Yu Dafu (1896-1945): Self-Articulation & Self-Accusation


A review of Forbidden Enlightenment: Self-Articulation and Self-Accusation in the Works of Yu Dafu (1896-1945), by Valerie M. Levan.

To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.
— Salman Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands” (1991)

Valerie Levan’s meticulously crafted dissertation deserves careful reading and rereading for anyone interested in comparative literature, Chinese literature, Sinophone studies, and sociolinguistics. It is not only the first serious, full-length critical study of Yu Dafu’s 郁达夫aesthetic project in English; it is also the first of its kind in its comparative breath and analytical depth in terms of formal analysis of literary texts. The dissertation truly demonstrates the merits of a comparative approach to the “world republic of letters” (p. 10); at the same time, it offers thorough analyses of a major figure and a key genre in the history of modern Chinese literature and in the broad cultural context of the contemporary Sinophone world.

The dissertation consists of an introduction, four main chapters, and a conclusion. In her introduction, Levan follows linguistic anthropologist Paul Kroskrity to approach the study of Yu Dafu (1896–1945) with an emphasis on competing “language ideologies.” She calls for moving beyond “national literatures” and considers Yu Dafu, who began his writing career in Japan and ended it in Singapore and Sumatra, “as a fitting figure to which to apply a translational critical approach” (p. 10). Levan further engages with the comparatist Pascale Casanova’s notion of a “literature-world,” finding it most illuminating for how “it allows for a broader consideration of kinships between texts that does not reduce them in their relationship to each other to proxies for their respective nations” (p. 11). Levan considers her study of Yu Dafu as a contribution to Casanova’s “world republic of letters” that broadens the scope of Casanova’s “world” to incorporate centers of literary power outside Europe and its former colonies.

In Chapter 1, “Failure as Rhetorical Strategy: Yu Dafu, Language Reform, and Alternative Texts,” Levan brings fresh insight into the study of early twentieth-century Chinese literature through her consistent engagement with language ideologies from a thoroughly comparative perspective. For Levan, both the cynical and the exoticist approaches to foreign texts in early twentieth-century Chinese literature fixate upon these texts’ semiotic function as signifiers of a single signified, i.e. “the West.” She argues instead that these alternative texts are “an integral part of the Chinese short stories” (p. 19) which, for Levan, become negotiating grounds for contesting media of expression among three languages: “a fictional vernacular, a nostalgically imagined language of classical poetry as manifestation of reality, and an aspired to and admired modern foreign language which is imperfect” (p. 67).

Levan opens Chapter 1 with a detailed analysis of early twentieth-century language reform in the mainland Chinese context. She exposes the living vernacular “as a myth of modern Chinese nation-building, and as the fiction upon which the new Chinese literature was founded” (p. 26). The desire for perfection of expression and communication led early twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals to imagine an endless expressive potential for Western literature and traditional Chinese poetics. Levan argues that these modern fantasies about the foreign and the classical made them ideal alternatives to the yet-to-be-formed vernacular, although the charge of “imitating Europeans” and the belief that traditional poetics were hopelessly out of date in depicting modern subjects dropped these intellectuals into a semiotic limbo.

With her impressive training in German, English, Chinese, and Japanese literary traditions, Levan is able to weave together a thorough analysis of how foreign texts work differently through visible or invisible translation. Looking at Yu Dafu’s “Journey South” 南迁 against Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Levan argues that Goethe spares his reader “the jarring experience of foreign text” (p. 55) by incorporating Mignon’s Italian “original” into the fiction as an already posited original in the text, while Yu Dafu’s readers “are supplied in the body of the story with only the foreign text” and “are thus asked to engage with a work that has its origin both outside of the story and outside of their own cultural tradition” (p. 55). Similarly, in her analysis of Yu Dafu’s use of Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” in the short story “Sinking” 沉沦, Levan offers the fascinating insight that the poem’s unsatisfactory translation is precisely the point, that “the translation is a plot element, and as such its inferiority takes on narrative significance” (p. 62).

Chapter 2, “Self-Exposure and Judgment: Confession in Yu Dafu and Zhang Ziping,” continues Chapter 1’s emphasis on language ideologies and literary forms. Levan engages with previous critical readings of Yu Dafu’s works that deal with the relationship of author and narrator to protagonist, considering them to “fall on either side of an autobiography/irony divide” if they do not resort to “the questionable theory of national allegory” (p. 82). Instead, she advocates and practices “a more thorough examination of the form,” and demonstrates that “such narratives can be appreciated for both the emotional struggle they depict and the highly analytic and detached framework through which they present such sentimental content” (p. 82).

Levan’s deep engagement with previous scholarship at the intersection of comparative literature and sinology continues in this chapter. She returns to J. L. Austin’s speech act theory to elaborate on Peter Brooks’s evaluation of “confession” as a double act. Levan, instead, considers “confession” “a three-fold utterance, encompassing the sins it reports, a performative declaratory admission of guilt, and a contractual request for absolution” (p. 84). She observes that three incarnations of Yu Dafu the author appear in his work “Blue Smoke” 青烟: one floating, the second sitting and smoking, the third observing. She argues that “Yu Dafu elegantly offers us a portrait of self knowledge that is at the same time a tableau of the difficulty it presents, and of the illusions we conjure up for ourselves as we struggle to attain it” (p. 107).

For Levan, Zhang Ziping 张资平 (1893–1959) has a place in this chapter about the confessional form because in comparison with Yu Dafu, he employs “a slightly different narrative structure to engage with concepts of sin and expiation” (p. 107). Levan offers detailed analyses of Zhang’s narrative strategy in three works, which she calls “novels of judgment,” written between 1920 and 1924. Consistent with her theoretical engagement in Chapter 1, Levan takes issue with past scholarship’s uncritical use of Fredric Jameson’s concept of “national allegory” in the China field (p. 119). Through meticulous textual analyses, Levan argues that Zhang’s and Yu’s texts’ connection with the nation may be casual and realistic, rather than symbolic or metaphorical. The “Bridge” at the end of Chapter 2 serves to connect the linguistic and semiotic analyses of Chapter 1 with the examinations of narrative structures in the current chapter.

The development of the notion of the necessarily guilty subject, discussed at the end of Chapter 2, gracefully introduces Chapter 3, “Iconoclasm in Self-Expression: Narratives of Love and Guilt.” Levan continues her emphasis on language and form with Rousseau’s words from his Confessions, “For what I have to say, I shall have to invent a language as novel as my project,” (p. 146) explained as a fitting description of Yu Dafu’s output. Departing from past criticisms’ consideration of the problem of subjectivity in relation to the status of the subject’s nation, Levan borrows from Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self to read it as a relationship, instead, between ethics and modernity. She carefully distinguishes her approach from Haiyan Lee’s use of Taylor; rather than focusing on the “affirmation of ordinary life,” as Lee does, Levan focuses on how the guilt and anxiety about intimacy we find in Yu Dafu are produced (pp. 157-158).

The widely perceived conflict between ling 灵 (spirit) and rou 肉 (flesh) in Yu Dafu’s Sinking collection guides Levan to an in-depth discussion of the sexologist and philosophy professor Zhang Jingsheng’s 张竞生research into the “rules of love.” Here Levan emphasizes the discrepancy between aspirations and reality, which, according to her, introduced even greater uncertainty into intimate life at Zhang’s and Yu’s time. Levan concludes Chapter 3 with a beautiful analysis of two classical poems Yu Dafu published in Japan in 1920. The final couplet of the second poem reads, in her translation, “Plainly I know these are pleasures had by one and all / and yet I feel that our affairs are quite extraordinary” 明知此乐人人有,总觉儿家事最奇 (p. 196). Levan considers this a pivotal moment in Yu’s textual performance: in a single sentence Yu summarized a truth Rousseau did not learn in a lifetime, that “only hubris or inexperience makes us insist on the singularity of our intimate experience, and yet the illusion of such singularity remains vital to our visions of ourselves” (p. 196).

Chapter 4, “The Afterlives of Yu Dafu: Huang Jinshu’s Parodic Intervention,” concludes the main body of the dissertation by venturing into the contemporary Sinophone world to examine the Malay-Chinese writer and critic Huang Jinshu’s 黄锦树 parodic treatment of Yu in his stories. Levan opens the chapter with Goethe’s hilarious poem (in her translation from the German) parodying Friedrich Nikolai’s rewriting of The Sorrows of Young Werther (p. 198). Her comparative acumen leads to a fascinating reading of the thematic similarities and “shared scatological metaphor” in Goethe’s parody of Nikolai and Huang’s parody of Yu (p. 200). An equally intriguing comparison between Chinua Achebe’s famous post-colonial critique of Joseph Conrad and Huang’s reaction against Yu’s legacy forms the main body of the second part of the chapter, where Levan situates the problem of the Sinophone writer within the larger literary context of a global dilemma of representation (p. 215). The irony of Huang’s intervention, Levan contends, lies in its demonstration of Yu’s continuing significance for problems of self-articulation Huang himself confronts in his work.

Levan’s conclusion offers a concise assessment of the dissertation’s contribution to the field of modern Chinese literature. She is modest in her assessment, as far as this reviewer is concerned, for Levan’s contribution is as least three-fold: she resurrects Yu Dafu through a definitive account of his engagement with the classical and the foreign as integral to the development of the modern Chinese vernacular; she offers a thorough theoretical treatment of the confessional form in the modern Chinese cultural context; and she broadens the conceptual scope and analytic depth of the “world republic of letters” through exemplary comparative analyses.

Liang Luo
Department of Modern and Classical Languages
University of Kentucky

Primary Sources

郁达夫:《郁达夫文集》Yu Dafu: Yu Dafu wenji
张资平:《张资平小说选》Zhang Ziping: Zhang Ziping xiaoshuo xuan
张竞生:《性史》Zhang Jingsheng: Xingshi 
黄锦树:《死在南方》Huang Jinshu: Si zai nanfang
《晨报副刊》Chenbao fukan and《新青年》La Jeunesse

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2010. 260 pp. Primary Advisor: Anthony Yu.


Image: Yu Dafu. Wikimedia Commons.

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