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On or about May 4, 1919, declares Patricia Laurence's Lily Briscoe's Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism, and China, Chinese writers experienced a cultural shift akin to the one that Virginia Woolf immortalized for English writers "on or about December 1910." As university students in Beijing protested against the Chinese government's concessions to Japan following World War I, young writers and artists launched a series of aesthetic experiments in defiance of the feudalism and classicism that had long characterized Chinese literature. The next two decades witnessed the rise of a diverse Chinese avant-garde whose radical leanings, Laurence suggests, were profoundly influenced by exchanges between Chinese artists and intellectuals and their counterparts in England. Lily Briscoe's Chinese Eyes, Laurence's comparative study of Chinese modernism and Bloomsbury modernism, uncovers fascinating political and aesthetic mutualities between two seemingly unrelated literary cultures in the early twentieth century. [End Page 699]
This book opens by tracing a surprising love affair between the Bloomsburyite Julian Bell, who taught English literature at Beijing's Wuhan University between 1935–37, and Ling Shuhua, an aspiring writer and artist who was the daughter of the mayor of Beijing and the wife of a Wuhan University professor. Shuhua published three collections of short stories in English between 1928 and 1935 for which she was named the "Chinese Katherine Mansfield"; Julian Bell edited her fiction during their affair and encouraged her open exploration of then-taboo subjects like female sexuality and madness. Following Bell's death in the Spanish Civil War in 1938, Ling Shuhua journeyed to England, where she befriended several members of the Bloomsbury Group, mounted exhibits of her landscape paintings, and corresponded with Virginia Woolf about her autobiography, Ancient Melodies, which Leonard Woolf published at the Hogarth Press in 1953. Laurence's discovery of Bell and Shuhua's cross-cultural relationship—made unexpectedly, á la A. S. Byatt's Possession, through a packet of letters auctioned at Sotheby's in 1991—led her to discover a much larger network of intellectual, personal, and historical connections between Bloomsbury artists and the literary elite of Beijing in the 1930s.
The study's examination of Chinese and English literary culture from 1910 to 1949 achieves two central goals: first, Laurence delineates the development of modernism in China during the Republican Period (1911–1949); second, she demonstrates that China and a Chinese aesthetic played a significant role on the stage of international modernism. The book investigates four cultural formations that brought England and China together: the experiences of Westerners living in China, such as Julian Bell and founding figures of English literary studies like I. A. Richards and William Empson; the experiences of Chinese writers living in England, such as Ling Shuhua, the poet Xu Zhimo, and the critic Xiao Qian; the writings of English travelers in China, such as G. L. Dickinson, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, and Bertrand Russell; and English fictions about China, such as those created by Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. Laurence's arguments remain admirably free of formulaic statements about the West's exploitation of the East, a critical openness enabled by a decade of painstaking archival work during which Laurence learned Mandarin and made three trips to China. Lily Briscoe's Chinese Eyes gathers together disparate materials like letters, Chinese friendship scrolls, photographs, landscape paintings, porcelain, and architecture; these wide-ranging and beautifully reproduced artifacts—most of them new to Western scholars of modernism—facilitate Laurence's fresh reading of the dynamic intellectual relationships between China and England. [End Page 700]
To explain how Chinese modernism and Bloomsbury modernism helped to create one another, Laurence deploys two primary concepts: first, the idea of "community," which Laurence adapts from Benedict Anderson, and second, the idea of "conversation," derived from Bakhtinian notions of heteroglossia and polyphony. Combining a wide array of documents—biographical, literary, historical, aesthetic—with information gathered through personal interviews...