- Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature by Karen Laura Thornber
There are sometimes scholarly books that, regardless of their merits or demerits, burst on the scene to wide acclaim because we never knew what we were missing. Or rather: we did know, but finally someone has come through with the goods for us. It is not so much that these books are timely, as it is they are overdue—why, we ask each other, have we not had this already? Karen Thornber’s Empire of Texts in Motion is such a book.
For the larger portion of my not-short career, we have shared the opinion that modern Japanese literature is more than what is or was written, published, and read in the handful of islands that today constitute the Japanese nation. Interest in the “periphery” and especially that of the former multiracial, multilingual empire from 1895 to 1945, has been mounting for at least two decades. (There are now unmistakable signs, by the way, that this interest is retreating.) But where was the book that laid that out for us in detail? Plenty of sources are available in Japanese, a few perhaps in Korean, and some in Chinese—but none in English until now. The awards Empire of Texts in Motion has garnered are a way of thanking Thornber—thanking someone—for writing the book that had to be written.
Long before Murakami Haruki became popular and imitated around the world, especially East Asia, modern Japanese literature was read, reworked, and most interestingly contested in a Japanese cultural sphere largely but not exactly coterminous with the formal and informal empire: Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria, [End Page 154] and China. Empire of Texts in Motion maps how, where, and among whom that literature traveled. In an introduction and eight chapters, Thornber
explores the dynamics of intra-East Asian literary contact nebulae in the Japanese empire between 1895 and 1945. It is the first in any language to unearth the complex relationships among the imperial Japanese, semicolonial Chinese, colonial Korean and Taiwanese and informally colonial (i.e., occupied Manchurian) literary worlds(p. 2).
ers interested in those Japanese writers at the center of this imperial exchange will learn about Akutagawa, Arishima Takeo, Kawabata (who, as Thornber notes, kept the prestige of Japanese literature high in East Asia even after 1945, thanks to his 1968 Nobel Prize), Kikuchi Kan, Doppo, Mushanokōji, Nakano Shigeharu, Sōseki, Satō Haruo, Tōson, and Tanizaki Jun’ichirō. Those interested in China and Taiwan similarly will find out from Thornber about Ba Jin, Guo Moruo, Liang Qichao, Lu Xun, Yang Kui, Yu Dafu, and Zhou Zuoren. But readers of The Journal of Korean Studies are presumably most interested in what Thornber has to say about colonial Korean writers. Colonial Korean writers appear frequently and in nearly every chapter. In chapter 1, “Travel, Readerly Contact, and Writerly Contact in the Japanese Empire,” she discusses Chang Hyŏkchu, whose Japanese rewrite of the Korean classic “The Tale of Spring Fragrance” she delightfully nails as “trendy colonial kitsch” (p. 133). In chapter 2, “Multiple Vectors and Early Interlingual Transculturations of Japanese Literature,” Thornber mentions Yang Paekhwa and Yim Hwa who return, somewhat redundantly, in chapter 4. Chapter 5, “Intertextuality, Empire, and East Asia,” takes up Yi Kwangsu, as chapter 6, “Spotlight on Suffering,” does Kim Tongin. Yŏm Sangsŏp’s Samdae (Three generations) is discussed in chapter 7, “Reconceptualizing Relationships: Individuals, Families, Nations” and Hyŏn Chin’gŏn’s classic short story “Sul kwŏnhanŭn sahoe” (A Society That Drives You to Drink) and Yi Sang’s “Nalgae” (Wings) feature in chapter 8, “Questions of Agency: Raising Responsibility, Parodying Persistence, and Rethinking Reform.”
What Thornber has to say about these works of literature written by Koreans under the sway of Japanese literature does not attend to stylistic analysis or close reading. Until chapter 6, “Spotlight on Suffering,” no work in any language has its...