The Meaning of Foreign Text
in Yu Dafu’s Sinking Collection

By Valerie Levan

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 24, no. 1 (Spring 2012), pp. 48-87

Yu Dafu’s first short story collection, Sinking (1921), earned for its author many young admirers who saw their own emotional turmoil reflected in the psychological struggles of the short stories’ semiautobiographical protagonists. The collection also drew fire from critics, who faulted as decadent the narratives’ explicit depiction of the inner life of frustrated Chinese exchange students abroad in Japan. While many readers today still lose patience with Yu’s protagonists and lack sympathy for their malaise, more common sources of critical annoyance are the many seemingly gratuitous instances of foreign text that riddle the stories.

By situating Yu’s stories in their linguistic context of negotiation between Chinese classical poetic language, foreign literature and terminology, and the developing Chinese vernacular, this essay demonstrates that the foreign text in the Sinking is a crucial element of Yu Dafu’s rhetorical arsenal. Through an overview of turn-of-the-century language reform debates, as well as through close readings of the instances of foreign text and their function within the stories, this article argues that these early writings of Yu Dafu are as much about a real and pervasive crisis of communication as they are about the psychological breakdown of individual protagonists. Levan ultimately aims to show, however, that these short stories succeed in depicting a frustrated longing for perfect communication, and further, that Yu Dafu’s careful use of foreign text is instrumental to that success.