Shu-mei Shih appointed Edward W. Said Professor of Comparative Literature

Published: August 14, 2020

The professorship is one of many recent career honors bestowed on Shih, who joined the UCLA faculty in 1993.

UCLA International Institute, August 7, 2020Shu-mei Shih — professor of comparative literature, Asian languages and cultures and Asian American studies — was appointed the inaugural Edward W. Said Professor of Comparative Literature at UCLA in mid-July.

Said (1935–2003) was a longtime professor of literature at Columbia University who founded the field of postcolonial studies and is widely known for his theory of Orientalism. The UCLA professorship has a three-year term, during which Shih plans to initiate an annual Edward W. Said lecture on campus.

“I am thrilled and honored to be awarded a chair professorship that bears the name of one of my intellectual heroes. All of my work, one way or another, has been influenced by Edward Said’s scholarship and activism. I hope my work honors his legacy in return,” said Shih.

The professorship is one of many recent career honors bestowed on Shih, who joined the UCLA faculty in 1993. In 2019, she became president-elect of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA); she is currently the organization’s vice president. In 2018, National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) awarded her its distinguished alumna award in recognition of her lifetime scholarly achievement, while simultaneously appointing her Honorary Chair Professor of Taiwan Languages, Literature and Culture.

Shih currently directs the UCLA-NTNU Taiwan Studies Initiative of the UCLA Asia Pacific Center, which supports the two-way exchange of faculty and graduate students between the universities, and has been a fellow of the Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities since 2013.

A prolific scholar and teacher, the UCLA scholar has supervised the dissertations of some 30 doctoral students and served on the dissertation committees of numerous others.

A broad and varied intellectual itinerary

A comparative literature and cultural theorist, Shih is well-known for her work on multiple topics, including transnationalism, creolization, comparative modernism, Sinophone studies, postcolonial studies, critical race theory and relational studies. “I try to combine all these things together: critical race theory, comparative literature and Asian studies, and let them bring each other into tension in order to bring out where I think the new work needs to go,” she comments.

Her body of work — which to date spans three monographs, ten co-edited volumes and countless journal articles and book chapters — represents a concerted, interdisciplinary effort to free cultural and literary analysis from hierarchical paradigms of power (whether of European colonialism, gender, race, center-periphery or Cold War hierarchies). Her books have been published in English and in Mandarin (with certain titles already in third printings), as well as in French, Japanese, Turkish, Spanish and, most recently, Korean.

Shih’s scholarship has established Sinophone studies, the comparative study of Sinitic cultures and languages at the margins of empire, as a burgeoning subfield of the humanities. She is also recognized as a pioneer in Taiwan studies, having spent decades promoting the study of Taiwan as both an active participant in global history, a generator of ideas and an emblematic site for the decolonization of knowledge.

Informed by the writings of multiple theorists, among them Edward Said and Édouard Glissant, Shih’s many writings advocate relational comparison in which literature and cultures — not “nations” or ethnicities — dynamically interact with one another as nodes in a global network. In this framework, the literature and ideas of so-called “marginal” cultures are freed from a “superior” Western comparator and best understood in their inter-relation with one another as they simultaneously participate in historically based processes.

In “Comparison in Relation” (in “Comparison: Theories, Approaches, Uses,” Johns Hopkins, ed. Rita Elski and Susan Standford Friedman, 2013), for example, she describes a “plantation arc” in which the historical experience of slavery serves as the basis for an illuminating comparison of the novels of the American writer William Faulkner, Malaysian writer Chang Kuei-hsing and Jamaican writer Patricia Powell, which respectively address the legacies of slavery in the U.S. South, the settler plantation system in Malaysia and the enslavement of Chinese “coolies” on Caribbean plantations of the mid-19th century.

This theme of relational, historically based experience is the subject of her forthcoming monograph, “Comparative Literature in a Relational World,” which elaborates a theoretical paradigm that transcends both hierarchical, “power-inflected” frameworks and cultural relativism.

Bringing a focus on lateral interactions to the humanities

Shih’s long, fruitful collaboration with Françoise Lionnet, a fellow comparative literature scholar at UCLA (1998–2015) and specialist in Francophone literature, created a scholarly space within the humanities for transnational studies, which they posited as an intellectual alternative to globalization studies.

Over the course of 20 years, the colleagues created a deep international network of transnational scholars and published two influential edited publications. The first publication (“Minor Transnationalism,” Duke, 2005) articulated a theoretical framework for the study of cultures long considered “marginal” or “minority” within Eurocentric or other center-periphery paradigms. The second (“The Creolization of Theory,” Duke, 2011) argued for abandoning the centrality of the Euro-American referent in modern cultural studies for a theoretical diversity generated by interactions among multiple minor or minoritized cultures, particularly as those interactions relate to the legacies of colonialism.

Shih and Lionnet’s collaboration began with their creation of the “Transnational and Transcolonial Studies Multicampus Research Group” at the University of California, which brought together some 40 diverse scholars from multiple UC campuses in regular conferences and other meetings over the 10-year period, 1995–2005.

“We came from everywhere in terms of our research areas; however, all of our intentions were minoritarian,” explains Shih. “So we were all looking at marginalized communities or marginalized fields or, informed by critical race theory, at minority peoples or minority cultural productions.

“Many of us were assistant professors at the time and the research group gave us a community where we could feel that the kind of work that we were doing was accepted, because at the time it was still considered really radical,” she adds.

“That process was not only incredibly intellectually generative for me, but also emotionally empowering,” she continues. As the UC research group wound down, Shih and Lionnet moved to extend the supportive scholarly network they had created to a new generation of scholars through the Cultures in Transnational Perspective Program at UCLA.

Funded by the Mellon Foundation over two funding cycles, the program awarded two-year postdoctoral fellowships to 29 young scholars working in minority and minoritized areas from 2005 through 2015. “These young scholars were so full of intellectual energy, but even more comparative and transnational than my generation,” says Shih. Yet because their fields and subject matters and research were marginalized, they were not ready candidates for good tenure-track positions.

“I think over the 10 years of the program, we were able to give them a home and time to grow, focus on their research and hone their teaching skills, and then go out on the job market. Most of them ended up placing in tenure-track positions, so the program did extremely well.

“We thought that was our way of contributing to a fundamental transformation of the humanities,” she comments.

Sinophone studies and the diversity of Sinitic cultural expression

After publishing a monograph on comparative literary modernism in China, “The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917–1937” (UC Press, 2001) and her first co-edited volume with Lionnet, Shih turned her intellectual energy to elaborating a theory of Sinophone studies. That theory replaces a pan-Chinese ethnic framework for understanding Chinese communities with a language-based framework that explores the nuanced identities of communities that speak and write in Sinitic languages all over the world.

To date, she has published two monographs and one edited work in the field, respectively: “Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the Pacific” (UC Press, 2007), “Against Diaspora: Discourses on Sinophone Studies” (Linking Books, 2017, in Mandarin), and “Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader,” with co-editors Chien-hsin Tsai and Brian Bernards (Columbia, 2013). Shih is currently working on a second anthology with co-editor Howard Chiang, “Sinophone Studies: Interdisciplinary Engagements,” and completing an additional monograph entitled “Sinophone Divergences: Race, Theory, Empire.”

Shih’s work in Sinophone studies reflects her lived experience. Born and raised in South Korea of parents who had fled China as children during the Chinese Civil War, she had never lived in China nor was she ever a Korean citizen.

“So actually I was Taiwanese by nationality because my citizenship was the Republic of China,” she explains. “I was not Chinese, I was never Chinese — culturally, maybe, but never by nationality.” Shih first moved to her purported “homeland” of Taiwan to attend National Taiwan Normal University, which awarded her the distinguished alumna award in 2018.

“It’s important to me to make the distinction between what is Chinese and the incredible diversity of Sinitic languages, and even the sheer diversity of accented Mandarin,” she says. “Hence, my theorization of a new field. It comes from that orientation of trying to make people understand that there is not one thing called ‘Chinese.’

“If you speak English, it doesn’t make you British. If you speak Mandarin, it doesn’t make you Chinese,” she remarks. “But people still confuse this all the time.

“The critique of China-centrism is central to Sinophone studies,” explains Shih, pointing out that China has asserted for hundreds of years that Chinese all over the world belong to the motherland. “That’s not just a tactic of power, it’s appropriation,” she comments. “Wherever you are, you’re Chinese — so I have a say over you. Scholars have called it extraterritorial control or domination of Sinophone communities.”

Taiwan studies. Alongside and within Sinophone studies, Shih regularly publishes works on Taiwan that weave together many of the intellectual threads of her career, from postcolonial to transnational to relational theory.

The subfield takes the existential realities of Taiwan — an Austronesian island successively subject to Han settler and Dutch colonialism, Japanese occupation, U.S. imperialism and Chinese hegemony — as the basis for discussion of a de-colonized world in which ideas and theory are not generated by “great” powers, but by the interaction of multiple cultures across the world, and of the need for dominant cultures to listen to the margins.

“If you look at the world from Taiwan’s perspective, it’s a small island living under this looming hegemony and threat — really, bullying— by China,” says Shih. “So there is a certain kind of minoritization or marginalization, of being dominated and living in hegemony, living in the shadow of the Chinese empire.

“That sense is important to my work and a crucial reason why I want to make sure that the ideas coming out of Taiwan — even though it is so small and supposedly so insignificant — are seen as part of the whole world,” she continues. “Taiwan takes part in global processes and has the right to fight for epistemic justice. It does not have to always receive things from the West or China and be in the downstream of Western theory or Chinese civilizationism.”

A founding member of the Knowledge Taiwan Collective in 2012, Shih has published several co-edited volumes with other members of the collective, including “Knowledge Taiwan: On the Possibility of Theory in Taiwan” (Ryefield, 2016, in Mandarin) and “Keywords of Taiwan Theory” (Linking Books, 2019, in Mandarin).

Ultimately, she believes that epistemic justice for Taiwan must include scrupulous and self-reflexive attention to Taiwan’s indigenous Austronesian past and present, hence her latest work in indigenous studies and settler colonial studies in the forthcoming volume, “Indigenous Knowledge in Taiwan and Beyond,” co-edited with Lin-chin Tsai.

Coming full circle

Many of Shih’s intellectual interests are presently reaching fruition in unanticipated ways in real time. For example, a longtime advocate of using critical race theory in Asian studies, Shih was delighted to see the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) hold its first-ever forum on “Asian Studies and Black Lives Matter” this summer.

“This is an historically unprecedented conversation at AAS; it was unthinkable even a year ago,” she remarks. “Gender was tough enough to do within Asian studies, but it you wanted to do race, forget it! So I hope this signals a real opportunity.”

In another career capstone, Shih will deliver the keynote speech at the inaugural conference of the newly formed Society of Sinophone Studies in spring 2021.

Yet perhaps the most striking serendipity of all will take place in 2022, when Shih returns to her undergraduate alma mater, NTNU, to host the annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) as association president.

The icing on the cake? NTNU, explains Shih, is the first university in Asia where comparative literature was taught — by Shimada Kinji, a Japanese scholar of English, French and Japanese diaspora literature who later established the first comparative literature department at the University of Tokyo.

For Shih, a scholar who has spent her scholarly life uprooting colonial paradigms from comparative literature — a field whose very creation was rooted in European and Japanese colonialisms, the ACLA conference represents “the whole [comparative literature] narrative, the whole trajectory or itinerary, coming full circle. I never imagined something like this would be possible.”

Article written by Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications, UCLA International Institute

Please see UCLA Asia Pacific Center’s article on Professor Shu-mei Shih here