From “Ornament” to “Literature”: An Uncertain
Substitution in Nineteenth-Twentieth Century China

By Pablo Ariel Blitstein

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 28, no.1  (Spring 2016), pp. 222-272

How could modern “literature” emerge in China? And what was its relation to the imperial ways of conceptualizing writing? This essay argues that modern “literature” was just one strategy among others of reconceptualizing the use of writing in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century China. First, the author shows that the ancient “study of wen” or wenxue—the word later used to translate “literature” in modern Chinese—has been seen by a Jesuit in the seventeenth century as an equivalent of rhetoric, and that this premodern discipline, at least in that period, resembled more the “study of wen” than the modern, post-eighteenth century “literature”: the object of rhetoric, like the object of the “study of wen,” was an “ornamented” form of writing that could be found in both “literary” and “non-literary” genres, and it was associated to both courtly and administrative uses of writing. Second, the author explains in more detail the ornamental and trans-generic features of the imperial wen. By following a number of texts from medieval times to the nineteenth century, he argues that the association between wen, literati sociability, and court and administrative practices, recurrently shaped discussions on text composition in imperial history until the late Qing (1644-1912). Third, and last, he deals with two strategies of reconceptualization of writing at the time when court society and imperial institutions were losing their central position as sources of authority for late Qing literati. The author argues that modern “literature” was just one strategy among others of reconciling the old wen with the demands of the modern concept of “nation”—a strategy that, in some respects, would be unable to expunge wen of the hierarchical inspiration it inherited from the ancient social order. By exposing different ways of conceptualizing aesthetic experience with writing, and by claiming that “literature” was only one conceptual strategy among others, this part of the essay contributes to an understanding of “literature” not as the necessary result of “modernization” or as a trans-historical institution, but as a contingency, as something that was not inevitable in modern Chinese history.