AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 620

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Session 620: Chinese Prose Today - The Discursive Power of Sanwen

Organizer: Jesse Field, University of Minnesota, USA

Chair: Charles A. Laughlin, University of Virginia, USA

Discussant: Jeffrey C. Kinkley, St. John's University, USA

Chinese prose retains a unique power to serve and shape readers of all ages and all classes. In books, literary journals and on the internet, prose writing is the central platform for discourse about the individual, communities, and the environment. But what role does prose writing have in the massive changes taking place in China and around the world today? How does Chinese prose writing serve its diverse and mercurial readership? This panel takes steps to answer these questions by mapping the most salient features of sanwen, including the theme of nature (Moran), portraits of individuals (Field), emotional interiority (Laughlin) and the generic mixing of all these (Cannella) onto the needs and dispositions of today’s readers. We aim to present prose writing as an art with a unique ability to serve the subjective and the ideological at one and the same time, which is another way of saying that prose bridges the genres and periods of Chinese writing, challenging linear literary histories. Chinese prose reconsidered just might offer the model for a consciousness that grasps the world in all its multiplicity, portraying the specific attachments that make up our own emotional interiors as well as our capacity for empathy towards each other and towards an environment in peril. By putting the manifestations of this empathy at the center of our readings of Chinese prose, we push towards a fuller evaluation of the prospects and pitfalls of writing in China.

"Towards a Poetics of Contemporary Chinese Ecological Prose Nonfiction"
Thomas Moran, Middlebury College, USA

Chinese prose nonfiction is understudied in the West, and Chinese nature-oriented prose nonfiction is little studied even in China and has been virtually ignored in the West. This panel responds to the first need, my contribution responds to the second. As part of my effort to trace the development of contemporary Chinese ecological literature, I propose to answer three big questions in the small space afforded by a conference paper; these questions are: 1) What are the rhetorical conventions and ideological/philosophical perspectives that link contemporary Chinese nature-oriented nonfiction to the grand tradition of Chinese prose?; 2) What rhetorical conventions connect ecological manifestos to more lyrical examples of “green writing” (lǜsè wénxué); is there anything “literary” about the calls to arms that have such an important place in Chinese environmental literature?; and 3) What is the place of nature-oriented prose nonfiction in the field of modern Chinese literature? Among the texts I read closely and discuss are, from Taiwan, Hán Hán and Mǎ Yǐgōng, “Wǒmen zhǐ yǒu yīge dìqíu” (We have only one planet, 1983) and Liú Kèxiāng, “Liú Kèxiāng jīngxuǎn” (The Best of Liu Keixang, 2003), and from China, Xú Gāng, “Lǜsè xuānyán” (Green manifesto, 1996), Wěi Àn, “Dàdì shàngde shìqing” (That Which Happens on Earth, 2001), and Lǐ Qīngsōng, “Yī zhǒng jīngshén” (A Form of Consciouness, 2009). Ultimately, I am concerned to suggest how we might best respond—academically, aesthetically, and yes, even morally—to Chinese nature-oriented prose nonfiction.

“The Biographical Essay and Communities of Affect: The Vocabulary of the Empathic Civilization”
Jesse Field, University of Minnesota, USA

How do human beings attain a consciousness that is collective and empathic, trans-personal and trans-local? This question, which gains so much urgency in the face of an ever-more densely-connected world population, has been the concern of Chinese prose writers during every period of China's century of revolution. And one literary form they have always turned to is the biographical essay. Now gaining wider attention as the flagship form of the larger field of Chinese "life writing" or "auto/biography" (zhuanji wenxue), biographical prose that takes as its object the life course of representative, exemplary individuals has served Chinese writers looking to change social values. In this paper I will demonstrate the broad continuity of the biographical essay by defining the "portrait" as the basic unit of expression in major essays of both the early 1960s and of the 1990s. I will also summarize the role of the "portrait" in critical conversations in 1961 (the "year of prose") and in the early 1990s (a period of "prose fever"). What emerges in this examination of "the portrait" is the central role of the exemplary life in building communities of affect in Chinese writing. I argue that, despite wild swings between ideological and subjective, the central concern of Chinese prose remained the same: to provide a discourse of affect that can help readers organize and appropriate sensual memories of crises past, to bring readers together to face the future.

"Questions of Genre and Aesthetics: Modern Lyrical Fiction’s Kinship with Sanwen"
Shannon M. Cannella, Winona State University, USA

Lyrical fiction is typically defined as an infusion of poetic elements into narrative form, more specifically, into the short story or novel (xiaoshuo). In the case of modern Chinese literature, critics also point to the modern essay, or sanwen, as influencing the development of lyrical fiction as a unique literary form. The blending of sanwen and xiaoshuo began in the highly experimental early May Fourth period, where self-expression and authenticity of voice were the most esteemed outcomes of literary writing, regardless of genre. This paper will discuss the characteristics of so-called essay-ized fiction (sanwenhua de xiaoshuo): rich description, especially of landscapes and weather, a focus on ordinary people and everyday events, a limited plot structure, the presentation of an “idea-realm” (yijing), and a charged emotional tone. Two texts will illuminate these features: Fei Ming’s “Lingdang” (Water chestnut lake, 1927) and Shen Congwen’s “Jing” (Quiet, 1932). In reading these texts, I consider the reasons why Chinese critics have turned to sanwen in an effort to describe lyrical fiction. One finds that the content, style and generic expectations of sanwen foregrounds topics not typically considered in studies of modern Chinese fiction: aesthetics, philosophy and moral vision. While the “lyrical” usually points to an emphasis on expression, subjectivity and questions of identity, lyrical fiction of the sanwen mode, invites readers to contemplate the meaning and relevance of beauty and spiritual contemplation in a world otherwise dominated by revolutionary discourse and national concerns.

"Painfully Honest: Confessional Rhetoric in Zhu Ziqing’s Essays"
Charles A. Laughlin, University of Virginia, USA

Zhu Ziqing is arguably the most celebrated essayist in modern Chinese letters. As a principal figure in the New Culture movement and early modern educational reform, Zhu Ziqing’s essays almost immediately became models for modern vernacular Chinese prose style in middle school textbooks in the 1920s, and have continued to play this role for over 80 years. For this reason, Zhu’s work has had tremendous influence not only in linguistic style but in molding aspects of the modern Chinese psyche. This paper will examine some of Zhu Ziqing’s most widely read and discussed works in the light of 1) how they are explained and appreciated for students, 2) critical reception from the Republican period to recent times, including recent readings that challenge the traditional canonic reception, and 3) my own close reading, which emphasizes the author’s emotional psychology and its negotiation of traditional and modern cultural identity. My readings of “Jiangsheng dengying li de Qinhuahe” (The Qinhuai River Amid the Sound of Oars and Light of Lanterns, 1923), “Wenzhou de zongji” (Wanderings in Wenzhou, 1923), “Beiying” (The silhouette of his back, 1925), and “Hetang yuese” (Lotus Pond in Moonlight, 1927), draw upon recent Chinese work that looks past the ideological elements to explore Zhu Ziqing’s literary construction of himself as a complex and emotionally fraught modern Chinese consciousness.