Colloquium with Brian Bernards, Ph.D. candidate, Asian Languages and Cultures
The 1919 May Fourth Movement that spawned Chinese New Literature recognized the need to combat feudal sociopolitical practices at home and imperial aggression from abroad. Historical scholarship has construed the transnational and cosmopolitan qualities of May Fourth literature in two ways: first, as the general adoption of a modern literary model based on “Western form” and “Chinese content,” and second, as the production of a “Chinese” (but more accurately Han-centric) discourse of anti-imperialism in which the West and Japan, as the main foreign aggressors, constitute the “world.” Neither of these discourses truly captures the transnational, anti-colonial, and multiethnic complexities of May Fourth literature. Ignored by these characterizations is the plethora of writings in which the Third-World colony, not the First-World imperial metropole, was the author’s travel destination. Some of the most foundational authors of modern Chinese literature were “southbound writers” (nanlai zuojia) who traveled to Nanyang, the tropical “South Seas.”
The experiences of these authors in the Southeast Asian colonies compelled them to write about issues of ethnicity, multilingualism, and colonialism in much greater detail than is afforded by the standard literary histories. This paper examines visions of two colonial societies under British control in the 1920s – Singapore (Malaya) and Burma – in the fiction of three May Fourth authors: Xu Dishan, Lao She, and Ai Wu. Their narratives complicate the standard May Fourth tropes of class and gender by revealing their colonial entanglements with ethnicity and race. The authors deconstruct the assumptions and prejudice of ethnic/ethno-linguistic pride in a colonial society where ethnic divisions of labor and education are enforced to the colonizer’s benefit. Written primarily for a China-based readership, these narratives furthermore offer lessons on the dangers of internalizing or adopting the colonizing logic of ethnic superiority as an effective tool of anti-imperialism.
Cost: Free and open to the public.