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Fairy Tales for Adults: Imagination, Literary Autonomy, and Modern Chinese Martial Arts Fiction, 1895-1945


This dissertation examines the emergence and development of modern Chinese martial arts fiction during the first half of the twentieth century and argues for the literary autonomy it manifested. It engages in the studies of modern Chinese literature and culture from three perspectives. First, approaching martial arts fiction as a literary subgenre, it partakes in the genre studies of martial arts fiction and through investigating major writers and their works explains how the genre was written, received, reflected, and innovated during the period in question. Second, positioning martial arts fiction as one of the most well received literary subgenre in the modern Chinese literary field, it discusses the “great divide” between “pure” and “popular” literatures and the question of how to evaluate popular literature in modern China. Through a series of textual analysis contextualized in the lineage of martial arts fiction, it offers insight into how the ideals of so-called “pure” and “popular” literatures were interwoven in the process of reviewing and re-creating the genre. Third, it scrutinizes the transformation of modern martial arts fiction in relation to the modernization of Chinese literature. Using martial arts fiction as a focal point, it examines how the genre changes common understandings of how to write and read “literature” in the period in question. It suggests that the subgenre offered a new framing and a new cognitive structure for the nature and function of literature.

This dissertation is composed of four body chapters. Chapter One focuses on the first decade of the twentieth century and argues that it witnessed the emergence of modern Chinese martial arts fiction. Chapter Two brings the jianghu (literally rivers and lakes) into focus as a key literary construct in modern martial arts fiction and illustrates the vacillating and intricate nature of its transformation. Chapter Three centers on the issues of historicity, fictionality, and how the changing dynamics between the two elucidate the conception of modern “literature” and a trajectory of literary autonomy. Chapter Four employs gender as a critical category of analysis and investigates the trajectory of literary autonomy through the metamorphosis of female knight-errant images spanning from the 1920s to 1940s. The concluding chapter reviews the reflections and attempts writers made in the 1930s and 1940s in order to integrate the genre into the mainstream literary discourse. By revisiting some most recent cultural phenomena, the Conclusion Chapter points out the question of how to understand and appreciate “literature” and its autonomy posed a century ago in martial arts fiction still echoes in contemporary China.

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