Identity and Culture in Late Imperial Chinese Novels

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A review of Encountering the Other: Identity, Culture, and the Novel in Late Imperial China, by Huili Zheng.

In the second half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, a unique group of Chinese novels emerged which brought to center-stage Chinese subjects’ encounters with their foreign or non-Han others. While literary representation of foreign lands and cultures has a long history in China, this group of relatively neglected fictions provides particularly fertile ground for investigation into such issues as the crises and anxieties of self-identity, as well as Han Chinese’s perception of their own cultural superiority. Huili Zheng’s Encountering the Other offers in-depth analysis of two exemplary fictions in this group and suggests that “the other” is a cultural construct predicated upon its positionality and discursivity.

What did the images of the other in these novels tell us about Chinese intellectuals’ perceptions of China when their Sinocentric worldview was challenged during this time? In what manner were problems and crises of their self-identity revealed or concealed in these fictional narratives? These are two of the guiding questions the author has sought to answer in this study. Zheng’s methodological approach is informed by current scholarship on cultural anthropology, colonial discourses, and gender studies; further, she proposes a more locale-specific reading that identifies Confucian culturalism as the defining factor in pre-modern China’s discursive construction of the other. As Zheng observes, “the centrality and superiority of the self … in relation to the other, and the perpetual danger of the self by the threat of the other” (p. 37-38) have gone hand in hand since China’s earliest phases of cultural imagination. These two prevalent yet seemingly opposing perceptions of the other shared similar assumptions about the superiority of Han Chinese culture. The universalist idea that Chinese culture can and should absorb and transform the “barbarians” suggests that no clearly-defined boundary between Han and non-Han cultures has ever existed. Yet precisely such anxiety about the “mutual transformability of self and other” (p. 21) provoked a sense of urgency among late Qing educated elites to safeguard the boundaries between Han Chinese and their barbarian others.

The two paradoxes—the culturally inclusive and the racially exclusionist (p. 38)—formed the backbone of what Zheng terms “the barbarian ideology.” Chapter 1 traces the origins and trajectory of that ideology, which is essential to the formation of the Sinocentric self-image. A chronological survey of official writings and related works, including Shanhai jing 山海經 (Classic of Mountains and Seas), Zuo zhuan 左傳 (The Zuo Commentary), Shiji 史記 (Historian’s Records), and essays by Fang Xiaoru 方孝孺 (1357 – 1402), Wang Fuzhi 王夫之 (1619 – 1692), and Yang Guangxian 楊光先 (1597 – 1669), elucidates how the representation of the other was deeply intertwined with social, political and intellectual developments of China. Among the rhetorical strategies commonly used in the process of othering in pre-modern China, “demonization” receives special attention. The bestialized image of the cultural other serves as a constant reminder of China’s cultural superiority, and provides ideological rationalization for the imperial civilizing rhetoric.

Chapter 2 expands upon the conceptual framework established in the previous chapter by examining what has been largely concealed in official ideological rhetoric, namely the exploration of the self through writing about cultural others in literary works. The author gives a contextualized overview of major works in the long literary tradition of China to illustrate the three dominating rhetorical strategies in constructing images of the other: demonization, idealization, and feminization. An entire section is dedicated to gendered ethnocentrism, feminine virtue, and the chastity cult in the representation of other. Zheng delineates how sexual tropes became increasingly important in conceptualizing self/other relationships in late-imperial literary works, and how women and all that they represent became the last frontier between civilization and barbarism (p. 85).

The crux of “Encountering the Other” lies in the author’s nuanced and contextualized readings of two major novels, Yesou puyan 野叟曝言 (Humble words of an old rustic) and Jinghua yuan 鏡花緣 (The destiny of the flowers in the mirror), in Chapters 3 and 4. These two works are chosen for analysis because each employs a different set of rhetorical strategies in representing images of self/other. Taken together, they present a complex picture of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Chinese literati’s self-perception, as well as their fear of the gradual loss of a collective cultural identity. In Yesou puyan, while the male protagonist Wen Suchen 文素臣 is the perfect embodiment of “a universal self of Confucian orthodoxy” (p. 30), his multiple acts of boundary-crossing and boundary-assertion nevertheless become evidence of problematic self-positioning. In her discussion, Zheng borrows Richard Hofstadter’s idea of “cultural paranoia” (p. 117): underlying Wen’s unwavering commitment to the Cheng-Zhu Confucian orthodoxy and his determination to eliminate religious heterodoxy is a “paranoid self” (p. 118-9) that constantly feels victimized, besieged, and deficient. This mentality is “pervasive among the educated elite who had perceived of themselves as the guardian[s] of the Confucian tradition but found themselves increasingly disenfranchised” in the late imperial period (p. 146). Zheng proposes a new way to understand the complex image of Wen Suchen that has been the center of attention in previous scholarship: the only way for the author to create a superhero capable of safeguarding Confucian orthodoxy at all fronts is to utilize all the familiar “tropes of manhood” in fictional narratives (p. 125). A talented scholar, a passionate lover, an orthodox moralist—self-contracting as these images of self may have been, Wen is nevertheless the proof of an “inevitable and unbridgeable gap between the ideal Self prescribed in Confucian canons … and the many selves given rise to by various exigencies” (p. 126).

Compared to Yesou puyan where the political and ideological centers are firmly grounded within China proper, Jinghua yuan presents its readers with a fragmented narrative of the self. In Chapter 4, Zheng traces the novel’s intertextual lineage to Shanhai jing, travel writings, and major fictional narratives like Jin Ping Mei 金瓶梅 (Plum in the Golden Vase) and Honglou meng 紅樓夢 (The Story of the Stone), but stresses that such reiteration presents “a vestige of self” that defies definition (p. 32). In Jinghua yuan, Chinese intellectuals’ anxiety about the fast-changing world order is materialized in the protagonists’ obsession with naming and categorizing the unfamiliar and the unknown based on their preexisting epistemological framework. While Chinese travelers’ journeys in seemingly utopian lands is evidence of the domesticating power of Confucian learning (wen ), their travel accounts also question the stability of self/other-positioning which wen establishes. This double vision, Zheng suggests, allows the readers of Jinghua yuan to explore alternative ways to understand self-other relations in an increasingly uncertain world.

Encountering the Other successfully achieves its goals and offers fresh insights into understanding some of the most significant fictional narratives of late-imperial China. Its conclusion reminds us that constructions of self and other long predate China’s traumatic encounters with the West. Zheng’s work expands our understanding of the crucial paradigm shift and fills in a lacuna through its transhistorical connections. Once published, the book is sure to prove indispensable for scholars of premodern and modern Chinese literature, gender studies, and cultural history.

Liana Chen
Assistant Professor of Chinese Language and Literature
Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures
The George Washington University

Primary Sources

Li Ruzhen 李汝珍. Jinghua yuan 鏡花緣. Taipei: Guiguan tushu gufen youxian gongsi, 1984.
Lüsheng 旅生, Chiren shuomeng ji 癡人說夢記. Taipei: Guangya chuban youxian gongsi, 1984.
Xia Jingqu 夏敬渠. Yesou puyan 野叟曝言. Beijing: Renmin Zhongguo chubanshe, 1993.
Yuan Ke 袁珂. Shanhai jing jiaozhu 山海經校註. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1980.
Quan Tang Wen 全唐文. Dong Gao 董誥 et al. eds., Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1990.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Irvine. 2010. 223 pp. Primary Advisor: Martin W. Huang.

Image: From the Qing Imperial Illustrations of Tributary Peoples 皇清職貢圖, Courtesy of National Palace Museum.

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