The Dis/Reappearance of Yu Dafu
in Ng Kim Chew’s Fiction

By Alison Groppe

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 22, no. 2 (Fall 2010), pp. 161-195

In this essay, Groppe draws on Shu-mei Shih’s theory of the Sinophone and Linda Hutcheon’s work on postmodernist parody to examine a set of stories by Malaysian-born Taiwan author Ng Kim Chew (Huang Jinshu) in which the figure of Yu Dafu appears and disappears; the stories under discussion are: “Si zai nanfang” (Death in the south; 1994), “Bu yi” (Supplement; 2001) and “M de shizong” (The disappearance of M; 1994). Each of these stories revolves around a quest by a contemporary first-person narrator to seek out some figure who may or may not be Yu Dafu; each quest is motivated by the discovery of some anonymous writings seemingly by Yu Dafu himself. Groppe argues that in these stories, Ng Kim Chew deploys a tactic of postmodernist parody in order to deconstruct the politics of literary production as well as to call attention to the cultural and literary politics that confront the Sinophone populations in Southeast Asia and that complicate Sinophone Southeast Asian identity formation, particularly for Sinophone Southeast Asian authors and intellectuals.

In Groppe’s view, parody enables Ng to scrutinize, contextualize and problematize the Sinophone’s relations with China in his fiction. Ng’s Yu Dafu stories–in which the figure of “Yu Dafu,” the most famous modern Chinese author to sojourn in Southeast Asia, lives on–acknowledge Yu’s significance for Sinophone Southeast Asian literature as an emergent Sinophone literature. Yet Yu’s survival in Ng’s rewriting depends upon being exiled and sacrificing his public persona as a famous author-patriot. He lives on, but only as a profoundly alienated figure–in these stories, Yu Dafu truly becomes the “superfluous man” (lingyuzhe) about whom he had so often written. Critiquing Yu Dafu’s enduring influence from another angle, the scholars and experts that fixate on Yu Dafu’s legend in Ng’s stories come across as absurdly, even gruesomely, obsessed with “all things Yu Dafu.” These stories also tackle the “anxiety of influence” problem: in one story, a local would-be author finds his imagination hijacked after immersing himself in Yu’s writings; even Ng himself must impersonate Yu Dafu’s literary voice to critique his influence. Ng’s stories thus reinterpret the meanings and value that Yu Dafu’s work and legend bring to Sinophone Southeast Asian literature and to subsequent generations of Sinophone Southeast Asian authors. Beyond this, particularly in “Supplement” and “The Disappearance of M,” Ng further exploits the Yu Dafu legend to satirize Southeast Asia’s postcolonial ethnic politics and the effect of these politics on Sinophone Southeast Asian identity formation.

Ultimately, Ng asserts that Yu Dafu’s significant for Southeast Asian Sinophone literary history, as conventionally seen, is minimal; Ng provocatively designates Yu’s death, not the work he engaged in during his life, to be the significant catalyst for Sinophone Malaysian writers and for Sinophone Southeast Asian literary development in general. What is significant for Ng are not the specific examples of “how to write” that might be found in Yu’s body of work, but the more abstract desire to write that resulted from Yu’s death. Thus does Ng argue for a shift of focus away from the fact of Yu Dafu’s presence and disappearance in Southeast Asia and the issue of his influence for the burgeoning Sinophone Southeast Asian literary scene; thus does he direct our attention to the Sinophone Southeast Asian literary pursuits that followed and are continuing into the future. .