2007 Annual Meeting


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Contested East Asian Literary Histories from Antiquity to the Present

Organizer and Chair: Karen Thornber, Harvard University

Discussants: Judith N. Rabinovitch, University of Montana; Timothy R. Bradstock, University of Montana

Conventional views on East Asian artistic interfaces emphasize relatively smooth premodern cultural flows from China to Japan, overlooking more than a millennium of complex transgenre and transcultural interactions.  This panel looks at two of the most significant sets of interactions:  the enduring conflicts between Sino-Japanese literature (kanshibun) and vernacular Japanese literature and those between Chinese literature and Japanese literature. We first examine the relationship between Sino-Japanese literature and its vernacular Japanese counterpart, challenging the standard depiction of kanshibun as a disjointed body of writing.  Wiebke Denecke exposes Sino-Japanese poetry contests as key sites of competitive cooperation between Sino-Japanese and vernacular literary production in Heian Japan (794-1185).  We then probe medieval and early modern Japanese manipulations of Chinese literature and more recent Chinese reconfigurations of Japanese texts, exposing intra-Asian cultural negotiation as far more complex than previously understood.  Mioko Uchida focuses on Japanese setsuwa (tale literature) of the medieval period (1192-1573), revealing the multifaceted integration of Chinese texts into this genre.  Paul Rouzer explores how the noted Japanese female poet Ema Saiko (1787-1861) reworks numerous poetic forms:  vernacular Japanese, Sino-Japanese, as well as Chinese.  Karen Thornber probes the paradox of Chinese and Taiwanese reconfiguration of Japanese texts in the (semi)colonial and post(semi)colonial context. Looking at cultural products in genre-specific or geographic isolation imposes artificial frameworks.  Bringing together debates on literary interaction and the creation of literary histories across artistic and national borders, we will stimulate active discussion by opening exciting new avenues of research.  


Courting Competition:  Sino-Japanese Poetry Contests in the Heian Period

Wiebke Denecke, Barnard College

Sino-Japanese literature during the Heian Period was closely linked to courtly themes, values, and practices. Courtiers celebrated their service in the imperial bureaucracy through metaphors of friendship and revelry, ornate and complex diction was preferred over plain and earthy styles, and literary production was driven by the calendar of annual observances and public celebrations. While Sino-Japanese was the dominant idiom of public court performance until the late ninth century, the vernacular language gained public stature in the early tenth century as can be seen in the celebration of vernacular poetry contests, the compilation of imperial anthologies, and the beginnings of tale literature that became emblematic of the Heian Period.

To explore the characteristics of Heian Sino-Japanese literature this paper showcases a courtly twin genre with a suggestive parallel development: that of poetry contests. In contrast to most other genres or occasions of literary composition where the Sino-Japanese form preceded a vernacular appropriation of the practice, Sino-Japanese poetry contests (shiawase) developed, inversely, in response to vernacular poetry contests (utaawase) that originated in the late ninth century.

The paper intends to contribute to a deeper understanding of the specific competitive dynamics that unfolded between Sino-Japanese and vernacular literary production in the Heian Period.

 Japanese Medieval Setsuwa and Chinese Literature

Mioko Uchida, National Museum of Japanese History

Discontinuities in Japanese literary history trace in large part to radical changes in the reception of Chinese texts in Japan.  I will examine this phenomenon through the lens of the integration of Chinese texts into medieval period (1192-1573) setsuwa (tale literature) collections. By medieval times, Chinese texts and ideas had been deeply ingrained into the Japanese intellectual and literary matrix for hundreds of years.  Like many Japanese genres, the prominent medieval form of setsuwa interweaves a variety of Chinese sources.  Yet setsuwa give particularly illuminating insights into the reception of Chinese cultural products in Japan.  This is because, unlike the writers of tsukuri monogatari (fictional tales), the creators of setsuwa purport that what they are writing is based on fact, or at least on hearsay; writers of setsuwa discuss contemporary events by referencing ancient Chinese texts.  Setsuwa thus are paradoxical sites of intense and in many ways unparalleled dialogue between Chinese and Japanese sources. Through an examination of such setsuwa collections as the Jikkinsho (1252) and the Sasekishu (1283), I demonstrate how writers' intellectual agendas and social status deeply impacted the incorporation of Chinese sources into setsuwa.  Using setsuwa literature to analyze the many ways Japanese writers appropriated Chinese texts and ideas gives us greater insight into the reasons behind discontinuities in Japanese literary history.  

 Ema Saiko (1787-1861) and the Chinese Feminine

Paul Rouzer, University of Minnesota

In the past several decades, Ema Saiko has been increasingly acknowledged by Japanese and Western critics as one of the great poets of premodern Japan – even though she wrote exclusively in literary Chinese.  This critical interest cannot be separated from the attention paid to her own position in a male-defined world, writing in a very male genre:  it is thought, somehow, that her participation in male bunjin circles of the late Edo (especially that of Rai San’yo), combined with a distinctively “female” sensibility, produced a unique and unusual voice that rendered newly authentic the stereotypical male-dominated world of kanshi. However, limiting Saiko’s accomplishments to those defined by her gender alone is to slight her versatility as well as the ultimate concerns of her work.  While acknowledging that literary conventions dictated separate poetic proprieties for men and women, she felt no need to obey these proprieties, or to use them as techniques for self-expression.  Moreover, she had a critical, sometimes wry perspective on the Chinese “female poet” tradition – a tradition that ultimately sought to validate the supposedly “autobiographical” and “sincere” aspects of women’s writing.  Through a brief discussion of a number of poems, I will demonstrate how Saiko is not an example of a reified and authoritative female voice, but rather an experimenter who plays with the tropes of Chinese and Japanese poetry without allowing them to define who she is. 

Intertitularity and Modern Sino-Japanese Literary Negotiation

Karen Thornber, Harvard University

Most accounts of East Asian cultural interfaces, emphasizing pre-twentieth century sinocentrism and early twenty-first century popular culture flows, leapfrog over the twentieth century, while writings on twentieth century intra-Asian relationships focus almost exclusively on geopolitical concerns.  These dominant narratives obscure the vibrant intra-Asian cultural negotiations that took place throughout the turbulent 1900s and continue into the new millennium.  By the turn of the twentieth century, Japan’s economic success and military triumphs had cemented its position as the flourishing prototype of a new Asian modernity; Japanese literature – long ignored in East Asia – became the region’s most frequently traveled and manipulated cultural product as semicolonial Chinese, colonial Taiwanese, and other East Asians translated and rewrote thousands of Japanese texts.  After Japan’s surrender in 1945, East Asia remained a terrain soaked with painful memories of Japan as (semi)colonial oppressor and military foe.  But Japanese literature quickly reestablished itself as a key intra-Asian cultural conduit; again becoming one of the region’s most frequently reconfigured cultural products. The rewriting of Japanese literature has taken many forms, perhaps none more intriguing than intertitularity, the appropriation of a literary predecessor’s title.  Twentieth and twenty-first century Chinese and Taiwanese writers have given their texts the same titles as a variety of celebrated Japanese literary works, everything from the eighth-century Man’yoshu to novels by Kawabata Yasunari.  They thus undermine Japanese textual predecessors; assert Chinese/Taiwanese cultural legitimacy/superiority, among many creative strategies.  Intertitularity occurs in all nations and across all genres, but this phenomenon has especially complex implications in the (semi)colonial/post(semi)colonial context.