Oscillating Between Modernity and National Identity: the Intellectual Dynamics of Manchukuo Literature from 1937 to 1941

Chao Liu, University of Colorado Boulder


During the golden age of Manchukuo from 1937 to 1941, there emerged a large number of writers, who came from different nations and held ramified cultural identities, and literary works of various styles, subject matters as well as intellectual traditions, which coexisted, contradicted, and conflated with each other to make Manchukuo literature as a whole and a supreme example for comparative literature studies.

My research, the first endeavor in the English academic world to explore Manchukuo literature in its entirety, puts it within the specific cultural lineages and social-political background to illuminate its underlying intellectual dynamics with a focus on four major literary groups, the Manshū rōmanha, Sakubun writers, Yiwenzhi intellectuals, and the Wenxuan School. Through an in-depth investigation into their theoretical proposals and literary praxes, it turns out that oscillating between modernization and national identification, Manchukuo literature took on the features of multiplicity, ambiguity and self-reflexivity which transcended the dichotomy of romanticism and realism and that of the colonizers and the colonized.

If we can liken Manchukuo’s literary history during this period to a coordinate system, then it was modernity and national identity that formed its horizontal and vertical axes. The Manshū rōmanha and Sakubun writers respectively adopted an anti-modern and modern perspectives and unanimously headed towards an intellectual stance of denying their own national identity and merging into the colony’s indigenous society; in comparison, Manchurian intellectuals, as epitomized by the Yiwenzhi School and the Wenxuan School, started from the same purpose of promoting national consciousness, but at last embarked on a bifurcated path to either modernization or retraditionalisation. Moreover, although the literary writings of these four groups differed much from each other in topics, stylistic features, and narrative modes, they all showed a deep concern for the sufferings of the Manchurian people brought by colonialism, coincidentally directed their criticism or sarcasm against the colonial rule, and thereupon endowed Manchukuo literature with the keynote of “darkness.”