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Not afraid of ghosts: Critical appropriations of the spectral in modern Chinese fiction

Applicant Imbach Jessica Elizabeth
Number 157969
Funding scheme Marie Heim-Voegtlin grants
Research institution Abteilung Islamwissenschaft Asien-Orient-Institut Universität Zürich
Institution of higher education University of Zurich - ZH
Main discipline Other languages and literature
Start/End 01.11.2014 - 31.10.2015
Approved amount 75'414.00
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Keywords (9)

Jia Pingwa; spectrality; gender; Chinese ghost opera; May Fourth movement; revolution; post-Mao fiction; ghost fiction; Lu Xun

Lay Summary (German)

Gespenster spielten eine wichtige Rolle in der klassischen, chinesischen Literatur. Im Zuge des stark auf Säkularisierung fokussierten Modernisierungsdiskurses zogen chinesische Reform-Intellektuelle diese lange Tradition fantastischer Literatur jedoch als beispielhaft für China's kulturelle Unterlegenheit gegenüber dem Westen herbei.
Lay summary

Dies bedeutete jedoch nicht, dass Gespenster aus der Literatur verschwanden wie dies insbesondere marxistische Literaturkritiker noch in den 1930er Jahren hofften. Sogar die sozialistische Literatur bediente sich in kanonischen Werken wie der Propaganda Oper “Das Weisshaarige Mädchen” dieser langen Gespenstertradition und Mao Zedong legte selbst Hand an bei der Editierung der Geschichtensammlung “Keine Angst vor Gespenster Geschichten”. Diese Arbeit studiert unter Einbezug unterschiedlicher westlicher Theorien zu Gespenstern in der Moderne (Derrida, Freud) und zum Teil noch unerforschter chinesischer Quellen, die aesthetischen wie auch politischen Problemkreise, welche seit Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts in der chinesischen Literatur über die Figur des Gespenstes verhandelt werden.

Diese Arbeit schliesst eine Lücke in der aktuellen Forschung zur modernen, chinesischen Literatur und leistet einen Beitrag aus chinesischer Perspektive zur Debatte um den jünst proklamierten “spectral turn” in den Kulturwissenschaften.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 29.10.2014

Responsible applicant and co-applicants



Variations on gui and the trouble with ghosts in modern Chinese fiction
Imbach Jessica, Variations on gui and the trouble with ghosts in modern Chinese fiction, in Asiatische Studien.

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
Association of Chinese and Comparative Literature Conference Talk given at a conference Repetition with a Difference: Female Ghosts in Shanghai Fiction pre 1949 18.06.2015 Shanghai, China Imbach Jessica Elizabeth;
Ringvorlesung zur Sinologie, Universität Zürich Individual talk Zeit mit Gespenstern denken 27.04.2015 Zürich, Switzerland Imbach Jessica Elizabeth;

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
139627 Fantasizing ghosts: Gendered memories and traumatic specters in post-Mao fiction (working title) 01.05.2012 Marie Heim-Voegtlin grants


Ghosts have a long and varied history within Chinese literature. It is however during China's modernization period at the beginning of the 20th century that ghosts both as religious and literary figures turn into a politically highly charged subject matter. Radical secularists used ghosts often as metaphors of crisis. Famous is Hu Shi's diagnosis of China's five “evil demons” - poverty, disease, ignorance, corruption and disorder (Hu Shi, 2003). This anti-ghost rhetoric set the grounds for equations of the feudal with the supernatural in socialist narratives of development and revolution. Famous is especially the catch-phrase of the enormously popular modern folk opera “The White-Haired Girl”: “The old society turned humans into ghosts, the new society transforms ghosts into humans!” But while the phantom heroine Li Huiniang of the eponymous libretto by Meng Chao was by 1964 criticized for fostering superstition, she was in earlier versions of the same play up until the mid-1950s still read as a champion of the revolutionary cause (Zhang Lianhong, 2013). After the Cultural Revolution ghost fiction not only revisits the problematic ghost discourse during Mao's rule, but also employs ghosts to explore and critique the historiography of the present and the political role of literary writing. The post-1989 period, lastly, is conventionally characterized as a period of depolitization and commercialization. Jia Pingwa challenges this view in his novel “White Night” by focusing on liminal figures such as animals, infants and a reborn in his modernized take on the Mulian “ghost opera”. This spectral mode of critique has extended into the political field, most notably in the Leftist intellectual Wang Hui's analysis of Lu Xun's ghost world as an alternative, revolutionary vision. Drawing on a wide range of theoretical concepts (especially Jacques Derrida's hauntology) this project argues that ghosts can not be subsumed under an idealized notion of the “other”, but take on, depending on author, context and political situation, very distinctive functions and roles within Chinese modernization discourse. This project studies these various critical appropriations of the spectral in case studies on the modern short story, revolutionary drama, post-Mao fiction and literary criticism, respectively.