Cataclysm and Catharsis: 20th-Century Chinese Fiction

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Filled with wars, political revolutions, cultural change, and social upheaval, the 20th century was an extended cataclysm for China and the Chinese people. As writers participated in and commented on these wrenching changes and events, literature (particularly fiction) and literary practice stood at the heart of the cataclysmic century. Grappling with the problems of national resistance to (Western and Japanese) imperialism, the construction of a modern nation-state, and the emancipation of the individual, Chinese literature became one of the battlegrounds for cultural, political, and esthetic issues. In this century of radical and wrenching change, what did authors hope to accomplish with their stories? In other words, why write? And why write what they wrote? Were these stories of tragedy, farce, and satire simply literary responses to the emotional disorientations of massive change, a “cathartic” response to the batterings of a whirlwind world? Or was something more interesting, more complex, going on? To get at these questions, we will look at both the politics of literature and the literature of politics by examining the radical critique of traditional Confucian culture, the unique perspective and dilemmas of women writers, the rise and decline of Marxist socialist-realism, the problem of wartime literature, the reform-era rewriting of Maoist excesses, and the place of literature in the recent apolitical atmosphere of post-Tiananmen China.  While the focus will be on mainland Chinese fiction, we will also dip our toes into Taiwanese literature for its unique mixture of colonial history under Japan, sojourner mainlanders, and political separation from the mainland. Among others, our readings will include Lu Xun’s cannibalistic madman and hapless Ah Q, Ding Ling’s tubercular Miss Sophie, Zhang Ailing’s college student turned mistress-assassin, Yu Hua’s indefatigable peasant, and Mian Mian’s heroin-addicted young woman in 1990s Shanghai.