Yang: Harmony & Heterotopias - China's Ethnic Frontiers in the Literary Imagination

Abstract: My dissertation looks at the depiction of China's ethnic frontiers in contemporary Chinese literature in order to examine a range of responses to the state-envisioned ideals of Harmony propagated throughout PRC history. The Confucian texts of Datong, or Great Harmony, are embedded in Maoist utopian visions for moulding the natural and human worlds in anticipation of socialist modernity; the contemporary revival of the Datong ideal expresses China's desire to build a harmonious (hexie) society in the 21st century. In the world of fiction, China's borderlands, home to ethnic minorities, are often conceived of as idyllic lands brimming with the type of harmony that is absent in the imperfect actuality of the political center. These depictions have emerged as either direct reactions to grand narratives of progress or as continued attempts to create an audience that grows attentive to the alternative models of a good society inherited from and preserved by the traditions of minorities. I borrow Foucault's concept of "heterotopia" to analyze literary fantasies surrounding three minority regions -- the wilderness of the Inner Mongolian steppe as the cradle of the wolf totem, the Tibetan areas associated with mythical Shangri-La, and the homeland of the matrilineal Mosuo, known as the Country of Women, in Southwest China. My dissertation formulates and develops the thesis that the featured writers set heterotopias at the geographical and social periphery in order to imagine and reconfigure China's road to modernity in a fashion that paradoxically challenges and enriches the official discourse of utopianism. They withdraw from the grand schemes of Harmony by creating their own utopian visions. In the meantime, their quest for a spiritual asylum unveils the historical impact of socialist campaigns on minority regions and people. The textual construction of the three different minority areas both capitalizes on and revolutionizes the stereotypical image that has presented such places as backward and primitive. Instead, the texts my dissertation analyses offer a fantasy about how minority places deliver the spiritual, ecological, and gender-based harmony that complements and perhaps even surpasses the dominant political narrative, when describing the ideal interaction between individuals, society, and nature.


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