Theses Doctoral

The Aesthetics of Information in Modern Chinese Literary Culture, 1919-1949

Detwyler, Anatoly

This dissertation examines the literary and cultural history of information in modern China from 1919 to 1949. This era witnessed a kind of communications revolution, marked by the rapid proliferation of new ways of transmitting and inscribing information, which joined other revolutions (sociopolitical, linguistic) in ushering in the modern subject. In the form of xiaoxi, xinxi, or tongji, “information” became an essential entity by which to understand and implement modern practices cropping up throughout China—from statistical knowledge to political propaganda, from stock speculation to new virtual communities. This dissertation uses four case studies to revisit familiar writers such as Mao Dun (1896-1981), Ding Ling (1904-1986), and Shen Congwen (1902-1988), while also excavating a number of innovative figures such as the avant-garde psychologist, Zhang Yaoxiang (1893-1964), and the communications critic, Xie Liuyi (1898-1945), to show how the rise of a modern literary culture is inseparable from the rise of this early information era, when writers, critics, and artists collectively developed new modes of literary representation, critical reading, and visualizing information.

New fiction did not simply passively reflect the spread of information into everyday life or changes in China’s information order. Rather, as writers and critics integrated forms of information into their work, even envisioning literature itself as a kind of medium of information, they contributed to what I call an emergent “aesthetics of information.” Why did forms like the database or the encyclopedia inspire new modes of literary composition? How could literary forms incorporate or critique forms of data organization such as account books or statistical tables? When did information provide new ways of constructing the real—and when did literary realism seem directly opposed to the abstractive and disembodying qualities of information? The aesthetics of information directly and creatively engaged with information in a variety of ways, sometimes by way of a process of absorption and appropriation, and at other times through a more oppositional logic of resistance in the form of critique, unmasking, or satire. Ultimately the lens of “information” sheds new light on the development of modern Chinese literature, while also contributing a crucial piece to the broader mosaic of modern information’s global history. It thereby historicizes the early foundations of many of the hallmarks of postindustrial life and culture in China today: the spread of abstraction, the rise of white-collar information management, and the increasingly important role of network communications in modulating sociality and politics.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Liu, Lydia H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 5, 2017