Theses Doctoral

In Search of the National Soul: Writing Life in Chinese Literature 1918–1937

Gvili, Gal

This dissertation offers a new perspective on the birth of modern Chinese literature by investigating the following question: How did literature come to be understood as an effective vehicle of national salvation? The following chapters locate the answer to this question in intertwining ideas on religion and realism. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw an upsurge of vernacular literature portraying contemporary life in China alongside deliberations on the meaning of a newly introduced term: “religion” (zongjiao). This process launched a long lasting perception of literature as effective—capable of turning a country in flux to a strong nation. The story of modern Chinese literature’s rise to such prominence forms part of a transnational history, linking national literatures and Christian modernity. Across the colonial world, Protestant missionaries introduced the idea that a true-to-life literary portrayal can mobilize readers into action by appealing to their natural sympathy towards human suffering. These theories found a seedbed in China, Japan, India and Africa, where various authors modified the Christian evangelical message into a thorough critique of imperialist thought.

Chapter One begins with the global rise of “Life” in the 1910’s as a new epistemology for understanding the human. In China, deliberations over the meaning of life hinged upon interactions with social Darwinism, American Protestant ideas on religious experience, Bergsonian vitalism, critiques of materialism in German Lebensphilosophie, and Chinese Neo-Confucian ethical thought. “Life” became the main axis pivoting debates on how to save China from its plight: Could evolutionary biology account for the truth of life? Could religion explain aspects of life that biology cannot? The task of representing the truth of life was entrusted upon the fledgling modern Chinese fiction and poetry. Chapters Two and Three trace this conviction in the powers of literature to nineteen-century missionary essay contests. Held in sites of imperial encroachment around the world, these contests promoted fiction writing as a miraculous endeavor. Similar to the way that reading the scriptures was supposed to produce a sense of connection to the great beyond, so too was the spiritual message of literary texts believed to ignite a “sympathetic resonance” (gongming) between authors and readers that would propel the latter to social action. The religious concept of sympathy inspired Chinese authors to further explore the connections between man and the universe in search of the perfect representation of life. This search led to an important encounter with the Bengali Renaissance Movement, explored in Chapters Four and Five. Rabindranath Tagore’s visit in China (1924) serves as a point of departure to investigate how prominent Chinese authors experimented with concepts such as “Eastern Spirituality” “The Poet’s Religion” and “Folktales”. Such literary interactions added important dimensions to the formation of Chinese realism, by envisioning Pan-Asian literary sympathies, which redefined the meaning of religion, life, and the nation.

By foregrounding the transnational collaborations and interactions of religion, realism, and Asian solidarity in shaping Chinese literature, this dissertation offers a multi-sited perspective on the unmatched significance of modern literature to China’s national revival and, in turn, delivers a new understanding of China’s role in a global deliberation over the meaning of human life.

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
July 21, 2015