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Transcultural Lyricism: Translation, Intertextuality, and the Rise of Emotion in Modern Chinese Love Fiction, 1899-1925 by Jane Qian Liu

Reviewed by Stefano Gandolfo, University of Oxford

Transcultural Lyricism: Translation, Intertextuality, and the Rise of Emotion in Modern Chinese Love Fiction, 1899-1925, Jane Qian Liu. Leiden: Brill, 2017. €121,00. ISBN: 9789004301313.


Transcultural Lyricism is an ambitious book. On the one hand, it makes a meaningful contribution to the field by bringing together translation and intertextuality studies and on the other it illuminates aspects of modern Chinese literature that have remained relatively understudied. Jane Qian Liu’s analytical framework not only constitutes a significant input in literary criticism but its application onto Chinese literature further illustrates its methodological significance. Transcultural Lyricism is a strong, well-thought, and rigorously argued book tying together issues of comparative and cross-cultural literary criticism with modern Chinese literature.

            The book can be conceptually divided in two parts: theory (Introduction and Chapter 1) and application of the theory (Chapters 2-4). The Introduction presents the case for the merging of translation and intertextuality studies by recognizing that “it is not enough simply to assert that modern Chinese literature was influenced by foreign literatures” and that “a more articulate conceptual framework is needed” (3). The marriage of translation and intertextuality studies provides a more fecund and informative framework. Instead of seeing intertextuality – the interpenetration of texts within the same language – and translation – the transposition of texts across languages – Liu proposes to view translation as intertextuality and intertextuality as translation, putting the two on a single continuum of literary production. Translation as a case of intertextuality recognizes the translator as an interpreter and interrogator of the foreign text and creates a new “translated text … in a web of intertextual relationships among other texts and contexts in the target-language” (19). Conversely, the “interpretative nature of translation studies” can assist in exploring further “the relationship between two texts, which is the fundamental concern of intertextuality studies” (19). Therefore, translation and intertextuality are not seen as two distinct modes of literary activity but rather as the polar nodes on the continuum of literary production. The interpenetrative nature of the relationship between translation and intertextuality is especially highlighted in inter-cultural and inter-lingual contexts, like early 20th century China.

            Translation and intertextuality, as modes of literary production, are manifested in a plurality of ways. Translations vary according to principles espoused and intertextuality can range from direct quotations to subtle resonances. The terms are broad and fluid. Liu zooms in on the problematic nature of the terms pseudo-translation (the claim that a text is a translation of another text but it is in fact an original work) and pseudo-creation (the claim that a text is an original work but it is in fact a translation) to argue for the use the coupled-concept of creative translation and translated creation. The author proposes the term creative translation “not only to cover pseudo-creation, but also to include other texts which were adapted by the translators but did not present themselves as created works” (58). Conversely, the author puts forth the term translated creation “to refer to … [the] works … not only [of] pseudo-translation in the narrow sense, but also works that are a combination of translation/borrowing and creation” (69). Of course, the boundaries between the two terms are not clearly delineable but rather fluid and porous. Nonetheless, they constitute a methodological improvement since they can contain “texts which do not overtly claim to be either a translation or a creation” (77). It is in this sense that the vast majority of early modern Chinese literature can be placed on the same spectrum of literary production.

            Having established a solid theoretical groundwork, Transcultural Lyricism proceeds to explore the specific ways in which Chinese authors and translators responded to the introduction of Western literature. Specifically, Chapter 2 examines Zhou Shoujuan’s creative translations which took on an “indigenously informed imagination to rework Western melodramatic short stories” (118). Zhou Shoujuan is presented as a paradigmatic example of a creative translator whose additions and omissions from the source text aimed to shape and adjust foreign texts to local sense and sensibility. The creative license that translators like Zhou Shoujuan took did not limit itself to alterations in names, locations, habits, and behaviors but included significant changes to the plot and character development as well. In this way, not only did the stories become more relatable and believable in the eyes of the target audience but they also came to embody literary practices inherited from the long indigenous tradition as well as conform to established ethical norms. The result of this creative intermixing of elements is a kind of “sentimental melodrama reminiscent of both the indigenous tradition and the Western melodrama” (118).

            Chapter 3 brings to center stage the idea of transcultural lyricism by discussing the work of monk-writer and ardent revolutionary Su Manshu. Due to his multiple identities, Su’s work exhibits a strong tension between romantic love and religious asceticism. Su held that there are ‘universal sentiments’ which can cross the boundaries of language and culture. He endeavored to capture the emotional climax of Western poetry by connecting it to its Chinese counterpart and vice versa. In this sense, Su was a proponent of the idea that it is only when emotions are felt universally that they carry real force and that therefore lyricism not only can but also should be understood in cross-cultural and inter-linguistic terms. Su Manshu’s work exhibits a unique hybrid quality which draw with the same ease and appreciation from foreign works as it did from indigenous traditional literatures. Therefore, is not a case of unidirectional influence but rather an example of a multivariate and dynamic interplay between texts of different literary backgrounds. It is in his work, that Liu identifies the strongest expression of the idea of transcultural lyricism.

            The last chapter examines Yu Dafu’s quest to find apposite new vocabularies to express emotions by reviewing his predicament with issues of intertextuality and translation: when, how, and in what language to quote or allude to texts? At this point, Liu brings to stage attitudes towards literary production expressed in traditional Chinese texts of literary criticism. This is done partly in tribute to the enormous literary tradition in China and partly in recognition of the fact that the writers and translators of early modern China still operated (at least partially) within the traditional paradigm. The discussion on traditional Chinese literary theories is not only necessary but indeed welcomed as point of methodological reflection for Liu herself. Perhaps, however, Transcultural Lyricism would have been enriched by placing the ideas of traditional Chinese literary theory – continuity and mutation, and fertilization and birth for example – at the heart of the methodological re-orientation that the book aspires to. Liu states that Yu “was faced with this problem of language [i.e. of translation] which never existed before the entry of foreign literatures into Chinese literature” (197). While the claim about the novelty of the problem is almost definitely true for fictional literature, Chinese thinkers, authors, and translators had already grappled with the issue of translation when encountered with the vast and rich tradition of Buddhist texts. By incorporating the attitudes and points of reflection of traditional ‘intertextuality and translation studies’, Transcultural Lyricism could not only come closer to its hybrid object of study but also enrich its methodological innovation.

            At any rate, Transcultural Lyricism succeeds in meeting all of the goals it sets out to do in a convincing, clear, and crisp way. It not only sheds light into an underexplored facet of modern Chinese literature – the rise of emotion – but also manages to offer genuine insights into the field at large. Liu has skillfully interwoven the broader theoretical contribution with its direct application onto Chinese literature making Transcultural Lyricism a prized addition to the field.