Taiwan Lit and the Global Sinosphere


Performing Emotions in Lyrical Essays

Taiwan Lit 1.2 (Fall 2020)

In recent years, the emerging field of emotion studies has increasingly come to agree that emotion, or at least a significant part of it, is more sociolinguistically structured than physiologically autonomous. Brian Massumi’s discernment between affect and emotion well epitomizes this position: in what has become a canonical text in affect studies, Massumi attributes affect as the autonomous “intensity” that links closely to body and action, at such a level that it precedes perception, operating against the order of signification. What we call emotion is to be understood here as a narration of affect—a “subtracted” version of the primitive, unformed, and nonsignifying affective intensity, smoothed over “to fit conscious requirements of continuity and linear causality,” so that the qualified intensity can be meaningfully registered and perceived in our consciousness as emotion.

For scholars working on Sinosphere literature and cultures, particularly those whose research interests center around the discussion of “qing 情 ” (the closest Chinese translation of emotion/affect/feeling/sentiment/sensibility), this modern understanding of emotion has come as a reaffirmation of the uniqueness of the premodern Chinese literature and culture, in which the culturally specific emotions are construed through an episteme distinct from our modern experience. In the past, the mainstream narrative about the abrupt divide between modern and premodern suggested that the traditional emotional disposition was interrupted and transformed altogether by the May Fourth generation, who saw tradition as decadent and fully embraced the imported “Western” episteme. In more recent decades, scholars have remedied this narrative by underlining the diverse repertoire of cultural products from China’s Republican period, in which traditional and modern sensibilities were coexistent, restructured, and rekindled in accordance with the new sociopolitical order. In essence, both narratives substantiate a teleological genealogy of emotion, in which the premodern Chinese/Sinosphere sensibilities had undergone a massive transformation to reach the modern—either at an earlier time when the traditional cultural institutions started to collapse or around the time when the PRC was founded. For the most part, such understanding does reflect reality. However, placing our emphasis solely on how Chinese culture acquired modern emotion is not without danger: it could lead to a flawed impression that the traditional sensibilities had largely become irrelevant in the contemporary world and, thus, risk understating the role these sensibilities have played in the modern experience of the Sinosphere.

In light of this, the lyrical essay (shuqing sanwen 抒情散文) in postwar Taiwan provides a valuable case study of how the culturally specific sensibilities function in the modern episteme. This essayistic literature conventionally enjoys an affinity with Chinese classical literature; it can be readily linked to such aesthetic resources as the late imperial xiaopin wen 小品文 (little prose pieces) or the literary discourse shuqing chuantong 抒情傳統 (the Chinese lyricism). Although somewhat contradictory, this type of writing also represents the most emancipated form of emotional expression—an imprint of Western Romanticism—from among the literary genres introduced during the May Fourth era. In practice, contrary to the common belief that the genre serves as a transparent medium for conveying earnest emotion, lyrical essay writing instantiates performative practices about morality and order. Distinct from literature as representation, the lyrical essay in its essence is non-mimetic and thus, if we extend Jonathan Culler’s theory of lyrics to the lyrical essay, should be treated as a statement of reality, an utterance that aims to make happen, to enact something in the world. Writing a lyrical essay, at its core, is a form of social practice partaking of the construct of public discourse and value. To perform the writing of a lyrical essay is to solicit approval from the reader, negotiate personal emotions and social morality, and, ultimately, seek to establish a common, repeatable practice relating to the discourse and value that are of concern.

Hence, unlike many of its literary counterparts, which may endlessly pursue novelty or the creation of depth and complexity, the lyrical essay induces traditional sentiments, celebrates ritualistic repetition of themes, and privileges social interference. The success of lyrical essay thus also lies in its iterability—that is, being thematically repeated, until such theme becomes commonplace. Through this generic scheme, the premodern emotional patterns are primarily produced and consumed, in line with the conservative, mainstream culture predominating for a considerable time in post-1949 Taiwan. Ultimately, the lyrical essay serves as a nodal point that takes part in generating, repeating, and structuring the socioculturally defined emotions.

Postwar Taiwan, a site whose modern literary history was remade against the backdrop of the Cold War, in a sense, presents itself as a unique case for the study of how the literary sensibilities coordinate with ideological convictions. The strong presence lyrical writing retained in postwar Taiwan’s mainstream literature bespeaks a literary culture not only distinctive in Sinophone communities but also in direct contrast to the revolutionary, socialist realism stream of literature that gained currency within CCP-governed China. The prevalence of lyrical essays has a direct linkage with the cultural conservatism subscribed to by postwar Taiwan’s mainstream literature. Since its inception in the May Fourth era, vernacular Mandarin essay writing had epitomized the liberal humanist intellectual’s ideal of free expression of individuality. This ideal was passed on to Taiwan after the 1949 divide, and lyrical essays, a subcategory of essayistic literature that emphasizes the expression of personal feelings and sentiments, gained a particularly strong foothold in Taiwan. Lyrical essays, in practice, however, also bear the imprint of Confucianist moral teachings and thus are inclined to channel feelings and sentiments in a manner that privileges self-cultivation and a sense of propriety. For the most part, the emotion expressed through the lyrical performance helped ratify the social relations endorsed by the conservative mainstream. Simply put, the literary culture of the lyrical essay as it developed in Taiwan provides a distinct perspective, which extends our inquiry about culturally normative emotions from the untranslatable differences between modern and premodern to differences in left-right politics.

The discussion on lyrical performance thus further complicates the relationship between the modern experience and premodern sensibility. It stands true that drastic change in the modern sociolinguistic environment has largely foreclosed the classical sensibilities. However, the dissemination and consumption of traditional sentiments do not rely merely on emotional translatability at the sociolinguistic level but also on how the emotions are practiced. In the case of the lyrical essay, aside from its performative practice of language, the (Neo‑)Confucianist exercises of self-cultivation and retrospection are still deeply ingrained in the genre, partaking in how the lyrical emotions are structured and organized. The fact that the concept of “lyrical (shuqing 抒情),” meaning to express feelings, as part of the discourse of Chinese lyricism may very well be a modern invention or reinvention of postwar Taiwan, on the other hand, adds another layer to the complexity of the discussion.


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