Becoming Ethnic and Chinese: Sinophone Transculturation at the Millennial Turn

Becoming Ethnic and Chinese: Sinophone Transculturation at the Millennial Turn
Kyle Shernuk


This dissertation is inspired by a seemingly straightforward yet highly complex question: what does it mean “to be Chinese” at the turn of the twenty-first century? Many answers have been suggested over the years to this perennial question that lies at the heart of China Studies. The majority of studies, however, center on the histories, literary legacies, and cultural customs of the Han, who are the majority ethnic group in both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC, also Taiwan). While the Han are undeniably a central part of what constitutes Chineseness, the combined population of “ethnic minorities” in these places, at more than 120 million, is enough to form nearly the tenth-largest nation in the world and is equally deserving of our consideration. Looking at ethnic groups from Taiwan’s Austronesian aboriginals to the indigenous inhabitants of the Tibetan plateau, my research teases out the different means of negotiating, imagining, and refusing identities in Chinese-language literature and media. It asks: how does one create, inhabit, and explain ethnicity in Chinese contexts today?

To answer these questions, I make two interventions into the methodological and intellectual investigation of modern China. First, I propose the Sinophone Network as a means for reconceptualizing the perceived connections (or lack thereof) between literary and cinematic works composed and/or subtitled in Mandarin Chinese and/or Sinographs. Highlighting texts’ capacity for mutual intelligibility without regard to intentionality, this network creates the potential for a methodology of critical juxtaposition, from which shared practices and points of commonality can be identified. Second, by tapping into the potential of the Sinophone Network, I introduce the concept of Chinese/Ethnoscapes for discussing the relationship between Chineseness and ethnicity. Understood as co-dependent and mutually constituted terms, Chinese/ethnoscapes reflect the materiality of lived experience at the same time as engaging with the more abstract political and socio-cultural ideologies in which they are embedded. By bringing together works by writers and directors from across the Sinophone Network, and by identifying their various yet shared techniques for expressing ethnic and Chinese identities, this dissertation argues for a redefinition of the limits and possibilities of modern Chinese literary and visual studies.

My argument is advanced through four instances of critical juxtaposition that highlight shared themes for theorizing and articulating ideas about ethnicity and Chineseness. Chapter One discusses the possibility of a Sinophone, ethnic Bildungsroman and the generic manipulation necessary to accommodate ethnically Lhasa-Tibetan and Paiwan-aboriginal subjects in their respective cultural contexts. Chapter Two addresses techniques for merging Han-majority and rGyalrong-Tibetan minority ideas about history and temporality into the generic form of the novel by recourse to the literary figure of the storyteller and ideas of cosmological time. Chapter Three examines how ecological relationships are conveyed from minoritized ethnic positions, specifically Amdo-Tibetan and T’ao-aboriginal, and how they interact with Han-majority positions in both China and Taiwan. Chapter Four investigates the ethnopolitics of solidarity building, particularly as they manifest in agendas of a Sino-Islamic, socialist cosmopolitanism and a Han-majoritarian multiculturalism. I conclude with a discussion of the historical and future potential of Chinese/ethnoscapes.


Kyle Shernuk

PhD defended at

Harvard University