Childhood Subjectivity in Western and Chinese Thought and Literature: A Case Study of Four Masterworks




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This dissertation is a comparative study of conceptualizations and literary representations of childhood subjectivity in Western and Chinese traditions. Accepting the general assumption that childhood is highly valued in all cultures, I have observed a cross-cultural tension between the natural desire to hold on to the original state of infancy and the inevitable outcome to be remolded into a subject. After a critical survey of conceptualizations of childhood and subjectivity in both traditions, I have come to this understanding that childhood, compared to other stages in life, is the most contested site in which the normative discourses meet the fiercest resistance. With this view as a perspective on the childhood self in Western and Chinese thought and literature, I have conducted a comparative reading of four literary masterpieces: Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861) and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) in English, and Pu Songling’s Liaozhai Zhiyi (1740), or Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio and Cao Xueqin’s Hongloumeng (1791), or The Story of the Stone in Chinese. Although the chosen literary works seem to be unrelated to each other, they all have subject matters and themes of childhood and children’s rites of passage to adulthood. By investigating the inner logic and cultural variations of children’s subjectification in the chosen literary works in relation to intellectual thought on childhood in Chinese and Western traditions, my study has uncovered four distinctive paths of the children’s subjectification: the painful sacrifice of the original self in conformity to the Confucian social expectations centered around family reverence; the cutting off of all ties with the mundane world so as to return to the heart of the naked babe; the redemption of the capitalist subject through a return to the healthy childhood self; and the continuous dissociation with civilized society in search for the natural self on the part of the untamed colonial subject. Despite the differences in the conception of childhood self and variations of normative discourse, both the Chinese and the English works offer vivid representations of and profound insights into the complexity of childhood growth into adulthood by way of social and ideological subjectification.



Dickens, Charles, 1812-1870. Great expectations, Twain, Mark, 1835-1910. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Pu, Songling, 1640-1715. Liao zhai zhi yi, Cao, Xueqin, approximately 1717-1763. Hong lou meng, Children—China, Children—United States, Children in literature, Subjectivity in literature, Chinese literature, English literature, American literature


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