“Distant Reading” and the
Pull of Literary Abstraction in New Culture China

By Anatoly Detwyler

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 33, no.2  (Fall 2021), 1-48

What role did modern information visualization play in the search for a New Culture in early twentieth-century China? This essay examines the “statistical vision” that emerged alongside the many tables, graphs, charts, and diagrams appearing in the print culture of the 1920s and 1930s. The epistemic reach of this new form of seeing/knowing extended far beyond the realms of the social and biopolitical to include literature and history. By uncovering a series of historical experiments which rendered data from texts, analyzed the data statistically, and visualized the results, the essay identifies a shift in the production of literary knowledge whereby looking became privileged over reading. For modern writers, the tension between these two modes was at once controversial and exciting: controversial because datafication gutted cultural, linguistic, and historical context by treating literary knowledge as universal (just as math or biology are); and exciting because such universalism directly fed into the discourse and impetus of the New Culture tenets of science and democracy, ultimately making Chinese literature appear to be “objective” and commensurable with other national literatures.