Yellow Horde, Forbidden City and Fertile Earth: How Early 20th-century Western Fiction Imagined China through the Kaleidoscope of Exoticism, Modernity, and Imperialism




Herlinger, Gillian

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China inspired and fascinated the Western early-20th-century author. Some, like Pearl S. Buck, writing about a China where she grew up and lived for many years, offered careful, portraits of the Chinese people she loved. Others, such as Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer, depicted China as an evil empire and the Chinese as cruel and dangerous criminal masterminds. French author Victor Segalen saw China as the last crumbling frontier of an elusive exotic world that existed in stark contrast to the suffocating modernity and alienation of Europe. This thesis project examines three specific examples of Western literature about China from the early twentieth century: British author Sax Rohmer, whose depictions of exaggeratedly evil Oriental vilains reinforced Western fears of the Chinese Other; French writer Victor Segalen whose mystical portraits of a magnificent Chinese Empire served as the basis for his artistic manifesto on exoticism, and Pearl S. Buck, whose portrayals of sympathetic Chinese peasants helped shift American popular opinion and foreign policy. These three authors, though their styles, approaches and motives varied greatly, all feature the intersecting themes of exoticism, modernity and imperialism. The tensions between these three elements play out in different ways in each chapter of this thesis, and yet all three are examples of exotic writing about China at a time when exoticism was a lost cause, or as Chris Bongie describes it, “an idea with no future” (15). In these examples, imperialism still coloured perceptions of a racially distinct other, and modernity’s inevitability made imagining the exotic a depressing, frightening or naïvely hopeful exercise. In all three examples, this results in an exoticism that seeks to extend the boundaries of what had become a shrinking frontier. Some of the authors succeed in balancing the tensions between exoticism, imperialism and modernity, but in general most do not, and the texts remain deeply conflicted.



China, 20th-century Literature, Exoticism, Pearl S. Buck, Victor Segalen, Yellow peril, Sax Rohmer