Master of Arts Program in the Humanities
“Failure of China, Failure of Poetry: Lyricism and Parody in Yu Dafu’s ‘Sinking'”
Time: Friday, November 11, 3:00-5:00pm CT
Location: Center for East Asian Studies 319 (1155 E. 60th St.)
Abstract: In this paper, I provide a new, cross-generic reading of Yu Dafu’s short story “Sinking” (1921) from the angle of lyricism (shuqing 抒情). Though the text has been well studied as one of the foundational texts of modern Chinese literature, few critics have paid attention to the poet-persona of the protagonist, who not only reads Wordsworth and Heine but also composes Classical Chinese verse. Emphasizing the vocality, sociality, and theatricality of Yu’s lyricism, I arrive back again at the short story’s political allegory to show how the Chinese protagonist’s sexual and national struggles in Japan are encapsulated within the failure of his poetic performance in the penultimate brothel scene. The failure, first and foremost, is that of China. Particularized into a national utterance and missing its cultural infrastructure, the protagonist’s lyrical voice ends up being reduced to the looked-down-upon sound of a foreign language drowned in the Japanese din. Yet the failure is also that of Sinitic poetry. By parodying (conscious or unconsciously) the traditional caizi 才子 (“talented scholar”) tropes, the scene exposes the obsolescence of poetry — its uselessness, hypocrisy, and effeteness. Simultaneously a lyrical tragedy and its parody, evoking sympathy alongside irony, the short story thus embeds the lyrical into the novelistic while destroying the former’s very foundations.
Presenter: Yanqing Shen is a second-year MAPH-TLO student at the University of Chicago. The main focus of her work has been on early modern and modern Chinese literature alongside modern Japanese literature. Before coming to UChicago, she studied Comparative Literature (with English and Spanish) at Brown University.
Respondent: Paola Iovene is an associate professor of modern Chinese Literature in the department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Tales of Futures Past: Anticipation and the Ends of Literature in Contemporary China (2014) and a co-editor of Sound Alignments: Popular Music in Asia’s Cold Wars (2021).