Defining the Modern Wenren and the Role of the White
Female Body in Modern Chinese Literature and art

By Angie Chau


Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no.1  (Spring 2017), pp. 1-54


In this essay, Chau discusses the ways in which the white female body is depicted in the fiction and non-fiction writings of Fu Lei (傅雷, 1908-1966) and Xu Xu (徐訏, 1908–1980), and the paintings of Chang Yu (常玉, 1901–1966). For male travelers from China studying in France during the Republican period, the figure of the non-Chinese woman occupied a central role. From the foreign women that Fu Lei encountered on his ocean journey and the French love interests wooed by Xu Xu’s semi-fictional protagonists, to Chang Yu’s early female nudes, the white Western female figure embodies a range of feminine qualities and male anxieties, as imagined by the male travelers.

Chau argues that the modern wenren, in order to compensate for loss of domestic currency, gained cultural legitimacy from abroad by claiming discursive authority over the female Other through means such as social critique, self-exoticism, and aesthetic distortion. In these cases, the new perspective gained by the physical act of travel to Paris, the detached space of ultimate creative freedom, allowed the Chinese male travellers to imagine the possibility or potential of a renewed appreciation for wenren masculinity in the face of its declining popularity back at home in China. Through a process of double othering, the figure of the non-Chinese woman emerged as an affirmation of the social-cultural value of the modern wenren affiliate.