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Reviewed by:
  • Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature
  • Christian Uhl
Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature. By Karen Laura Thornber. Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. 550550 pages. Hardcover $59.95/£44.95/€54.00.

Here we have probably the most remarkable achievement in the field of comparative literature in recent years: As author Karen Laura Thornber points out in her introduction, this substantial monograph largely draws "on sources in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, as well as English, French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese," and it is "the first in any language to unearth the complex relationships among the imperial Japanese, semicolonial Chinese, colonial Korean and Taiwanese, and informal colonial . . . Mandschurian literary worlds" (p. 2). The list of cited works alone, which stretches to over sixty-seven pages and contains the titles of over eleven hundred works spanning practically all genres of literature, as well as literary criticism and a broad range of other scholarship, is by itself impressive. How does a reviewer approach an endeavor of this magnitude? The temptation is strong to simply hide behind the walls of one's own narrow field of expertise and perhaps dare to emerge from this [End Page 360] fortress every now and then to take a modest jab at the author that amounts to no more than a pinprick: why, one might demand, for example, does footnote 19 to chapter 2 (p. 414) on further readings concerning the reception of Lu Xun in Japan not mention Itō Toramaru's indispensable classic, Rojin to Nihonjin? Specialist "critiques" of this kind, perennially endured by scholars whose research is deliberately broad ranging, utterly fail to grasp the point of an enterprise such as Thornber's. I will therefore resist such a temptation and try a different approach. In her acknowledgments, Thornber expresses gratitude to the approximately two hundred institutions, colleagues, and friends without whose support and inspiration "timely completion of a project of this breadth and depth would have been impossible" (p. viii). This review, in turn, attempts both to indicate the breadth of Thornber's contribution to the field and also to fathom its depth—and by this I mean depth in theoretical and analytical terms.

Thornber has identified a blind spot in the study of comparative East Asian literatures and cultures (and—having authored a book on Takeuchi Yoshimi's reading of Lu Xun—I almost agree with her diagnosis): Much of the existing research has been dedicated to the "West's" enthrallment with the "East," or vice versa, while studies dedicated to intra-East Asian cultural contacts have, Thornber points out, emphasized either "pre-twentieth century sinocentrism" or "early twenty-first century popular culture flows." Research on twentieth-century intra-East Asian relations, she continues, has been preoccupied merely with "geopolitical concerns" and has largely ignored, if not "obfuscated," the vibrant intra-East Asian cultural and literary life of the 1900s (p. 386). Thornber, however, aims to do more than just illuminate a blind spot. Equipped with remarkable scholarly discipline and diligence, and empowered by extraordinary language skills, she challenges the self-imposed boundaries of her field—boundaries that are predetermined by the paradigms of the nation-state and of distinct national cultures, and, needless to say, by the dichotomy of "West" and "non-West." These constraints are institutionalized in the form of the usual compartmentalization seen in the field of comparative culture and literature: "In the future," Thornber declares,

...we need to do more to contextualize peoples, texts, and phenomena beyond their immediate cultural and geographical surroundings. This book . . . hypothesizes that for understanding most literatures and cultures, particularly those of nineteenth- and twentieth-century empires and their aftermaths, it is essential to analyze how . . . writers throughout metropoles, colonies, semicolonies, postimperial spaces, and other regions, by negotiating with and ultimately transforming one another's creative products, cracked apart textual bodies, incorporating intra-empire literary fragments large and small into their own cultural spaces, and in so doing further hybridizing these spaces and those of their predecessors.

(p. 23-24)

Thornber has placed the focus of her own study in the manifold internal relations and processes of exchange that took...


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