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  • Modernity in a Wartime TramcarTemporal Contestations and Individual Subjectivity in Eileen Chang's "Sealed Off"
  • Leihua Weng

Dan: Time. We can't see it, we can't hear it, we can't weigh it, we can't measure it in a laboratory. It's a subjective sense of becoming what we are instead of what we were a nanosecond ago, becoming what we will be in another nanosecond. The Hopis see time as a landscape, existing before and behind us, and we move—We move through it, slice by slice.

        Linda: Clocks measure time.

Dan: No, they measure themselves. The objective

        referent of a clock is another clock.

The Man from Earth 2007)

As modern human beings, we at least share one thing in common–we all measure and assess our physical existence in terms of time: we look forward to the future; we reflect upon the past; we synthesize our feelings of the future and of the past at the present. However, the specifics of our experiences of time radically differ, as our temporality is largely defined culturally and socially. Aristotle identifies time with motion, but Augustine associates time with the present and the eternal. Hegel introduces personality into time with his concept of the Subject of History and sets our modern temporality as linear and teleological, and he conceives of a collective unbending spirit moving toward the ultimate end, i.e., the End of History. Various important notional entities in our modern time, such as the nation-state, find their temporal basis in the Hegelian concept of time.

However, even when one particular mode of time has achieved its hegemony, there still exist alternative temporalities. Though dispersed and repressed, those alternative concepts of time keep challenging, destabilizing, and contesting the dominant status of the Hegelian notion of time. Tensions and contestations between alternative modes of time and the dominant temporality can manifest themselves in cultural and ideological realms, and they can impact our psychological state, especially at times of social, cultural, and political upheaval and transformation. [End Page 286]

Focusing on the literary text of Eileen Chang's short story "Sealed Off," this paper discusses two modes of temporality: one is an alterity to the dominant historical, linear, and progressive time, the other an alternative sensibility to the urbanized journalistic time of the present. The first half of the twentieth century was a period marked with social and political changes that shaped the intellectual landscape of modern China and also wrote the psychological state and mentality of several generations in the twentieth century. Different from other female writers of her time who participated in rigorous conversations or actively engaged in political movements, Eileen Chang was one of the few writers who stayed quiet and persisted in exploring what was mundane and daily. In most of her writings, Eileen Chang displays a conscious detachment from the political; however, as argued in this paper, her short story "Sealed Off" could be read as a subtle rejection of the dominant temporality and sensibility of her time as well as a reflection and critique of modernity.

Published in 1944, "Sealed Off" tells of a brief love encounter during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in WWII. This love episode takes place between the accountant Lu Zongzhen and the college instructor Wu Cuiyuan. It starts when the tramcar pauses because of a blockage alarm, and it comes to its quick end when the alarm is lifted and the tramcar starts moving again on its unaltered track. By the end of the story, the protagonist Cuiyuan trembles with shock, realizing "everything that had happened while the city was sealed off was a nonoccurrence. The whole city of Shanghai had dozed off and dreamed an unreasonable dream" (Chang 251).

It has been noted by scholars that Eileen Chang's writing presents a unique mode of sensitivity and modernity. Contextualizing "Sealed Off" in theories of temporality and urbanized modernity, this paper explores the narrative features of this short story and speculates that it embodies temporal contestations of two kinds: one is between the concepts of Hegelian historical time and individual "lived" moments; the other one is based upon the distinctions between journalistic fragmented information and profound...


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pp. 286-303
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