Victorian Realism, China, and the Politics of Form

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Lesson Plan Production Details

Developer: Rae X. Yan Contact

Collaborating Peer Reviewers: Menglu Gao, Waiyee Loh, Hyungji Park, Jessica R. Valdez

Cluster Developer: Sophia Hsu Contact

Cluster Title: Transimperial Networks and East Asia

Cluster Timeline: Webpage

Publication Date: 2022


In Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel, Elaine Freedgood speaks of realism as “the ur-form of the novel: the point of arrival and departure, the apex of representation that is also an endpoint, and a dead point.” For Freedgood, the Victorian novel, in particular, is “annexed to a larger nineteenth-century ‘realism’” that carries “a certain (imagined) stability of its representational world” understood in terms of both formal coherency and a tendency to be seen as “realistic in a good way” (ix, xi). As Freedgood notes, this sense of the Victorian novel’s authority and stability has largely been conferred by Western literary critical interventions of the 1970s and 1980s. But what of other critical contexts?

This lesson plan introduces students to Chinese perspectives on Victorian novels to destabilize the received understanding of these texts as epistemologically and politically neutral. Chinese translations of Victorian texts became more accessible during the turn into the twentieth century thanks to the efforts of translators, such as Lin Shu (林紓), and opportunities to study abroad in countries like Japan, where there was better access to foreign books and translations. Following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and a loss of faith in traditional Chinese sociopolitical power, many young Chinese political and literary writers of the early twentieth century would come to argue that reading and even producing Victorian novels – particularly Victorian realist novels – would lead to social and cultural benefits for Chinese reform. Following the Qing Empire’s collapse, student-led movements of the 1910s and 1920s would continue a demand for literary revolution, especially during the New Culture and later May Fourth Movement that followed protests against the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles on May 4, 1919. The Victorian novel played a crucial role in these debates – a role that has been apparent to Chinese literary scholars but not necessarily to Victorianists.

The goal of this lesson plan is to produce debate and reassess assumptions about the centrality and representational authority of the Victorian novel through engaging Chinese contexts. Reading across literary fiction, essays, historical contexts, and literary critical work from Asian Studies, this module expands the geographical and temporal boundaries of Victorian Studies to, as Freedgood argues, “restore the full oddness of the nineteenth-century novel” (x).

Central Questions

  1. What are the historical contexts that prompted Chinese writers and thinkers to analyze Victorian realist perspective?
  2. How did Chinese writers understand and challenge concepts of realism?
  3. What happens to the Victorian novel in China?

Structure and Organization

The materials selected are meant to serve educators and students of Victorian Studies as well as those of other fields such as Empire, World Literature, Asian Literature, and British Asian Studies. The lesson plan has been organized into four different clusters of materials: (a) “The Politics of Literary Genre”; (b) “Chinese ‘Victorian’ Narratives”; (c) “(Novel) Oddities,” and (d) “Outside Victorian Encounters.” Instructors are encouraged to engage with the clusters and/or individual suggested texts in whatever ways are most helpful for their pedagogical needs and goals.

The first cluster on “The Politics of Literary Genre” provides a foundation for understanding the history of realism in English and Chinese contexts. This section would be useful to those who wish to teach the genre of the Victorian realist novel and/or to those who want to develop a better understanding of the history of the Victorian realist novel in China. Primary materials consist of nonfiction essays and autobiographical accounts by major Chinese political and literary writers of the 1910s that show conflicting arguments for how writing and reading Western realist novels could promote revolutionary change. Secondary sources provide instructors with background historical characters and events, including information on the New Culture movement and the repercussions of the 1919 student-led May Fourth Movement, both of which emphasized literature’s role in social reform.

The second cluster on “Chinese ‘Victorian’ Narratives” introduces Chinese interpretations of Victorian narratives and would fit well in any class featuring work/s by Charles Dickens. Primary materials consist of the popular Chinese translator Lin Shu’s introductions to translations of Dickens’s novels as they situate a “Chinese” understanding of Victorian Britain and literature. Additional readings appended to this cluster construct narratives about China and Chinese people: a selection from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s conversations where he coins the term “world literature,” George Meredith’s satirical novel of English social problems, The Egoist, and a suggested secondary reading on The Egoist by Elizabeth Hope Chang that delineates the construction of Chineseness.

The third and fourth clusters consist of works that look at the way Chinese writers diverged from traditions of Victorian literature. The third cluster on “(Novel) Oddities” takes on a world literature perspective to challenge a notion of the dominance of the Victorian novel as genre and form. The cluster consists of three surrealist works about societal madness – Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary,” Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” and Dickens’s brief “A Madman’s Manuscript” from The Pickwick Papers – by three authors notable for being “realist” writers. The secondary readings offer theoretical frames and practical approaches to reading against the realist grain in these experimental tales.

The fourth and last cluster, “Outside Victorian Encounters,” consists of two works of Chinese modernist realism that express their own visions and critiques of fiction’s place in shaping a sense of one’s Chineseness. These texts also reflect on the place of Victorian fiction within a Chinese assessment of a longer British literary history.

Suggested Materials

The Politics of Literary Genre

Primary Texts

Chen Duxiu. “On Literary Revolution.” 1917. Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945, edited by Kirk A. Denton, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 140–45.
This manifesto originally appeared in New Youth / La Jeunesse (新青年), a literary magazine published from 1915 to 1926 by the co-founder of the Communist party, Chen Duxiu. It is one of Chen Duxiu’s most well-known short essays that influenced the New Culture / May Fourth Movement and pairs well with Shu-Mei Shih’s chapter on Occidentalism. Chen Duxiu’s work situates Europe’s literary tradition as foundational for revolutionary politics – referencing English thinkers and writers including Francis Bacon, Charles Darwin, Dickens, and Oscar Wilde – and makes several arguments for abandoning Chinese traditional literature for a “reform of literature.”

Liang Qichao. “On the Relationship Between Fiction and the Government of the People.” 1902. Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945, edited by Kirk A. Denton, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 74–81.
The journalist Liang Qichao’s “On the Relationship Between Fiction and the Government of the People” pairs well with Chen Duxiu’s “On Literary Revolution” as an impactful essay for the New Culture / May Fourth Movement that shaped an argument to turn to realist forms in addition to what Liang Qichao would term xin xiaoshuo / “new fiction” (新小說). Liang Qichao’s essay directly tackles questions of how and why a literary revolution is important for renovating politics and the cultural value of literature.

Lu Xun. “Fragmentary Recollections.” 1928. Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk /《朝花夕拾》, Foreign Languages Press, 1976, pp. 69–79.
“Fragmentary Recollections” is an expanded biographical essay by the purported father of Chinese modernism, Lu Xun, on how he became a literary writer. The essay explores his early interest in Victorian scientific writing, particularly that of T. H. Huxley. The work is a more detailed version of the famous preface to Lu Xun’s short story collection Call to Arms / Nahan (吶喊), which is often read in literary courses. In the earlier preface to Call to Arms and in “Fragmentary Recollections,” Lu Xun provides a counter to the more optimistic and idealistic essays by Chen Duxiu and Liang Qichao. (For the preface, see Lu Xun, “Preface to the First Collection of Short Stories, ‘Call to Arms.’” Selected Stories of Lu Hsun, W. W. Norton, 2003, pp. 1–6.).

Zhou Yang. “Thoughts on Realism.” 1936. Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945, edited by Kirk A. Denton, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 335–44.
Zhou Yang was an important Marxist literary theorist of the 1930s who was often at odds with the so-called father of Modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun. In “Thoughts on Realism,” originally published in the journal Culture (文學), Zhou Yang provides a literary history and analysis of realist practices that could be read in place of and/or alongside Marston Anderson’s introduction to The Limits of Realism.

Secondary Texts

Anderson, Marston. “‘A Literature of Blood and Tears’: May Fourth Theories of Literary Realism.” The Limits of Realism: Chinese Fiction in the Revolutionary Period, University of California Press, 1990, pp. 27–75.
This extensive chapter from Anderson’s The Limits of Realism is most useful to the instructor of the course as they develop lecture materials to help students understand the historical contexts of what they read. From pages 27–37, Anderson offers important information about the May Fourth Movement, major Chinese literary authors of the twentieth century, and an accepted canonical reason for a turn to realism and engagement with Victorian literary texts. See also C. T. Hsia’s classic A History of Modern Chinese Fiction (Indiana University Press, reprinted 1999).

Anderson, Marston. “Introduction: Writing about Others.” The Limits of Realism: Chinese Fiction in the Revolutionary Period, University of California Press, 1990, pp. 1–26.
Anderson’s introductory chapter to The Limits of Realism provides comprehensive histories of the term “realism” from Western and Chinese traditions, taking into account realism’s contradictory features.

Shih, Shu-mei. “Loving the Other: May Fourth Occidentalism in the Global Context.” The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917-1937, University of California Press, 2001, pp. 128–48.
Shih’s chapter provokes serious debate about whether modern Chinese literary writing that engages with Victorian literature and ideas engage in a form of Occidentalism. The reading would pair well with an earlier foundation in Edward Said’s Orientalism but can be read on its own. The chapter also situates readers to see the transimperial networks that mark Sino-British literary connections by providing expanded historical context about Japan as a site of mediation for encountering Western literature.

Potential Topics for Discussion
  • Realism
  • Chinese modernization
  • May Fourth Movement / New Culture Movement
  • Transimperial networks
  • Orientalism
  • Occidentalism
  1. What do you make of the particular Victorian writers referenced by Chen Duxiu and Lu Xun? Does Chen Duxiu’s lumping of Darwin, Dickens, and Wilde as exemplary writers and thinkers make sense together? What do you make of Lu Xun’s interest in Huxley and Victorian scientific writing over literary writing?
  2. What do you think of Zhou Yang’s selection of Western authors important to the realist tradition? What is surprising about the list of Victorian-era authors Zhou Yang references – or doesn’t reference – in his list?
  3. What do you make of Liang Qichao’s arguments about literature’s role in producing revolutionary change? What do you think about Liang Qichao’s arguments about how reading affects readers?
  4. What are some of Zhou Yang’s criticisms regarding nineteenth-century realist texts (338)? What do you make of his protracted questioning of a correct “worldview”?
  5. Anderson provides significant detail about what constitutes a realist work of fiction. What are some of the features that make a work of fiction “realist”? What do you make of Anderson’s arguments about the contradictory features of realism?
  6. Taking up Shih’s chapter, what are some points she articulates about thinking in and outside of global and local contexts? How might the writings of Chen Duxiu, Liang Qichao, Zhou Yang, and Lu Xun operate in and outside of global and local contexts?

Chinese “Victorian” Narratives

Primary Texts

Lin Shu. “Preface to Oliver Twist.” Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945, edited by Kirk A. Denton, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 82–83.
This very short introduction to the first translation of Oliver Twist by perhaps one of the most well-known translators of the era would pair well with a reading of Dickens’s original novel. Lin Shu’s Chinese translation of the title Oliver Twist is Zeishi / A History of Thieves (賊史).

Lin Shu. “Preface to Part One of David Copperfield.” Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945, edited by Kirk A. Denton, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 84–86.
This short introduction to the translation of David Copperfield would pair well with a reading of Dickens’s novel. Lin Shu’s Chinese translation of the title David Copperfield is Kuairou yushengshu / The Story of My Life as an Orphan (塊肉餘生述, The Story of My Life as a Piece of Meat is a more literal translation).

Secondary Texts

Lee, Leo Ou-fan. “Lin Shu.” The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers, Harvard University Press, 1973, pp. 41–57.
Lee’s chapter is a concise biography of Lin Shu that offers notes about the other works that Lin Shu translated. Michael Hibbs Hill’s Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture (Oxford, 2012) is another excellent resource for context about Lin Shu and the complex collaborative systems he engaged in producing his translations. Hill’s work is useful for those interested in a history-of-the-book approach to discussing Lin Shu’s work.

Liu, Lydia H. “Introduction: The Problem of Language in Cross-Cultural Studies.” Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity--China, 1900-1937, Stanford University Press, 1995, pp. 1–42.
Most useful for more advanced undergraduate courses or graduate coursework, Liu’s introduction provides a useful term in “translingual practice” and also provocative questions for students to consider as they read Lin Shu’s translations: “What happens when a European text gets translated into a non-European language? Can the power relationship between East and West be reinvented (if not reversed) in that case? If so, how?” (24).

Additional Text Options (Victorian Texts Translating Chinese)

Chang, Elizabeth Hope. “Plate.” Britain’s Chinese Eye: Literature, Empire, and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Stanford University Press, 2010, pp. 71–110.
This source must be read in conjunction with Meredith’s The Egoist. Chang’s chapter on “Plate” traces a material history of porcelain china, speaking to Romantic poetic satires on blue and white china; the evolution of the willow pattern and Meredith’s The Egoist; and James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s roles as artists and collectors of blue and white porcelain. Chang reveals how a “Chinese story” gets produced and becomes recognizable as a British domestic product.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, et al. “Wednesday, January 31, 1827.” Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret, translated by John Oxenford, Smith, Elder & Co., 1850, pp. 348–54. Internet Archive.
The transcribed conversations and accounts of Goethe’s conversations with Eckermann serve as the source for the origins of the term Weltliteratur or “world literature.” Oxenford’s English translation of these conversations provokes contemplation on world literature’s emergence into public discourse during the Victorian era.

Meredith, George. The Egoist. 1879. Edited by George Woodcock, Penguin, 1993.
This text should be read paired with Elizabeth Hope Chang’s chapter on “Plate” from Britain’s Chinese Eye. Meredith’s long novel follows the heroine Clara Middleton’s attempts to break off an engagement from the narcissistic Sir Willoughby Patterne; her narrative is imagined in relation to the supposed Chinese story of paternal cruelty behind the blue willow plate pattern commonly found on porcelain china of the era. Set in an upper-class Victorian country home, the novel challenges notions of Englishness, gender politics, and class.

Potential Topics for Discussion
  • Charles Dickens
  • Translation
  • Lydia Liu’s concept of translingual practices
  • Lin Shu
  1. How is the narrative of Oliver Twist impacted by Lin Shu’s translation of the title as Zeishi / A History of Thieves (賊史)? How is the narrative of David Copperfield impacted by Lin Shu’s translation of the title as Kuairou yushengshu / The Story of My Life as a Piece of Meat or The Story of My Life as an Orphan (塊肉餘生述)? What are some different ways we can think about translation using Liu’s concept of translingual practices?
  2. What are the pressing thematic concerns that interest Lin Shu from Oliver Twist? What do you make of Lin Shu’s argument that what makes the English novel interesting is its pursuit of domestic and lower-class narratives?
  3. What is expected and unexpected in Lin Shu’s choice of texts to translate?
  4. What do you make of Lin Shu’s treatment of nationalism, imperialism, and whiteness as argued by Lee?

(Novel) Oddities

Primary Texts

Dickens, Charles. “Chapter XI. Involving Another Journey, and an Antiquarian Discovery; Recording Mr. Pickwick’s Determination to Be Present at an Election; and Containing a Manuscript of the Old Clergyman’s.” The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 143–57.
This chapter contains a short narrative entitled “A Madman’s Manuscript” about a privileged young man who believes he has a hereditary madness and causes the death of his wife. This chapter is thus useful for rethinking the conventional understanding of Dickens as a realist writer. It could also lead into a longer discussion of Dickens’s early Bozian work, as the early issues of Pickwick Papers allow readers to study how Dickens experiments with genre and form before a notion of the realist novel and his place as a realist novelist solidified. For expanded engagement with Pickwick Papers, read the first two numbers (chapters 1–5) in addition to chapter 11.

Gogol, Nikolai. “The Diary of a Madman.” The Diary of a Madman, the Government Inspector, and Selected Stories, translated by Ronald Wilks, Penguin Books, 2006, pp. 174–97.
Written nearly contemporaneously with Dickens’s work, Gogol’s short story centers on a government clerk, Poprishchin, who slowly goes mad.

Lu Xun. “A Madman’s Diary.” Selected Stories of Lu Hsun, W. W. Norton, 2003, pp. 7–18.
Inspired by Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” Lu Xun’s short story centers on an unnamed young man who suffers a “persecution complex” that causes him to believe society revolves around the cannibalization of people.

Secondary Texts

Freedgood, Elaine. “Preface: Worlds Enough”; “Introduction: How Victorian Novels Became Realistic (in a French Way), Reactionary, and Great.” Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel, Princeton University Press, 2019, pp. ix–xviii; 1–33.
Freedgood’s historical account of the literary critical directions that have led to the way we read and think about realism now is invaluable for thinking about the very odd generic and formal structures of the three stories on madmen by Dickens, Gogol, and Lu Xun.

Tang, Xiaobing. “Lu Xun’s ‘Diary of a Madman’ and a Chinese Modernism.” PMLA, vol. 107, no. 5, Oct. 1992, pp. 1222–34. Cambridge University Press.
One of the best critical readings of Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary” in English, Tang’s article questions how readers may approach thinking of Lu Xun’s work in terms of a “modernist” text and thus possibly subscribing the work to a Western cultural hegemony. Tang’s close readings attend to the linguistic play of Lu Xun’s story and opens up a consideration of the kind of translingual practices that do and can shape the production of realist fiction.

Potential Topics for Discussion
  • Short stories
  • Surrealism
  • Transimperial networks
  • Charles Dickens
  • Thinking beyond the Victorian realist novel
  • Lydia Liu’s concept of translingual practices
  1. Compare and contrast the short stories by Dickens, Gogol, and Lu Xun. What are the differences or similarities in terms of the stories’ formal structures, genre affiliations, character tropes, and/or interests in social issues?
  2. Lu Xun has often been presented as the father of Modern Chinese literature and a master of realism; however, despite being conferred these titles, he never produced a longform realist novel. Postulate a little. What are some possible reasons that Lu Xun focused on writing in genres like the short story, essay, or poetry, as opposed to the kind of novelistic works that have represented Victorian realism? What do these other forms allow?
  3. Consider Freedgood’s suggestion that we may want to “restore the full oddness of the nineteenth-century novel” by considering the self-reflexive play at hand in these works of satire, which take us out of familiarly “realistic” or “real” geopolitical spaces and into more psychedelic realms of temporal and phenomenological experience (x). What do these more surreal short stories allow for over the novel?
  4. What do you make of the medical frame narratives surrounding each of these short stories by Dickens, Gogol, and Lu Xun? What do they suggest are concerns about health, wellness, and medicine during and in the wake of the Victorian era?

Outside Victorian Encounters

Primary Texts

Yu Dafu. “Sinking.” The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, edited by Joseph S. M. Lau and Howard Goldblatt, translated by Joseph S. M. Lau and C. T. Hsia, 2nd ed, Columbia University Press, 2007, pp. 31–55.
Yu Dafu’s novella explores the personal history of a male Chinese student experiencing a crisis of sexuality while studying abroad in Japan, as many writers of the Chinese modernist movement did in the early 1910s and 1920s. The protagonist of Sinking makes references to many nineteenth-century authors, including William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Heinrich Heine, Gogol, and George Gissing as well as the tradition of Romanticism and the French naturalistic novel.

Lao She. Mr. Ma and Son / 《二馬》. 1929. Translated by Julie Jimmerson, Wai wen chu ban she / Foreign Languages Press, 2010.
Lao She’s novel centers around a father, Ma Zeren, and son, Ma Wei, who move to London during the Edwardian period to take over an antique shop left to them by Ma Zeren’s deceased brother. The novel contemplates how British serial publications and media have depicted Chinese people and culture and is partially autobiographical as Lao She himself worked in London as a lecturer of Chinese literature and culture at the University of London’s School of Oriental Studies from 1924 to 1929. Lao She spent much of his spare time reading the works of his two favorite authors, Dickens and Joseph Conrad, in the school’s library.

Potential Topics for Discussion
  • World literature
  • Chineseness as concept
  • English literary history
  • Transimperial networks
  • Migration and movement
  • In the wake of the Victorians
  1. How does Lao She’s novel about life in Edwardian London posit the influence of Victorian literature and culture in both British and Chinese contexts? What aspects of Victorian culture carry over?
  2. What do you make of the literary interests of the protagonist of Sinking? What are ways he engages or disengages from the literary texts he reads?
  3. How do Lao She and Yu Dafu’s works consider the construction of Chineseness? What are important aspects of “Chinese” identity that get discussed in these two works?
  4. What are some subjects or themes that seem central to these texts beyond the influence of British culture and society? What do you find most interesting about the texts’ representation of these subjects or themes?

Developer Biography

Rae X. Yan is an Assistant Professor of British Literature from 1830 to 1900 at the University of Florida. She is currently at work on a book project about anatomizing as a joint literary and scientific practice during the Victorian era. Her research on this work has been published in Nineteenth-Century Contexts, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, and Dickens Studies Annual.

Header Image Caption

Lai Fong. “Part of the Bund, Shanghai.” 1870s. The Getty Research Institute, Clark Worswick collection of photographs of China and Southeast Asia, 2003.R.22-b7.36r. Public domain. See The Getty Research Institutute's “Reproductions and Permissions.”

Page/Lesson Plan Citation (MLA)

Rae X. Yan, les. plan dev. “Victorian Realism, China, and the Politics of Form.” Menglu Gao, Waiyee Loh, Hyungji Park, Jessica R. Valdez, collab. peer revs.; Sophia Hsu, les. plan clust. dev. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2022,