stories. Instead of defining “home” in relation to national identity, “home” in Yan’s works is straddled between Communist collectives and individuals, and how personal relationships respond to Nation-building project.

Another chapter fills the gap in scholarship in overseas students’ writings by discussing the personal and affective experience in some obscure contemporary overseas Chinese student writings including New York Lover (Niuyue Qingren, 2004), Listen to the Caged Bird Sing (Wang duan Nanfeiyan, 2010), and Notes of a Couple (Fuqi Riji, 2004). Love, in these novels, becomes a mechanism for diasporic subjects to constitute their identities and conjure up a sense of “home” from their experience. The daily vicissitudes of romantic love portray the making of migratory subjects: deracination, alienation in migrants’ diasporic journey. Compared to early overseas Chinese student writings, these narratives are more personalized and romanticized: while the sense of home in early writings is more conjured up by national identification, contemporary cosmopolitan free-spirit subjects define their sense of home and identities by their affectionate relationships and attachments. The chapter attempts to recuperate these works that have not been looked at in diasporic Chinese literature.

My chapter on a renowned Chinese-American writer, Ha Jin, challenges the existing view in diasporic studies—home and identity en route. Situating the literary texts in disasporic discourse, I assert that to Chinese immigrants, the old world (China) and the new world (America) are pushing and pulling diaspora constantly, forcing them to be always en route between the two. Their home, therefore, is constituted in the conflicts between the two worlds. However, in both of his immigrant novels A Free Life (2007) and A Map of Betrayal (2014), Chinese diaspora’s fantasy of inhabiting multiple homes and identities has collapsed. The characters in the novel typify paradoxes and contradictions: both embodying multiple identities and negating that such a thing is possible; being diasporic and denying a diasporic point of view. They resist both definition and being defined. Part of this chapter was previously published as an article, “Home and Identity En Route in Chinese Diaspora—Reading Ha Jin’s A Free Life” in Pacific Coast Philology in 2014.