Chin 463: Narrative Ethics in Modern China
Professor Robin Visser
Department of Asian Studies
I spoke of the novel as an especially useful agent of the moral imagination, as the literary form
which most directly reveals to us the complexity, the difficulty, and the interest of life in society,
and best instructs our human variety and contradiction. – Lionel Trilling
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.
That is all. – Oscar Wilde
“shi yan zhi” (“the poem articulates what is on the mind intently”) – from the Confucian classics
The shi is not the “object” of its writer, it is the writer – the outside of an inside – Stephen Owen
In what sense should literature edify? How much autonomy should the author have? Should the
literary artist be governed by social needs, state imperatives, personal expression, or transcendent
ideals? What is the role of art and aesthetics in the development of moral imagination and
understanding? What is the relationship between moral and aesthetic values?
Chinese intellectuals wrestled with the relationship between aesthetics and ethics – or the
narrative and the normative - throughout the 20th century as Confucian hermeneutics gave way to
the iconoclastic literature of the May Fourth Movement, followed by the Marxist revolution and
proletarian ethics. In Post-Mao China the tradition of literature as moral discourse became
further threatened by a market-driven popular culture, while censorship and Internet literature
raised long standing ethical questions about authorial autonomy and the function of literature.
In this survey of modern Chinese literature from the late Qing (1890) to the present we explore
intersections between text, ethics, and everyday life by reading Chinese fiction in translation and
comparative essays on aesthetics. Evaluation is based on class discussions (10%); position
papers (30%); a presentation (10%); a research paper (30%); and a final exam (20%).
Philosophy (Aesthetics and Ethics):
Plato, Republic (Books X)
Longinus, “On the Sublime”
“Great Preface” to the Book of Poetry (Confucian classic)
Xunzi, Basic Writings (Ch 7 “A Discussion of Music”)
Lu Ji, “Rhapsody on Divine Inspiration”
Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep: An Ethics for Fiction
Harpham, Geoffrey. Shadows of Ethics: Criticism and the Just Society
Newton, Adam. Narrative Ethics
Knight, Sabina. The Heart of Time: Moral Agency in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction
Lu Xun. Selected Stories of Lu Hsun (1918-1925).
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Xiao Hong. The Field of Life and Death and Tales of Hulan River (1936).
Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang). Love in a Fallen City (1944).
Yu Hua. “One Kind of Reality” (1987) and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995).
Wang Shuo. “Hot and Cold, Measure for Measure” (1988)
Fang Fang. Children of the Bitter River (1987)
Zhu Wen. I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China (1995)
Mian Mian. Candy (2000).
Literary History and Criticism:
Denton, Kirk, ed. Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945 (1996).
Kong, Shuyu. Consuming Literature: Best Sellers and the Commercialization of Literary
Production in Contemporary China (2005).
Link, Perry. The Uses of Literature: Life in the Chinese Socialist Literary System (2000).
We first read classical essays on aesthetic judgments from Chinese and Greek traditions to reflect
on the purpose of the arts in society before relating these questions to debates about late Qing
nation-building, May Fourth romanticism, revolutionary socialist realism, post-Mao scar
literature, avant-garde fiction, neo-realism, “body writing,” and cyber literature. In analyzing a
variety of fictional works, we often find our initial ethical positions on aesthetics challenged,
becoming personally engaged in these debates as the semester progresses.
1. Aesthetic Judgments and Ethical Reasoning
We study classical statements on aesthetics and ethics from Greco-Roman and Chinese
traditions. Readings include excerpts of Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Poetics, and Longinus, On
the Sublime, the “Great Preface” to the Confucian Book of Poetry, Lu Ji’s “Rhapody on Divine
Inspiration,” and the Confucian philosopher Xunzi, to form preliminary opinions on the purpose
and social efficacy of literature and art. These aesthetic judgments will inform our debate
regarding the ethics of each of the literary texts examined during the course.
2. Enlightenment Fiction: Late Qing, May Fourth, Revolutionary Poetics (1890s-1940s)
We consider Lu Xun’s and Xiao Hong’s fiction alongside essays on revolutionary poetics that
advocate national salvation, cultural enlightenment, and Marxist revolution. Informed by
classical poetics, we consider whether their short stories realize or undermine the positivist
claims for literature made by modern aesthetics treatises.
3. Decadent Literature: Post-Revolutionary Aesthetics (1940s; 1980s-present)
We read dismissals of Eileen Chang’s decadent wartime aesthetics by advocates of socialist
realism, denunciations of Wang Shuo’s post-Mao fiction as frivolous by advocates of
enlightenment, and expressions of shock at how Zhu Wen’s 1990s fiction turns Confucian ethics
on its head, debating the validity of the critics’ claims of superficiality and immorality. We
examine the 21st century debate over “Babe Writers” accused of using their sexuality to promote
their bestsellers, and denunciations of cyber literature as online pornography.
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Aug 21 Introduction to the Course
Aug 23 Plato, Republic (excerpts from Books X); Xunzi, Basic Writings (Ch 7)
Aug 28 Aristotle, Poetics; “Great Preface” to the Book of Poetry (Confucian classic)
Aug 30 Lu Ji, “Rhapsody on Divine Inspiration”; Longinus, On the Sublime
Lu Xun, “On the Power of Mara Poetry,” MCLT
Sep 4 Harpham, Shadows of Ethics, Ch 2 “Ethics and Literary Study”
Booth, Wayne, The Company We Keep: An Ethics for Fiction, Introduction
Sep 6 Harpham, Ch 7 Aesthetics and the Fundamentals of Modernity
Lu Xun, “Preface to Call to Arms,” MCLT 238-242. (Cf. Selected Stories, 1-6)
Lu Xun, ““A Madman’s Diary”
Sep 11 Zhou Zuoren, “Humane Literature,” MCLT 151-161
Lu Xun, “Kung I-Chi”; “Medicine”
Sept 13 “The True Story of Ah-Q”
Knight, Moral Agency, Ch 3 “The Prison of Self-Consciousness in May Fourth
Sept 18 “The New Year’s Sacrifice”; “Regret for the Past”
Zhou Zuoren, “Women and Literature,” MCLT 228-232
Sept 20 Fei Xiaotong, From the Soil (Ch 1, 7; hand-out)
The Field of Life and Death, ix-p. 29
Sept 25 The Field of Life and Death, 29-91
Sept 27 Tales of Hulan River, 101-169
Oct 2 Tales of Hulan River, 169-273
Oct 4 Introduction, MCLT 257-262
Cheng Fangwu, “From a Literary Revolution to a Revolutionary Literature” 269-
Qian Xingcun, “The Bygone Age of Ah Q” MCLT 276-288
Rou Shi, “A Slave Mother”
Oct 9 Mao Dun, “On Reading Ni Huanzhi,” (Secs 1-4 ONLY) MCLT 289-295
Zhou Yang, “Thoughts on Realism,” MCLT 335-344
Marston Anderson, The Limits of Realism (Ch 1)
Ye Shengtao, “Ni Huanzhi”
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Oct 11 Mao Zedong, “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” MCLT 458-484
Perry Link, The Uses of Literature: Life in the Chinese Socialist Literary System
Oct 16 Eileen Chang, “Sealed Off”
Zhang Xudong, “Shanghai Nostalgia: 349-353
Fall Break (Oct 18-19)
Oct 23 Eileen Chang, Love in a Fallen City
Zhang Ailing, “My Writing” (1944), MCLT 436-442
Oct 25 Eileen Chang, “Traces of Love” (1944)
Oct 30 Fang Fang, Children of the Bitter River
Knight, Ch 6 “Historical Trauma and Humanism in Post-Mao Fiction”
Nov 1 Fang Fang, Children of the Bitter River
Nov 6 Yu Hua, “One Kind of Reality,” 21-68
Andrew Jones, “The Violence of the Text”
Nov 8 Zhu Wen, “I Love Dollars”
Shuyu Kong, Consuming Literature, Ch 1 “Writers as Cultural Entrepreneurs”
Nov 13 Yu Hua, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant
Knight, Ch 8 “Self-Ownership and Capitalist Values in 1990s Chinese Fiction”
Nov 15 Yu Hua, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant
Nov 20 Mian Mian, Candy
Shuyu Kong, Consuming Literature, Ch 4 “The Economics of Privacy: Publishing
Thanksgiving Break (Nov 22-23)
Nov 27 Mian Mian, Candy
Research Paper Due
Nov 29 Student Presentations
Dec 4 Student Presentations
Dec 11 Final Exam
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