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  • Faces of the Self in Modern Chinese Literature
  • Terry Siu-han Yip

Literature often serves as a mirror and a lamp, to borrow M.H. Abrams's terms, by reflecting social, cultural, moral, political and/or ideological changes in society on the one hand and suggesting new directions or possible ways forward for its readers on the other. A look at representations and explorations of the self in Chinese literature in the first half of the twentieth century shows not only those forces that shaped the formation of the modern Chinese self but also those tensions, anxieties, and aspirations that Chinese writers experienced in the construction of their new selves during the early days of the young republic. Examining representative literary works of this period reveals how the Chinese quest for a modern self, which is quite different from the traditional Confucian self, has been informed and enriched by the Chinese "contact" with foreign literatures and cultures since the late nineteenth century. As Goethe once said, "Left to itself, every literature will exhaust its vitality, if it is not refreshed by the interest and contributions of a foreign one" ("Some Passages" 8). This has been the case in modern China, whose interests in foreign literatures and cultures have never been random or accidental, but highly conscious and selective. Kwok-kan Tam has rightly observed that the Chinese zest for foreign literatures and cultures in the past century has always been closely linked to the construction of the country, especially as a modern state beginning in 1911 when traditions were challenged and cultural legacies were frowned upon (A Place vii). For the first time in Chinese history, the Confucian notion of the self was dismissed by many young writers who expressed their preference for an alternative conception of the self based on the European Romantic ideal. They came to learn that the self is "not a thing, a substantive entity […] but a process of signification within an open system of discursive possibilities" (Butler 7-12), and were eager to explore the notion of the self in their works. Using a number of representative literary works from early twentieth-century [End Page 275] China as examples, this paper discusses the effectiveness of literature as a tool to explore the myriad facets of the self in modern Chinese literature, Chinese writers' aspirations for an alternative self of their own, and the moral positions and writing strategies adopted by writers of the period in their conscious acts of exploring and/or shaping the self against the backdrop of Chinese modernity.

It is worth noting that writers such as Guo Moruo (1892-1978), Tian Han (1898–1968), and Ba Jin (1904–2005), to name a few, understood and promoted the modern Chinese self with European Romanticism in mind. Their sense of the modern was based on their admiration for European literary masters and Western intellectual ideas, and their interest in the problematics of the self in traditional China. Female writers, such as Ding Ling (1904–86) and Xie Bingying (1906–2000), were generally more interested in exploring female subjectivity and the shaping of the female self from a psychosexual or gender perspective. Representative works by these writers demonstrate the transformation of the Chinese self from a traditional Confucian relational model to a more Westernized image characterized by Romantic individualism. The Chinese female self is often noted for its transcultural orientation, characterized by the writers' treatments of female subjectivity, sexuality, and gender politics.

Early modern Chinese writers such as Guo Moruo and Tian Han have always believed that political and moral rigidity and sociocultural conventionality were detrimental to the development of the self. Therefore, at the start of their literary careers in the early twentieth century, they consciously turned to European authors such as Ibsen, Goethe, Schiller, and Byron for inspiration. According to Guo Moruo's, Tian Han's, and Zong Baihua's correspondence published in San ye ji [Kleeblatt], these young writers sought to liberate the minds of their Chinese readers and promote the European Romantic notion of self, which celebrates individualism and the human free spirit, in the creative works and translation projects they produced in the first two decades of the twentieth century...


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pp. 275-289
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