Viewing Africa from Asia

(This is a comment on Tim Burke’s syllabus on Images of Africa cross-posted from his blog. I am putting it up here to see if anyone has any suggestions on images of Africa in East Asia)

I’m not sure what literature there would be on Indian views of Africa, (Bend in the River comes to mind) because they were never articulated as part of a larger imperial project. You need an imperial state for archives and to encourage people to think of what they are doing as “changing Africa.” I’m pretty sure there were a lot of Indians in East Africa, and that they had at least an economic impact.

As for East Asia (the place I know best) there is some stuff that probably would not matter. Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter has a character who obsesses about Africa, but that is just using Africa as a conveniently blank Other. There is a lot of that. I can’t see why it would matter much to African history. I assume you know Phillip Snow’s The Star Raft, which has some stuff on Chinese attitudes towards Africa in the context of development aid, where it would actually matter. I would have to think that some of the Africans who studied in China or Russia must have written memoirs or something by now.

Another topic you might want to consider is the relationship between the imperial and popular and post ’45 aid-organization discourses and the academic discourse you are asking them to join. Donald Lopez did a very interesting book called Prisoners of Shangri-la on basically that topic but dealing with Tibet. I liked the book a lot because he traced the development of the popular discourse very well (Tibet has a much more unitary image than Africa) but also because he was pretty clear that this popular discourse and the academic one were closely related. Of course there is a lot of stuff on how modern Asian studies is connected to the imperial projects.


  1. Hi Alan,

    I’ve just stumbled across this blog and am very pleased to see that you’re one of its main contributors. We met many years ago in Nanjing and shared a few meals I’ll always remember together…

    Having recently spent two years living in Eritrea (and traveling around Kenya and South Africa), I’m guessing that a few diaries and perhaps novels are being written by Chinese people in Africa. Africa is teeming with Chinese engineers, doctors, and businesspeople. There are better Chinese restaurants in Asmara than just about anywhere in Europe (the exception being London and possibly Paris), despite the fact that on any given day sugar or flower or eggplants may not be available in the stores. I imagine that a few years from now, we’ll see published memoirs written by Chinese and Indian people who lived in Africa. In Asmara, many college professors and teachers are Indian. They work for very little money and are very dedicated to their their students.

    Here are a couple of entries from my diary:

    December 4, 2003


    Chinese eggplants are smaller but tastier than the ones eaten in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. I often think of them, and sometimes I dream about them. Now I’m happy to say that I can eat them here in Eritrea. The other day, Véronique, Laura, and I drove to Massawa on the Red Sea, down a winding road that drops 7000 ft. down a massive escarpment, past a garbage dump that has been burning continuously since the 1920s (or so a local proudly told me), past green mountainsides, the Debre Bizen Coptic monastery, hundreds of camels, baboons, and dirt-poor villages, including Maihabar, which is inhabited by disabled war veterans who make handicrafts no tourist buys, because there are none in this country… Massawa has been occupied by the Portuguese, Arabs, Egyptians, Turks, the British, and Ethiopians. Most of its buildings were built by Ottoman Turks, who held the city for 300 years, and most were destroyed by Ethiopian carpet bombing in 1990. What remains of the old town is falling to pieces, but is still hauntingly beautiful, especially at sunset. But I digress… On a Massawa beach, we met a group of Chinese bathers, and got to talking with them about life and Chinese food. One of them, a Mr. Cheng, told me that there is a Chinese farm north of the Kulafah Al Rashidin Mosque here in Asmara. Yesterday afternoon, I followed Mr. Cheng’s directions and, sure enough, found a vegetable field tilled by Chinese farmers. The farmers turned out to be Chinese agronomists, who’re here in Eritrea teaching local people to grow Chinese vegetables. In recent years, the Chinese have been building all sorts of things in Eritrea, including a big hospital which has yet to be opened because there are no doctors or nurses to staff it. The farmer-agronomists sold me several kilos of Chinese vegetables, including eggplants, for 6 cents. We’re having fish and yuxiang qiezi, a Sichuanese eggplant dish, for lunch.

    August 28, 2003

    India in Asmara

    Eritrea is a poor country, too poor to manufacture many of the goods its people need, and too poor to import goods from rich countries. A stapler, imported from China, costs as much as a meal for three in a good restaurant. The toothpaste we buy in the local mom-and-pop store comes from Malaysia. The toilet paper we buy comes from Nanjing, China. Many things we use come from India. The map of Africa by my desk was published by Vidya Chitr Prakashan in New Delhi. Our brand-new water filter was manufactured in Mumbai. Without a TV set for entertainment, Véronique, Laura, and I eat out, swim, and explore the city, and we also read books published by Dreamland in Delhi and Navneet in Mumbai, books like The Ugly Duckling, The Gingerbread Man, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Birbal the Wise, Arabian Nights, and Indian fairy tales. With few novels on our shelves, we’ve also been reading English classics in cheap paperback editions published by UBS Pvt. Ltd. in Delhi… But Indian literature in English is not available here in Eritrea, and neither is Eritrean literature translated into English. (I regret that I can read neither Tigrinya nor Arabic, Eritrea’s two official languages. I’ve given up studying Tigrinya for Arabic, because the latter promises to be more useful.) We’re going to the Rora, an Indian restaurant, for lunch today. A lamb curry, vegetables, dhal, rice, chapattis, and sparkling mineral water for three comes to less than four dollars…

    January 27, 2005:

    Around the world in a motorcycle

    A man riding a motorcycle showed up at Véronique’s ICRC office in Asmara this morning. She brought him home for lunch. Chen Liangquan is riding his bike around the world. So far he’s been to Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Somalia, and Ethiopia. He reckons it’ll take him ten years to visit all the countries he wants to see. Knowing how finicky most Chinese people are about foreign food, Véronique and I wondered if Chen would like our Eritrean meal of wine, injera, lentils, spinach, and fruit (we don’t eat meat). He ate everything with relish, and told us that when there’s nothing else he eats insects, grass, and even cardboard. Often, there’s nothing else. To buy gas and food, Chen shows off his martial arts skills to anyone willing to watch and offer him a little cash. Every time he reaches a capital city, he stands on his bike and says a few words in (poor) English and (beautiful) Chinese about his dream of peace on earth. When I asked him where on his journey so far he’d met the most hospitable people, he said that people are like countries: they each have their strengths and weaknesses. In Yemen, though, every man, woman, and child he met was friendly. Twenty years ago, Chen set off on his bicycle across the mountains, forests, deserts, plains, valleys, and coastlines of the Chinese provinces of Anhui, Fujian, Gansu, Guangdong, Guizhou, Hainan, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Jilin, Liaoning, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Shandong, Shanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Zhejiang, as well as the “autonomous” regions of Guangxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. The trip took him several years. In China, Chen was able speak with people, except with those who wouldn’t listen, in Mandarin. Outside China, Chen uses his hands and face to communicate with people, except with those who won’t listen with their eyes. To practice this art of silent talking, Chen, Laura, Véronique, and I played a little game of gestures, asking in turns for water, bread, milk, and paper. After lunch, Chen Liangquan took off toward Khartoum. Véronique and I wished him “chenggong” and “ping’an” (Godspeed), and Laura gave him some chocolates her grandma sent her from Geneva, where he hopes to be in three years’ time.

    That was last January. I just googled Chen’s name and came up with this from the PRC embassy in Zimbabwe:

    “Chen Liangquan, a 42-year-old Chinese man from Suzhou of Jiangsu Province, whose ambition is to travel around the world by a Motorcycle within ten years, came to Zimbabwe from Victoria Falls Town, Bulawayo, Harare and then leave Mutare for Mozambique during 13th-16th March 2005. During his stay, the Chinese Embassy in Harare offered him some help and invited him to a gathering with the Embassy staffs.”

    Photos here:

    And another article (in French):

    Apparently, he also went to Windhoek:

    Paul Frank
    Chinese > English translation: social sciences
    German, French > English translation: sinology
    La Forge, 1884 Huemoz, Switzerland

  2. The Indian diaspora in East and Southern Africa’s relationship to Indian society after independence is a really interesting topic in its own right, and not nearly as explored as it ought to be; it would be interesting to see if there are common tropes or representations circulated by Indians who lived in either region of Africa and returned at some point to the continent. The issue is obviously complicated by post-independence expulsions of South Asians from East Africa. But I honestly don’t know this literature well–only some isolated materials on South Asians in East Africa and then the South African literature, which doesn’t really talk that much about the later impact of the South African communities on South Asian societies.

    East Asia, I strongly suspect (and this has been written about here and there in scholarly work) is a good way to track the global recirculation of certain kinds of tropes generated in the West about Africa, given the extremely limited kinds of direct contacts between China or Japan and African societies until relatively recently. If you look at the Pokemon “Rougela” (aka Jynx) you definitely get some sense of that, and there’s lots of other Japanese pop culture examples, of images of blackness recirculating into postwar culture, often two or three steps removed from a direct referent to Africa.

  3. On Indians in Africa, there’s Arlene Elder, “Indian Writing in East and South Africa: Multiple Approaches to Colonialism and Apartheid,” in Emmanuel Nelson, Reworlding: The Literature of the Indian Diaspora, Greenwood Press, 1992.

  4. There is some stuff on Asian attitudes towards Africa. Rebecca Karl has something on Chinese impressions of the Boer War in her book “Staging the World”. A lot of this type of thing would seem to be less relevant to African history, in that it is entirely part of Asian intellectual history. The only way that Africa gets fit into Asian thinking in a way that clearly matters to Africa is how it fits into Maoist ideas of global peasant revolution, and maybe the Bandung spirit. More interestingly, as I think about it, Africa fits very differently into Asian and Western discourses. In Karl’s book Africa, Hawaii and places like that come into the Chinese discourse as they are taken over, and provide examples of failed or successful resistance. There is almost nothing of the attempts to look to Africa for an Other (white people did for that) and very little interest in finding primitives. I mentioned Bird, the character in Oe’s A Personal Matter, who is obsessed with Africa, but all he does is look at maps. Africa is just a geographical place that is not Japan; it could just as well be Antarctica. You do see bits of Africa in popular culture, but it is, as you pointed out really this is just western culture reflected. Lots of things that Westerners look for in Africa Asians were not looking for (a place to do missionary work, for instance) and some of the things they could find elsewhere. (Savage cannibals and witch doctors are not needed if you already have the Boxers.) I think this would be true for India and it a lesser extent Latin America as well.

    P.S. If any of your students are interested, I bet you could get the germ of a good paper by going through China Pictorial or some of the other old Maoist propaganda mags

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