Reading Rey Chow

Visuality, Postcoloniality, Ethnicity, Sexuality

by Paul Bowman (Author)
©2013 Monographs XII, 175 Pages


This is the first book-length study of the groundbreaking work of Rey Chow, whose work has transformed the fields of postcolonialism, cultural studies, film, ethnicity and gender. It describes and explains the features and the breadth of Chow's interventions and illustrates Chow’s arguments by way of the analysis of a range of engaging examples drawn from the fields of film, popular music, identity and popular culture. Chow’s work is of interest and importance to anyone working on questions of international and transnational film; popular culture; postcolonialism; poststructuralism; and Chinese, Hong Kong and Asian identity in different national contexts; as well as sex, gender and ethnic politics in general. This book elaborates on and illustrates Chow’s fascinating contributions to scholarship and knowledge across many different fields by arguing that her work can best be understood in relation to the «projects» of cultural studies and postcolonial studies. In this way, the work sets out both the enduring importance of these wider projects and the importance of Rey Chow’s contributions to them.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Introduction. Reading Rey Chow: Visuality, Postcoloniality, Ethnicity, Sexuality
  • Chapter One. Rey Chow Reading Postcolonialism and Poststructuralism
  • In Fidelity to Deconstruction
  • Rey Chow and the Receptions of Poststructuralism
  • Derrida’s Cat
  • Poststructuralism Translated
  • Born in the USA: “French” Poststructuralism
  • Merely Academic (or) Hyper-Political
  • The General T-Shirt of Force and Signification
  • Cultural Studies and “Theory”
  • Feminist (Language) Differences
  • Alterity: Don’t Even Go There
  • Disjointed Connections: Postcolonialism and Poststructuralism
  • Visual Pleasure and Poststructuralism Disciplined
  • From Poststructuralism to Post-Foundational Thought
  • Chapter Two. Gender, Race, Ethnicity and Visual Culture
  • Introduction: Film as a Cultural Technology
  • What’s the big deal about cinema? Or: What does film “do᾿
  • Case Study 1: Activity, Passivity, Gender and Sexuality
  • The Commodification of Sex and Ethnicity
  • Case Study 2: Ethnicity, Sexuality, Identity and Coercive Mimeticism
  • Visible Space and/as Power
  • Chapter Three. Cultural Politics before China; or “the foundation of contemporary cultural studies”
  • Rey Chow and Cultural Studies
  • Visualizing Postcolonialism versus Area Studies
  • Chapter Four. Rey Chow’s Method and the Orientations of Cultural Studies
  • Introduction: Politics and Cultural Criticism
  • The Partition of the Pedagogical
  • Against Satisfying Method
  • Postmodern Aims, Objectives and Outcomes
  • Training and Event
  • All that was solid
  • Chapter Five. Rey Chow’s Cultural Translation
  • Literal and Non-Literal Translation
  • The Queerness of Cultural Translation
  • Chapter Six. Rey Chow’s Alter-Native Conclusions
  • Cultural Studies after China
  • Rey Chow after Cultural Studies
  • Reiter(n)ation
  • AlterNatives
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index


I owe thanks to a range of people and institutions for helping me in various ways to complete this work. First and foremost, thanks are owed to Professor Chow herself, whose work has transformed and greatly enriched my thought on so many matters. It goes without saying that this book would not have been possible were it not for her! Secondly, I owe thanks to my students, at both BA and PhD level. The reaction of students has often reconfirmed for me both the need for and value of such a book as this—a serious and sustained study that seeks to set out some key coordinates crucial to establishing a thorough understanding and appreciation of the significance and impact of Rey Chow’s work. Student reaction regularly takes the form of a familiar sequence: initial statements of confusion and comments about the difficulty of Rey Chow’s work, followed quickly—as we work through the texts in seminars, tutorials and conversations—by a palpable kind of delight and even awe at the insights that Chow’s work affords. Most importantly, though—and to an extent that I have rarely seen before—I have found that engaging with Chow’s work translates directly into the production of more mature, insightful and compelling work on the part of both the students and the researchers with whom I have shared and explored Chow’s work.

Several people have directly and indirectly prompted me to keep going in this direction, and to produce this book; most notably Colette Balmain, Floriana Bernardi and Patrizia Calefato. Colette Balmain on several occasions invited me to speak as keynote at the prestigious East Winds international conference and East Asian film symposium, held annually at Coventry University and the University of Warwick. She has always made it clear that these invitations came chiefly because of the fact that Rey Chow’s work had infused my thinking on matters of film and culture, and that the work I was developing by way of exploring approaches to film and culture derived from Rey Chow was widely valuable. At the same time, Floriana Bernardi and Patrizia Calefato at the University of Bari in Italy also extended several invaluable invitations to me, enabling me to compose and to present work on (and occasionally in the company of) Rey Chow. These occasions have been of great value to me. Similarly, Matthew Phillips and Bianca Son Suantak kindly invited me to← vii | viii → give a keynote address at an international conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Like all of the events listed here, this provided an important opportunity and occasion for me to engage with questions and themes that came to have a strong influence on this book. All of these events have enriched and sharpened my appreciation of the importance of Rey Chow’s contributions to cultural, film, cross-cultural and postcolonial studies.

For reasons I describe in more detail in the Preface, I also owe thanks to Professors Terry Threadgold, Justin Lewis and Jenny Kitzinger, of the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC) at Cardiff University. As Head of School, Justin Lewis has supported my research endeavors and activities both directly and indirectly—the latter in the form of ensuring a healthy and productive working environment in JOMEC, which fosters research and scholarship as well as collegiality and collaboration.

Others whose collaboration, conversation and collegiality have assisted my research and writing in different ways include Iain Chambers, Samuel Chambers, Hiu M. Chan, Zahid R. Chaudhary, Christopher Connery, Simon During, Maria Rosaria Dagostino, Jeroen de Kloet, Michael Dutton, John Frow, Bernhard Gross, Todor Hristov, Song Hwee Lim, Nasheli Jimenez del Val, Corbett Miteff, David Machin, Kerry Moore, Keiko Nitta, Alexis Nuselovici, Michael O’Rourke, Michael A. Peters, Marinos Pourgouris, John Seed, Richard Stamp, James Steintrager, Ye Weihua and Xin Zhang. Thanks also to Isabelle Gibbons for some close reading. Finally, thanks are owed to Chris Myers and all at Peter Lang in New York for being so supportive of this project; and also, as always, to my wife, Alice. ← viii | ix →


On 13 May 2008, Jodi Dean announced on her blog (I cite) that Columbia University Press was having a “white sale.” I clicked the link, browsed the catalogue, and noticed a book called The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Rey Chow. I had heard of Rey Chow. It was a familiar name. I owned at least one book in which an essay of hers—on Chinese literature—was anthologized. However, never having had much reason or inclination to study Chinese literature, I had browsed through this but had never seriously read any of her work. Yet the title of this book appealed to me immensely. This is because I had been involved in studying the ideology critiques of Slavoj Žižek for several years—or rather, I had been involved in an ongoing critique of Slavoj Žižek’s approach to ideology critique—at the same time as I was also attempting to make sense of the complex of factors involved in the explosion of “Western” interest in “Eastern” martial arts and Eastern culture, philosophy and religion—an interest that hit and transformed the mainstream of international popular culture in the early 1970s, around the massive popularity of Bruce Lee’s kung fu films.

Taking stock of this complex chiasmus or conjuncture demanded an engagement with many factors, including trying to work out the possible reasons for the emergence of a popular Western interest in East Asian philosophy. Žižek had more than once referred to the arguments of Max Weber—the author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—in developing his own theory of ideology. In his pronouncements about “capitalist ideology,” Žižek frequently referred to Buddhism and Taoism. But he did so in a very dismissive way. So, knowing that Rey Chow was a scholar both of Chinese literature and of cultural studies and film, and being tantalized by the way that her book’s title played on Weber’s title in such a way as to emphasize ethnicity, I was intrigued to find out what she might have to say about (presumably Chinese) ethnicity and capitalism.

When I opened my copy of The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism, it changed everything. It had a massive impact on my thinking and indeed on ← ix | x → my orientation in cultural studies. It introduced me to new perspectives on media, culture, ethnicity, gender, technology, history and identity, and it modified my understanding of many issues that I thought I was more than familiar with. So I immediately ordered the rest of Chow’s published books and read them all in rapid succession that summer. I was moved to do so because I was excited by the implications and possible ramifications of Rey Chow’s thought, not just for my own projects—specifically my slightly eccentric interests in martial arts and popular culture—but actually for cultural studies and film studies, as well as studies of visual culture, identity, gender and ethnicity much more widely. I began incorporating Chow’s arguments and insights into all of my analyses of popular culture, cultural practices and film. But, given the breadth, depth and complexity of her writings, it took a great deal of sustained effort and engagement for me to feel like I had begun to grasp more completely, let alone synthesize and conceptually master her paradigms. The book you are now reading is one result of that effort.

At the time of first encountering Rey Chow’s work, I was in the process of completing my third monograph, Theorizing Bruce Lee. On encountering Chow’s work, I held off from submitting the manuscript of the Bruce Lee book until I could rework it in light of what I had started to be able to see and think anew thanks to the insights and perspectives provided by Chow’s work. I also began to initiate other projects, organized by the dual aim of both personally exploring and of publicizing the existence, implications and ramifications of Rey Chow’s work for cultural studies—specifically in the UK, where I did not believe Chow was well enough known or read—but also more widely.

Professor Terry Threadgold at Cardiff University agreed with me that it was indeed peculiar that Rey Chow’s globally significant and internationally acclaimed work had somehow not more substantially made inroads into British academic and intellectual life in the fields of cultural studies, film studies and postcolonial studies. We reflected on this, and determined that, whatever the reason for it (whether it was perhaps a matter of uneven communication networks between, say, the US and the UK, or whether it reflected Britain’s relative provinciality, or whether it was connected to demography or the structure of academic disciplines in the UK, and so on), it was a real problem that there was such a gap and such a significant absence here.

My sense that there was a peculiar situation in which on the one hand Chow’s international significance was apparent whilst on the other hand her work apparently had a relative lack of visibility or prominence in UK-based cultural studies demanded interrogation and, I felt, intervention. I wanted to explore the reasons for it and to try to intervene to redress it, because I felt ← x | xi → sure that Chow’s approaches could enrich British cultural studies. This remains so even if it is reasonable to propose that there are demographic, ethnographic, sociological and disciplinary reasons for Chow’s prominence and recognition in both the USA and all across Asia, on the one hand, and also for her lesser prominence in the UK, on the other. For, put bluntly, it seems merely to reflect the fact that all of the different kinds of Chinese and Asian studies, and the related fields and problematics that currently flourish across the world are, in the UK, either comparatively small fields, or even non- or barely existent. But just because the arrangement, structure and relative weight of the disciplines in the UK does not seem conducive to the kind of cross-disciplinary communication networks, relays, flows and overflows that supervene elsewhere, this does not mean that Rey Chow’s writings—even when they are focused on and organized by “China” or “Chinese” themes (which, in actual fact, is not all that frequently)—do not have a far wider currency. Indeed, as this book endeavors to demonstrate, Rey Chow is a lot more and other than a “mere” scholar of China, Chinese film, and/or diasporic Chinese and Asian identity. As each chapter sets out in different ways, her interventions traverse and enrich—even transform—multiple fields.


XII, 175
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
film gender identity culture music
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2013. 175 pp.

Biographical notes

Paul Bowman (Author)

Paul Bowman teaches cultural studies at Cardiff University, United Kingdom. He is the author of many academic books, including Post-Marxism versus Cultural Studies and, most recently, Beyond Bruce Lee: Chasing the Dragon through Film, Philosophy and Popular Culture.


Title: Reading Rey Chow
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189 pages