Fou Lei and his alibis: the dépaysement of a Chinese intellectual and his spiritual counterparts

Hu, Mingyuan (2014) Fou Lei and his alibis: the dépaysement of a Chinese intellectual and his spiritual counterparts. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Michel de Montaigne believed that to judge a man, we must follow his traces long and carefully. This chronological study of Fou Lei (1908-1966) traces, firstly, his footsteps as a cogent critic of art, literature, music and politics, and as the most accomplished translator of French literature in China of the twentieth century, and secondly reveals a fraction of an intellectual labyrinth meandering through China’s fragmented modern history, almost Oedipal in its disposition towards its past, and its tragic love relations with the West, real or envisioned.
Fou Lei the translator of Balzac and Fou Lei the art critic have been the subjects of recent scholarly work of Nicolai Volland and Claire Roberts. This thesis proposes an intellectual biography of Fou Lei and commences, by necessity, with a narrative of his youth – especially the years he spent in Europe – which he himself scarcely mentioned, and the analysis of which is sorely missing in existing literature. Hitherto unpublished documents that I discovered in France and Switzerland contribute to this biography. A close examination of Fou Lei’s early, especially emotional, life is made with the purpose of contextualising his subsequent moral and existential choices. These choices in turn are historicised through his writing, translation and correspondence. Archival findings in Paris lend significant insight into the agony in which he lived during his last years in China, where political predicaments alone were responsible for his death.
There are two dimensions to this investigation: intellectual and linguistic. A recurring theme is that of parallels, and a sustained inquiry that of how to reconstruct, then deconstruct, the process of cultural translation and appropriation. Allowing the material to dictate my treatment of it, I make as my focus the internal life of an individual against external conditions. Fou Lei, who chose to live a strictly sedentary life in response to his circumstances, justifies and demands this treatment. Squarely through the point of view of an intellectual who made sense of external and internal realities by way of rigid dichotomy, I obliquely challenge generalised ideas, in particular those of this intellectual himself. I thereby draw attention to the specific thought process of his generalising and the possible ways of understanding it, throwing into question the linguistic instability inherent in these efforts. Under psychological considerations, pre-supposed categorisations dissolve. The ingenium of an individual scrutinised in a given historical situation makes specific the notion of “culture” in a defined context, itself routinely entangled not least semantically.
Other than situating Fou Lei, where necessary, in his social milieu, I make apparent, and give accent to, a milieu of words, one with indistinct geographical and temporal boundaries, to glimpse the mental world of a multilingual literatus, the devotion of whose entire adult life was to the craft of language. For the same reason that a thesis on Joseph Conrad might not be expected to discuss Poland, I restrain, where possible, inclined elaboration on the elephantine subject that is China in my study of Fou Lei. I hope to illustrate the “obsession with China” – as C. T. Hsia termed it – that he shared with his contemporaries without falling victim myself to that obsession.
This individualistically-driven narrative yet serves a historical purpose. It allows Fou Lei himself to take us from a post-revolutionary, post-May Fourth, post-White Terror Shanghai to an inter-war Europe during the Great Depression, and back to a China entering the Sino-Japanese War, then the Civil War, changing thereafter from a Republic to a People’s Republic under progressively totalitarian control, and traversing endless upheavals into the Cultural Revolution. This voyage becomes thereupon itself a witness both to Fou Lei’s desperate interaction with his time, and to his fierce insistence on autonomy.
Notwithstanding our way of arguing being by and large linear, in no way should Fou Lei’s journey be conceptualised as so. In a peculiarly three-dimensional manner, there was more a dislocation, or a continuous array of dislocations, that he had to make sense of in relation to his own country, the political signification of which changed several times over in the lifetime of that particular generation, than the easily supposed confrontation and integration between the so-called East and West.

What this modern Chinese intellectual, decidedly archaic in his moral standing and profoundly romantic in a nineteenth-century European sense, obliges, is multi-disciplinary research from multiple angles. What this study of his youth, now positioned in relation to his entire life, reveals, are aspirations that were never fulfilled, seeds that never grew. What it portrays is a sensitivity determined to educate himself against all odds. To a certain extent, this is not so much an analysis of what he achieved – and achieve he did, formidably – as of how he was aborted, and why.
In Fou Lei and his Alibis, we observe a man of letters turning time and again to art and literature as a refuge, and I raise, and leave open, questions about his conditions and reactions, still unresolved; questions of alienation and exile, imposed and chosen; questions of perceived roots, perceived universality; the question, as Simone Weil put it, of the relationship between destiny and the human soul.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PC Romance languages
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0441 Literary History
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Culture and Creative Arts
Supervisor's Name: Pearce, Prof. Nick
Date of Award: 2014
Embargo Date: 31 June 2025
Depositing User: Mingyuan Hu
Unique ID: glathesis:2014-5594
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 15 Oct 2014 12:32
Last Modified: 27 Jun 2023 10:08
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