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date: 24 June 2017

The Literatures of Chinese Australia

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

Few chapters of Australian history tell us more about the shifting social, cultural, and political climate of a nation torn between its European roots and its Asian destiny than the story of Chinese migration and settlement. From the Chinese diggers in the Australian gold rush of the mid-19th century, through the long period of discrimination and exclusion during the White Australia policy (1901–1970s), to recent decades of mass migration and extensive transnational traffic, China has been, and arguably remains, Australia’s privileged “Other.” Chinese Australia functions as a barometer for testing the nation’s commitment to the policy of multiculturalism. Chinese Australian writers imaginatively trace and interrogate this history, at the same time reflecting the heterogeneity of the community and debating their allegiance to the host nation and to a real as well as mythical China.

The first literary writing to emerge from the Chinese community in Australia was published in the Chinese language press in Sydney and Melbourne around the turn of the 20th century. It reflected not only the community’s passionate involvement in the political events of China during the lead-up to the republican revolution of 1911, but also their opposition to the White Australia policy and its efforts to educate the lower classes to abstain from cultural practices unacceptable to the Australian mainstream, such as gambling, opium smoking, and polygamy. After a long hiatus, Chinese language writing again blossomed in the 1990s, a direct consequence of the new wave of migration from mainland China following that country’s crushing of the protest movement in 1989. Once again, this writing was community-oriented, reflecting both their attitudes to the political climate in China and the challenges facing the new migrants in their integration into an at-times hostile host culture.

The story of Chinese Australian writing in English is quite different, both in terms of the writers’ background and the nature of their output. The majority of writers are ethnic Chinese who arrived in Australia from South-East Asia or Hong Kong, often educated in English and conversant with Western as well as Asian cultures. For these writers, and for those born in Australia, China is a distant, often ambiguous, cultural memory, and questions of identity are tied up with complex individual histories and postmodern notions of hybrid ethnicity. From positions at the same time inside and outside the dominant culture, they engage with identity and belonging in innovative ways, writing into being a “Chineseness” that owes less to cultural roots than to their negotiation between community expectations and personal memory. Refusing to be pigeon-holed or confined to conventional themes of diasporic writing, Chinese Australian writers respond to their diverse cultural and literary heritage and lived experience by inventing selves, voices, and stories that reflect the complexity of contemporary life at the intersection of local, (multi)national, and global perspectives. As Chinese Australian writing matures into a distinct though diverse category, we also start to discern its affinities with the still emerging national literary tradition of Australia.