Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Coolie democracy: U.S.-China political and literary exchange, 1925-1955
by So, Richard Jean, Ph.D., Columbia University, 2010, 279; 3420867
Abstract (Summary)

In the 1930s and 1940s, a group of American and Chinese writers traversed the Pacific in search of an alternative model of Western democracy. A diverse group of intellectuals – white and Asian, male and female, Black and Chinese-American – encountered each other in America and China and worked together to create new forms of politics and literature. A community was born through such reciprocal encounters. In New York City, Pearl Buck and Lin Yutang invented new aesthetic forms, such as "synthetic realism," to generate a vision of "equality" as harmonized across American and Chinese contexts. In Shanghai, Langston Hughes and Lu Xun co-authored a series of manifestos to redefine "democracy" as an international, rather than purely nation-based, concept. The outcome of such migrations and meetings was a radical new vision of collectivity and human freedom: what Buck dubbed, "coolie democracy." Specifically, this group of writers valorized the degraded figure of "the coolie," or Chinese laborer, to re-define U.S. democracy at its threshold. They argued that the coolie, in its distance from Western modernity, unexpectedly revealed a potentially more "natural" state of agency, despite its subjected status. Moreover, they linked this figure to "democracy" in order to criticize American society's inability to absorb such marginal subjects. In its triple subjection – economic, racial, imperial – the "coolie" articulated a timely critique of American democracy by linking it to East Asian colonialism.

This dissertation examines this idea of coolie democracy to explore interactions between U.S. and Chinese literary systems during the interwar years. Drawing on two years of archival research in China and America and bilingual close readings, I argue that coolie democracy does not model a form of "core-periphery" cultural exchange, but rather, it engendered an intermediate space between American and Chinese cultures that enabled intellectual reciprocity. Collaboration at the interstices of nations provoked new political and aesthetic concepts, which I argue, served to foment the mutual transformation of post-war American and Chinese cultural systems.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Arac, Jonathan
School: Columbia University
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 71/09, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Comparative literature, Modern literature, Asian literature, History, American history, American literature, International law
Keywords: Buck, Pearl S., China, Coolie, Lao, She, Lin, Yutang, Smedley, Agnes, Trans-Pacific, United States
Publication Number: 3420867
ISBN: 9781124185644
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