Paola Iovene

Friday, January 20, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. in CEAS 319 (1155 E. 60th St.)

Paola Iovene, “Not by Dates Alone: The Spirit of the Peasant-Writer in Contemporary Yan’an”

Please join us this Friday for a presentation by Paola Iovene, Associate Professor of Chinese Literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Professor Iovene summarizes her talk as follows:

If you’ve ever bought dates in China, chances are that they came from Yan’an. Red dates are indeed one of the major products of the area, particularly of Yanchuan county. The trees bear fruit in September, but fresh dates can be eaten well into mid-November, even as they get sun-dried in courtyards, on sidewalks, and outside of shops. Not by dates alone, however, could the region survive: oil, coal, and tourism are the resources that have been driving Yan’an out of poverty since the early 1990s. Called the “Mecca,” “cradle,” or “birthplace” of China’s Revolution because it served as the base of the Chinese Communist Party during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Yan’an is today a primary destination of “red tourism,” offering a variety of entertainments linked to China’s communist history: you can visit the cave dwellings where Mao Zedong and other communist leaders lived during the war, take pictures in buildings where seminal party congresses took place from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s, and watch revolutionary performances that restage those heroic times. Yan’an (and more generally the region of Shaanbei where it is located) is also famously rich in folk arts and crafts, such as drum performances, story-telling, and paper-cuts, the symbolism of which is often linked to archaic beliefs dating back to the ancient Chinese civilization that flourished along the Yellow River nearby. In a seemingly paradoxical fashion, then, Yan’an is being promoted both as a revolutionary site and as part of a larger region in which time-honored local traditions have survived momentous changes almost intact.


In the last few years, however, new tourist destinations are emerging in Yan’an that have little to do with revolutionary, folk, or ancient China. A couple of memorials are devoted to a writer named Lu Yao, who hailed from a destitute peasant family and died in 1992 at barely 42. Winner of the prestigious Mao Dun Literary Prize with his three-volume novel Ordinary World in 1991, Lu Yao was apparently much beloved by young readers from the provinces in the 1990s, but remains largely unheard of outside of China. Who is Lu Yao, and who is invested and investing in the museification of his life and works? The reinvention of Lu Yao as a peasant-writer, this paper will show, allows us to reexamine crucial issues at the core of contemporary Chinese literary history and culture: the legacy of Mao Zedong’s Yan’an Talks, divergent visions of the functions of literature and the tasks of the writer, notions of realism and modernism since the 1980s, the roles of museums and media (including online social media) in popularizing the art of fiction beyond the written page, the rural-urban divide in socialist China, and the different opportunities available to urban and rural youth today. Through the case of Lu Yao, we begin to learn what “Chinese contemporary literature” means at the provincial level and how it is imbricated with local political, social, and economic life, turning away from the capital and the wealthier costal cities that were the hotbed of literary experimentation over the last four decades. Lu Yao, “the son of the peasants, the backbone of the spirit of the yellow earth,” stands for a vision of literary writing that involves not so much inspiration, creativity, imagination, talent, or innovation, but rather relentless determination and endurance, and the hard labor of recording history at the cost of sacrificing all other aspects (and pleasures) of one’s life.

Please note that there will be no pre-circulated paper for this meeting. As always, food and drinks will be served. We look forward to your attendance!


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