Review of Wen Jin’s “Pluralist Universalism: An Asian Americanist Critique of U.S. and Chinese Multiculturalisms” by Fan Yang

Pluralist Universalism is an original and daring book that prompts us to re-think the politics of difference within and across national boundaries. Literary scholar Wen Jin has developed an innovative approach to the study of multicultural narratives that emerge from two distinct and yet intertwined national contexts – namely, China and United States after the Cold War. Rigorously researched with meticulous attention to both national histories and transnational linkages, Jin’s work has offered a great model for critical, comparative scholarship that challenges nation- or state- based frameworks.

If comparison is an implied perspective whenever the two nation-states are invoked in the same breath, Jin suggests that not all comparative lenses are productive for fostering political re-imagination. For instance, in the Preface, Jin references a New York Times article about the July 2009 Uyghur riot in Xinjiang province, which accuses the Chinese government for failing to “openly acknowledge the magnitude of the country’s ethnic tensions” (ix). The author invokes the U.S. president-appointed the “Kerner Commission,” set up “to investigate the causes for the 1967 race riot in Detroit,” as a precedent that China should “take note of” for addressing such tensions (ix).  For Jin, this invocation is “ironic,” considering that the commission’s recommendations for easing racially discriminatory practices were barely implemented and even “attacked during the Reagan years” (ix-x).  In the Chinese media coverage of the incident, a similar kind of argument is also deployed, when “the Western media” is blamed for “failing to place ethnic riots in China in the context of presumably worse ones in Western countries” (x). Journalistic accounts of this kind, which vilify the other nation-state as a more severe oppressor of ethno-racial minorities, Jin argues, exemplify a “solipsistic, accusatory mode of comparison” between Chinese and U.S. multiculturalisms, “where the other country is used as a foil for one’s own”(xii).

This kind of comparison, for Jin, also facilitates the racialist portrayal of “Huns” (an ethnic group of feudal China) in the 1998 Disney movie Mulan, which is “complete with different skin color and physiological abnormalities” that are unthinkable in, say, the depiction of Native Americans in films like Pocahontas. It is as if the latent “racialist mindset” beneath the ‘postracial’ rhetoric in contemporary America has found an outlet in a story set in imperial China, where “racialist attitudes can be taken for granted” (xiii). Given that media narratives in China and the U.S. still routinely project their own racial prejudices onto the other nation in this manner, what, then, is a more critical way to conduct comparative analysis?

This question has motivated Jin to investigate the possibilities for a “dual critique” (6). She turns to a set of literary works that, as “fiction(s) of multiculturalism,” offer critical commentaries on “multiculturalism as a political project” against the backdrop of historically specific state policies and discourses (29). These texts not only draw on nation-specific materials to illuminate the continuities and interconnectivities between the two multiculturalisms but also themselves circulate across national (and linguistic) borders. The selection of these fictions is in line with Jin’s conception of multiculturalism as “an inherently global phenomenon” (5), best seen as “a series of political contestations that are manifest in and mediated by law, social policy, as well as cultural practices and production” (27). This notion of multiculturalism, then, encompasses both “official” and “critical” accounts that offer “competing perspectives” (27) about how to mediate the tensions between national unity and ethno-racial differences.

One thing that Jin does remarkably well is the creative deployment of concepts drawn from diverse fields, from political theory and postcolonial studies to Asian American and immigrant literature. An example of this is her use of Bhikhu Parekh’s term, “pluralist universalism” (2), to capture the varied cultural endeavors intent to envision new and better forms of multiculturalism between China and America. While this attempt may risk idealizing dominant multicultural doctrines already in circulation, Jin is careful not to subscribe to “any normative conception of ethno-racial justice against which others are measured” (8). Instead, she borrows from Walter Mignolo’s notion of “double critique” (7) to venture a kind of comparison that is not only “sensitive to both parallels and differences” but also self-reflexive of the potential danger to reify existing racial and ethnic identity categories. This approach does not presuppose a material or formal symmetry between ethno-racial experiences in distinct national contexts. Rather, it can be described as a form of “strategic doubling,” which, much like “strategic essentialism,” re-appropriates hegemonic racial and ethnic categories to destabilize “the disciplinary force inherent in them” (9).

While concepts like “pluralist universalism” and “double critique” allow Jin to weave together the discrete cultural texts under concern, she also grounds her analysis in the historical contexts wherein multicultural politics assume specific forms. If the attempt to offer a “survey of the histories of U.S. liberal multiculturalism and China’s official ethnic policy” (37) is decidedly ambitious, Jin has done more than merely establishing “structural and formal parallels” between the two. Her identification of  “the discursive bridges that link them” (63) indeed opens up the possibility for a more critical understanding, which posits that the 1960s race-based social movements in the US and the 1950s formation of China’s official multi-ethnic policy are “two interconnected, competing forms of conciliatory multiculturalism” (37, my emphasis).

Marked by “its simultaneous recognition and disavowal of ethno-racial tensions” (37), conciliatory multiculturalism operates as a useful label throughout the book to connect seemingly diverging strands of hegemonic struggles in a transnational setting. While one form of this transnational exchange is reflected in the Chinese intellectuals’ translation of U.S. discourse on multiculturalism into China in the 1990s, which competed against the partially Soviet-derived conception that preceded it, what demands further attention, for Jin, is the “doubly critical role” (66) played by Chinese American writers in disrupting the problematic formations of conciliatory multiculturalism in both countries.

Before delving into the works by these authors, Jin looks at a set of national best sellers – Chinese writer Jiang Rong’s Lang Tuteng (The Wolf Totem) and American novelist Clive Cussler’s Treasure of Khan – as examples that embody the “formal logic of conciliatory multiculturalism” (73). Though Jin acknowledges the narrative complexity of these works, she is overall quite critical of their tendency to project onto the other nation one’s own “imperialist excess” (74). Their popular appeal, she argues, serves as “an index to their formal and political proximity to conciliatory multiculturalism” (74).

Scholars of cultural studies, particularly experts of popular culture, may find Jin’s approach to these two novels too strictly reliant on close reading. Indeed, if Jin had paid more attention (as she has done in later chapters) to the cultural contexts in which these works emerged, as well as the conditions of production and distribution that have informed their reception, we may gain better insights into the ideological work that they are said to perform within their respective national and transnational circulation. However, within the structure of the book as a whole, it is understandable that Jin has deemed the method of textual analysis sufficient, because the central concern for this chapter is the hegemonic workings of conciliatory multiculturalism, particularly its ‘formal logic” (73). Given this focus, Jin’s reading of these texts has worked well in providing a counterpoint to the more “critical” works she examines subsequently.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are dedicated to three sets of “doubly critical” comparisons that complement one another. Chapter 3 reflects on experimental writer Alex Kuo’s work as an opening for a more productive critique of both nations’ modernizing (specifically Western expansion) projects, which inflicted similar kinds of injustice on indigenous groups. Chapter 4 analyzes two novels – one by the Hui Muslim writer Zhang Chengzhi and the other by the Lebanese American author Rabih Alameddine – that share the impetus to bridge politics and religion in their search for alternative modes of pluralist universalism. Finally, chapter 5 interprets immigrant writer Yan Geling’s 1996 Chinese-language novel Fusang and its 2001 English translation, The Lost Daughter of Happiness, as challenging nation-based conceptions of subjectivity and thus enabling a more radical critique of the violence inherent in normative racial and sexual desires in both America and China.

All of these chapters are imbued with important insights unique to the fictions’ formal features (e.g. regarding the use of “metaphor” in chapter 3) and historical exigencies (e.g. post-9/11 anti-terrorism and racialization of Muslims in chapter 4). But the chapter on Fusang is particularly worth noting for its exquisite interpretation of a richly layered text, itself laden with the intricacies of circulation via translation. Jin argues that reviewers in China and Euro-America, in their respective emphases on the protagonist’s transparency (as allegorical of an anti-imperialist, national subject) and opacity (as subversive of Orientalist conventions) fail to account for the novel’s more productive envisioning of “a psychic and corporeal basis for new forms of individual and collective identity and therefore the new models of national integration” (177).

Jin’s own reading of the character Fusang draws on psychoanalytic, queer, and feminist theories to make manifest an artfully rendered possibility “to dissolve conventional notions of subjectivity grounded in entrenched social difference” (195). Again, her effective mobilization of conceptual resources, such as Leo Bersani’s “impersonal intimacy” (191) and Christine Battersby’s “fluid understanding of the body” (196), enables a theoretical intervention that predicates itself on corporeality (conveyed through Fusang’s open-ended and expansive sexuality) as opposed to reified “national” or “minority identities” (197).

This radical vision, in keeping with Jin’s intent to “transgress a few borders and build a few bridges” (18), indeed bespeaks the interdisciplinary contribution of the project as a whole. As Jin explains early on, while part of her objective is to shorten the institutional distance between (Asian) American studies and East Asian Studies, she also seeks to re-configure Asian American studies “as a multiply located field, or a set of provocations in nation-based fields that have long been kept apart” (19). If literary works indeed “constitute a supplement to social science discourses” that challenge “the liberal biases built into normative definitions of multiculturalism” (6), studies like Jin’s are of particular significance in disrupting the unequal relations of power that continue to delimit how cultures of the non-West are discussed in the West. In this sense, it would perhaps be useful to bring Pluralist Universalism into conversations with studies that focus on diasporic cultural productions (in print as well as other media), particularly in regard to the latter’s capacity to simultaneously absorb, reject, and re-appropriate hegemonic conceptions of the Other in both “home” and “host” countries.

The timeliness of Jin’s project does not just lie in its lucid illustration of a tension-ridden aspect of China’s internal hegemonic struggles (to which conventional Western “China watchers” are often oblivious). Against the rising “G-2” rhetoric that obscures more than explains the interconnectivity between the contending “superpowers,” Pluralist Universalism can also become generative of more critical treatments of ethno-racial (as well as other) differences beyond the China-U.S. binary. Indeed, Jin’s “double critique” has showed us that “the boundaries between diasporic Chinese American literature and U.S.-Chinese comparative literature” can be quite productively disrupted, such that authors working within and in-between these two nation-states can be read together as critical commentaries that illuminate the politics of multiculturalism within those national and transnational settings simultaneously (202). In an era when deterritorialized forms of national belonging and political identification (often along ethno-racial or ethno-religious lines) have come to encroach more intensely upon statist claims to the national, scholarship akin to Jin’s would undoubtedly nourish more imaginative and politically fruitful mappings of collectivity in a global context.

Fan Yang is an Assistant Professor in the Communications and Media Studies Department at University Maryland Baltimore County.


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