Leading scholars of modern Chinese literature have long discussed how the May Fourth became a hegemonic force and have sought to uncover the “burdens of May Fourth”; that is, those discourses eclipsed by the May Fourth intellectuals as they promoted the goal of openness and pluralism in the New Culture Movement. They have discovered Chinese modernity in the Late Qing writings as early as the mid-nineteenth century, decades before the May Fourth movement. Particularly, some scholars have argued that features of modernity might have stemmed from indigenous genres or classical language. My study of how the West is portrayed in three classical tales written by the pioneering Late Qing thinker Wang Tao 王韜 in the 1880s contributes to this discussion. These three classical tales, “Biography of Mary” 媚梨小傳, “Travel Overseas” 海外壯遊, and “Wonderland under the Sea” 海底奇境, were first published as literary supplements in Dianshizhai Pictorial 點石齋畫報 and later reprinted in Wang Tao’s story collection Songyin manlu 淞隱漫錄. They are notable because they represent the first tales in Chinese literary history to imagine Western cities and Western women—as opposed to any other places or races or ethnicities—in a period when Chinese intellectuals had begun looking to the West for ways to modernize their nation.5 I argue that these three tales reveal signs of disillusionment with traditional Chinese culture surfacing as early as the 1880s, a time when most reformers were advocating solely for technological and institutional changes. Even more interesting, modern sentiments are expressed in classical Chinese. Wang Tao utilized the traditional narrative form of the classical tale to lament the degeneration of the very civilization in which it had flourished.
Copyright © 2016 by Lingnan University
Shi, X. (2016). Disillusionment with Chinese culture in the 1880s: Wang Tao's Three classical tales. Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese, 13(1-2), 10-44.
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