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The Edge of Knowing: Dreams and Realism in Modern Chinese Literature


This dissertation examines the relationship between discourses of realism and dreaming in modern Chinese literature from the Republican period to the end of the Mao era. It examines how the interplay of oneiric and realist discourses illuminated the way in which the realist mode juggled its professed fidelity to scientific values and historic critique with the utopian desire that propelled the mode's will to embody these empiric attitudes in the first place. Dream discourse constituted an "unconscious" of the realist mode through which utopian desires otherwise suppressed in the realist narrative proper could be expressed within brackets. The friction between dreaming and the real in literary texts was thus evocative of the contradictory relationship between revolutionary utopian desire and grim political reality that marked China's ordeal of modernity.

This study argues for reading dreams as a supplementary form of historical knowledge that transcends the limitations of conventional narrative through its innovative reconfiguration of the relations between language, bodies and history. It goes on to consider how the May 4th advocacy of science granted dreams a new intellectual legitimacy by recasting them in the paradigmatic mold of psychoanalysis. The relative simultaneity of psychoanalysis and literary realism in China, both emblems of Western scientific discourse, culminated in an arresting problematic between empirical restraint and utopian desire that found its symptomatic literary expression through the presence of dream discourse within realist texts.

This dissertation explores in detail the vexed relationships between dream, reality and history in four writers: Lu Xun (1881-1936), Mao Dun (1896-1981), Yang Mo (1914-1995) and Zong Pu (b. 1928). By focusing on careful textual analysis of oneiric discourse in these writers' texts, this study reveals the conflict between literature and the historic reality to which it sought to be commensurate. However, it also argues that the dream form, while highlighting the problem between literature and its social referent, also suggested an allegorical reconciliation between narrative, history and utopia.

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