As a historian of Chinese art and design I hear people using the terms the “West” and the “non-West” pretty much every day.
I ask you to pause to consider: what is the “West” and who are the “non?” The “non” is a term that can only be defined negatively in relation to the “West” (upper case W) and not the geographical “west” (lower case w). It is a term that came into use during the colonial enterprises of white European courts during the 17th and 18th centuries. The “West” is a subject position. It’s a position of authority. Arguably, it’s a gendered male position. And it’s a strangely blind one, for not only does it insist on a certain defining power over the “non-,” it also fails to recognize the power of the “non-” in shaping the cultural formations of the “West.”
These binaries are so much part of our current geopolitics that they appear in everyday language across the globe. For instance, although a recent book about 20th-century Chinese feminism published in the States finds critical importance in “engaging contemporary feminist theoretical discourse in broader terms than the well-known debates over the theoretical priorities of gender, sex, sexuality, sexual difference, identity politics, or intersectionality that have dominated contemporary Euro-American feminist discussion over the past few decades,” it also takes as its raison de être “rescuing the voice of non-Western feminists” (Karl, Liu, Ko, 2013, 4). This, in spite of sensitivity to Gayatri Spivak’s critique of “the ironclad opposition of West and East” (Ibid., 7). And in another recent article on made-in-China feminism, the abstract ends with the thought that the “analysis contributes to the ongoing conversation on imagining a feminist politics in non-Western societies that disrupts the political, economic, and cultural orders all at once” (Wu and Dong 2019, 471).
On the other hand, those writers might be onto something. Is it possible to consider the “non” as a position of agency and resistance? Perhaps. Culture critic and curator Okwui Enwezor talks about the possibilities of such a position in precisely those terms: “Post-Westernism has to do with the skepticism in the non-Western world toward the essential wisdom that is the monopoly of the West. And so, in order to think about the future, to project forward, we need different lenses—it cannot be a singular lens” (2015).
But then again, the fact is that in China today, from the perspective of one of the designated “nons,” the binary strangely also is normative, though it is usually articulated as “China/the West.” It’s strange because China has had many Wests, though ironically enough, they often were distinguished in the historical record. France is not England is not Holland. It was only after the National Essence Movement around the 1910s that the language became explicitly political, the “West” was confirmed to be a power worth emulating, and “China” was defined through a 5000-year Han-centric history. Today the “West” denotes North American and Western European nations as well as vaguely defined cultures outside of the boundaries of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong. It is as much about an oppositional “us” and “them” as it is an acknowledgement of those long-lived structures of power. It is imbued with a whiff of self-Orientalization––a means of writing a line under cultural difference and in the most positive way of spinning it, it strengthens national autonomy.
There’s one more consideration. I often tell my students that any sentence that begins with the words “the Chinese people think” or “the Canadians believe” is one that you cannot finish without being wrong. How much more true is that for the West and the non-West?
“Okwui Enwezor talks with Michelle Kuo about the Upcoming 56th Venice Biennale.” 2015. Artform (May). Doi: https://www.artforum.com/print/201505/okwui-enwezor-talks-with-michelle-kuo-about-the-upcoming-56th-venice-biennale-51556
Karl, Rebecca, Lydia Liu, Dorothy Ko. 2013. “Introduction: Toward a Transnational Feminist Theory” in The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. Eds. Karl, Liu, Ko, 1-26. New York: Columbia University Press.
Wu, Angela Xiao and Yige Dong. 2019. “What is made-in-China feminism(s)? Gender discontent and class friction in post-Socialist China.” Critical Asian Studies 51, no. 4: 471-92.
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