Beginning with China's modernization in the late 19th century ghost fiction became viewed as an impediment to China's (cultural) development. However, modern writers continued to use ghosts in their fiction. Rather than reading these texts as culturally "conservative" and the figure of the ghosts as a signifier of the “premodern” or “timeless” , this project will argue that ghosts should be read as ambivalent figures problematizing issues of cultural belonging, nationalism and historiography.

Lay summary

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution (1976) and the beginning of China’s economic reforms, the established rationale of the “Chinese Enlightenment” and its notions of the “traditional” and the “modern” are becoming increasingly contested. In contemporary fiction tropes of haunting and spectrality are employed to revisit this modernity and its reliance on a “traditional other”, as well as to address the alternative histories that have emerged from the lacunae of official historiography. Not only the anti-traditionalist theorists of the New Culture movement at the beginning of the 20th century, but also the numerous campaigns by the communist regime since 1949 against ghosts and associated “feudalist” practices have transformed ghosts into a politically highly charged subject matter. So far, literary critics have focused primarily on the stylistic reconfigurations of the “realist paradigm” of the May Fourth movement (1919) in post-Mao ghost fiction. In light of the critical historico-political function ghosts have come to play in recent Chinese history and cultural texts, it will be argued that the new ghost tale has to be understood as a response to modernity’s narrative framework and its (historical-materialist) notions of the past - and not, as some critics have, of a nostalgia for a premodern “tradition”. This project aims to examine the ways in which popular ghost performances, ancestor rituals, ghost marriages, animism and funerary customs are given aesthetic momentum vis-a-vis China’s rapid social and economic development and environmental degradation. Furthermore, it will be argued that the (post-)modern ghost tale’s use of gendered imagery points to contemporary anxieties on the socially destabilising potential of emergent historical agents and their alternative histories. The main focus will lie on Lu Xun (1881-1936) and Jia Pingwa’s (1952-) respective treatments of the ghost opera “Mulian saves his mother” (Mulian jiu mu). Drawing on a wide range of theoretical concepts (especially Jacques Derrida’s “hauntology”) these two authors among others will be read in relation to the time period and its thinkers now subsumed under the term “Chinese modernity” as well as the ensuing fictional and historic treatments of ghosts. It will be argued that the ghost tale occupies a critical intersection in the study of Chinese (post-)modernities and the possibilities of (cultural, religious, environmentalist) critique under consumer-capitalist inflicted socialism, which still holds a strong monopoly on the definitions of “history”, “tradition” and “religion”.