Zhengqian Li, December 1

 Zhengqian Li (MAPH Student)

“Objects as Political Symbols: Imperialist Merchandise in Mu Shiying and Shi Zhecun’s Modernist Fiction”

Discussant: Haun Saussy (Professor of Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages & Civilizations, and Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago)

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

4:45 – 6:45 pm CT, Hybrid (In-person at CWAC 152 + Remotely via Zoom)

*Please use this form to sign-up for attending the event in-person, so that we could better keep track of the number of attendees; If you would like to attend remotely, you may register here to receive the zoom link

* Based on the university policy on COVID, we will only be able to allow maximum 25 people inside the venue, and mask will be required throughout the event. Light, individually-packed snacks and drinks will be provided to be taken after the workshop. 


Based on Fredric Jameson’s Marxist hermeneutics, this research investigates how imperialist and colonialist presence in Mu Shiying and Shi Zhecun’s semi-colonial Shanghai are visible through symbolic objects. As ways to examine the Reality reflected in Mu and Shi’s short stories, relevant studies juxtapose primary texts with local and global cultural contexts, domestic and international politics, as well as historical research on the city of Shanghai (See Sean Macdonald, “‘Modernism’ in Modern Chinese Literature”; Yomi Braester, “Shanghai’s Economy of the Spectacle”; and relevant chapters in Leo Lee’s Shanghai Modern and Shu-mei Shi’s The Lure of the Modern). While this research still takes Shanghai as the background for discussion, the core focus is on the art and commercial history of imperialist and colonial politics implied by the objects in public space. With the application of the concept of the political unconscious, this study discovers politically symbolic elements in the merchandise (Johnnie Walker whiskey, Lucky Strike, Ruby Queen, Victory cigarettes) appeared in Mu and Shi’s stories. Such findings demonstrate that the imperial authority’s influence on the semi-colonized is tangible not only when an authority figure exerts power, but also culturally and socially observable when the authority is physically absent. Rather than depending upon the presence of a person, e.g., royalty, the imperial power of late 19th and early 20th century Great Britain, and of industrialized western countries broadly speaking, exist in multiple forms and constantly project their influence on the Shanghai residents and the people of less “modernized” areas around the globe.


“Ruby Queen” advertisement on Chinese newspaper Business News.Wing Tai Vo Tobacco Corp. Business News no.0002, April 19, 1924. 永泰和煙草股份有限公司 《工商新聞》 1924年4月19日 [0002版]


Zhengqian (Ian) Li is currently a MAPH student at the University of Chicago and has received a Comparative Literature BA from Middlebury College. His short story “The Smothering” is published in Chicago Quarterly Review (volume 34). His poem “The Road Ahead” was published in China Poetry in 2013 and the non-fiction collection Sometimes was published the same year. Ian has worked at the online magazine US-China Today as an editor in 2018 and presented at Beijing International Studies University in 2017 and Johns Hopkins University’s Macksey Symposium in 2021.

Haun Saussy is University Professor at the University of Chicago, teaching in the departments of Comparative Literature and East Asian Languages & Civilizations as well as in the Committee on Social Thought. His work attempts to bring the lessons of classical and modern rhetoric to bear on several periods, languages, disciplines and cultures. Among his books are The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic (1994), Great Walls of Discourse (2001), The Ethnography of Rhythm (2016), Translation as Citation: Zhuangzi Inside Out (2017), Are We Comparing Yet? (2019), The Making of Barbarians: Chinese Literature in Multilingual Asia (forthcoming, 2022) and the edited collections Sinographies (2007), Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization (2008), and Partner to the Poor: A Paul Farmer Reader (2010). As translator, he has produced versions of works by Jean Métellus (When the Pipirite Sings, 2019) and Tino Caspanello (Bounds, 2020), among others. He is a former Guggenheim Fellow, a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


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