- Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature
One cannot but feel a certain hesitation in reviewing a book that has already received such widespread recognition for its importance in the field. This book has, according to the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies website:
won two major international awards: the 2011 John Whitney Hall Book Prize from the Association for Asian Studies, for the best book on either contemporary or historical topics in any field of the Japanese humanities or social sciences; and the International Comparative Literature Association’s 2010 Anna Balakian Prize, for the best book in the world in the field of Comparative Literature published in the last three years by a scholar under age 40.1
These are high honors indeed, and any reviewer who does not quite share in this acclaim runs the risk of being accused of iconoclasm, of deliberately calling into question the criteria of value as established by the disciplines of Asian studies and comparative literature. In order to avoid this charge, it seems useful to first state very clearly what the strengths of the book are—and this will not be difficult, as its strengths are many—before proceeding to an examination of its more problematic aspects.
Empire of Texts in Motion is a book of considerable ambition, and while the scope of its accomplishments is far more horizontal than vertical in nature, the immense scale of research involved and information amassed must not be overlooked. The numbers alone bear repeating: the book totals 591 pages, contains over 1,000 endnotes, cites over 1,000 texts, and ranges over materials written in a staggering number of languages. (Thornber helpfully lists these languages in the book’s front matter: “Unless otherwise indicated, translations from Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish are my own” [p. xiii].) It is expertly organized, especially considering the great wealth of facts and data it must confront in its reckoning with the literary flows running throughout the Japanese empire, and written in consistently handsome prose. The book’s monumentality calls to mind two other works that have been of great service to teachers and students [End Page 154] alike in the field of Japan studies in the United States: Donald Keene’s Dawn to the West (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984) and Katō Shūichi’s three-volume A History of Japanese Literature (Kodansha International, 1979–83). Whereas both Keene and Katō give priority to the literary relations in modernity between Japan and “the West,” however, Thornber focuses on the transculturations, or rewritings, of Japanese texts across Asia. She recognizes the serious imbalance that has existed in Japanese literary scholarship that privileges “the West” above all else and admirably attempts to correct this fault by highlighting the enormous complexity—historical as well as literary—that can be found in fictional texts disseminating throughout Asia during the course of Japanese imperialism.
Thornber’s sensitivity to the shifting power relations that inhere in the literary transculturations between colonizer and colonized brings into focus the work’s main theoretical achievement, but her engagement with these more general theoretical or methodological issues remains very much a vexed one. In the U.S. field of Japan studies as a whole, one often detects a certain anxiety on the part of scholars whose training and temperament hew closely to the archival—that is to say, to the empirical, where the ground appears more stable. This anxiety is directed toward larger conceptual questions and frameworks that cannot be settled by mere recourse to empirical phenomena, and despite the considerable import of these questions it is not uncommon for scholars to reveal their anxiety by simply listing the names of authors and works that carry a recognized critical cachet, thereby giving the illusion of theoretical engagement, as opposed to actively grappling with these issues on their own, often elusive terms. Thornber does not entirely escape this trap, unfortunately, as can be seen by the plethora...