By Wen Jin
Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 26, no.1 (Spring 2014), pp. 105-140
The essay reads Heinu yutianlu (A record of the black slaves’ plea to heaven, the 1901 Chinese translation of Uncle of Tom’s Cabin) in conjunction with a Chinese novel Bitter Society (Ku shehui, 1905).Bitter Society bodies forth the figure of the Chinese laborer in the Americas that Plea to Heaven casts as the Chinese parallel to the black slave.
The two works converge in their conscious employment and modifications of the kind of sentimentalism employed in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Plea to Heaven exaggerates the sentimentalism in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, evincing hidden anxiety over the moral and political efficacy of sentimentalism. Bitter Society, by contrast, projects a curbed, restrained sentimentalism that blurs into an innovative form of stoicism. The peculiarities of Plea to Heaven and Bitter Society not just register the gravity of the late-Qing political crisis that made strong feelings, such as unequivocal nationalism, seem inadequate as an agent of change. More important, it reacts to the modern notion that the Chinese were particularly impervious to pain and lacking in feelings, a trait that purportedly made them resistant to the functions that “standard” sentimental fiction would seek to perform.
The essay gestures toward a larger project that compares late Qing fiction’s approaches to qing (feelings) with the treatment of sentiment in Anglo-American novels from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.