Monash University

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Modern Selfhood in Translation - A study of progressive translation practices in China (1890s - 1920s)

posted on 2017-11-09, 01:34 authored by Limin Chi
The present study examines the translation practices of late Qing and early Republican Chinese intellectuals in relation to the construction of a modern Chinese identity from the 1890s to the 1920s. It is focused on the influence that key translations exerted on the development of models of modern selfhood and modern ways of seeing and feeling in Chinese intellectual culture.

From the 1890s to the 1920s, the vast bulk of translations of Western scientific and literary works were produced by Chinese intellectuals who sought to develop a thriving modern print culture in China, based on their familiarity with modern publishing. Western social scientific works and some genres of fiction (political fiction, detective fiction, science and adventure fiction), often through the intermediary of Japanese, appealed to reformist intellectuals in the 1890s and 1900s. By the 1910s and 1920s New Culture translators were more interested in stories and plays from numerous source countries, such as Russia, England, Norway and Poland. By analyzing the translators’ selection of source texts and their approaches to translation as well as exploring the relationship between translation and the creation of modern values over a thirty-year period in Chinese history, this study seeks to highlight how the reception of foreign works in Chinese translation encouraged people to conceptualize modern selfhood through identification with the protagonists of foreign stories.

During the period in question, translated works were the source of several key concepts that were promoted by leading translators. These key concepts, which included evolution, liberalism, citizenship, “wholesome individualism,” humanism and national character, became meaningful via translated works and the explanations provided by the translators. The five highly influential translators selected as case studies (namely, Yan Fu, Liang Qichao, Hu Shi, Zhou Zuoren and Lu Xun) played a significant part in popularizing these modern concepts as essential for improving the self and the nation.

The study has made use of insights from translation studies, especially as regards the translator’s agency in the evolving social, political and cultural configurations that make up the society of a rapidly changing China. Through their selection of source texts and their adoption of different translation strategies, the five translators championed a progressive view of the world: one that was open-minded and humanistic. The late Qing construction of modern Chinese identity, instigated under the imperative of national salvation in the aftermath of the First Sino-Japanese War, wielded a far-reaching influence on the New Culture discourse. This study argues that the New Culture translations, being largely explorations of modern self-consciousness, helped to produce an egalitarian cosmopolitan view of modern being. This was a view favoured by a majority of mainland intellectuals in the post-Maoist 1980s and that has since become an important topic in mainland scholarship.


Principal supervisor

Gloria Davies

Additional supervisor 1

Rita Wilson

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Arts

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