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The Poverty of Fiction: Russia in the Making of a Modern Chinese Realism


This dissertation asks how a long-established literary culture exposed to the depredations of modernity reinvents itself. In the early twentieth century, Chinese activists and intellectuals, reeling from decades of political setbacks since the Opium Wars, sought to drag Chinese society out of an allegedly benighted backwardness into a westernized modernity. I show that modern Chinese realist writers frequently turned to the topic of material poverty—peasants suffering from famine, exploited urban laborers, homeless orphans—to convey their sense of textual poverty and national backwardness. Writers wished to break with a literary and linguistic tradition that for thousands of years had largely been the purview of the ruling scholar-official class. This tradition was, according to modern reformers, woefully impoverished in comparison to Western models, and writing about poverty was a strategy to ameliorate this cultural deficiency. The combination of a radically new subject matter and experimentation with diverse literary resources (indigenous and foreign) generated major innovations in narrative technique and form. Depicting poverty allowed writers to revolutionize the nascent forms of modern Chinese narrative, innovating strategies of representing the nation, the social other, time, and space, while problematizing their deployment of this weighty topic for aesthetic purposes. Though it was contact with Western cultures that produced their sense of backwardness, Chinese intellectuals appropriated from those foreign literary traditions narrative tools to remedy China’s purported textual deficiency by writing about poverty. I examine why Russian literature, itself long preoccupied with a problem of belatedness vis-à-vis Western Europe, occupied a privileged place for Chinese intellectuals of this era. Comparing Chinese fiction about poverty to Russian intertexts by Gogol, Andreev, Chekhov, Turgenev, and others, I show how Chinese writers drew and innovated upon themes (such as madness or human animality) and formal elements (such as metonymy) to invent a new, syncretic realism. In contrast to criticism about the limits of realist writing in China, I argue that it is a heteromodal form, capable of encompassing many modes of narration or literary genres. Here I draw upon on Mikhail Bakhtin’s principle of the omnivorously heteroglossic nature of language and the novel. Chinese writers were so omnivorously intertextual, absorbing different Western genres and -isms simultaneously while continuing to make use of traditional Chinese literary resources, that modern Chinese realism is necessarily informed by a broad spectrum of narrative modes and styles. My dissertation thus contributes to recent critical discussions about peripheral realisms and the transformation of discursive modes or generic conventions when they cross borders.

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