Culture, Nation, and Identity in Twentieth Century China

Wednesday, 16:30-18:30, 501





This panel explores a set of major dilemmas that Chinese intellectuals confronted during the twentieth century – the relationship between culture, nation, and state. The political, social, and cultural crises that China faced since the mid-nineteenth century gave rise not only to oft-discussed political responses, but to a wide range of cultural responses as well. Intellectuals in twentieth century China struggled to shape a cultural identity and shape a Chinese nation-state while confronting the wish to modernize on the one hand, and preserve cultural tradition on the other. At the same time, Chinese intellectuals struggled to define a space for their individual survival This panel examines these dilemmas in three instances that span the length of China’s twentieth century.


Chen Yinke (1890-1969): Poetry and the Moral Conscience of a Historian in Murderous Times

The paper discusses the multi-faceted career of a pioneer of modern historiography, Chen Yinke. Alongside his scholarship, Chen was a prolific poet as well. From this voluminous output, the paper draws significant conclusions about the moral conscience of historians in times of darkness (building upon such work as Hannah Arendt’s reading of Walter Benjamin and others).


Struggling Over Porridge

The paper will discuss the politicized debate surrounding the story “Hard Porridge” by author and minister of culture (1986-1989) Wang Meng, whose career reflects the development of the People’s Republic of China. The paper argues that the “porridge incident”, as it was dubbed, illuminates the structural constraints and opportunities which intellectuals confronted in the transitional period after the spring of 1989.


The Courtesan’s Other: Visibility, Sexuality, and the Republican Lady in Early Twentieth Century China

The subject of this talk is a new demographic of women in early twentieth century China, “Republican Ladies:” women who were more visible than their talented late imperial forebears and more respectable than their infamously public courtesan contemporaries. The source base includes photographs and texts that appeared in China’s first commercial women’s periodical, Funü shibao 婦女時報 (The women’s eastern times, Shanghai 1911-1917), a journal committed to calling the new Republican woman into being; together with a series of courtesan albums produced by the publishers of Funü shibao between 1910 and 1915. The presentation reads the photographs of Republican Ladies against the courtesan portraits in order to probe their divergent modes of representation. More importantly, it examines the material conditions and evolving social practices that led to the production of the two sets of images. The paper argues that the juxtaposition of these female portraits, and their textual and social contexts offers insights into the dynamism and ambivalence of the early Republican moment.