Paper Topics

Before you write, please remember the following:

(1) you must have a meaningful working title that sums up your views like a synopsis

(2) develop a good thesis (focus on an issue or an intellectual concern) in the opening paragraph, like the abstract of a book or dissertation, something you want to focus on; name the works and authors you shall include in this paper and give a very brief analysis of each work, stating how they are relevant (in at least half a page); the scholarly substance of your paper is all in here; if you have a weak or non-existent thesis, your paper will not be coherent no matter how thoughtful you are;

(3) as you deal with each work, don’t lose your thematic focus or lose sight of the point you want to clarify by discussing a group of works. Otherwise your discussions would seem fragmented and incoherent, without a thematic focus running through all the paragraphs. Try to respect the integrity, richness and complexity of each work and resist the temptation to reduce a literary work to a couple of ideas. Argument or thesis does not mean that you reduce the text to a black-n-white position as if the author or director is absolutely for or against something. What to avoid is think in binary opposition, and treat concepts such as China and identity as if a monolithic entity. If anything, this seminar is designed to move you away from that type of thinking and learn to deal with complexity and plurality.

To the extent that Chinese cultural identity is being redefined, reshaped and reinvented in these works, the text is probably ambivalent at best, its meaning complicated by various concerns or interests of the author at the time. In their works, we see the human faces of the Chinese as a people and society. The characters represent the problems and conditions of cultural identity, its elaborations and variations. It is in this sense identity is a process and not an essence.

(4) it’s a sign of good scholarship to do textual analysis, quote from the literary text, and mention the name of the author. Discuss what the author is doing instead of what the fictional characters are doing in the story, otherwise you fail to understand the first thing about literary criticism, which is having a conversation with the creator/author by interpreting his or her work, even when the author is anonymous. If you treat fictional characters as if they were real people, you entirely miss the purpose of literature, which is to understand the views of the writer.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The tool we have as scholars is logic; someone even goes so far as to characterize Western philosophical tradition as logocentric. But clarity does not mean simple-mindedness or reductionism, codifying something rich and complex according to a simple system. The intellectual rigor with which you analyze a work should in no way diminish your respect for the complexity of the work or its author. All these works contribute to the changing Chinese self-awareness in one respect or another and to one extent or another. That’s a given. The difficult thing to talk about is in what respect or to what degree.

(5) word count should be around 2,000, font size 12; a top sentence at the beginning of each paragraph to sum up what you say in the paragraph. No need to summarize the fictional plot, or refer to details and quotes as if they were self-explanatory. Your role as a critic is to offer a perspective to read the fictional narrative

First paper

Among other things, Lu Xun’s fictional writing is symptomatic of a crisis in cultural identity on multiple levels. Identify the issue(s) with which he rallied and shaped Chinese consciousness (national awareness), making them allegories of “China” in at least four novellas of his. Analyze such problematic heroes as Ah Q, Kong Yiji, and the madman that Lu Xun created to both allegorize China and question Chinese cultural credentials.

The paper is an exercise of your ability to establish connections between (1) the text, (2) the author, and (3) the cultural or historical context.  Specifically, how four short works by Lu Xun shape Chinese self-awareness through what Jameson refers to as national allegory. For example, how Ah Q, one fictional character, comes to symbolizes or allegorizes a nation or a people? The same is true for such characters as the rickshaw puller, Ssu-min, Run-tu, the madman, Kong I-Chi, the revolutionary (in Medicine), Tzu-chun and Juan-sheng who collectively signify or symbolize a nation or people.

Identify issues responsible for this symbolism, serving as discursive conditions for translating Western cultural values to the Chinese. Who signify the conflicting values? What is the big picture or story behind these small stories? What is the context in which these small texts take on meaning and become symbols of an identity crisis?

For those who need concrete examples of how something could become an (national) allegory, think of American illustration artist Norman Rockwell and his paintings. In a way Lu Xun’s early fiction is not unlike Rockwell’s paintings that revolve around American life (identity). They captured the essence of American democracy as it was evolving. 

Another person who could explain how symbols, allegories and mythologies work in modern societies is the author of Mythologies, Roland Barthes who analyzes how something (usually images and novels) take on symbolic meanings.  

Second paper

The term “history,” which consists of two words (his and story), suggests a semantic connection between what people often view as factual and fiction, both being cultural constructs. As the story of a nation, history is but a larger form of the same project in which the individual narrates his or her lived experience to achieve personal identity. Discuss the works of no less than four authors/directors such as Lu Xun, Yu Hua, Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Gao Xingjian, in which the individual finds purpose and meaning in history.* Analyze how China’s official history (and by extension national identity) is challenged or reinforced in the way it is reconstructed and reflected upon in these works. What values are being called into question or reaffirmed in these fictional narratives?

*One of the theories that may help you think about the relation between the individual and the cultural history in which s/he lives is that of psychoanalysis; you might want to read excerpts by Norman O Brown, the author of Life against Death: the Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, in which he argues that “psychoanalysis can provide a theory of ‘progress’, but only by viewing history as a neurosis.”

Third paper

Women construct gender identity through their attitudes towards sexuality, love, chastity, motherhood and martyrdom. Discuss femininity in no less than four works that are elaborations of women’s roles as mother, wife, daughter and lover. Treat each work as a drama in which the author negotiates the point at which or the degree to which womanhood (femininity) dignifies or alienates (debilitates) women.

For a theoretical framework, read the writings of Julia Kristeva, Jacque Lacan, and Michel Foucault.

Fourth paper

When impacted by the ideas of Western enlightenment, colonial subjugation by the West, wars against industrial powers, global capitalism, and diaspora, the people in China get to experience their Self in the position of the Other. Examine no less than four works of art (Pa Chin’s Family must be one) and discuss how the Chinese (writers and directors) bring the world home and/or trans-nationalize Chinese identity. In these fictional stories of Chinese self-representations and self-reinventions, what attitudes do you find reshaped towards cultural differences?