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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Rethinking Things and “Thingness” in Modern Chinese Culture
1: The Literary Handicraft: On the Politics and Mediology of “Thing” in the Work of Shen Congwen
Monday, March 22, 2021
12:30pm – 2:00pm EDT
University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States
Can literature be a form of handicraft? What is at stake in such a categorization? This talk considers the dynamic metaphor of story-writing as “thing” developed by the modern author Shen Congwen in his criticism, fiction, and late-career scholarship on material history. Imagining language and narrative as a physical object to be twisted, wrenched, smashed, or woven, Shen constructed an aesthetics based on the piece’s quality of craft (jiqiao). Like a toy or small furnishing, a story not only reveals the ingenuity of its maker, but over time takes on a life free of the originator’s intentions. I argue that Shen’s insistence upon the thing-ness of literature and its independent agency should be seen as more than an example of modernism’s exploration of its own media and materiality, or its fetishization of folk art as a source of creative renewal. Instead, the literary handicraft carries particular urgency in the context of all-out politicization of culture in the pursuit of total mobilization that began in the 1930s: Shen’s techne of storytelling and its imagined materiality stand in contrasting opposition to the contemporary rise of propaganda science, and its reconstitution of the object of art as the management of ethereal and all-pervasive information. Revisiting Shen’s thing metaphor thus gives us a fuller appreciation of the politics of thing-ness in China’s modern cultural history, while specifically recasting the author’s escape into museum work in the 1950s as a vital extension of his aesthetics and literary practice.