‘Poverty and Squalor in Modern Chinese Realism’

Keru Cai is a Junior Research Fellow at Magdalen College, University of Oxford; and this fall begins as Assistant Professor of Asian Studies and Comparative Literature at Penn State University.

In the early twentieth century, Chinese intellectuals looked beyond Chinese borders to the foreign other, Western cultures that offered alternatives to indigenous tradition; and within Chinese borders they became concerned about the social other, substrata of Chinese society that had hitherto largely escaped literary notice. Contact with the foreign literary other – particularly Russian realism – facilitated Chinese literary representation of the social other – the poor. This talk demonstrates that Chinese realist writers frequently turned to the topic of material poverty – the lack of adequate resources such as food, clothing and shelter –to convey their sense of textual poverty and national backwardness. Deploring the moral poverty of their culture, their answer was to depict, with radical seriousness and concern, the bodily suffering of the poor – homeless vagrants, servants and bondmaids, prostitutes, rickshaw pullers, street food hawkers, silkworm farmers and starving artists. The combination of a radically new subject matter and experimentation with foreign literary resources generated major innovations in narrative technique.

In particular, Dr Cai focuses on how writers drew upon Russian intertexts to represent the nation in narrative form. Chinese intellectuals such as Lu Xun wished to produce literature that would awaken the Chinese masses to their national plight, cultural backwardness, and literary deficiencies. How, then, were they to describe a problem prevalent on a massive scale, endemic to an entire population, in a narrative that follows merely a handful of individual characters? I show how appropriations from Russian realist texts equipped Lu Xun with strategies to encapsulate the general in the specific, the national in the individual, by portraying poverty and squalor. Enabling these kinds of narratives were the rhetorical affordances of metonymy and synecdoche. These strategies arose from Lu Xun’s study of Gogol, and set a precedent for Chinese realist writers following him.