(Re)imagining the Chinese nation in and with the Overseas Chinese museum

Research project leader: Cangbai Wang

The 2014 opening of the Overseas Chinese History Museum in Beijing marks the peak of a nationwide ‘huaqiao (Overseas Chinese) museum fever’ that started in the mid-1980s. Since then, nearly 20 Overseas Chinese museums have been constructed across China, with the majority in the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, China’s major hometowns of Overseas Chinese.

This unprecedented (and still ongoing) nationwide boom in museum construction related to the Overseas Chinese has raised a number of important questions:

  • Why is the Overseas Chinese, a marginalised subject in the official narration of Chinese history, been brought to the centre of China’s political and heritage discourses by the Chinese authorities?
  • What are 'huaqiao wenwu' (Overseas Chinese relics)? How is it defined, classified and evaluated in the museumification process?
  • How is the history and geography of China’s global dispersion of population narrated and represented in museum space?
  • Furthermore, at a time when cultural heritage is high on the agenda of China’s economic and cultural policies, to what extent is museumifying Overseas Chinese an integral part of the party-state’s new nation-building project, or the realisation of what the current Chinese president Xi Jinping calls the ‘China dream’?

This project is aimed at answering these questions. It seeks to conceptualise Chinese nationalism in new terms and in a global context from an innovative approach integrating the largely segregated research of migration and museums. It takes neither the history of Chinese migration nor the management of museums as the main task of investigation. While these issues necessarily contribute to the analysis, it foregrounds the politics of (re)imagining China through the lens of museum and heritage-making. In particular, it looks at the complex ways in which a ‘huaqiao museology’ has been developed, contested and exercised by competing shareholders in a network of power, and how the new museum knowledge and practice about Overseas Chinese has opened up wild and conflicting imaginings, among both domestic and international audiences, about the Chinese nation and nationalism as much as it has regulated them.

This project is built upon Cangbai Wang’s longstanding interest in the study of Chinese diaspora. Since 2009, he has undertaken filed visits of China’s Overseas Chinese museums and conducted numerous in-depth interviews with Chinese government officials, museum directors and audiences in over ten Chinese cities. Case studies of several individual Overseas Chinese museums have been published in leading journals in the field of China studies and cultural heritage. He is completing a manuscript on museum representations of Chinese diasporas that will be published by Routledge in 2020.

This research project was funded by Co-Reach, Universities’ China Committee in London and All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, China.