In this webinar, Dr Josh Stenberg, Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney, shares his insights regarding the extent of Chinese soft power influence on Indonesian Chinese arts.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Thursday, 31 May 2023 – This webinar examines the extent of Chinese soft power on two separate Indonesian Chinese art forms – Wayang Potehi and Chinese-Indonesian literature. Dr Josh Stenberg is joined by Professor Leo Suryadinata, a Visiting Senior Fellow from ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, who served as discussant. He is also joined by Dr Siwage Dharma Negara, a Senior Fellow from ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, who served as moderator for the event. The webinar attracted 73 registrants.
Dr Stenberg began by stating that in the recent history of Indonesia, ethnic Chinese faced tensions and persecution due to their ethnic identity. He observed that during times of tension, local Indonesian-Chinese were often associated with mainland China, noting that whether these local communities perform their ethnic identity is “keyed to geopolitical dynamics”.
He goes on to highlight two emerging forces that influence the expression of Chinese ethnic identity in art. Firstly, the freedom of the post-Suharto era allowed the Indonesian-Chinese community to express their hybrid ethnic identity and secondly, the rise of PRC soft power encouraged the Indonesian Chinese to engage more with China in “Chineseness”. Contending that the cultural response to China’s rise is uneven, Dr Stenberg argues that Chinese soft power has a greater impact on an artistic minority that reads and writes Chinese and a lesser impact on Chinese Indonesian arts that are “linguistically acculturated”. To substantiate his argument, Dr Stenberg draws the audience’s attention to Wayang Potehi and Sino-Indonesian literature (Yinhua Wenxue) in turn.
Dr Stenberg begins to trace the trajectory of Wayang Potehi as a puppet glove theatre that originated from Fujian, China, spreading to Java, Indonesia in the late 19th century. Although Potehi – still actively practiced in Taiwan, Penang, Singapore and Java – has met with a decline in popularity in recent years, Dr Stenberg maintains that the Indonesian Wayang Potehi has been gaining prominence as a symbol of Sino-Indonesian culture. He elaborates on how Wayang Potehi has acculturated into Javanese culture through an example of a Potehi performance by Rumah Cinwa. While retaining Chinese elements in music and setting, the afternoon performance interlaced English with Chinese vocabulary, while the evening performance saw an interpretation of the Javanese narrative, Majapahit. Both instances are unusual as Potehi is not usually performed in English, nor are Javanese narratives usually performed. By pointing out how most of the performers are youths and non-Chinese Indonesian, Dr Stenberg illustrates how Wayang Potehi has integrated fully into Indonesian culture while remaining distinctly ethnic Chinese. Dr Stenberg observes that in this acculturation, Wayang Potehi receives little support from Chinese organisations and the PRC is conspicuously absent, reflecting a strand of ethnic Chinese culture that remains untouched by the rise of China.
Turning next to Sino-Indonesian literature, Dr Stenberg showcased a series of poems. These poems emerged towards the end of Reformasi and were written in Chinese by Indonesian-Chinese writers. Much of these poems focused on articulating Chineseness and often pondered over their ethnic cultural identity. Dr Stenberg stated that while these writers were Chinese-educated in pro-Beijing schools, they were mostly brought up in Indonesia and identified as Indonesians. However, in their poems, they expressed admiration for PRC and often showcased identification with Chinese landmark events, such as the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Dr Stenberg observed that the production of these Sino-Indonesian literature was sustained by PRC-supported platforms such as newspapers. Nonetheless, the number of Indonesian-Chinese writers who write in Chinese is dwindling due to age and there is a limited pool of younger Chinese-writing writers. Thus, Dr Stenberg surmised that PRC soft power will be essential in continuing this art form.
Concluding his presentation, Dr Stenberg observed while some forms of Indonesian Chinese arts – like Wayang Potehi – remain untouched by PRC soft power, others like Sino-Indonesian literature require the presence of PRC soft power to be sustained. Noting that both can exist within the discussion of Indonesian Chinese identity, Dr Stenberg urged the audience to be mindful of the possibilities while examining PRC soft power.
The discussant, Prof Leo, thanked Dr Stenberg for his presentation. On Wayang Potehi, he observed that it is impossible to pinpoint it as Chinese, Peranakan or Javanese as it has been deeply integrated into Indonesian culture. There is a local term to refer to this kind of art: Wacinwa, i.e. Wayang-Cina-Jawa (Javanese Chinese wayang). While on Sino-Indonesian literature, he added that the Chinese-speaking community was exposed to overseas Chinese literature because they were still citizens of China. It was only during Suharto’s reign (1966-1998) that almost all of the Chinese Indonesians became Indonesian citizens and hence became Indonesia-oriented. He agreed with Dr Stenberg that the number of Indonesian Chinese that speak Chinese is declining and the future of literature is dim. He supposed that Indonesian students who went to PRC or Taiwan for future studies will be able to sustain this pool of literature but even so, the number is small. He also noted how while the younger generation is more open to identifying with China, the older generation is more cautious due to historical tensions.
During the Q&A session, Dr Stenberg fielded questions such as how the new Chinese in Indonesia is contributing to Sinophone literature, whether English literature about Chinese Indonesians is considered Sino-Indonesian literature, if religious elements of Potehi has changed over time and the mobility of Wayang Potehi within Indonesia itself.