2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 134

[ China and Inner Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Contesting Marginality: Visions of Nationhood, Modernity, and Sexuality in the Literature and Films of Republican China

Organizer and Chair: Yanhong Zhu, Washington & Lee University, USA

The Republican era (1912-1949) was a traumatic period in Chinese history, yet it was also a period of great importance and extreme complexity. Marked by national disintegration, constant warfare, and radical socio-political and cultural transformation, this era witnessed persistent collisions between tradition and modernity, between the urge for enlightenment and the imperatives of national salvation. When patriotic fervor started to build up with the growing threat to the nation’s sovereignty imposed by Japanese imperialism, the cultural scene of China was gradually dominated by the leftist and collectivist ideology that emphasized the political and utilitarian function of literature and art. This panel takes as its point of departure the complexity initiated by the antithesis and interdependence between mainstream and marginality and seeks to explore the works of the writers and filmmakers of republican China who refused to subscribe to the mainstream ideology yet at the same time remained in dialogue with the center, negotiating a discursive space for alternative perspectives and artistic innovations. The panelists will examine a wide range of materials, including fiction, poetry, newspaper and magazine articles, illustrated photos, and feature films and address the issues of nationhood, gender, and modernity in their specific contexts. The line between the mainstream and the marginal becomes further complicated as the panelists call for re-negotiations of Chineseness, re-evaluations of gender equality, re-readings of discourses of sexuality, and re-discoveries of humanism and cinematic art.

Republican Period Revisited: Pre-War Literary Romanticism in Post-War Hong Kong Cinema
Frederik H. Green, San Francisco State University, USA

Xu Xu (1908-1980) was one of the most widely read authors of the Republican Period and the main representative of a literary trend that has since become known as ‘late-romanticism’. When Xu Xu emigrated to Hong Kong in 1950, his bestselling fiction of the pre- and wartime eras was soon discovered by émigré filmmakers. Several of his popular novels, such as In “Love with a Ghost” (Guilian), “The Rustling Wind” (Feng xiaoxiao), “Blind Love” (Manglian), and “The River of Fury” (Jianghuxing) were successfully adapted for the screen in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly by Shaw Brothers Studios. Through my reading of a number of Hong Kong movies based on novels by Xu Xu, I will show how the distinctly a-political literary narratives were turned into cinematic adaptations that were both commercially successful and highly political. By fostering nostalgia for the lost mainland and celebrating Hong Kong and Taiwan as alternative Chinas to the mainland communist regime, these movies played an important role in post-war re-negotiations of Chineseness. I will argue further that while the original literary narratives underwent cosmetic changes to make them more appealing to a post-war émigré cinema audience, the fundamental romantic aesthetic that had characterized the original work of fiction – modern men and women driven by an unfathomable yearning and in quest for metaphysical homes –was, by and large, retained. By proxy of these cinematic adaptations, Chinese Republican-period late-romantic aesthetics continued to exert influence on a younger generation of writers and filmmakers in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The Edge of the Edge: Gender Politics in the Chinese adaptation of Baudelaire in the 1940s
Liansu Meng, University of Connecticut, USA

Since his first introduction into China in 1919, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) has played a catalytic role in the history of modern Chinese poetry. Chinese poets of different generations grappled with the problems of their times through the translation and adaptation of Baudelaire’s poetry. This paper explores issues of gender politics in the Chinese adaptation of Baudelaire through a case study of Chen Jingrong (1917-1989), the only female translator of Baudelaire in China and one of the few female poets in the modern Chinese poetry canon. In Nationalist-occupied Shanghai in the late 1940s, Chen’s translation of Baudelaire and her “Baudelarian” poetry became the center of debate over the role of poetry, a controversy uncannily anticipated the fierce attacks on the Misty Poets’ adaptation of modernist techniques in the 1980s. Yet, for various reasons, this debate received scant scholarly attention both in China and abroad. Chen’s translations of and writings about Baudelaire during this debate were not even included in the most recent collection of Chen’s works published in 2008. In this paper, drawing on uncollected essays in newspaper archives, newly excavated works and biographical information, I demonstrate how Chen’s painful struggle for her own literary career not only enabled her to gain acute insights into the discrepancy between modern Chinese male intellectuals’ discursive promotion of gender equality and their actual practice of the traditional patriarchal values in reality, but discrepancies between other promoted discourses and reality, which resulted in a brilliant poetics of irony.

From the Exterior to the Interior: Chinese Women in the Films of the Postwar Years, 1945-1949
Yanhong Zhu, Washington & Lee University, USA

The figure of modern woman, representing at once a destabilizing force against the conventional gender norms and a cultural symbol of radical social change and historical disruption, constitutes a special site of inquiry and investigation in both literary and cinematic works in republican China. The representation of women, serving as a powerful trope for the experience of modernity in early Chinese films, reflects the centrality of women in the broader call for social-political and cultural transformation of Chinese society at the time. This paper attempts to explore the cinematic configurations of women in the context of the postwar years. Through detailed analysis of the image of women and female subjectivity in the films of the postwar period, I argue that even though many of these films continue to engage the question of women and make the figure of women an essential part of the implied national allegory, there also emerged a new type of films, such as Xin guiyuan (1948), Taitai wansui (1947) and Xiaocheng zhichun (1948), in which the trope of women no longer has the ideological anchoring and social-political burden. Such films demonstrate a clear shift in the narrative and thematic focus from the nation to the individual and from the public to the private by exploring the inner struggle of women within the domestic sphere, and reveal not only new explorations in narrative structure and visual language but also a growing sense of humanism in cinematic arts in postwar China.

Open Discourses on Sexuality in Shanghai Film Writing and Criticism in the 1930s
Victor Fan, King's College, United Kingdom

Gender representation and the negotiation of female (or feminized) sexuality onscreen in Shanghai during the 1930s have been studied and debated for decades. Little attention, however, has been paid to the actual discussion of women’s images, men's images, homosexuality, children’s responses to racy material, sexuality of both Hollywood and Chinese movie stars, and the general discourse on sexual health, desires, and practices. A study like this is important not only to our understanding of how sexuality was defined in Shanghai in the 1930s, but how cinema and literature were treated as a public sphere where contesting notions of femininity, modernity, and ethical values were openly discussed and negotiated. In this presentation, I will perform close reading of gossip columns, illustrated photos, critical essays, advertisements, and, of course, films, and find out how conflicting notions of sexuality are often represented and negotiated. My primary sources may include the Ling long magazine, the Shen bao, and Modern Screen. In my discussion, I will focus not only on how sexuality is represented, but also how subtle linguistic shifts in writing, and stylistic changes on film, can be read as symptoms of such contestation.