Alternative Modernity, Wartime Romanticism, and
Ideologies of Fiction in Occupied China (1937–1945)

By Kejun Xu

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 33, no.1  (Spring 2021), 192-222

In Japanese-occupied regions during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), writers were under the severe pressure of political censorship. Any form of overt criticism of the Japanese invasion of China in literature was prohibited, and any attempt to explicitly defy the Japanese colonial rule in occupied regions was futile. Writers had to figure out a distinctive way to voice their political stances under such harsh condition. Therefore, some writers in occupied regions adopted unconventional ways of storytelling—namely, by writing political allegories that implicitly and subtly convey anti-Japanese messages. The short stories by Yuan Xi (1920-1979) and Tang Tao (1913-1992) written in occupied Beijing and Shanghai are some vivid examples of how fiction could be utilized as a means to awaken nationalist emotions during wartime. Yuan Xi’s story “Solitude of the Forest” demonstrates a kind of alternative modernity through his depiction of failure as metaphor against imperialism, whereas Tang Tao’s story “The Sea and Her Offspring” combines Romanticism with Realism to express the stifled freedom of speech in occupied regions. Meanwhile, other texts use sophisticated connotations that require delicate interpretations, among which Jue Qing’s (1917-1962) short story “The Fragrant Concubine” (Xiangfei) is enigmatically tricky and somehow reflects his ambivalent attitude toward cultural identification, his unique understanding of the nature and function of literature, as well as the relationship between art and life.

The essay attempts to analyze the short stories by the above-mentioned writers from the perspective of literary ideologies. Writing is a “socially-symbolic” act, as Fredric Jameson asserts in his book The Political Unconscious (1982), and only by “always historicizing” a given text and processing literary narratives within a larger structure of culture and ideology can we distill their essence. Therefore, it is of crucial importance to examine these Chinese works of fiction under both subjective and objective frameworks. This investigation of wartime literature puts much emphasis on cultural identification as well as the political concerns of writers in Japanese-occupied regions. By appreciating the various mindsets and circumstances of these writers we can arrive at a better understanding of the diversity of literary ideologies during the war.