Literary Uses of Correspondence: Discovering Early Epistolary Fiction in China
Antje Richter, University of Colorado, Boulder
Cosponsored with the Mahindra Humanities Center and the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University
Organized by James Robson, Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and William French, Teaching Fellow in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University
Epistolary fiction has played a remarkable role in Western literature since antiquity, most notably in the genre of the novel, where great examples are written in epistolary mode. These types of fiction are largely absent from premodern Chinese literature, the general understanding being that Chinese epistolary fiction came into being only after the reception of Western examples, in particular early 20th century translations of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers by Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832). If epistolary fiction is defined more broadly to include the “imitation of the letter by the letter” (Claudio Guillén) in all its forms, it is possible to discover a broad and diverse range of epistolary fictionality in early and medieval Chinese literature. Antje Richter will explore literary phenomena that are promising with regard to the identification of early epistolary fiction. These include apparently inauthentic correspondences, such as the letters between Li Ling (d. 74 BCE) and Su Wu (d. 60 BCE), clearly an early medieval fabrication. Richter proposes that instead of discussing correspondences such as these only in terms of historical authenticity, it can be productive to approach them as fictional works in the first place. Another such literary phenomenon is the use of embedded letters in prose narratives and poetry. Identifying these texts as fictional and reading and interpreting them as such has a great potential for our understanding of contemporaneous ideas about both letter writing and narrative fiction.
Antje Richter is associate professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Before coming to Boulder, she taught at Christian Albrechts University in Kiel. Richter studies the culture of early and medieval China. Her research interests cross several areas including literature, art history, and medicine. Her first book in English, Letter Writing and Epistolary Culture in Early Medieval China, was published in 2013. Richter is associate editor for East Asia at The Journal of the American Oriental Society and secretary-treasurer of the western branch of the American Oriental Society.