Mandarin lessons: modernity, colonialism and Chinese cultural nationalism in the Dutch East Indies, c.1900s
ABSTRACT The Chinese Association in the Dutch East Indies, known locally as the Tiong Hoa Hwe Koan (THHK) was first established in Batavia in 1900. A key objective of the THHK’s foundation was the creation of modern schools instructing in Mandarin for local Chinese students. At the turn of the twentieth century, this odd choice of instructional language led to highly charged debates about languages, pedagogical efficacy, practicality, modernity-tradition and cultural authenticity. Using under-utilized source materials in the local Malay-Hokkien vernacular, this article revisits these debates amongst the Chinese in the Dutch colony. This article interrogates the transparency of common ethnicity in analyses of Chinese nationalisms that developed outside of continental China. Drawing on the concept of “literary governance” as well as comparative work by scholars on Indian and continental Chinese nationalisms, it demonstrates the significance of the colonial context which provoked the THHK to adopt the vocabulary of modernity in reworking progressive ideas circulating in displaced Chinese nationalistic circles. Notwithstanding the THHK’s promotion of Mandarin, such reworking was accomplished through vigorous acts of transliteration and translation in the hybridized Malay-Hokkien vernacular. The THHK was hardly on the receiving end of nationalistic influences emanating from the proverbial China core but was an active agent in what has been described as a “global moment of Chinese nationalism.” The case of the THHK demonstrates the need for a finer understanding of multivalent histories of Chinese nationalisms as well as how these histories intersected with those of European colonialism in Southeast Asia.
Keywords: Mandarin, Chineseness, Chinese cultural nationalism, literary governance, modernity, colonialism
Siew-Min Sai is a Taipei-based Singaporean historian who researches the histories of Singapore and Indonesia with a focus on issues concerning language, race, Chineseness and the cultural politics of colonialism and nationalism.