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Reviewed by:
  • Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature
  • Michael K. Bourdaghs
Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature BY Karen Laura Thornber. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. Pp. xiii + 591. $59.95.

We are warned never to judge a book by its cover, usually for good reason. But sometimes even lowly book jackets can serve as reliable witnesses. Take, for instance, this ambitious new study: its cover includes a photograph of the Orion nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, over which is imposed a constellation-like line drawing. This representation asks us to imagine the multiple points of light forming not a mythical beast or deity, but rather a geographical region: the drawing depicts a map of East Asia, one that fades away at the western edges of China and along the northeastern territories long disputed between Japan and her neighbors. Just above this visual image, about where Mongolia would ordinarily appear, we encounter the book's subtitle, announcing this to be a study of literary transculturations taking place across this imagined region.

As this cover suggests, Empires of Texts in Motion makes an important contribution to a welcome new trend toward transnational approaches in East Asian literary studies. Karen Thornber belongs to a rising generation of scholars of modern culture who have pursued serious training in multiple East Asian languages, allowing them to explore new cultural constellations that transcend the framework of the single-nation studies that have previously dominated the field. This tendency superficially resembles older Orientalist approaches to the sinocentric domain, but the new knowledge being produced today is in many ways challenging our understanding of the region. As Thornber notes, [End Page 148] although we have grown accustomed to regionwide studies of pre-modern intellectual history (of the regional impact of Confucianism or Buddhism, for example) and of postmodern popular culture, we have remained largely fixed within national categories when studying culture of the modern period, that is, of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This tendency distorts historical reality: star writers such as Lu Xun, Yi Kwangsu, and Natsume Soseki shone brightly across the region, attracting readers, translators, and critics far beyond their own national home territories. Thanks to this book, and to other recent publications and dissertations that take up similar transnational approaches, we are being forced to rethink the ways we have connected the dots and to reread modern Asian literature within the contexts of new spatial and temporal configurations.

The specific astronomical entity depicted on this book's cover is also apt. One of Thornber's key terms is "literary contact nebulae," a phrase she coins out of an engagement with the influential work of Mary Louise Pratt.1 Like Pratt's "contact zones," contact nebulae are sites where people from different cultural backgrounds (in this case, readers, writers, critics, and translators of literature) creatively grapple with one another's cultural products under conditions of unequal, specifically imperial, power relations. But Thornber argues for two distinctions between her nebulae and Pratt's zones: she notes firstly that in modern East Asia contact took place not just between the West and the Rest but also among regional neighbors that shared extensive histories of cultural exchange, and secondly that artistic realms such as literature allow for more wiggle room than other domains because they "are characterized by atmospheres of greater reciprocity and diminished claims of authority than those of many other (post)imperial spaces" (p. 3). In part, this reciprocity was due to benign neglect of the literary realm by Japan's imperial state, at least through the outbreak of total war in 1937: "Japanese literature was not as central to Japan's imperial project as American and European literature were to Western imperialism" (p. 233). We should add a note of caution here, however. One of Pratt's arguments, which Thornber does not take up, is that narratives of "reciprocal" cultural contact often serve as imperial [End Page 149] ideologies, dressing up hierarchies in the costume of equality. What from one perspective appears a benign transaction of equal value can from another perspective look like the production...


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pp. 148-155
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