- The Chinese Political Novel: Migration of a World Genre by Catherine Vance Yeh
Readers interested in the political novel would welcome The Chinese Political Novel: Migration of a World Genre, which examines the genre’s emergence in China in the first decade of the twentieth century. Going beyond national borders, Catherine Vance Yeh locates the development of the political novel in a transcultural context. She shows how Chinese writers’ engagement with this “world genre”—through translation, adaptation, transformation, creation—was a way through which they imagined the place of China in the world. Part I traces worldwide developments of the political novel. Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the genre as it emerged in England, Italy, America, and the Philippines. Yeh argues that the novels she analyzes, which share similar literary strategies and the mission of showing readers the need for political reform, should be seen as “local embodiments of an interconnected world genre” (50). Chapter 2 provides an overview of the Japanese political novels of the Meiji period. Yeh notes the great impact that Japanese translations of English and French works (which were later translated secondhand into Chinese) had in shaping the Japanese political novel, overshadowing the once dominant role of translations of Chinese works. She examines how some of these ideas about the political novel were transplanted to China by the reformer Liang Qichao, and how, in turn, Liang’s ideas were adapted to suit local purposes and tastes in Korea and Vietnam.
Part II examines the development of the political novel in China, where the once lowly form of the novel was elevated to one capable of transforming the nation. Chapter 3 traces the transcultural flow of ideas from Japan to China, and examines in particular novels with a futuristic theme. Chapter 4 explores the ways the political novel, appealing to an enlightened public who could be mobilized for support, was deployed as a medium to express frustration and criticize Qing court reforms. Chapter 5 shows how the new novels appealed to women readers and the ways in which new models of womanhood were tied to the creation of a new citizenry and nation. Chapter 6 examines the political novel’s exploration of foreign ideas, characters, and political worlds, which both introduced and made the new world intelligible to its readers. Chapter 7 focuses on how the traditional convention of the “wedge chapter” (xiezi), the original function of which was to guide readers, was adapted to the political novel, developing a new plot engine based on a linear time and focused primarily on political issues linked to the present and future. As Yeh notes early on, narrative tropes, styles, and classical Chinese combined with new forms and vocabularies to form a rich “hybrid that combined translation, adaptation, and creation” (122).
The Chinese Political Novel is an ambitious undertaking; to cover the exchange of ideas on the political novel on the world stage in a single volume work is a Herculean task. The geographical coverage of The Chinese Political Novel is thus, understandably, uneven and depth of analysis is at times sacrificed for breadth of coverage. (For example, the section on “The Political Novel in Vietnam” in chapter 2, which Yeh notes is derived primarily from a secondary source, is two pages in length.) While the work underscores the importance of translation in the transcultural flow of ideas, there is little engagement with translation theory and fleeting mention of Lin Shu, one of the most prolific and influential translators in the late Qing. Working with novels that readers may be unfamiliar with, there are sections with lengthy plot summaries that, while necessary at times, bog down the work. Yet such limitations and omissions [End Page 399] are expected in a work as ambitious as The Chinese Political Novel, not to mention one undertaken by a single author. The merits of the books are many. Yeh draws on an impressive range of sources and touches on a wide range of political novels, from the well-known to the relatively obscure and...