Imperialism used to be justified, even glorified. When its time was over in 1960s, its legacies continue. Discursive colonialism, if I can use this term, seems to be lasting because it has been embedded in the civic society rather than in the political society —the one that had been decolonized during the Post War II. To decolonize the civic society and knowledge is as hard as the bloody political decolonization. In this regard, it might not be an exaggeration to say that this effort of decolonizing the colonial legacy begun when Edward W. Said, thanks to Gramsci and Foucault, launches his ground-breaking work Orientalism (1979).

Said’s Orientalism has successfully unraveled the complex hidden power/knowledge relation in the Orientalist approach to the East. Characterized by a notion of distinct other culture (race, religion, or civilization), Orientalism has neglected human experience. Overwhelmed by a sense of self-congratulation or hostility and aggression, Orientalism had contributed to Euroimperalism and hegemony. While some his critics misinterpreted him as generalizing, put together all different voices in single category of Orientalists, and demonizing the West, Said work has been a helpful to be reminder of knowledge as the tool for all humanity.

Said’s criticism was focused on the West, and there are two possible answers one could give: Occidentalism or Orientalism in reverse, a study about the Occident, the one that Said has anticipated but not expected; or a study focused on how the East had reacted to the Western hegemony.

In Said’s Orientalism, so powerful is the Western hegemony that the East is merely a represented and powerless object and it pays little attention to how the East reacts to that hegemony.[1] In this regard, Mary Louis Pratt’s work, Imperial Eyes: Travel Wiritng and Transculturation does rightly fill this gap. Her “authoethnography”, particularly help us understand how the Orient, the colonized subjects, “undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer’s own term” (Pratt, 1992: 7). It is not a “native” or “genuine” text of self-representation; but rather a “hybrid” because it happens in “the contact zone” where the colonized subject rely partially on collaboration with, and adoption of, the idioms of the conquer.

Said, Pratt, and the Readings

On the readings we have been trough, we seemingly will not be able to use those theories for all travel writings. Said’s criticism helps us much in reading travel writings written by Westerners whose potential audience are the Westerners, or when the writing is written by colonizing subjects for colonizing readers. We can apply his strategy to read Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Arica, Isabella Bird’s Korea and Her Nighbors, as well as Yosano Akiko’s Man-mo Yuki. All of these works involve what Prett calls “imperial eyes” —whether the imperial is Western Europe or Japan— and written by the “seeing-man”. In these work, as Said argues about Orientalism, the West/the imperial were able to both “present”, with their travel to the East, or the colonized Manchuria, and able “represent” them to the fellow colonizing subjects.

While Said himself never applied his criticism those “popular writing”, focusing his on academic writing in 19th century, Pratt’s work help us to critically read travel writings, as a genre, and find power relation in the less academic works, the apparently “innocent” non-political writings. I like the way she reads what in Park’s wordings that look objective, natural, innocent (after he was robbed, alone and have nothing), as indeed a projection of European goodness and African wildness (p. 77). Without her smart reading, I likely could not have read that way.

In Pratt’s “contact zone” and “transculturation”, however, the power/knowledge relation is more complicated than in Said’s because, to her, the colonized subjects in colonial frontiers are able to determine an extent to which they absorb what emanate from the dominant culture. In this sense, while Europe is shaping others, it is in fact shaped by others (by the way they represent themselves to Europe). Said’s work, as far as the reciprocal process is concerned, will no longer help. Therefore, we need Pratt’s “contact zone” and “transculturation” to read a “hybrid” literature like Poma’s letter. I wish I could have read her interpretation of Poma’s letter to see how far she can argue for her theory. Judging only from the picture illustrated in the first chapter, in which biblical reference of Adam and Eva is used along with Andean symbolic space, I think her argument could be convincing. It must be interesting to fully read her readings in chapter 8 where she analyze how Spanish American writers selected and adapted European discourses on America.

So now, we have already two kinds of analytical tools to read different genres. On the one hand, Said’s criticism works well for literature written by Westerners, for Western readers, in their own terms and languages (if you let me call them “ethnographically not sensitive Orientalism”). On the other, Prett’s work is great tool to analyze literature written by non-Western subjects, for both Western audience and their own society, and using a hybrid discourse. But, colonial encounters involve more than those two genres. There is also a literature written by non-Western subjects, using non-Western languages, and representing the West for non-West.
Coincidently, some of our readings, from Xu Jiyu’s account on “George Washington and the American Political System”, Zhigang on “Trains and Treaties”, to Li Gui’s “Glimpses of a Modern Society” are the genre neither Said nor Pratt has dealt with because it was written by Chinese, in Chinese, and for Chinese audience.

We obviously cannot call them “Orientalism” and it is also hard to call them an “Orientalism in reverse.” Not because I see the Chinese writers do not have a will to dominate inherent in Orientalism; but simply because Orientalism is an academic designation, style of thought and even corporate institutions. These Chinese accounts are too raw to represent “Orientalism in reverse”.

Furthermore, these works are neither “autoethnographic” nor “authentic” or “native” accounts. First, to be autoethnographic writing, it is not about Chinese for metropolitan literature. Second, to be an authentic it does not talk about, for example, Chinese history.

However, it doesn’t mean that Pratt’s strategies are not relevant to read those Chinese travel writings. Pratt’s insistence on the importance of studying “the site of occurrence” to unravel the histories of subjugation and resistance is more than useful. We can use Pratt’s study of genre and ideology, then, in a rather modified way: how do those increasingly colonized subjects represent the West? And instead of the question “how do they justify and betray in their texts” applied to the Western literature, we should ask how do they resist or accept the Other’s power and hegemony?

I think it is only Xu Jiyu’s account that could be a purely non “autoethnographic” character of this work. Instead of using the word Chinese do not understand, he uses “Commander”. The editor of the book might think that this is a less accurate account because Xu never visited America. But I can also argue that Xu just tried to make sense America for his readers. Look at the way he makes a lot of analogies to Chinese object and discourse to help his readers: comparing Washington with Cao or Liu; the climate is like Hebei, Shanxi, Jiangsu, and Zhejian; or referring to Hongzhi period of Ming Dynasty instead of certain date to retrieve a familiar date to his readers. Even, he describes a democratic process with reference to “the old ideal of three dynasties”.

The other more recent accounts on America, which are travel writings, represented America in different way, on which we can use Pratt’s strategy even more. In those works, “transculturation” occurred. In the political context where American power was raising and China was fading, the writings tend to be amazed by America. While there is a self-congratulation ideology in the writing of dominating subject; it is a self-criticism that we can find in most of that writing. I would love to read the next writings that we haven’t read in our class to know how those writings describe America more hostile.(*)

[1] Said, indeed deal with how the East react to the West. In addition that he only give a brief account, he undermines the ability of the East in resisiting the Orientalis (see p. 323-324, 1994 edition).

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