Recasting the Chinese Novel: Ernest Major’s Shenbao Publishing House (1872–1890)
Yeh Vance, Catherine. Recasting the Chinese Novel: Ernest Major’s Shenbao Publishing House (1872–1890). Transcultural Studies, 1, 2015. URL : http://heiup.uni-heidelberg.de/journals/index.php/transcultural/article/view/22205/16614 (consulté le 28 septembre 2015)
The modern novel announced its arrival in China after the aborted Hundred Days Reform of 1898 with the claim of being the truly “new novel” (xin xiaoshuo 新小說). Recent scholarship (including my own) has highlighted the social and political factors that contributed to the novel becoming an engine in China’s literary and social transformation. The novel’s potential to address the larger issues of state and society and to advance reform was crucial in elevating the standing of this genre, which also resonated with the writers’ quest for the new and the modern.
These developments, however, were only made possible through a set of material and cultural conditions that have received far less attention and shall be addressed in this article. The new material conditions included new-style publishing houses that used up-to-date printing technology and were intent on cultivating awareness of the novel’s market potential, and a Chinese-language newspaper and periodical press with a national (and even international) distribution network that carried information, advertisements, and opinions about such works to readers of Chinese. The cultural conditions that facilitated an elevation of the novel genre encompassed an increasingly vocal group of new-style urban intellectuals who saw China as connected with the “world” and looked for solutions to what they believed to be China’s crisis. This group sought new forms that could articulate and spread their ideas. They located these solutions in an idealized past and in the equally idealized notion of the “civilized” nations of the “West” and Japan of their own time. Furthermore, there was a growing public readership that was familiar with the new media of newspapers, looked for leisure reading, and was open to new global fashions and trends.
In China, all of these conditions were present in the Shanghai International Settlement, the primary “contact zone” linking China with the world. Many of the key cultural brokers congregated there from many countries, and its media established connections with the world on a daily basis.
The nineteenth century saw many closely connected and transculturally shared shifts in state institutions, engineering, science, language, religion, ideology, and culture. The emergence of the novel as the lead genre in literature was one such. In Europe this shift occurred earlier in the nineteenth century whereas, as an important but often overlooked early study from the Prague structuralist school has argued, in many Asian nations, including China, it occurred between the 1870s and the 1910s. This broad generalization suggests a transcultural similarity in the process of the novel’s rise; however, the dynamics and agents driving the process in different environments must be studied in their own right.
This study will address a number of questions through critical debate with the existing scholarship: Was the rise of the novel in China—as in Europe—accompanied by an elevation of its artistic, cultural, and social standing? If so, what was the relationship between this rise and the market forces in book printing and book selling? Was there a conceptual reframing for the novel that sustained this new standing, and who were the agents involved? What was the role of foreigners in the pre-1900 Shanghai Chinese-language publishing process, and what motivated these publishers? What were their criteria in selecting novels for publication and how were these adjusted to readers’ reactions? What was it that gave sustenance to their publication ventures: subsidies or readers’ interest articulated through market success? How did the novel fit into the growing perception among the elite during the late nineteenth century that China needed to draw on the experience of “civilized” nations and forgotten or sidelined indigenous resources in order to find a way out of the crisis? Were the novels instrumental in the rise of the genre’s status translations from these Western nations and works closely modeled on such translations, or were they works drawing on indigenous resources? How did these Chinese novels fit into what was seen as an increasingly shared transcultural “modernity”?