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Unfinished Revolution: A Paradox of Mourning Subjectivity in Su Manshu’s The Lone Swan

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image of Frontiers of Literary Studies in China

Su Manshu’s 苏曼殊 (1884–1918) The Lone Swan (Duanhong lingyan ji 断鸿零雁记, 1911, 1912) is best known for a sustained use of subjective voice and a thematic emphasis on tragic love. Critics have often credited the novella’s intensely tragic narrative for spearheading a new kind of literary subjectivity that became a cornerstone of modern Chinese literature as heralded by the May Fourth critics in the late 1910s and the 1920s. However, very few have examined this new subjectivity as an effect of Su’s critical engagement with a late Qing nationalist narrative. Su’s novella was an appropriation of the anti-Manchu revolutionary narrative of a nation, which hinged on a paradoxical mode of envisaging a new China through a temporal return to the past and by means of a tragic sacrifice of the individual. Following a brief analysis of Su’s early piece published in The People’s Journal (Minbao 民报), this article demonstrates how The Lone Swan elaborated on an excess of individual sacrifice, while developing the new, mourning subjectivity as a witness to the unfinished revolutionary enterprise of forging a powerful nation. Su’s narrative of cultural devastation resonates with Lu Xun’s (1881–1936) late Qing work, but, in the May Fourth period that immediately followed, this sense of despair would become an unequivocal object for overcoming.


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