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The Literature of Leisure and Chinese Modernity

Charles A. Laughlin

Publication Year: 2008

The Chinese essay is arguably China’s most distinctive contribution to modern world literature, and the period of its greatest influence and popularity—the mid-1930s—is the central concern of this book. What Charles Laughlin terms "the literature of leisure" is a modern literary response to the cultural past that manifests itself most conspicuously in the form of short, informal essay writing (xiaopin wen). Laughlin examines the essay both as a widely practiced and influential genre of literary expression and as an important counter-discourse to the revolutionary tradition of New Literature (especially realistic fiction), often viewed as the dominant mode of literature at the time. After articulating the relationship between the premodern traditions of leisure literature and the modern essay, Laughlin treats the various essay styles representing different groups of writers. Each is characterized according to a single defining activity: "wandering" in the case of the Yu si (Threads of Conversation) group surrounding Lu Xun and Zhou Zuoren; "learning" with the White Horse Lake group of Zhejiang schoolteachers like Feng Zikai and Xia Mianzun; "enjoying" in the case of Lin Yutang’s Analects group; "dreaming" with the Beijing school. The concluding chapter outlines the impact of leisure literature on Chinese culture up to the present day. The Literature of Leisure and Chinese Modernity dramatizes the vast importance and unique nature of creative nonfiction prose writing in modern China. It will be eagerly read by those with an interest in twentieth-century Chinese literature, modern China, and East Asian or world literatures.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

This book was made possible by generous support from a variety of sources. The project had its origins in a bibliographic study of late imperial xiaopin wen essays, which was funded by an Enders Collaborative Research Grant from the Yale University Graduate School and the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures that I shared with my student Glenn Perkins in 1999. Subsequent research in China...

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Introduction: Writing as a Way of Life

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pp. 1-23

Often when we look at modern Chinese literature we are more concerned with how it comments on history and national identity and do not fully recognize how the author conveys a philosophy of life or a commitment to principles. But literary writing in China is as much about establishing an image of a way of life (the implied author) and generating or attracting a community receptive to the author’s personality...

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1. The Legacy of Leisure and Modern Chinese Culture

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pp. 24-45

Now everybody agrees that what we enjoy most in life is friendship, and what we enjoy most in friendship is the leisurely conversation. My house faces a broad river with a bank of tall trees where my friends can loiter or squat or sit down as they like. I have only four old maids for attending to the kitchen and serving the guests; as for the dozen houseboys, they do the job of running errands and sending...

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2. Wandering: The Threads of Conversation Group

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pp. 46-76

I will certainly not describe the narrow streets and shops of Hangzhou, I have not the time for that kind of fine grinding and polishing, nor do I have the ability to gather scattered and broken threads and weave them into a seamless, heavenly garment. I have no choice but to conceal my incompetence.What I earnestly wish to show is a feeling of attachment to the place, a feeling as mild as water,...

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3. Learning: The White Horse Lake Group

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pp. 77-102

The aesthetic of the everyday (the “familiar” in the familiar essay) refers to the expression of unique feelings that occasionally arise in the course of daily life. These feelings and their expression should be clearly distinguishable from stories of heroic or epic confrontation, or the grand discourses of philosophy, politics, history, culture, and religion. The everyday looms large in the modern Chinese literary essay and so is a sub-...

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4. Enjoying: Essays of the Analects Group

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pp. 103-138

During the 1920s, when the White Horse Lake group were first writing essays and applying principles they had developed to compositional instruction, and Threads of Conversation was virtually the only publication devoted to literary prose, essayists in China were not generally considered as belonging to different schools. The achievements of the genre were credited to all those who made an impact through their essays...

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5. Dreaming: From the Crescent Moon Group to the Beijing School

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pp. 139-167

The dream is a literary trope familiar to the Chinese reader. From earliest times, the dream has been invoked in Chinese writing to present philosophical skepticism about the self/world opposition and other dichotomies (Zhuangzian Daoism), to suggest the illusory quality of life, suffering, and desire (Buddhism), to imagine a bridge or a line of communication between the living and the dead, between spirits in the heavens,...

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Conclusion: The Legacy of Leisure and Contemporary Chinese Culture

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pp. 168-181

In the preceding chapters, I have tried to tease out in the vast and indistinct corpus of the modern Chinese essay some coherent, legible meaning, something distinctive that could be used to assess xiaopin wen writings against more familiar forms of literary expression. In doing this, I have focused intensely on groups of writers in the 1920s and 1930s who cared so deeply about the essay that they went beyond writing it-...


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pp. 183-210

Chinese Character Glossary

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pp. 211-217


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pp. 219-234

Index and About the Author

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pp. 235-243

E-ISBN-13: 9780824864828
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824831257

Publication Year: 2008