Rethinking the Modern Chinese Canon:
Refractions across the Pacific

By Clara Iwasaki

Reviewed by Kyle Shernuk

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June 2021)

Clara Iwasaki, A Rethinking the Modern Chinese Canon: Refractions Across the Transpacific Amherst, New York: Cambria Press, 2020. ix + 230 pp. ISBN 9781621965473.

Clara Iwasaki’s Rethinking the Modern Chinese Canon: Refractions across the Transpacific presents readers with new perspectives on four canonical figures of modern Chinese literature: Xiao Hong (1911-1941), Yu Dafu (1896-1945), Lao She (1899-1966), and Zhang Ailing (1920-1995). She brings needed attention to the roles of literary and cultural translation, textual reception and negotiation, and, of course, the transpacific networks across which the majority of these processes take place. As scholars of Area Studies continue to reevaluate the field’s Cold-War origins and imagine new roles for the discipline in the academy, Iwasaki’s book offers a framework that energizes Chinese studies by connecting it to the adjacent fields of Transpacific and Asian American studies. She develops an analytic framework for working horizontally across disciplines, one which combines their shared components and concerns to create a more holistic map of the networks that unite these Chinese writers and their textual legacies across the Pacific throughout the twentieth century.

In the introduction, “No Heroes, No Villains,” Iwasaki provides an overview of the stakes involved and methods employed in her book. The thematic core of her argument centers on the idea of movement. It draws attention to how people and texts move between places, languages, and cultural milieus, and how tracing these movements can reconfigure our understanding of authorial personae and literary corpora. By accounting for the mobility of the surveyed writers and their texts, moreover, she intervenes in debates about world literature and Sinophone studies. Regarding world literature, Iwasaki argues that elevating translated texts (as regards their status vis-à-vis source texts) and affirming an author’s capacity for multilingual composition helps us to break away from the “monolingual paradigm” (citing Yasemin Yildiz, 5) that dominates the field; she claims a similar intervention into the monolingual trend in Asian American studies. As for Sinophone studies, she rightly points out that its “focus remains primarily on the deployment of and tension between Sinitic languages” and that “there has been less discussion of how and when Sinophone literature is translated” (7). By expanding modern Chinese literary and Sinophone studies to include translations of texts, both into and out of Sinitic idioms, Iwasaki foregrounds the global features of modern Chinese literature, the networks on which it travels, and the sometimes-unlikely connections that it forges.

The book also intervenes into Transpacific studies. Concerned with maintaining the historical specificity of the places her authors and texts travel, yet hoping to break away from national paradigms for literary analysis, Iwasaki employs the transpacific as a framework capable of accommodating this kind of multilingual and multidirectional (literary) movement. One way she does this is by bringing attention to the literary apparatus (editors, publishers, etc.) governing Asian and Asian American print culture on both sides of the Pacific. It is in this way, too, that she positions her study as a missing complement to works by Rei Magaosaki and Richard Jean So, which she describes as “focused on how Asian/American authors enter the American literary market” (11). While her cases have their origins in China, they travel not only geographic distances but also across long periods of time, with many works revived posthumously in translation. Her argument thus contains an additional temporal component in which stories originating in the first half of the twentieth century find new life in the century’s second half. By traversing the purported impenetrability of Cold War boundaries and their attendant animosities, she demonstrates the existence of sustained avenues of literary discourse throughout the century and across continents.

To account for the multilingual and multidirectional movements of her texts, Iwasaki employs the language of “refraction,” which she borrows from André Lefevere. Refraction, for both Lefevere and Iwasaki, rejects the supremacy of a source text’s authority for interpreting a translated work and instead draws attention to the generative power of acts such as translation, editing, biographies, and book reviews (14). Iwasaki further divides her study into two types of refraction, divergent and convergent, whereby refractory texts serve to either diversify or centralize the images and legacies of an author, respectively (21). Tracing these refracted texts across the Pacific, Iwasaki argues, reveals their canonical Chinese authors “to be more worldly than previously supposed” (12) and demonstrates the possibility of a newly conceived and multilingual Chinese literature that pushes existing paradigms in Chinese and Sinophone Studies beyond their current boundaries.

Chapter 1, “Second Chances,” provides a solid instantiation of her argument through an analysis of selected works by Xiao Hong and their afterlives in both translation and in newly invented narratives. The chapter traces a series of contact points and their literary effects, beginning with an epistolary encounter between Xiao Hong and Upton Sinclair, followed by her real-life encounter with Agnes Smedley, an American war correspondent and fiction writer who was later revealed to be a Soviet spy. It then moves to Xiao Hong’s recollections of her meeting with Smedley and presents an essay by Xiao Hong reflecting on the role of women—in China and more generally—as refracted through the lens of Smedley’s novel Daughter of the Earth. Next, we travel across the Pacific to discuss the reception of Xiao Hong’s work in America through the translation team of Chia Wu and Helen Foster Snow, and conclude with a discussion of Xiao Hong’s unfinished novel, Ma Bole, and Howard Goldblatt’s translation and completion of the novel as Ma Bole’s Second Life. In this way, the chapter excels not only at tracing the transpacific threads that stitch these various individuals together, but also in demonstrating how authorial personae are received, recast, and redeployed in new geographical, cultural, and temporal contexts.

According to Iwasaki, “[t]his chapter seeks to recuperate Xiao Hong as a transpacific writer through her engagement with the American left and through refractions of her work, translations, letters, and essays by Snow, Wu, and Smedley, as well as her own refractions of Sinclair and Smedley’s work” (27). One of the most convincing examples from the chapter involves the analysis of Snow and Wu’s translation of Xiao Hong’s short story “A Night in a Stable.” Highlighting Snow’s predisposition for favoring Robin Hood-figures, Iwasaki demonstrates how Snow’s joint translation of “A Night in a Stable” is not just inflected but amended to reflect her personal values; it is a clear refraction of Xiao Hong’s literature in its American context. Another intriguing, if slightly underdeveloped, case is that of Goldblatt’s translation and completion of Xiao Hong’s unfinished novel. Describing Goldblatt’s Xiao Hong (both the person and the eponymous character he inserts into his completed version of the novel) as cosmopolitan, rather than created to suit American tastes, she suggests that Xiao Hong’s literary fate is quite fitting, as she appears caught in eternal transit across the Pacific.

Given the complexity of Iwasaki’s argument and the breadth of material she aims to cover, it is unfortunate but not surprising that the argument loses its focus at several points. For example, a short interlude on Walter Benjamin and his theory of the translator appears quite suddenly, never to be referred to again. Iwasaki’s extended treatment of Smedley is also confounding at times. While the section begins with an analysis of Smedley’s role in introducing Xiao Hong to the American left, it then deviates to discuss Smedley’s broader position in American publishing and political culture. While there is a convincing case to be made that Smedley was closely associated with China by her US compatriots, the section nonetheless lacks adequate reference to its ostensible focus on Xiao Hong and her legacy. Here and elsewhere, it would have been useful if Iwasaki had reviewed or elaborated on how the concept of refraction undergirds her argument and/or streamlined the narrative to focus on the transpacific story of the purported protagonist of the chapter, Xiao Hong.

Chapter 2, “Yu Dafu is Dead, Long Live Yu Dafu,” traces the “competing claims on the corpse and/or corpus of Yu Dafu that refracts and echoes the unresolved traumas of the Pacific War” (69). As the arch-enigmatic figure of twentieth century Chinese literature, Yu Dafu’s disappearance in Sumatra at the end of World War II has long captivated the imagination of literary scholars and writers. The question of his fate—was he executed by the Japanese? did he survive and continue living under an alias? should he be considered a martyr or traitor?—and the politics that animate those inquiries are the focus of this chapter. Shuttling between geographic locales (China, Japan, Singapore, Sumatra, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) and temporal moments (ranging from the end of the War to the present), Iwasaki compellingly argues that competing visions of nationalism have, over time, created diverse refractions of the man known as Yu Dafu.

The chapter begins with the “performative confession” (81) of a letter written by Satō Haruo that was read on Japanese radio in December of 1945, in which Satō apologizes for disparaging remarks he had made about his friend and fellow writer Yu. Iwasaki argues that Satō, unaware that his intended listener is already deceased, ends up coopting Yu’s legacy and the potential for their improved relations in order to declare his own, new postwar ideological realignment. Next, she turns to Yu’s close colleague in Singapore, Hu Yuzhi, who fled with Yu to Sumatra after the Japanese invasion and later published an account of Yu’s disappearance in Hong Kong in 1946. Hu is confident that Yu is dead but less sure about who is responsible. In Hu’s account, the man who led Yu away from home on the night of his disappearance was not Japanese but possibly a “Chinese” collaborator of Taiwanese or Malay extraction. Jumping forward to 1995, Iwasaki next compares accounts by Japanese scholar Suzuki Masao and Sinophone Malaysian writer Ng Kim Chew. Suzuki’s account attempts to definitively solve the mystery of Yu’s disappearance by recourse to a taped confession from a former Japanese soldier who admits to giving the order to execute Yu; the tape, however, has conveniently disappeared and cannot be corroborated. By contrast, Ng’s bold and fantastical stories criticize people’s fixation on Yu’s fate and the “extractive logic of the archival researcher” (90), even going so far as to imagine an alternative fate for Yu as a now-indigenous member of Sumatran society. The chapter ends with an analysis of Luo Yimin’s biography of Yu, in which he attempts to determine “who was right and who was wrong” in the matter of Yu’s death, for the purpose of determining if Yu was a collaborator or a patriot. Through the lucid application of refraction and tight focus of the chapter’s narrative trajectory, this chapter achieves the clarity that was lacking at the end of Chapter 1.

Despite the strength of Iwasaki’s refractory argument, however, this chapter is perhaps the most perplexing in the book, because it fails to clearly engage the “transpacific” discourse of the book’s title, thereby missing the opportunity to make a significant intervention (one that is perhaps implied). To wit, the chapter makes regular use of the geographical term “South Seas,” which is the standard way of referring to the Malay Archipelago in Mandarin Chinese –“南洋”, but precisely how this culturally and linguistically specific form of imagining the region[1] engages the transpacific paradigm remains unarticulated. At first glance, it seems that the chapter is simply an outlier in a book that is otherwise about transpacific tales. Upon further reflection, however, it is perhaps suggestive of a more polemical possibility—namely, that actors solely drawn from the Asian side of the Pacific can collectively engage in “trans-”pacific dialogues. If so, Iwasaki would be recasting the “trans-” in transpacific so that it does not require a person or text to traverse the Pacific. Instead, it would be offering two alternatives: (1) that the “trans” in transpacific might be realized through intra-Asian Pacific and/or intra-South Seas movement; and/or (2) that the “trans” in transpacific should be temporally understood, whereby a phenomenon that appears at the same geographic point in the Pacific but at different moments in time can also qualify as transpacific. Consequently, this chapter possesses great potential for rethinking the relationship between Chinese (South Seas) and Transpacific studies but would have benefitted from a direct and robust discussion of the issue.

Chapter 3, “Pieces of a Broken Mirror,” highlights a case whereby a translation becomes an original and the politics of gender are negotiated across the Pacific. Focusing on the writer Lao She, Iwasaki notes that significant scholarly attention has already been paid to his better-known works, such as Rickshaw Boy and Teahouse, and instead directs her efforts to tracing the transpacific travels of his less-studied text, Gushu yiren (鼓書藝人). Lao She wrote the manuscript for Gushu yiren between 1946 and 1948 while living in America, and then assisted Helena Kuo with her translation of the novel into English, which was published as The Drum Singers in 1952. Disenchanted with American society, however, Lao She decided to return to the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, taking the only known Chinese-language manuscript of the novel with him. Although he intended to publish the novel upon his return to China, the political demands of the new regime made him weary of the apolitical works he had written during his time abroad. These politically incorrect texts vanished in the years following Lao She’s return to China but were used to justify Lao She’s persecution at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, which ultimately lead to his untimely death in 1966 (the immediate circumstances leading to his death—or suicide—are murky). It was not until 1980 that Ma Xiaomi produced a Chinese translation of The Drum Singers that was based on Kuo’s English translation of Lao She’s Chinese original, with the transpacific cycle taking an unexpected twist.

This is arguably the strongest chapter in the book, featuring extensive close readings of The Drum Singers and its Chinese translation, accompanied by careful attention to salient details of the translators’ own works and/or relationships to (the legacy) of Lao She. In the case of Kuo, Iwasaki highlights how the second half of the novel, which shifts its narrative point-of-view to that of the female character Lotus Charm, resembles Kuo’s own writings and political beliefs more than Lao She’s, and even borrows several phrases from her own autobiography (I’ve Come a Long Way [1942]) and novel (Westward to Chungking [1944]). Moreover, the robust description of female subjectivity in The Drum Singers, whereby Lotus Charm develops into “a modern woman and potential democratic subject” (122), not only exceeds Lao She’s previous attempts at narrating a female perspective but also privileges Kuo’s personal politics over the communist sympathies of Lao She. Although the source text may be lost, these discrepancies suggest Kuo’s significant intervention in the novel, likely in order to bring Lao She’s text in line with the expectations of the American reading public. What makes this case all the more interesting, Iwasaki tell us, is that Lao She is on record as being pleased with Kuo’s translation, as he also read English, and was therefore likely aware of her influence on his work.

The novel was transformed yet again when it once more traversed the Pacific. When Ma Xiaomi undertook the task of translating The Drum Singers into Chinese in 1980, she also made a series of changes according to her understanding of and connection to Lao She, as well as in response to the cultural mores of the times. Both Ma and Hu Jieqing, Lao She’s widow, have emphasized Ma’s personal connection to Lao She. They have specified that Ma had known Lao She when she was child, and that Lao She had told her stories and even taken her to see performances of the family of drum singers who inspired the novel. With her credentials declared, Ma proceeded to revise the text according to her own vision of Lao She’s literary legacy. In one case, Ma alters an allusion to a political figure that might have appeared politically suspect in early reform-era China. The result, however, is that the allusion now denigrates the Manchu people, the ethnic group to which Lao She belonged, which, as Iwasaki notes, makes the text distinct from Lao She’s other writings. In other cases, Ma questions the moral schema of the novel and excises descriptions of sexual acts—such as Lotus Charm’s loss of virginity—as uncharacteristic of Lao She’s corpus. In each instance, Ma feels that such depictions diverge too significantly from Lao She’s other works in Chinese, and so exercises her prerogative as translator to create her own vision of Lao She for the New Era. From China to America and then back again, Iwasaki makes a compelling case for the transpacific refraction of Lao She’s text along gendered lines and spanning the latter half of the twentieth century.

Chapter 4, “‘In My End Is My Beginning,’” analyzes Zhang Ailing’s three posthumous autobiographical novels and demonstrates how Zhang cannibalizes her own work and life’s story to create diverging, bilingual accounts of her life for audiences on both sides of the Pacific. Zhang’s Chinese-language memoir, Little Reunions, was completed in 1976 as a response to her ex-husband Hu Lancheng’s portrayal of her in his memoir, Life and Times; due to its scandalous content, however, Little Reunions was not published until 2009, more than a decade after her passing. Before Little Reunions, Zhang had written The Fall of the Pagoda and The Book of Change, two English language novels that were seen as fictionalized accounts of her life, both of which she completed in 1963 but were not published until 2010. Zhang’s representations of herself, interestingly, differ based on the time and language of composition: the earlier Anglophone texts portray the protagonist’s parents as responsible for the destruction of their own children, while the latter Chinese text portrays Zhang herself in an unfavorable light and as the destroyer of her own potential child. Iwasaki ultimately describes these transformations in theme and style as a form of literary parasitism, one which is determined by the divergent refractions of transpacific languages, cultures, and times.

One aspect of the politics of refraction is clearly played out in Iwasaki’s accounts of the candid conversations between Zhang and her friends Stephen and Mae Fong Soong. When presented with the manuscript for Little Reunions, the Soongs cautioned Zhang not only against revealing so many personal details (such as her willingness to have a relationship with a collaborator or aborting a fetus conceived out of wedlock) but also to avoid so directly criticizing her very influential ex-husband. Concerned about protecting Zhang’s reputation in Taiwan and not offending the literary establishment, they advised her to return to the manuscript with an eye to artistry and not catharsis. Based on the results, Zhang clearly did not take this advice to heart. In the Anglophone novels, the mother figure, Dew, is portrayed as “a disruptive element, a parent-as-parasite who attempts to move freely between modern singlehood and Confucian motherhood but ends up breaking the system of filiality forever through her desire to have it both ways” (170, italics original). In the Sinophone Little Reunions, Zhang takes an “introspective turn, placing the disruption of the systems of filial and sexual affective debt squarely on the narrator” (183). On the one hand, such themes and personal revelations would have been scandalous in Taiwan at the time of their writing; on the other hand, there was no market for the English-language novels because they did not resonate with American (literary) values. It was only after her passing that they found audiences on both sides of the Pacific, in turn generating new refractory images of Zhang for the new millennium.

On balance, the chapter is convincing but could have been revised to the author’s advantage. From a strictly narrative perspective, this chapter is the most difficult to follow, as Iwasaki introduces certain characters without any context (150) and, it seems, herself confuses characters from two of the novels (174). If the reader can still follow the thread, however, the reward is only partially satisfying. This is owing to the shifting uses of the term “parasite” and the lack of a coherent framework that unites them. Iwasaki first cites Michael Serres and his notion of the parasite to introduce the concept, defining it as “an interruption or disruption of a system that can eventually overtake the system itself” (157). She then equates Hu Lancheng’s publication of his memoir as the parasitic “bug” that disrupts Zhang and causes her sudden shift in style from the more reserved prose of her early years to the quasi-confessional and raw style that shocked her readers. This version of Hu as parasite is eclipsed, however, as Iwasaki shifts focus in her close readings to a more traditional understanding of the mother-daughter or child-parent relationships as parasitic. These are both fine interpretations, but the two forms of parasitism function on separate levels and their interrelationship is never addressed; furthermore, Serres’s framework vanishes from the analysis much like the Benjaminian framework in Chapter 1. In the end, the individual pieces of the argument are convincing, but they fail to cohere into something more thought provoking.

The title of the conclusion, “In Praise of Messiness,” ends by unfortunately drawing attention to what is a recurring problem in the book—namely, that Iwasaki attempts to weave together too many narrative threads and loses sight of the bigger picture. Not even reaching three pages in length, the conclusion leaves the reader wanting more: more theorization of the politics of refraction; more explanation about her vision for Chinese, Sinophone, and Transpacific studies; more context regarding the broader implications of her very close readings; and a more robust attempt at organizing the messiness of the literary itineraries she traces throughout the book. While the introduction lays out an ambitious agenda to reimagine world literature and the role of the translated text, for example, there is a missed opportunity in the conclusion to revisit this question and explain how the book’s four chapters rebut and revise proposals from the likes of Pascale Casanova, David Damrosch, and Emily Apter, all of whom are named in the introduction. A similar point can be raised about Sinophone and Transpacific studies. While, in most cases, Iwasaki’s case studies are convincing if narrow in scope, she rarely ruminates on their broader implications. Although she indeed proves that the four authors surveyed are more worldly than we might have first imagined, the question remains: to what end? How does this knowledge change our broader understanding of these writers or point toward new directions for Sinophone and/or Transpacific studies?

Finally, a comment must be made about the level of copyediting in the book. Picking up the book and opening it to the title page already reveals a glaring and unfortunate error, namely that the titles on the outside cover and title page do not match (the prior reads Rethinking the Modern Chinese Canon: Refractions Across the Transpacific while the latter reads Rethinking the Modern Chinese Canon: Textual Refractions in the Transpacific). Moreover, while the introduction and Chapter 1 read quite smoothly, there is a significant and jarring drop in the quality of copyediting beginning in Chapter 2; it is a problem that unfortunately afflicts all subsequent chapters, occasionally rising to three or four errors a page, and distracts significantly from the book’s otherwise competent analysis. Despite this, the refractory argument of the book holds strong and the information it collects will be a valuable reference for scholars conducting research into the intersection of Chinese and Transpacific studies.

Kyle Shernuk
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Council on East Asian Studies, Yale University


[1] For more, see the “Introduction” to Brian Bernards, Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015).