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  • Intransitive Encounter : Sino-U.S. Literatures and the Limits of Exchange by Nan Z. Da
  • Hsuan L. Hsu
Intransitive Encounter : Sino-U.S. Literatures and the Limits of Exchange. Nan Z. Da. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. Pp. 304. $75.00 (cloth); $74.99 (eBook).

A Chinese translation of "Rip Van Winkle." A speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson honoring the Burlingame-Seward treaty. A translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life" inscribed on a Mandarin fan. The autobiography and poetry of Yale's first Chinese graduate, who founded a school for Chinese exchange students in Hartford. Judging by the stature of the figures and institutions involved, we might expect that the archive of nineteenth-century literary encounters between China and the United States would have generated lasting networks of influence. However, as Nan Z. Da demonstrates in Intransitive Encounter: Sino-U.S. Literatures and the Limits of Exchange, these transnational, cross-cultural events were characterized not by cross-pollination but by intransitivity: they were "simultaneously momentous and superficial," exchanges in which nothing is exchanged (2).

Although this quality of intransitivity, wherein the content of communication "slides like water off a duck's back," might appear to minimize the value of these Sino-U.S. encounters, Da makes [End Page 587] the persuasive, counterintuitive argument that the very "formality" of these occasions enables us to understand the distinctive way in which literature mediated Sino-U.S. communication (28, 1). Writing against a core assumption of many transnational literary scholars, Da argues that foreign literature was mobilized not for the transmission of new ideas but "as a conceptual shortcut that eased social projects and political enunciation" (3). Rather than take at face value the multitude of diplomatic, historical, and literary historical celebrations of moments of cultural transmission, Da argues that we should attend to the lightness and ephemerality of cross-cultural contact. By closely analyzing the formality and intransitivity inherent in some of the nineteenth century's most frequently cited episodes of transpacific literary encounter, Da models an empirical approach to the study of literary exchange—one that is sensitized to the myriad ways in which other people's literature was mobilized without any investment in transpacific cultural or political transmission (whether in the form of lasting literary influence, cultural assimilation, or political reform). Intransitive Encounter develops a historicized method of reading that blends "surface reading"—with its close attention to material and linguistic surfaces rather than a search for deeper hidden meanings—with clearly articulated insights drawn from sociologists of communication such as Erving Goffman, Niklas Luhmann, and Bruno Latour.

Each of the book's six chapters considers a fascinating and carefully curated instance of Sino-U.S. literary encounter. Drawing on an impressive knowledge base that spans theory, sociology, China studies, American studies, Asian American studies, and book history—as well as her unusual (for an Americanist) capacity to rigorously interpret texts as they flow between English and Chinese translations—Da provides compelling accounts of the historical context and theoretical stakes underpinning each of these encounters. Drawing on China's role as a site of intransitivity in Western historiography, Washington Irving's writings about China, and an unattributed Chinese translation of "Rip Van Winkle," chapter one reframes Irving's tale of historical insularity as a staging of unsociability set in a counterfactual "Chinese-Dutch America." Chapter two coins the term "reformality" to resolve the apparent contradiction between the late Emerson's disassociation from political reform and his appearances as a speaker uttering "rote niceties" at public events dedicated to rehearsing Sino-U.S. formalities (64). Da articulates the theorization of influence as an ephemeral transfer of energy that shaped Emerson's thinking about both literary influence and reform (63). Continuing to examine the idea of "mutually reinforcing reform projects" energized by Sino-U.S. encounter, chapter three turns to the figure of Yung Wing: at once "the first Chinese to make a career out of Sino-U.S. relations and institutionalized cultural exchange" and a writer who "had surprisingly little to say about the cultural exchange [he] actually enjoyed" (102). Reading Yung's autobiography alongside his Chinese-language poems, Da offers a nuanced corrective...


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