Language and Literature
This panel investigates the lasting literary importance of imperial China’s waterways. The most obvious architectural symbol of Chinese imperial power may be the Great Wall, yet arguably the extended network of Chinese waterworks—from the Grand Canal to the Yellow River—was much more important. Undoubtedly this grand web of watery connections was more successful. Whereas the Great Wall served as a symbol of demarcation (between China and its neighbors), the empire’s watery ways—a monumental interconnected system of rivers, canals, sluices, dams, and dikes—instead served the crucial task of not only protecting the Chinese people against regularly occurring floods, but also integrating and connecting the empire as a whole. How did the monumental task of digging, dredging, and regulating the empire’s canals and rivers influence the writing of Chinese literature in the early-modern and modern age?
Scholars from different disciplines—environmental history, hydraulic engineering, political science—have increasingly sought to investigate the importance of China’s monumental hydraulic projects. This panel proposes to do so as well, but instead suggests that the imperial waterways also had a lasting influence on literary production. Drawing on novels, biographies, poetry, travelogues, and anecdotal literature from the late-imperial to the modern age, this panel shows how the waterways of the Chinese empire were depicted in literature, in fact helped shape the very aesthetics of literary form. By doing so, the panel connects the study of Chinese literature with the forefront of other academic disciplines: environmental history, digital humanities, and network theory.
Paize Keulemans shows how, in the Ming-dynasty novel Jin Ping Mei, the Grand Canal connects one household’s moral corruption to the political corruption of the empire and how Dutch travelogues similarly employed the Grand Canal to connect early-modern Chinese with European political discourse. Drawing on discourses from environmental history, Hui-Lin Hsu investigates how the early-20th-century novel The Travels of Lao Can was shaped by and responded to the trauma caused by the Yellow River floods. Anatoly Detwyler analyzes the importance of the river in the literature of Shen Congwen, showing its operation as a media ecology whose imagination forms a crucial site of the author's political resistance to mass mobilization in modern China. Hilde de Weerdt, a historian who has crucially informed the way we think about the relationship between cartography and empire, networks and political power, will place the aesthetic concerns of the panel into a longer and broader historical context.