BY GREGORY B. LEE
HONOLULU:UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII PRESS, 2003
136 PAGES. HARDCOVER: ISBN 0-8248-2680-9
Reviewed by Jennifer Eagleton
Cultural images are shape-shifting phantoms. Perhaps this is why they hold a tenacious grip on our consciousness, yet are difficult to discuss objectively. In the nineteenth century, the West imagined China and the Chinese as exotic, distant, and alien. Across the pages of newspapers and pictorials, images of the laundryman, the evil crime lord, the sex maniac, the opium addict abounded.
Do these stereotypes, or at least the essence of them, remain? Yes, according to Gregory G. Lee in Chinas Unlimited, his socio-cultural study of the historical representation of China and Chineseness in Britain. They remain through certain “orientalizing and racist” ideologies that the West has used to fit China into certain economic, political, and sociological agendas.
What follows is a series of linked chapters, a combination of academic discourse cum personal musings. The first, “Chinese Reveries, English Railings: Reimagining Twentieth-Century Histories,” deals with various thoughts about what it is to be Chinese. The “railings” he speaks of are the “incarcerating” bindings of English colonialism and dominant Western culture. Perhaps this book can be best summed up in his elaboration of the writer Duo Duo’s story Going Home, about a Chinese man’s frequent visits to the local English zoo to watch alligators, in a metaphoric light: “China . . . is the zoo, the zookeeper the colonial figurehead, and the white man the custodian. The alligator is China, Chinaman, orientalist discourse, the old Chinese man waiting . . . .” Vibrant images and strong words abound, but sometimes the meaning is lost in the scholarly language and wandering nature of the text.