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In Session: Cultural Networks between China and (Post-)Soviet Russia: Translations and Border Crossings
1: Translation, Collaboration, and Power: Sergei Tret’iakov, Gao Shihua, and the “bio-interview” Den Shi-khua
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of California, Berkeley, United States
This paper explores a peculiar and symptomatic text that emerged from the intense Soviet political investment in China in the 1920s. Sergei Tret’iakov, a Soviet avant-garde writer who collaborated closely with Eisenstein, Meyerhold and Mayakovsky, spent 18 months teaching Russian language and literature at Beijing University in 1924–5. At the same time as Comintern advisers were participating in the ill-fated alliance between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party, Tret’iakov wrote multiple articles on contemporary China for the Soviet press, as well as the anti-imperialist play Roar, China! After he returned to the Soviet Union, Tret’iakov conducted six months of interviews with Gao Shihua, a former student from Beijing then enrolled at Moscow’s Sun Yat-sen University for the Workers of China. On publication of his written account of Gao’s life, Tret’iakov changed the name to Den Shi-khua to protect his interlocutor’s identity. This paper argues that Den Shi-khua: A Bio-Interview (1927–30) expresses in microcosm the aspirations and limitations of Chinese-Russian cultural collaboration in the historical context of Comintern internationalism. On the one hand, Tret’iaov moulds Gao’s life story to a standardized socialist conversion narrative that locates its culmination and allegorical center in Moscow. On the other hand, the complex translation dynamics of the text, which veer between domestication and estrangement, retain the impression of the text’s origins in a dialogical, transcultural collaboration. This translational dynamic, I suggest, hints at the limits of Soviet hegemony over global revolution, in the wake of the Comintern’s defeat in China in 1927.