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Literature and Modern Chinese Nationalism


Module description

At the end of the nineteenth century, as China’s confident sino-centric cultural worldview collapsed after humiliating clashes with Western imperialism, reform-minded intellectuals began to see China no longer as the centre of the civilised world, but as one nation struggling for survival amongst many in a global system dominated by the West. The twentieth-century search by intellectuals for modern China has been dominated by the quest for a cohesive national polity and culture that will enable China to stand up to the West and become an important global player.

All spheres of cultural and social activity - economics, politics, sports, fashion, architecture, music - have been drawn into this quest for national strength and prestige, but literature, the traditional medium for intellectual expression, has been given special weight in this effort. But the belief, articulated by intellectuals of the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) onwards, that, through fiction, poetry and drama, the Chinese people could be co-opted and cultivated as citizens of the Chinese nation, has often proved a heavy burden, holding literature, an elite cultural form produced by creative individuals, ransom to a collective sense of national identity. 

Combining literary, intellectual and political history, the course will move from the late nineteenth century through to the start of the new millennium, considering the close and fraught political relationship between modern literary forms and ideas about authorship, and the forging of a Chinese nation-state. It will range across all the key moments of cultural change in twentieth-century China, including:

  • the collision with the West and Japan
  • the emergence of new reading and writing communities in the treaty ports
  • the reinvention of the vernacular as national literary language
  • the iconoclasm of the May Fourth Movement
  • the rise of literary realism as a vehicle for imagining and mobilising the Chinese nation
  • proletarian literature and the nationalist-revolutionary strictures of Maoism
  • the role played by literary intellectuals in the 1989 pro-democracy movement and
  • the rise of literary nationalism and internationalism in the 1980s-90s.

The course will enable you to consider, both theoretically and empirically, the processes of modern nationalism and nation-building, their links with culture, language and imperialism, the conflicts between tradition and modernity, and the clash between centralised, political national identity and the individual.

The course will also make comparisons with the socio-political role played by literature in the rise of other nation-states, particularly in the non-West. Due to the course’s focus on sources of literary and intellectual history, you will have access to a rich and representative variety of primary documents in English, as many of the key literary works and intellectual polemics have been translated.