Negotiation and instrumentalisation - the reception of 'the Tragic' in modern Chinese literary discourse, 1917-1949
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This study examines how the concept of tragedy has been introduced and has negotiated itself into modern Chinese literary discourse during a time period of thirty-two years from 1917 to 1949. Taking into consideration the simultaneous development of a modern Chinese literary tradition, this study concentrates on the relationship between the discourse on one particular genre and the discourse on literature as a whole during the process of reception of an alien literary concept and its influence on indigenous literature. Modern Chinese intellectuals interpret the concept of tragedy from two main aspects: one is in the theatrical domain where tragedy functions as a dramatic form closely related to the emergence of a new genre in Chinese literature, namely, the spoken drama (huaju); the other is in the aesthetic domain where tragedy (or more specifically, the tragic) operates as a literary or philosophical idea and offers possibilities for the development of this notion in non-dramatic literature. This dual-focus approach is fundamental in the formation of a modern Chinese discourse on tragedy, as a paralleled line of arguments concerning these two aspects remains visible in the modern period. The major influence from foreign intellectual tradition on modern Chinese perception of tragedy takes the shape of two pairs of different perspectives, namely, literary utilitarianism and literary aestheticism in theoretical discussions, corresponding to realism and romanticism in literary creativity. These two pairs of perspectives set the tone for modern Chinese understanding of the concept of tragedy: literary utilitarianism and literary aestheticism focus respectively on the foremost importance of tragedy’s practical utility in social progression, or of tragedy’s aesthetic function to offer emotional cleansing to the audience; realism and romanticism debate the intricate relation between tragedy and social reality that besieged several generations of writers throughout the Republican era. It is noticeable that these viewpoints have not developed in a balanced way, as a pragmatic realist perspective has prevailed in both theory and practice, while the aesthetic/romantic pursuit being either rejected or incorporated into the ultimate thematic concern with social reformation and national salvation. This study abstracts the idea of the tragic from its dramatic form in examining the cross-genre and multidisciplinary development of the concept of tragedy in modern Chinese literary tradition. The main body of the thesis contains four chapters. The first chapter sets the scope of this study by clarifying several terminologies that are key to approach the long-lasting debates on whether there is a Chinese tragedy in 20th-century Chinese literary discourse. The second chapter focuses on the period of the New Culture Movement from 1917 to 1927, when the counter-traditional and iconoclastic agenda dominates the overall literary field and associates tragedy largely with literature’s functional role in social criticism. The third chapter examines theories and writings produced from 1928 to 1937, when the perspective of pragmatic realism prevails the reading of the tragic due to the strengthened connection between literature and politics. The fourth chapter centres on the wartime literary expression of the tragic from 1937 to 1949, when the Anti-Japanese War homogenises the literary subjects with an overt and unified political theme to inspire the people with optimism and fighting spirit. By exploring the possible factors that differentiate modern Chinese tragic perception from its foreign counterparts, this study investigates and demonstrates the constant interplay among several cultural, social, and political factors in affecting the formation of a modern critical discourse on tragedy.