Translating Havelock Ellis in Republican China, 1910s–1940s

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 3:10 PM
Murray Hill Suite B (New York Hilton)
Rachel Hui-Chi Hsu, Johns Hopkins University
In early twentieth-century China the discourses of sex, sexuality, and romantic love underwent a dramatic epistemological transformation, and in the past few decades, Sinologists from different fields have problematized the notions and experiences of body, sex, emotions, love, and morality in modern China. While the previous literature has astutely sexualized modern Chinese ways of thinking, behaving, and narrating, these newer theorizations invite detailed research for a nuanced understanding of the actual transforming processes.

My paper probes further into the discourses of sex by examining Chinese translations of British sexologist Havelock Ellis’s works on sexual science. Developing and complicating the idea of “vernacular sociology,” which Tani Barlow uses to conceptualize the interplay of social science, natural science, womanhood, and consumer culture in China during the 1920s, my essay suggests that a shift of discourses on sex took place in that decade. I will show how the translations of Ellis’s writings from the late 1910s to the 1940s illuminate changes of approach, attitude, agenda, audience, and authority in articulating the issues of and about sex in the Republican era. Consisting of two generations from various backgrounds with diverse purposes, Ellis’s Chinese translators demonstrated heterogeneous efforts in modernizing, interpreting, and regulating sex. The discursive shift showcased by these translations in turn allows a closer look at Chinese forms of epistemic modernity in the process of transculturation.

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