In the 21st century, the creation of overseas Chinese literature has prospered. Domestic attention to overseas Chinese literature began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when literature from Hong Kong and Taiwan was brought into China’s mainland.
Academic circles generally believe that the study of overseas Chinese literature began in 1979, marked by the first issue of Flower City which published Zeng Minzhi’s A Glimpse of Chinese Literature in Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia. This seminal work introduced the Chinese writing scene in Hong Kong, Macau, and Southeast Asia, and appealed to academics as they began to pay attention to Chinese literary creation outside the Chinese mainland.
Domestic research of overseas Chinese literature highlights disciplinary construction and reflections on research methods, said Zhang Chonggang, a research fellow from the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Continuous attention has been paid to overseas Chinese writers and their works, literary thoughts, literary history, and cross-media research. Priorities have also been placed on interpreting the spiritual connotations and cultural value of overseas Chinese literature, through dialogue with modern and contemporary literature, sinology, and world literature.
Research on overseas Chinese literature has shown prominent disciplinary characteristics of poetic theory and regional studies, Zhang continued. In terms of poetic theory, overseas Chinese poetics and overseas Chinese cultural poetics have clear problem awareness and reflections on methodology. When discussing regional studies, Southeast Asia, Europe, and America represent the key areas of overseas Chinese literature, from where the field expands to other parts of the world and forms an overall research pattern.
The overseas Chinese literature research trend is demonstrated by the combination of case studies and theoretical exploration, and by reflections on disciplinary history, said Liu Jun, a professor from the School of Liberal Arts at Nanjing University. Overseas Chinese literature offers many hot topics for research. The study of important overseas Chinese writers, such as Pai Hsien-yung and Geling Yan, is one popular focus. The concept and theoretical discussions of “Chinese literature in the world” and “Sinophone literature” have also attracted much academic attention. In addition, the unclear positioning of “Chinese literature in the world” in disciplinary construction is also a hot topic.
Domestic academia tends to focus on “new immigrant literature” in North America, while some regional literature that has advanced in recent years has not received enough attention, said Long Yangzhi, a research fellow from the Research Center for Overseas Chinese Literature and Chinese Media at Jinan University. With the facilitation of domestic cultural and academic exchanges, great results have stemmed from the research of Chinese literature in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia and Singapore. Overseas Chinese literature can obtain new research perspectives by reinterpreting its historical evolution, the livelihoods of overseas Chinese workers, and the writings of early intellectual elites overseas, from the perspective of immigration history.
Over the past 40 years, studies of overseas Chinese literature have, from a difficult start, presented a gratifying outcome of increasingly fruitful research results, diverse research methods, and growing research teams. At the same time, we must find and resolve shortcomings for the field’s healthy and sustained development.
The development of overseas Chinese literature research has raised higher requirements for deepening poetic theory. Rao Pengzi, a professor from the School of Literature at Jinan University, proposed the concept of “overseas Chinese poetics” in 2003, trying to grasp its nature, functions, characteristics, and system within a special poetic category, so as to lay a theoretical foundation for disciplinary establishment. Chinese scholars Liu Denghan and Liu Xiaoxin introduced cultural poetics methods into overseas Chinese literature research, proposing the concept of “overseas Chinese cultural poetics” in 2004.
Zhang suggested enriching and deepening theoretical connotations of overseas Chinese literature research, on the basis of case studies and regional literature studies.
According to Liu Jun, the “interdisciplinary nature” of “Chinese literature in the world,” with its great vitality, is impacting traditional academic frameworks and structures, causing uncertainty regarding its position in disciplinary establishment. More efforts are required to broaden research scopes, expand research horizons, renew research concepts, and innovate research theories.
For many years, in-depth and detailed research methods have paid insufficient attention to overall overseas Chinese literature. Can emerging digital humanities effectively solve this problem?
Zhang noted that emerging digital humanities research methods, as a technical means, can help break the limitations of documentary reading and analysis, creating more possibilities for literary research and opening up new paths for knowledge production. In the field of literature and cultural studies, it is challenging to balance traditional humanities studies and emerging research methods.
Historical archives are critical in overseas Chinese literature research, Long added. Digital humanities will inevitably perform a role in reconstructing historical materials, revealing history, and capturing evolutionary trajectories. It can free scholars from the trivial affairs of construing documents, saving them more time and energy to deal with truly meaningful theoretical issues.