Intransitive Encounter: Sino-U.S. Literatures and the Limits of Exchange by Nan Z. Da
Volume 6, Cycle 3
© 2021 Johns Hopkins University Press
A Chinese translation of “Rip Van Winkle.” A speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson honoring the Burlingame-Seward treaty. A translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” inscribed on a Mandarin fan. The autobiography and poetry of Yale’s first Chinese graduate, who founded a school for Chinese exchange students in Hartford. Judging by the stature of the figures and institutions involved, we might expect that the archive of nineteenth-century literary encounters between China and the United States would have generated lasting networks of influence. However, as Nan Z. Da demonstrates in Intransitive Encounter: Sino-U.S. Literatures and the Limits of Exchange, these transnational, cross-cultural events were characterized not by cross-pollination but by intransitivity: they were “simultaneously momentous and superficial,” exchanges in which nothing is exchanged (2).
Although this quality of intransitivity, wherein the content of communication “slides like water off a duck’s back,” might appear to minimize the value of these Sino-U.S. encounters, Da makes the persuasive, counterintuitive argument that the very “formality” of these occasions enables us to understand the distinctive way in which literature mediated Sino-U.S. communication (28, 1). Writing against a core assumption of many transnational literary scholars, Da argues that foreign literature was mobilized not for the transmission of new ideas but “as a conceptual shortcut that eased social projects and political enunciation” (3). Rather than take at face value the multitude of diplomatic, historical, and literary historical celebrations of moments of cultural transmission, Da argues that we should attend to the lightness and ephemerality of cross-cultural contact. By closely analyzing the formality and intransitivity inherent in some of the nineteenth century’s most frequently cited episodes of transpacific literary encounter, Da models an empirical approach to the study of literary exchange—one that is sensitized to the myriad ways in which other people’s literature was mobilized without any investment in transpacific cultural or political transmission (whether in the form of lasting literary influence, cultural assimilation, or political reform). Intransitive Encounter develops a historicized method of reading that blends “surface reading”—with its close attention to material and linguistic surfaces rather than a search for deeper hidden meanings—with clearly articulated insights drawn from sociologists of communication such as Erving Goffman, Niklas Luhmann, and Bruno Latour.
Each of the book’s six chapters considers a fascinating and carefully curated instance of Sino-U.S. literary encounter. Drawing on an impressive knowledge base that spans theory, sociology, China studies, American studies, Asian American studies, and book history—as well as her unusual (for an Americanist) capacity to rigorously interpret texts as they flow between English and Chinese translations—Da provides compelling accounts of the historical context and theoretical stakes underpinning each of these encounters. Drawing on China’s role as a site of intransitivity in Western historiography, Washington Irving’s writings about China, and an unattributed Chinese translation of “Rip Van Winkle,” chapter one reframes Irving’s tale of historical insularity as a staging of unsociability set in a counterfactual “Chinese-Dutch America.” Chapter two coins the term “reformality” to resolve the apparent contradiction between the late Emerson’s disassociation from political reform and his appearances as a speaker uttering “rote niceties” at public events dedicated to rehearsing Sino-U.S. formalities (64). Da articulates the theorization of influence as an ephemeral transfer of energy that shaped Emerson’s thinking about both literary influence and reform (63). Continuing to examine the idea of “mutually reinforcing reform projects” energized by Sino-U.S. encounter, chapter three turns to the figure of Yung Wing: at once “the first Chinese to make a career out of Sino-U.S. relations and institutionalized cultural exchange” and a writer who “had surprisingly little to say about the cultural exchange [he] actually enjoyed” (102). Reading Yung’s autobiography alongside his Chinese-language poems, Da offers a nuanced corrective to critics who have read him primarily in terms of hybridity and cultural nationalism: instead, the autobiography exhibits its author’s “tendency to keep himself at the surface of interaction”; neither the referents nor effects of the poems can be specified, “as they were the provocation to changing something and not the documentation of current affairs that might lead to change” (104, 119). Chapter four, discussed in more detail below, offers a tour de force in comparative literary analysis—one that draws compelling connections between poetic form and historicized practices of writing, inscription, allusion, and circulation in (and in between) the United States and China. Chapter five argues how the Chinese feminist reform writer Qiu Jin mobilized Western books—most notably Uncle Tom’s Cabin, mistakenly referred to as The Mayflower by numerous Chinese writers—in her writings. Da’s readings elucidate how, in Qiu Jin’s “minimal” engagements with Western books, “foreign books coordinate relationships rather than actually change minds” (166-67). Rather than tracking literary influence through ideas or content, Qiu stages how foreign books catalyze actions, how Chinese women could engage in bibliographic “optimisms” wherein other people’s books—even those that are only heard about or proximate, not read through—function as “imaginary objects that reinforce programs of change that are already in place but that anticipate a broader audience” (180). Chapter six offers a strikingly original reading of Edith Maude Eaton (Sui Sin Far)’s short fiction, reading it as a set of meditations on the “subtle forms of harm” that can come about when print culture is approached exclusively as a means of cultural transmission (193). Da argues that Eaton’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance stories are set “in a fictional space where you are socially legible only if the literature of others makes you act and acts on you”—a claustrophobic space wherein minor literary “tweaks and glitches” convey the costs of exaggerating literature’s transformative, subjectifying capacities (196, 201).
A closer look at chapter four should convey the remarkable blend of erudition and precision that Da brings to the work of letting us experience scenes of apparently clichéd literary encounter anew (and more historically precisely). In this chapter, “The Things Things Do Not Have to Say,” Da lucidly sets forth the transnational context wherein Sino-U.S. relations were imagined as a balm to internal political tensions in both nations; she then rereads an oft-cited embodiment of literary exchange—in which Dong Xun inscribed a translation of Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” on a Mandarin fan, and gifted it to Longfellow—as a paradigmatic instance of intransitivity. She does this by recovering “outmoded genres” in both national literatures: the transfer between literature and objects that enables Longfellow’s poetry to substitute for human connections; the practices of poetic inscription, occasional poetry, and literary allusionism that informed Dong’s intransitive practice of translation (128). Ultimately, Da shows that Longfellow’s poem “encouraged its own nontranslation,” and that Dong approached it “as an opportunity to coordinate deeply resonant, transformative sentiments that were already available, and not as a point of delivery for deeply resonant, transformative concepts from the outside” (156). This revelatory account of an intransitive poem-object that commemorated (and substituted for) a highly visible occasion of cross-cultural exchange illustrates the immense stakes of Da’s argument in attending to literature’s limitations: they enhance our access to literary practices and modes of reading that have been obscured by a critical tendency to overemphasize cross-cultural reading as a pathway to deep and durable transformation—whether on the scale of nations or individual readers.
Although its focus is on nineteenth-century transpacific exchanges, Intransitive Encounter’s methodological and theoretical contributions will resonate far beyond its field. At the heart of the book and the Sino-U.S. encounters it elucidates are a set of concerns—about the purpose of translation, the limits of cross-cultural communication, the dynamics of literary influence, the materiality and occasionality of literary objects, and what literature can make thinkable or actionable in the world—that are at the center of conversations in modernist studies, comparative literature, cross-cultural communications, and transnational literary studies.