Keru Cai

Comparative Literature

My research focuses on Chinese fiction produced in the early decades of the 20th century, a time when Chinese writers and thinkers looked eagerly to Western nations as models for China‚Äôs social, political, economic, and cultural development. For Chinese intellectuals of this time, rejuvenating Chinese cultural production (especially literature) according to Western models was a primary means of reinvigorating Chinese society and redefining Chinese national standing among hegemonic world powers. The genre of literary realism, a recent arrival from the West along with dozens of other -isms, held pride of place in this endeavor precisely because of its ability to represent intimately, vividly, and objectively the elements of Chinese society that were thought to be in dire need of reform. My research explores how the painful consciousness of alleged Chinese backwardness in comparison to the West was frequently written as realist narratives of poverty and bodily squalor. In these texts, the problems of material poverty, moral poverty, and cultural poverty were inextricably intertwined. Writers felt compelled to detail the ravages of poverty and suffering, but simultaneously felt keenly aware of their distance as bourgeois intellectuals from the plight of those they depicted in their fiction. My dissertation shows that to diagnose and solve these problems, Chinese writers such as Lu Xun, Xiao Hong, Lao She, and Mao Dun looked to the techniques of French naturalism as well as Russian realism and symbolism. But the relationship was not a simple story of passive intake: my research emphasizes the agency of Chinese writers in their creative redeployment of imported foreign ideas for their own political and cultural purposes.