In Search of the City of Light: Chinese Creative
Communities and the Myth of Interwar Paris

By Nicolai Volland

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 31, no.1  (Spring 2019), pp. 192-228

In the literary imagination of modern China, Paris looms larger than any other foreign city. In the 1920s and 1930s, dozens of Chinese resided in the French capital, and with their writings helped to fuel the Chinese fascination with the “city of the light.” These sojourners became agents deeply involved in the making, circulation, and maintenance of the myth of Paris. Their supposed involvement in metropolitan cultural trends and movements launched them into central positions within the Chinese literary field and made of them figures of authority, arbiters of taste and literary judgment. They projected their influence through the aura of their foreign experience and through the collective myth of representing world literature, embodied in the figure of Paris. Yet as this essay shows, the actual dynamics of myth-making differ decidedly from conventional theories of world literary circulation and transcultural practice. The stark realities of daily life abroad, and especially experiences of isolation and language barriers, as well as encounters with Orientalism and racism, do not lend themselves to support ideas of an inclusive and benign “world republic of letters.” Chinese sojourners responded to these challenges by bonding together and forming what the essay calls “creative communities,” tightly knit circles of like-minded young men (and a few women) who shared meals, living quarters, and, most important, experiences, impressions, and intellectual imaginaries. These self-sustained clusters of individuals gave structure and coherence to uprooted lives, and in turn shaped the collective imagination of France, the myth of Paris. To shed light on this process, the article interrogates three dimensions of literary myth-making: the emergence of Paris as a fabled but elusive destination in Chinese travelogues; the mystification of life abroad in Chinese essay writing; and finally the construction of Paris as a phantasmagoric figure in Chinese fiction and poetry from the Republican era.