Post-colonialism Backfires: Be Proud of My Chinese Name Please?

By Flair Donglai Shi.

“Flair? That is your name? Come on, that can’t seriously be your name. What is your real name?”

Since coming to the UK for my studies, I’ve constantly been faced with these types of questions, in both formal academic gatherings and casual social interactions. Among the numerous people I’ve encountered and have had such perfunctory conversations with, many are professors, and most would consider themselves to be not only learned and knowledgeable, but also open-minded and progressive. I clearly remember an occasion during a social event after a conference, when my supervisor tried to introduce me to one of her good friends, a British professor in Chinese Studies no less, and she felt rather embarrassed by her friend’s constant amusement over my name. The professor was persistent: she did not stop at finding out my “real name” after I told her the Chinese name my parents gave me. While urging me to be proud of my Chinese name, she insisted on questioning me further about my “incompetence” to choose a “normal” name in “the list of hundreds of English names there are”. Withholding a sense of resignation, I told her that I discovered the word “flair” by serendipity when I was still learning English as a young Chinese student and simply felt a strong connection with it, and it sounded to me to be gender-neutral and close enough to many other “conventional” proper names in English (After all, shouldn’t we all be very bothered by the gender binarism of the English naming system?). But this was not good enough a justification for her, and what was supposed to be a simple academic networking opportunity ended in much mutual discomfort. The fact is that, since I never had the chance to choose my Chinese name, I did not want to be constrained by naming conventions in English either and deliberately made the choice to exercise my agency by naming myself “Flair”. However, with my supervisor there I dared not make a big issue of her friend’s judgmental and patronising attitude, not to mention the stress this whole conversation had put on me with regards to the academic stakes and hierarchies involved. 

For my friends, my name is simply a habitual sign by which they humanise and respect me as an independent individual; and for most strangers, the name performs its social function pretty well since almost all of them will remember me via this empty signifier by the end of our conversation; no matter how much they are troubled by it initially. However, in the Anglophone world, especially in supposedly highly sophisticated cultural spaces such as Oxford University, I am still bombarded by suspicions and questions about my name all the time. Why are people so obsessed with my name and its “authenticity”?

As Walter Benjamin poignantly points out in his essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”, the philosophy of language starts from the act of naming. It is generally agreed upon that language is one of the most important defining characteristics of the human species, and in utilising our cognitive-linguistic abilities, we human beings give worldly objects names to bring them into proto-sociopolitical fabrications. In such cases, naming is simply a form of designation, a way for us to bestow meaning onto the world. However, while semiotics primarily focuses on the arbitrariness of such bestowing, in Postcolonial Studies we tend to stress the inevitable and inherent power relations embedded in such actions. For most postcolonial scholars, naming should be regarded as a form of mapping, othering and worlding. For example, Bill Ashcroft, in illustrating his statement that “to name the world is to know it and to have control over it”, raises the immediate example of the word “Africa”, which is of course, etymologically European. Similarly, the polysemous conflation of the country “China” and the ceramic “china” indicate none other than Europe’s continuous fascination about ancient Chinese art, whereas “The Middle Kingdom”—how the Chinese themselves call their country— is just as self-centric if not more so. A more direct example in the colonial context would be Hong Kong, where every British governor that ruled the city “bestows” their names to many of its main streets. As a mainland Chinese person, I could not help but feel this sense of (post-?)colonial displacement when I took the buses around Hong Kong for the first time: “Austin Road, Chatham Road, now we are approaching Salisbury Road!”

However, what post-colonialism in the context of linguistics is most concerned about is the transformation of the act of naming from a form of designation into a form of addressing, or calling, when it is used against subjects, namely human beings rather than physical objects or environments. That is, the power dynamics inherent in the act of addressing or calling. To name an individual is also to know him/her and to have control over him/her, such is the “epistemic violence” Spivak Gayatri is talking about when she addresses the existential dilemma of the subaltern. Indeed, when we think about the acting of naming used upon another individual, the image that comes to mind is that of parents naming their baby. The baby in its situation cannot resist such an action because it is new, speechless and powerless, both physically and socially. But in turn, this situation also clarifies for us that naming, when used upon another individual, always involves an infantilisation of the Other, a denial of his/her agency by assumption. Therefore, embedded in the core of any type of authoritarian control is a paternalistic attitude, and colonialism is an extremely malicious manifestation of both. Franz Fanon, in his essay “The Negro and Language”, provides an analysis of the biosemiotic nature of colonial naming, in which the black man acquires a layer of “whiteness” in his bestowed name. To use Althusser’s term, the subaltern almost has no way to resist such “radicalizing interpellation” because his very existence was triggered by this connectivity with the white Other. Therefore, in the British colonies, even though it was the colonisers that initiated this naming practice of bestowment in the name of spreading “civilization”, very quickly the colonised natives would be eager to wear such “white masks” and develop vested interests in the symbolic capitals their English names carried. To put it bluntly, if you don’t want to sound like that evil Fu Manchu, you’d better find yourself a more attractive name like Charlie Chan.

However, as many supposedly “progressive” Western scholars would quickly point out, these oppressive practices have changed significantly since the end of colonialism, and yet they are often oblivious of the rigid postcolonial politics that has emerged in their supposedly multicultural societies. Following the civil rights movements in the 1960s, the West underwent many important waves of political emancipation, of women, of racial minorities, of LGBT people and etc. Embedded in these social struggles is essentially a decentring force—a leftist, egalitarian tendency striving for a dreamed equality. Indeed, Western identity politics is keen to overturn the shame that the dominant Western patriarchy used to inject into all forms of subaltern others, and its mechanism has revolved around its opposite form, pride: to be proud of your name, to be proud of your vagina, to be proud of your skin colour, to be proud of your sissy-ness and butch-ness! While in the past English missionaries in Hong Kong gave their students English names so that they themselves could be spared the efforts to learn the perceived “ching-chong-ching” of the twist of the tongue, now the new political correctness is for them to learn our names (but only to the degree that they themselves feel should be enough for us), and tell us “by the way, you should be proud of your Chinese names”. Apart from being forced to reveal my “real name” by new acquaintances all the time, even my closest friends would sincerely warn me not to put my name as “Flair Donglai Shi” on my CV or my publications: “Donglai Shi” is much better, because it shows my honesty and authenticity and my being proud of who I am. Indeed, who am I? Or perhaps more precisely, who gets to tell me who I am or what I should be? Should I be proud of my Chineseness if there is such a thing that is Chineseness? Or should I be proud of “being” anything? Many postmodern theorists like Jacques Derrida would of course see through the persistence of reductive binarism in such affective compulsion to be proud and argue that any given category is hegemonic. Spivak would similarly observe the forever voiceless position of the subaltern: shame or pride, he/she is still being told what to do, how to do, and how to feel about doing it. Having appropriated the moral urgency of postcolonial concerns, the superficial political correctness of Western multiculturalism today has not changed much of its Eurocentric foundation and yet continues to constrain the agency of the Other (the coloured, the foreign, and the outsider) to speak for themselves.

Ironically, unless it reverts to a kind of narrow-minded nationalism, this pretentious Western ethos of egalitarian cosmopolitanism will not any time soon be fashionable in a rapidly modernising country like China, especially considering the deep sociopsychological scars left behind by the country’s communist past. Therefore, while the West’s efforts to rid its Orientalism remain superficial and rigid and call for further updates and reflections, many Chinese people will remain romantically, or in some cases even fanatically, Occidentalist. That is to say, the English mania will not stop, foreign universities are going to earn more Chinese money, and more and more fashionable English names are going to appear on the business cards of Chinese employees for the ever-expanding multinational corporations in China. One does feel some kind of resignation in the face of such seemingly unstoppable trend, but it also depends on how we read such Occidentalism. Do we see it as Chinese people’s loss of agency in their craving for Western “bestowment” or can we actually view it as their active seeking of a global membership? James Ferguson, in his essay “Of Mimicry and Membership”, vouches for the latter interpretation while addressing a different context: according to him, the Africans dancing in European clubs in Nigeria are not practicing some kind of self-orientalising subordination; instead, many of them are shedding the burden of being African, which has been imposed upon them by the essentialist rhetoric of authenticity, and enjoying their freedom in opting for an alternative way to live their lives. More importantly, we need to be clear that while this “alternative” is often inspired by Western symbols of consumption and can seem like a strong desire to “be Western”, it remains in essence an act of imagination firmly rooted in the immediate reality of non-Western locations. More often than not, the encounter with the West is not the end goal, and if it is realised at all, the imagination about the alternative can crumble, exactly because such encounters involve not only the ephemeral happiness brought by consumption of Western goods but also the inevitable confrontation with racism and Eurocentric cultural hegemony, packaged in either politically correct or incorrect ways. Faced with an ever-diversified array of Eurocentric niceties, it again falls on those of us who do not easily fit in to see through the epistemic violence underneath and negotiate for that limited space of agency and dignity. Indeed, if I could have another chance to talk to my supervisor’s friend in a more equal setting, I would (perhaps proudly) say: what I have chosen by and for myself is not Donglai Shi, but Flair, and please don’t tell me to be proud of either.

(A previous version of this article was published by the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China on their website in 2015. As I was revising this article, I was still very frustrated by the he/she binaries of conventional English. But at least they can serve as good reminders for the native speakers of the language that they surely need to be more self-critical and self-reflective about English’s glorious conventions, right?)

Flair is a DPhil Candidate in English at Oxford University.

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