Transmuting Wen: Writing Enterprises, Transcultural Encounters, and Transmedial Entanglements in the Chinese World Since the Late Imperial Era

Title: 1329 | Transmuting Wen: Writing Enterprises, Transcultural Encounters, and Transmedial Entanglements in the Chinese World Since the Late Imperial Era
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: Literature
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Meimei Xu, Nanjing University, China (presenter)
Jin Wang, University of Toronto, Canada (presenter)
Baoli Yang, Brown University, United States (presenter)
Chia-chi Chao, National Chung Hsing University, Taiwan (presenter, chair, discussant)
Yixin Xu, University of Macau, Macau (organizer, presenter)


As the end of the 19th century witnessed drastic transformations in Chinese history, fresh contents, foreign ideas, and innovative media challenged the time-honored concept of wen, namely writings that manifest Chinese culture. As China increasingly participated in the global circulation of modern culture, writing was no longer the only primary means by which its culture embodied itself. The Chinese language, embodying the thinking system behind it, became insufficient to deal with new historical contingencies that arose.

This panel gathers five papers to investigate the crises of wen and ramifications of the new transcultural and transmedial conflicts since the late Imperial era. In Hong Kong, English newspapers' attention to disputes in the entertainment industry shed light on how colonial media implicitly stemmed from grassroots Chinese culture and championed colonial power in the late Qing. In the utopia constructed in Tan Sitong’s writing, scientific and Buddhist terminologies modernized traditional Chinese writing and Confucian futurity. Global dissemination of the Dunhuang manuscripts in the early 20th century encouraged global solidarity in Silk Road studies and raised controversies regarding Chinese identity. The fictional writings of Eileen Chang and Xiao Hong spoke to the conundrums of the upstart middle class trapped in a chaotic China, but the transmission of their works in cinema and Western translations flavored Chang’s original with a Cold-War allure and tamed Xiao’s Chinese nationalist thrusts. By pre-circulating its papers among the presenters, this panel hopes to explore the multiple paths, models, and media through which the modern Chinese have transmitted their wen.

Panel Abstracts:
Amusement and its Medial "Philosophy": Entertainment Industry and News Reports on Foreign Variety Troupes in the 1864 Hong Kong Daily Press
Recent academic discussions on when cinema was first introduced into China led to some explorations on the history of magic lanterns and foreign entertainment in the late Qing. While those studies mainly focused on Shanghai, Hong Kong, a central transit port in Asia, has long been ignored. Unlike previous studies mainly based on Chinese periodicals, this paper concentrates on the earliest English language newspaper in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Daily Press, to investigate the transcultural and transmedial aspects of reports dedicated to the local entertainment industry around 1864, which by far is the earliest existing collection in this regard.To have a dialogue with existing scholarship on the entertainment industry in Hong Kong and contemporary communication theory, this paper deals with a form of para-theatrical entertainment and the usages of its performance space as a battlefield for people of different political ideologies represented in the newspaper. It analyzes the disputes over performance space between foreign performers and local amateur actors to complicate the dynamic trajectory of entertainment trends in the colonial cultural milieu. In addition to offering general information about the earliest foreign variety troupes touring Hong Kong, I argue that the cooperation between foreign professional entertainers and English news reporters introduced a new philosophy of amusement to the local Chinese. As a result, it produced a systematic discursive space surrounded by entertainment forms, performers, advertisements, critics, and Chinese audiences. Through those efforts, the foreign media assumed a role exerting its political influence on Chinese public opinion.

Naoqijin, the Brain, and Imagining Modernity: How Anatomy Encountered Buddhism in Tan Sitong
Completed in 1897, Tan Sitong’s seminal work, Ren Xue (An Exposition on Benevolence), introduced several neologisms. Most researchers have discussed renxue from the perspective of concept borrowing and translation while ignoring the large impact of Tan's contact with new media and new facilities on his worldview. This article endeavors to recontextualize Tan in the communication revolution at the end of the late 19th century. First, this paper analyzes the changes in brain cognition in the late Qing dynasty under the influence of the new media and technologies from the West. In this context, Tan regarded naoqijin (cranial nerve) as a medium that joins inner parts of the human body and connects humans with the outside world. Tan’s illustration of the brain is not merely a replica of Western books in translation. On the contrary, he was keenly aware of the scientific centralism and racism that existed in Western phrenology. By selecting specific traits to integrate into Buddhist ideas, he not only advanced an entirely different construct of the brain from the West, but also rethought the relationship between science and modern civilization. Moreover, in reconciling two discrete systems of knowledge, Tan reconstructed the relationship between the human body and media technology, between people and things, between people and the world. Therefore, he imagined a media-based egalitarian world. This fusion is also reflected in his writing. Tan redefines the concept of Chinese wen by using scientific language such as Western calculation and the Buddhist writing style.

Remaking Dunhuang: The Modern Fate of the Dunhuang Manuscripts and the Global Expansion of Silk Road Studies in the Early 20th Century
Thirty years after Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term “Silk Road” in 1877, several foreign explorers reached northwest China and acquired pre-modern Eurasian cultural artifacts, including about fifty-thousand manuscripts from Dunhuang. In contrast to local officials who facilely depreciated and disregarded these manuscripts, explorers such as Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot accumulated academic capital by bringing these written manifestations of the Silk Road to the world’s attention, which also provided an irreplaceable asset for the study of ancient Eurasia outside of China. Yet the manuscripts falling into foreigners’ hands devastated many Chinese scholars in Beijing and motivated them to poignantly petition their government to protect the remaining Dunhuang legacy. Scholars like Chen Yingke celebrated the study of Dunhuang as a “new worldwide trend of the day” and displayed indifference to some Chinese’s obsession with trying to monopolize the collection. Local officials, foreigners, and Chinese scholars reified competing agencies determining the modern value and ownership of the Dunhuang texts, while the multilingual and multiethnic nature of the texts casted doubt on any conclusive opinion regarding their overall cultural affiliation, let alone their potential to embody the Chinese notion of wen. My paper examines modern discursive and affective practices related to the acquisition and dissemination of the Dunhuang manuscripts recorded in various biographies and memoirs in order to show how the reception of the Dunhuang manuscripts built global scholarly solidarity and complicated cultural identity for Silk Road studies. This modern solidarity urges a reconsideration of the premodern Chinese wen.

Cross-Media Romances in the Cold War: The Middlebrow Narrative of Eileen Chang's Scripts and Adapted Films in the Globalized Context
During the 1950s-60s, Eileen Chang wrote several movie scripts for the film company Motion Picture & General Investment Company Ltd. (MP & GI). As a cross-national company based in Singapore-Malaysia which developed in post-war Hong Kong, MP & GI was renowned for its film productions of urban melodramas, with most of them being regarded as “literary films,” referring to the representation of modernized Chinese society rooted in traditional morality, in which human inner relationships and ordinary sensibilities are primary issues. This essay focuses on the cross-media relationship between Chang’s scripts and their adapted films set against the backdrop of post-war Hong Kong, belonging to the new Asian geopolitical landscape under U.S.-dominated modern culture globalized in the Cold War. While Chang’s writings exhibited detailed descriptions of interpersonal affairs, the adapted movies chose to neglect various subtle and sensitive dimensions of the originals. Instead, their visual language employed a Hollywood mold to showcase the glamorous facets of emerging middle-class culture and achievements of modernized cities in Asia, in which Hong Kong and Tokyo were especially eye-catching. Those transmedial alterations vividly demonstrated how the American urge for globalization through the mechanisms of capitalism changed Chang’s individual literary investments and made movies to become a cross-media product which displayed the U.S.-led cultural strategy in Cold War Asia. The MP & GI movie versions based on Chang’s writings manifest themselves as a transcultural compound bringing wen to the global stage through its dual accommodation of Asian and American values.

Realism and Satire: An Analysis of Howard Goldblatt's Rewriting of Xiao Hong’s Ma Bo'le
In July 2018, the famed American translator Howard Goldblatt translated and finished Xiao Hong’s satirical novel Ma Bo’le, which had remained unfinished due to the death of the author. He also renamed his rendition, consisting of the translation section and the continuation part, as Ma Bo’le’s Second Life. In the original work, though using the prevailing genre of xiaoshuo, Xiao conformed to the traditional aesthetic expectations of wen, which refers to zaidao (conveying the dao). By means of a realistic description of people’s miserable lives during wartime, Xiao represented their anxiety over mere survival; by the rhetoric of satire, she cast doubt on the fantasy of enlightenment and so-called “advanced Western culture,” expressing worries over people’s national identities. Goldblatt successfully maintained a realistic style and the flavor of the satire in the translation part, which could be contributed by his consistent interest on this novel since he wrote his doctoral thesis titled Hsiao Hung. However, in the continuation section, Goldblatt could not reach the aesthetic level and thematic depth which Xiao accomplished: instead he transformed the lively descriptions into simple information delivery and eliminated the rhetoric of satire by changing the narrative focus, which abolished Xiao’s concern over people’s perturbation and their national identity. This aesthetic and thematic difference indicates different intentions of the texts: the original work aimed at enlightening the masses through a marginalized narrative pattern and rhetorical skill, while the English version intended to carry out Goldblatt’s wishes for translating and facilitating the circulation of the work.

This panel is on Tuesday - Session 01 - Room 5

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