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Reviewed by:
  • Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature
  • Charlotte Eubanks (bio)
Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature. By Karen Laura Thornber. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. 603 pp. Cloth $59.95.

Based on her award-winning dissertation, Karen Thornber's Empire of Texts in Motion maps an enormous field of dynamic interaction between Korean, Taiwanese, mainland Chinese and Japanese authors during the contentious, war-ridden half century that stretched from 1895 to 1945. The product of three years of deep archival research, the book recovers and documents literary negotiations along and across the borders of language (Chinese, Korean, Japanese), politics, and aesthetics in the Japanese colonial spheres of northeast Asia.

Thornber's goals in this study are twofold. First and foremost, Empire of Texts in Motion shifts the ground of comparative study from a predominantly East-West alignment to an increasingly intra-East entanglement, arguing that "while actively transculturating so-called 'Western' literatures—the subject of most comparative scholarship on twentieth century East-Asian literatures—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese writers also engaged a great deal with one another's creative output" (3). Second, the book explores the "asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination" (1), the ways in which "far from demonstrating subaltern indebtedness, Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese entanglements with Japanese texts often expose fundamental ambivalence toward Japan and its cultural products" even while appropriating and emulating prominently Japanese literary genres, up to and including battlefront literature (11). In this sense, Thornber's work may be read productively alongside that of James C. Scott (Domination and the Arts of Resistance), Dominick LaCapra (History, Politics, and the Novel), and Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities).

As this intellectual company should suggest, Thornber's work is primarily one of literary history. One caveat, then, is in order: while theoretically informed, Empire of Texts in Motion is not theoretically ambitious in its own right. It does not try, for instance, to rethink the concept of translation or the notion of influence as a critical mechanism. (The material on translation, for example, which focuses primarily on summaries in the register of plot and hermeneutic, would have benefited from a more thoroughgoing engagement with strategies and processes of translation operating on the level of word and sentence—the symbolic and the semic.) In chapter 5 ("Intertextuality, [End Page 382] Empire, and East Asia"), for instance, Thornber cites an impressive range of theoretical sources on intertextuality (Genette, Kristeva, Horace, Bloom), but her goal is less to propose a new (expanded, differently nuanced) theory of intertext than it is to sketch the broad contours of East Asian intertexts as they developed in very particularly located temporal and geographical sites, sites through which the cultural leaders of Japan's imperial territories made their mark on without severing their connection with Japanese literary patterns. Thornber does propose, however, that the pan-Asianism of Japanese literature, broadly understood, represents a crucial point of departure from familiar models of imperialist intertextuality (233-34), a suggestion that would have been worth pursuing in greater detail.

One of Thornber's most intriguing contentions—convincingly illustrated with an array of primary texts—is that artistic contact nebulae generated organically, developing well in advance of government mandates, military advances, or top-down cultural directives. Beginning her study in the late 1800s, Thornber shows that sophisticated networks of cultural interaction (literary travel, readerly and writerly contact, translation, adaptation, hybridization) existed decades before the strategic deployment of the notion of "Greater East Asian Literature" and the formal promotion of genres like shinnichi bungaku, or pro-Japanese literature and kōmin bungaku, or imperal-subject literature, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Exploring these preexisting networks, Empire of Texts in Motion documents some of the ways literary culture was able to be "oddly suggestive of, but in the end very different from, the imperial cultural ambit trumpeted by the Japanese state" (20). If anything, official government intervention into the cultural sphere twisted the force of artistic engagement, encouraging metropole (Japanese) literature to take on more actively chauvinistic overtones vis-a-vis its imperial subjects and forcing colonial literatures to find new strategies for...


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pp. 382-384
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