On the Horizon of World Literature: Forms of
Modernity in Romantic England and Republican China

By Emily Sun

Reviewed by Daniel Dooghan

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June 2021)

Emily Sun, On the Horizon of World Literature: Forms of Modernity in Romantic England and Republican China New York: Fordham University Press, 2021. x+167 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8232-9479-4.

Narrating the encounter of Chinese and European literature in 1827 Weimar is almost de rigueur in accounts of “world literature.” Goethe is said to have inaugurated the term during a conversation with Johann Peter Eckermann, but this alone is of limited interest. What the term does is to crystallize for that moment a number of political, economic, and aesthetic projects that antedate and follow the conversation, offering a vision of a literary totality. The utopian spirit of that vision—however evanescent—has driven the boom in studies of world literature over the past two decades, and though the ensuing debates have questioned the nature and desirability of such an aesthetic utopia, they have also illuminated the vast network of global connections that enabled Goethe to make his pronouncement. These works on world literature, far from genuflecting to the poet’s example, reveal more about that network and the possibilities of world literature as a concept. Emily Sun’s On the Horizon of World Literature is one of these works.

Predictably, then, the introduction, “Reading Literary Modernities on the Horizon of World Literature,” begins with Goethe to illustrate its thesis and its method. Sun shows how the temporally and geographically distant concept of world literature manifests in China as part of a revolutionary project beginning at the turn of the last century (1-2). From this remote affinity she seeks to articulate how world literature “designates a framework for processes of textual classification, revaluation, and production in a plurality of connected yet differently inherited and inhabited lifeworlds” (2). In this framing capacity, world literature is inextricably linked to the discipline of comparative literature and to the possibility of cross-cultural comparison. Moreover, Sun retains some Goethean hope by offering world literature “as an ideal that continues to orient and motivate ongoing exposure to and exchange with the foreign” (3). Whatever its theoretical limitations, world literature for Sun is not just a term of literary criticism, but a metaphysical project: “the ‘world’ of ‘world literature’ does not already exist as the equivalent of a map or other representation of the inhabited globe, but rather continually comes into being as that which is activated and reactivated in the processes of exposure and exchange” (3). The texts analyzed in the book exemplify these processes, as does Sun’s staging of them.

Sun offers a theoretical introduction that situates her book among the major recent works on world literature. More provocatively, she draws on the history of world literature—the Goethe story—as well as the invention of national literatures to challenge the methodologies of comparative literature to address what she describes as plural, Borgesian modernities (11-12). To accomplish this, Sun adduces four pairs of texts in the body chapters. The pairings match Romantic-era English texts with related—however distantly—works from twentieth-century China. In the first, she reads the Romantic manifesto of Percy Shelley, A Defence of Poetry in concert with two abstruse essays by Lu Xun (魯迅) in which he advocates for literary renewal as spiritual renewal. Chapter 2 investigates the multiple adaptations of Shakespeare through Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and Lin Shu’s (林紓) translation of that work, with an eye to the envisioned audience of both works. The following chapter returns to Charles Lamb, linking him with Zhou Zuoren (周作人) to look at how their respective essay forms inaugurate a kind of reflective realism. The much longer final chapter compares Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park with The Rouge of the North by Eileen Chang (張愛玲). Here Sun executes a complex meditation on genre and its relationship to gendered identity and agency. The book concludes with a brief recapitulation of its theoretical aims and an invitation to further employ its methodology.

That methodology gets discussed in detail in the introduction. Juxtaposition is her tactic, both to trace interesting textual genealogies and to find ways to evaluate how those genealogies express lived, local modernities. She mobilizes the concept world literature as a means of enabling this comparative work. Here, world literature is the totality of “provincialized” regions (4). This is something of a convenient fiction—which she acknowledges—to bootstrap a more robust understanding of the term. “The notion of world literature,” she argues,

can thus be said to serve as the horizon for literary modernity in two senses and on two levels: on one level, as the framework for the encounter and connection between national or regional literary histories and literary modernities, which define and redefine themselves dialectically in relation to one another; and, on another, as that which, in a more abstract sense, orients them, including orienting them mutually toward one another. (9)

This allows Sun to assert a shared global modernity while registering how the reactions to that modernity depend on local history and lived experience. The transmission of not only texts but also genres is Sun’s empirical justification for her theoretical project. The genres she selects travel from England to China, evincing a shared literary world, but also emerge from local, historically conditioned literary practices. Capturing this tension between worldly genres and their local instantiations is the object of the close readings that follow. Through them, Sun argues, “My study traces culturally heterogeneous antecedents that inform and animate comparable creative practices and attends as well to the ways the English and Chinese texts in question register the promises and perils of mechanisms of technoeconomic homogenization that were likewise reorganizing human life in the global long nineteenth century” (22). Intense, comparative investigation of the local reveals the global.

In chapter 1, “Literary Modernity and the Emancipation of Voice: Defences of Poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lu Xun,” the pairing of Shelley and Lu Xun finds common ground in what Sun identifies as their shared use of the manifesto genre. Sun defends generically linking the former’s Defence of Poetry (1821) and the latter’s 1908 essays “On the Power of Mara Poetry” (摩羅詩力說) and “Toward a Refutation of Malevolent Voices” (破惡聲論) by situating Lu Xun’s essays among contemporary manifestos and positioning Shelley’s text as their forerunner (38-39). Moreover, the pieces have similar aims, and perhaps more importantly for Sun’s purposes, Shelley—if not this piece exactly—figures in the “Mara” essay as one of the Mara (Romantic) poets. Lu Xun’s concern for poetic voice and its relationship to internationalism animates Sun’s readings (33). Sun offers several close readings of Lu Xun’s use of an esoteric, idiosyncratic wenyan in these essays, arguing, “This stylistic decision serves as a corollary to the content of his essay’s call for cultural and discursive renewal in relation to the Mara poets and informs his complex and temporally non-linear view of Chinese literary and cultural modernity” (34). Thus, his interest in cultivating revolutionary Chinese voices like those of the Romantic poets he features in “Mara” does not involve the rejection of the Chinese literary tradition, even in its more esoteric forms.

This split gaze, at both the world and the past, has a liberatory goal. Sun sees similar appeals in Shelley and Lu Xun’s “Refutation” regarding the possibility of human freedom in the face of an impersonal, universalizing modernity: “Lu Xun would seem to enter into conversation with Shelley in his conception of modernity in terms of an emancipation of poetic voice and in his critique of a model that privileges instrumental rationality” (42). This voice is xinsheng (心聲), which Sun glosses as “the voice of the heart,” which “serves as the externalization of singular and original interiority” (44). It contrasts with the malevolent voices of the title, which seek a modernity born of a rupture with the past (45). Combating this rupture links the manifestos of Shelley and Lu Xun. Where Shelley’s rewritings privilege how a poetry in dialogue with its antecedents innervates both itself and its readers, Lu Xun’s archaizing style demonstrates how his emancipatory, modern xinsheng is grounded in Chinese tradition (46-47). For Sun, both manifestos see poetry as a way of confronting the totalizing effects of Enlightenment rationality, and the indirect—though not serendipitous—resonances between them underscore how the experience of a shared modernity is paradoxically both local and historically grounded (48-49).

Chapter 2, “Shakespearean Retellings and the Question of the Common Reader: Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and Lin Shu’s Yinbian Yanyu,” examines how a pair of texts work to produce a broad reading public. It matches the Lambs’ 1807 collection, Tales from Shakespeare, with its 1904 Chinese adaptation by Lin Shu, Yinbian Yanyu (吟邊燕語). Sun notes that the Tales envisions a world in which sociopolitical consistency reigns, separate from the upheavals of the past represented in the missing English history plays (55). As a result, “The common reader that the Tales from Shakespeare addresses is in an unheroic or post-heroic subject,” who “is cued to recognize and read positions within a structure that orders loci of power and action” (58). The Tales are didactic works for future bourgeois subjects, “English children” (55). Lin’s free translation into classical Chinese, “addressed primarily to Chinese adults” (ibid) has different aims. Sun sees in Lin’s use of contemporary neologisms amidst his classical prose a recognition of a changing world; on the other hand, she notes, he takes care to highlight what elements of Shakespeare resemble Chinese texts, recalling the fantastic chuanqi (傳奇) genre (59). As in her reading of Lu Xun, Sun sees this interplay of global present and local past as a political gesture: “Against contemporaries who embrace the new as a rejection of the past, Lin seems effectively to approach the new as a particular and selective renewal of elements of the Chinese past in correlation, if not direct conversation, with Western culture” (62). Sun offers comparative close readings of both collections’ versions of The Tempest, concluding that both “present a dioramic vision of social life and may be said curiously to double one another by situating characters and readers—and characters as readers/spectators—on a distinctly unheroic, indeed middling plane as agents of decentralized, distributed power” (69). Both versions take up the theme of freedom—Miranda’s, Prospero’s, Ariel’s—as benignly constrained, not absolute. Instead, Sun sees these deployments of freedom as indicative of new social and political forms tied to the rise of new economic forms first in Britain, then China (72). Through what is ostensibly the same content, both texts respond to local experiences of an asynchronously shared global economic phenomenon: capital and empire, though curiously unstated as such.

In the following chapter, “Estrangements of the World in the Familiar Essay: Charles Lamb and Zhou Zuoren’s Approaches to the Ordinary,” Sun shifts her comparative investigation from the tale anthology to the familiar essay. She continues with Charles Lamb, whom she places in “oblique conversation” with Zhou Zuoren as “part of asynchronous moments in separate, heterogeneous, and intertwined modernities” (75). The conversation takes place via the juxtaposition of Zhou’s 1924 essay “Wild Vegetables of My Hometown” and Lamb’s 1823 piece “Old China.” Sun presents Zhou and Lamb as an apt match due to their participation in eras of cultural ferment—the wake of the French Revolution and flowering of Romanticism for Lamb, and the May Fourth movement for Zhou—as well as their shared interest in the essay form. Lamb’s piece is a meditation from his alter-ego, Elia, on a porcelain tea set. His musings on the art of the chinaware attract Sun’s interest because they move outside the hegemony of Renaissance perspectivism and “bespeak a somewhat comical struggle between the language of mathematical space and the anachronistic and culturally inappropriate language of ‘wild ekphrasis’” (84). The essay thus emerges as a critique of a flattening and universalizing realism.

With similar aims, Sun calls attention to Zhou’s reference to multiple imperial-era texts to contextualize quotidian activities surrounding local flora (86-87). Zhou delights in the description of those activities, which Sun demonstrates through careful analysis (87-88). As a result, the essay’s textures of narration and reference place in dialectical tension a contemporary spirit of inquiry with received knowledge (89). Although Lamb’s and Zhou’s essays have different aims, the conditions of their production result in similar effects in their critique of the experience of modernity. Central to that experience is the assumption of a homogeneous, familiar readership. Despite showing “the very condition of these readers’ averageness, a statistical concept that was part and parcel of the infrastructure of the ordinary emergent in the age of political economy . . . Lamb’s writing also sheds light on the limitations and precarious provisionality of the realist construction of the ordinary” (90). Zhou, similarly, “uses the mode of taxonomic lyricism as a medium of address to the reader, recovering in the ordering tendencies of traditional Chinese thought and discourse terms for a decentralized and pluralist inhabitation of the ordinary” (90). Casting the two authors as “distant peers” allows Sun to identify an emergent critique of a global normalcy that gestures to the contingency of its experience (91). That this contingency is predicated on capital is again elided, though her mention of “the satellitic supra-perspective that governs our everyday lives today” is a suggestive gloss (91).

The more substantial final chapter, “Between the Theater and the Novel: Woman, Modernity, and the Restaging of the Ordinary in Mansfield Park and The Rouge of the North,” examines the function of the domestic novel in the hands of Jane Austen and Eileen Chang. Sun notes the similar interests of the writers as ground for their juxtaposition, from which she derives the chapter’s animating question: “what might it mean to read the category of ‘world’ itself through the category of ‘woman?’” (94). To answer this, she deploys a complex analysis of how both novels nest dramatic works within them to stage the changing roles of “‘woman’ as modern agent and spectatorial subject on the plane of the ordinary” (95). Austen’s 1814 Mansfield Park and Chang’s 1967 The Rouge of the North (怨女, 1955) both use the household to represent broader socioeconomic transformations. For Sun, these changes resonate, but are not identical: Austen’s focus concerns the growth and character of British commerce, whereas Chang examines the reconfigurations of Confucian patriarchy in the early twentieth century (103). The vehicle for these representations is the stage. Mansfield Park features a rehearsal of Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows, the casting of which, Sun argues, serves to dramatize the movement of heroine Fanny Price from marginality to modest agency in the novel.

Sun finds a resonance with Austen in The Rouge of the North’s concern with theatrical performance. An episode at the beginning of Chang’s novel, Sun argues (119), frames the dramatic genre as a defamiliarizing lens through which to view China. As with her interpretation of Mansfield Park, Sun casts the household setting of The Rouge of the North as a dramatic space in which historical change is staged, and similarly calls attention to the novel’s representation of Peking opera. A careful exegesis illustrates how the appearance of women in female roles, as opposed to dan (旦) performers, forces a reckoning for the protagonist, Yindi, between the evolving visibility of women in the public sphere versus her domestic agency (123-126). That Peking opera is the vehicle for this reckoning continues Sun’s theme of a local modernity predicated on continuity with cultural antecedents (128). That Austen makes similar moves through her inclusion of earlier English drama points toward what Sun calls a “genuine cosmopolitanism,” which “supplements, complicates, and tilts the instrumentalist and flat uniformity of such a global order with the multi-dimensionality of worlds inhabited in languages that bear the heterogeneous histories of operativity and affectivity” (134). This revelation—another subtle critique of capital—is the prize of Sun’s comparative method. The seemingly apt juxtapositions invited by shared, modern genres across languages give way under analysis to the emergence of historical contingency and, thus, plural modernities.

The fourth chapter’s comparative length, at about double that of the other three, points to an unevenness in the book, which is otherwise methodologically and thematically consistent. The earlier chapters read as if they were whittled down from a larger work or set of works. The Shelley-Lu Xun chapter in particular is a bit hasty, and the return to Charles Lamb in chapter 3 seems oddly unaware of his appearance in chapter 2. The strength of Sun’s close readings—if occasionally a bit speculative—will likely make many readers eager for a longer, more comprehensive treatment. Similarly, as interesting as all of the texts are, they fit perhaps too neatly into the vision of world literature laid out in the introduction and may not be representative of the larger picture: Lu Xun’s “Malevolent Voices,” for example, was originally published in an obscure journal and not reprinted until after his death. On the other hand, the selections may not need to be representative, given Sun’s vision of world literature as asynchronous resonance, drawing on Raymond Williams’ “structures of feeling” (72). Still, the book leaves as an open question whether its model of a world literature built from such self-consciously reflective works is scalable beyond this curated selection of texts. Despite the ambition of the introduction, its conception of the world in world literature remains undertheorized. Although an economic thread runs through the book, engagements with capital and empire are subterranean. A longer text would have been able to give greater voice to these discussions and resulted in a more robust theory of world literature. This is not to say that the book lacks cogency, only that its conceptualization of world literature functions more as an invitation to future work than as a readily applicable theory. Method rules here, so despite the haziness of the theoretical project, Sun’s philological turn offers a path toward clarity.

A nice touch, given Sun’s emphasis on close reading, is the presence of Chinese text (in complex characters) alongside quoted translations. Other languages similarly appear when appropriate, such as when Sun quotes Lu Xun quoting Nietzsche (47). The text is clean, though some errors of date stood out. The book gives 1922 as the year of publication for Lu Xun’s Call to Arms (吶喊), 1806 for the Lambs’ Tales, and 1824 for Zhou Zuoren’s essay—the correct dates being 1923, 1807, and 1924, respectively (27; 50; 80), although the first two may refer to the date of manuscript completion rather than publication. The absence of a bibliography is somewhat frustrating, as the endnotes do not make for quick reference. The index helps some by linking names to notes, but not all names are so linked.

These quibbles aside, On the Horizon of World Literature offers an exciting methodological challenge to future work on world literature. Moving away from the big picture models popular in recent discourse on the topic, Sun’s development of a translingual approach to close reading favors the recounting of intimate narratives of literary history rather than the search for broad patterns. If her examples are too pat, this may point more to the need to pin down an otherwise nebulous concept of world literature, which she readily acknowledges. Besides, the selected texts are fascinating in themselves—made even more so through Sun’s close readings. Moreover, whereas Mansfield Park may not be an exotic text, many of the Chinese selections are unfortunately not well known in English, and Sun does much to rectify that. Even if the book does not solve the problem of world literature, it still offers much for the scholar of literary exchange.

Daniel Dooghan
The University of Tampa