Date of Award

Winter 12-15-2022

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Comparative Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



My dissertation examines the features of vernacular modernism in Chinese detective fiction during the first half of the twentieth century. This project is built upon, but at the same time challenges existing scholarship that emphasizes the modern qualities of these detective stories. Instead of seeing these stories as merely pursuing modernity, I argue that they made deeply critical reflections, from a modern stance, on experiences of modernity and modernization, and thereby acquired aesthetic features of modernism. Appropriating the method of “vernacular modernism” from Miriam Hansen’s studies of classical Hollywood cinema, I pay particular attention to exploring the texts’ discursive connotations, their translatability and hybridity, their quotidian dimension, and their mechanism of “play,” which together characterize the modernism in these detective stories as “vernacular.”I intend to engage with three fields of study. First, this dissertation is an effort to uncover the aesthetic and ideological complexities of modern Chinese detective fiction. Rather than simplifying these stories into footnotes for social modernity and modernization, I attach significance to their literary subtleties that contribute to the depth of their critical reflections on modern experiences. Second, this project enriches studies of Chinese literary modernism in the early twentieth century. While previous studies in this field concentrate on elite literature and direct influences from Western and Japanese modernism, I focus on a popular genre and look for traces of modernism that were generated from local contexts instead of imitations of foreign canons. At the same time, I adopt a comparative perspective by reading modern Chinese detective stories along with Western detective stories and foreign modernist literature. Thereby, I highlight the “family resemblance” in the modernist characteristics between the Chinese detective stories and canonical modernist works. Last but not least, this dissertation elaborates on Hansen’s concept of vernacular modernism and demonstrates its productivity as a method of criticism in literary studies. Each of the first three chapters of this dissertation respectively examines an individual writer: Cheng Xiaoqing, Lu Dan’an, and Sun Liaohong. These writers have formed distinctive personal styles reflecting on different aspects of modern experiences. Chapter One discusses the reflections on modern science and scientism in Cheng Xiaoqing’s Huo Sang stories. Although Cheng has long been considered by scholars as an enthusiastic advocator of modern science, this chapter shows that Cheng challenged the scientistic idea that science was purely rational and unfailingly correct. He exposed the limitations and inner splits of science and creates comical moments when the hypocrisy of science and rationality was uncovered. Chapter Two examines two kinds of works by Lu Dan’an: his “cine-fiction” and his original detective stories. In these works, he displayed a strong interest in dark, scary images. A sense of uncanniness is generated from the repetitions of these images, revealing anxiety about moral ambiguities in modern economic activities. In Chapter Three, I focus on the decadent style in Sun Liaohong’s Lu Ping stories, which reflect the dilemmas and predicaments of everyday cosmopolitanism in Shanghai during the 1940s. Finding it impossible to make any serious meaning in this environment, the protagonist Lu Ping devotes his energy completely to “play.” Such one-directional devotion challenges mainstream morals, values, and official discourses, and characterizes the stories as decadent. The last chapter, concentrating on middle-class salarymen, who formed a significant part of detective fiction’s readership, discusses the rehearsal, or replay, of their “criminal impulses” in detective fiction magazines in the 1920s and the 1940s. Attributing the different ways of rehearsal to the different social conditions that the salarymen coped with, the chapter draws attention to how the detective stories show the middle class’s subjective experience of irrationality. Although the detective genre was first legitimized in China for its rational pursuit of objective truth, the stories analyzed in this dissertation indicate that the objective truth is not necessarily the ultimate truth. It is in the process of exploring the complexity and ambiguities of “truth” that the stories reflect on local, everyday experiences of modernity and modernization, and their features of vernacular modernism lie in such reflections.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Lingchei Letty Chen

Committee Members

Robert E. Hegel

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