In the Place of Others: Sympathy in Modern Chinese Literature and Literary Criticism from the 1910s to the 1950s

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


East Asian Languages and Literatures

First Advisor

Tsu, Jing


This dissertation unravels how discussions of sympathy gained momentum in intellectual, aesthetic, and political discourse in modern China from the 1910s to the 1950s. Through textual analysis of newspapers, journals, political documents, and unofficial communist publications as well as aesthetic, literary, and political treatises, this study examines changes in the expression and representation of feelings of sympathy and the impact of ideological mobilization on this process. By focusing on diverse and changing representations of sympathy, previously undiscerned linkages between discussions of emotions and politics become visible. The wider resonances of sympathy in the cultural context of Republican China are uncovered from a variety of discussions of sympathy which took place in newspapers and journals between the 1920s and 1930s. It is shown that notions of sympathy were a key component of the mobilization rhetoric during the War of Resistance against Japan in the 1930s. The widespread tendency to politicize sympathy in turn prompted commentators to ridicule and denounce the feeling as hypocritical and disingenuous. It is from these diffuse notions of sympathy that the intellectual conception of the term was constructed. Kang Youwei, Lu Xun, and Zhu Guangqian, leading thinkers in their fields, each responded to the popularity of sympathy in the public discourse of their times by integrating conceptions of the sentiment into their own writings. In literary theory and literary criticism in particular, writers and critics frequently highlighted the importance of sympathy for the process of literary creation. In this context, the concept of humanism (rendao zhuyi 人道主义) gained prominence. Analysis of literary texts and literary debates surrounding the rickshaw puller, a particularly deprived social group, demonstrates that this figure became a focal point in a conversation about the relevance of humanism to contemporary Chinese society, and these debates had a profound impact on the later prominence of humanism in literary theory. By contextualizing these different debates about sympathy in relation to each other, the study adds historical context to the reading of literary and political criticism from the Mao era. In literary debates of the 1950s, it is shown, multiple highly contested notions of sympathy and humanistic sentiments circulated, whose origins could be traced back to these prior debates. Compassion (tongqing 同情心), human sympathy (rendao 人道), and humanism (rendao zhuyi 人道主义) as well as the slogans a human touch (renqing 人情), unbearable [to see and hear about] (buren不忍), international sympathy (guoji tongqing 国际同情), and love of mankind (renlei zhi ai 人类之爱) became sites of cross-disciplinary controversies. The dissertation explains why calls for sympathy and humanism were powerful statements in modern China and how Communist cultural politics perpetually failed to restrain them. It is argued that not only did the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to ideologically mobilize the populace influence and change how sympathy was expressed in Maoist China, but that the wider intellectual history of sympathy determined the form that the sentiment took within communist rhetoric.

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