Papers on Modern Literature VI

4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Room E

  • Chaired by Letizia Fusini
  • Letizia Fusini, “Modern yet Traditional: Reconfiguring (Western) Tragedy in Early-Republican China”
  • Yichun Xu, “Fashioning Courtesans in Suzhou Wu: Topolect and Gender in Shanghai Courtesan Novels”
  • Congshuo Li, “Ling and Woolf: Women Writers’ Biographical Writing in a Modernist Transcultural Context”
  • Martin Blahota, “Anti-Western Westernization: Akutagawa’s Devils in Fiction of East Asian Colonial Subjects”

Letizia Fusini, “Modern yet Traditional: Reconfiguring (Western) Tragedy in Early-Republican China”

One of the key features of the New Culture and May Fourth Movement was the discussion of Western tragic theory and dramaturgy, which had been introduced to China since the late-Qing period through Japan. As has been noted (Tang, 2000; Wang, 2004), tragedy was acclaimed as a new, ‘civilised’ and ‘progressive’ form of drama, an incarnation of the sublime (as per Western standards), and a powerful pedagogic tool capable of shaking the social and historical consciousness of the Chinese in the aftermath of the century of humiliation. While the interest in tragedy was clearly sparked by the widely accepted assumption that an analogous genre had never existed in China, the way in which it was interpreted and adapted to the Chinese context suggests that a traditional ‘indigenous’ filter was applied to define its supposed ‘modernity’. Although the term beiju was originally coined in Meiji Japan to translate the German Trauerspiel, bei is one of the cardinal emotions in traditional Chinese texts and among those typically associated with melancholy, frequently mentioned in premodern Chinese poetry and sometimes even preferred to joy, for its ability to strengthen the spirit rather than saddening or weakening it (Cheng, 2001). In premodern China melancholy, linked to the autumnal season and to the experience of loss and/or separation, was considered a gateway to contemplation and reflection, and from a Confucian perspective, a “source of motivating force for self-cultivation” (ibid.) and the construction of social harmony. Similarly, in May Fourth China, beiju was meant to arouse a sense of compassion and indignation in the audience/readers, to compel them to combat injustice and seek the common good in real life. Through a cross-comparison of Chinese conceptions of beiju in the May Fourth era and traditional views of melancholy and sadness, this paper will seek to show that the Chinese reception of (Western) tragedy, was informed by the rejuvenation of traditional ideas rather than the introduction of purely ‘Western’ theories.

Yichun Xu, “Fashioning Courtesans in Suzhou Wu: Topolect and Gender in Shanghai Courtesan Novels”

Wu is one of the few topolects in China having a rich literary tradition. The earliest work written with Wu topolect is usually traced to the seventeenth century. A much more recent example is the 2015 winner of the Mao Dun Literature Prize, Blossom. During the late Qing and Republican eras, Wu topolect writings were produced on a hitherto unknown scale. This paper discusses the role Wu topolect courtesan writings played in constructing Wu topolect as the language spoken by courtesans and of the entertainment world in general, both in the diegetic world of fictional texts and in the reality beyond them by examining two Wu topolect courtesan novels—Nine-Tailed Turtle and Romance on Hu River. I contend that it is the Shanghai entertainment world, the commercial print industry, and certain traditions within pre-modern Chinese literature—in particular, folksongs in Suzhou Wu on secret love—that conspired to forge the Wu-topolect (especially Suzhou Wu) courtesan novel tradition. Apart from the interaction between the fictionality and the reality, I also argue the use of Suzhou Wu in courtesan fiction not only can reflect male writers’ linguistic and stylistic preference for the woman of Suzhou, but also their anxiety about creating a safe distance between themselves and the courtesan world, as can be seen in the two novels where Suzhou-Wu is largely used in a gendered, professional, and site-specific manner. Furthermore, the association of courtesans/prostitutes with Wu dialect continues on into the Republican era and even into post-Mao China.

Congshuo Li, “Ling and Woolf: Women Writers’ Biographical Writing in a Modernist Transcultural Context”

In the first half of the 20th century, Ling Shuhua and Virginia Woolf were two women writers who came from different cultures, yet they communicated across cultural boundaries. Woolf was one of the foremost English writers of the twentieth century; Ling was a Chinese writer and painter during the same era. In their respective countries, they were members of influential literary groups of writers, and they had close connections. Their similar contributions to women’s writing through subverting the traditional notions of gender and women’s writing styles are therefore worthy of being studied.
Here I focus on their representative biographical works: Ancient Melodies and Orlando: A Biography. Orlando is Woolf’s 1928 fictional biography published; Ancient Melodies is Ling’s 1953 autobiographical novel. They are related to the genre of biographical writings, but meanwhile, they distinguish from normal biographies and autobiographies in the combination of fact and fiction; moreover, they both achieve self-representation through writing others. Also, it is noticeable that the support of Woolf was significant in Ling’s English autobiographical writing.
Therefore, I focused on these works and their correspondence between 1938–39. I explored how their transcultural communication contributes to Ling’s autobiographical project; furthermore, I have borrowed the theory of metahistory to reinterpret the relation between the biographer and the subject; I have also utilised theories of gender and explored their insightful reflection on gender issues in their biographical and autobiographical writing.

Martin Blahota, “Anti-Western Westernisation: Akutagawa’s Devils in Fiction of East Asian Colonial Subjects”

From the perspective of the coloniser, the Japanese Empire was founded on the ideals of Pan-Asianism and liberation from the West. It is, therefore, fascinating how many works of fiction created by colonial subjects throughout the Empire deal with Christianity. Some of them, such as Manchukuo Jue Qing’s Defeated Escape (1940) or Taiwanese Zhou Jinbo’s A Devil’s Messenger (1945) seem to mirror the Japanese war propaganda that was profoundly anti-Western. However, especially in Manchukuo, Christianity was addressed positively by many writers as well. This paper suggests that the colonial subjects were influenced not only by Japanese propaganda but also by modern Japanese authors such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke whose attitudes towards the West and Christianity were far more complex. This study analyses the paradox of literature’s westernisation under the Japanese colonisation and offers new insights into the East Asian colonial modernity.

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Room E