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Impromptu: Clay Chou

Clay Chou

Clay Chou is an assistant professor and the Luetkemeyer Endowed Chair in Mandarin Chinese and Asian studies. His academic interests include modern and contemporary Chinese literature, visual media, popular culture, and gender.

By Molly Englund

What are you researching?

My research is about the modern concept of children; my dissertation is about what I call “developmental eugenics narratives.”

In traditional Chinese culture, children were seen as the property of the family; your job was to continue the family line. The modern idea associating children with the nation’s future became important in the late 19th century and early 20th century China.

I discovered my current research interest while I was exploring the concept of the modern family and its accompanied concepts of individualism, personhood, and free love marriage (in contrast to the traditional arranged marriage) in the framework of Chinese modernity.

Is the idea of the child in China still evolving?

Yes. In pop culture right now, a lot of Chinese male idols have feminine features. I see that feature as a continuation of the traditional Chinese literatus masculinity. But President Xi thinks it symbolizes the weakness of the Chinese nation. So it’s encouraged all these entertainment agencies to stop making men look “feminine.” Suddenly, you see Chinese male idols go to the gym, lift weights, and grow beards and mustaches. It’s just a different sense of the masculinity.

I recently read a piece about education in Chinese culture. Students usually go to an afterschool academic program for continued study. Academics have always been important, but recently a lot of sports afterschool programs have opened in China, and parents are hurrying to enroll their kids. The students take all kinds of sports to build a stronger body physically, instead of mental and intellectual strengths.

So this is new. However, I see it as an echo of 100 years ago, because Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century, after the Opium War, focused on changing China’s image as “the sick man of Asia.” They were pushing for physical strength. So I think these ideas about how we see children, how we connect them with the nation, still appear in Chinese culture.

Are there trends in contemporary Chinese literature that particularly interest you?

I just finished this science fiction novel, The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. I like the first book; I was a little bit disappointed with the second book. I was angry when I read the third book—which means he’s a great writer. [laughs]

When I say Chinese contemporary literature, I mean contemporary writing from China instead of the Chinese-speaking world. If it were from Taiwan, I would consider that Taiwanese literature or Sinophone literature.

A lot of writers in their 60s and older are still elaborating on the emotions and experience of the Cultural Revolution. At least, the well-known writers translated into English are. I think the Cultural Revolution for current Chinese writers is different than it was for the scar literature, where they wrote about all these horrible memories. The writers I encounter today use the Cultural Revolution as a nostalgic device to talk about their childhood, a period they don’t associate with politics. They are not writing about how miserable life was in the Cultural Revolution. They’re talking about the period, but they parallel it with their unruly childhoods that evoke their sentimental memories outside it while within that traumatic era.

The younger generation of writers is more likely to talk about the fast, rapid changes in China.

You’ve translated some literary work by the early 20th-century writer Lu Xun. Is that a specific challenge, translating from an earlier time?

Yes, and it really depends on what piece you’ve translated from Lu Xun. A quick background about the writers of that period: In the early 20th century, Chinese intellectuals were pushing what we call “Baihuawen,” or “Baihua wenxue,” which is colloquial Chinese in writing. In the past, people wrote in classical Chinese.

Lu Xun and other Chinese intellectuals started writing stories and essays in the voice of how people talk in daily life. Because there could be so many interpretations of the classical into the modern language, they said, “We should write something more concise, something clear to understand for all of us.” So they turned to Baihuawen.

My research focused on women writers and men writers in the Republican time (1911-49). I believe, in the Republican time, the women were much better writers than the men were. But in the field of foreign literatures in America, you must teach something translated. So we professors in the Chinese fields pretty much teach the same pieces from the modern period. We teach Lu Xun’s The Madman’s Diary, things like that, not just because they are influential works but because they’ve been translated, and they are good translations.

I have several colleagues doing modern Chinese literature, and we all say, “I want to teach my students this piece, but there’s no English translation. And I don’t feel like I can do a good job translating it.” I would like to be able to bring in more female writers’ stories.

Ling Shuhua was a great writer, and Xiao Hong, who is more well known in America. They and other female writers were prominent figures of their time. And I think we’ll only do them justice if we bring them to the table.

And what is biopolitics? I saw that was one of your research interests.

That’s something I’m using to try to reframe my research. It is a natural move, because my current research of eugenic narrative biopolitics confers about politics and human life. My research looks into how eugenics and biology are used as a means to promote propaganda, but, more importantly, how it influenced or shaped Chinese writers when they produced their fiction.  That’s something I’m working on and the framework of biopolitics is just something I’m tapping into.

When President Xi says pop star men are too feminine, that’s biopolitics?

That’s how I see it. And as I was doing my research, I could easily connect the Chinese female writers of that time to those today. Chinese women of the early 20th century were asked to be “good wife, wise mother,” so they could produce and raise better future Chinese citizens. They were asked to return the domestic sphere and forget about their careers. Although today’s women are not asked to return home, they still, in any field, if they want to focus on their career, sometimes need to delay becoming a mother. I see their struggles as a remnant of the past. I see the Chinese female intellectuals going through that 100 years ago.

These things still happen. The question was never solved. We are still facing the same struggles.