Hours In A Chinese Library Re Reading Virginia Woolf Bloomsbury And Modernism

Diane Royer & Madelyn Detloff, ed. Virginia Woolf: Art, Education and Internationalism. Keynote Address, 17th Annual Virginia Woolf conference (June 7-10, 2007) Clemson UP (2008) 8-16.

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Avant-garde artists in mainland China often speak of the need to “wake sleeping books” since the Cultural Revolution. After Mao Zedong’s demise in 1976, West- ern literature—no longer demonized by Marxist critics—was reintroduced into China. Since then, historians and literary critics in both nations work in archives seeking to wake the historical and literary connections that existed between China and the West in the Republican Period, 1911 through the 1940s. This period of modernism or mo-deng was a dynamic era of cultural and aesthetic openness and encounter between England and mainland China. It is during this period that Chinese culture grew in the imagination of Bloomsbury: the Chinese landscapes in the translations of Tang poetry of Arthur Waley; landscape paintings on scrolls at the first International Chinese Exhibition of Art in Bur- lington House, London, in 1937; blue and white willow pattern dishes in every British cupboard; anglo-chinois designs influencing English gardens; the Chinese pagoda in Kew Gardens; objets d’art; ceramics and the fashion for Chinese dresses in the Liberty Depart- ment Store: all became part of an aesthetic dialectic with Bloomsbury and constitutive of British modernism, as well as a developing international modernism.

Lily Briscoe’s “Chinese eyes,” Woolf ’s glancing reference to an English artist in To the Lighthouse, signifies not the imperial gaze for profit traditionally associated with English trade, but, metaphorically, the incorporation of the Chinese aesthetic into an English art- ist (TTL 42). The different vision implied by “Chinese eyes” is also conferred by Woolf upon Elizabeth Dalloway. Such eyes conjure a sense of foreignness and mystery, but as unmarried new women, Lily and Elizabeth (as well as the South American women in The Voyage Out (discussed today by Monica Ayuso) are only sketched by Woolf. They are un- developed and unknown because Woolf philosophically, culturally and aesthetically keeps open the question of what being a woman and, particularly, a foreign woman, means:

What is a woman? I assure you I don’t know; I do not believe that you know; I do not believe that anybody can know until she has expressed herself in all the arts and professions open to human skill. (AROO 131)

What interests Woolf about foreign authors as she observes the Greeks and the Russians is the “foreign tongue,” the “angle of vision,” the “accent,” the “stamp,” and the “emphasis laid upon unexpected places” in their writing (CR1 157). She does not pretend to cultural knowing, and it is a curious paradox in Woolf and other modernist authors such as Henry James that they enjoy and relish not knowing because it gives them a space to imagine and create. It is these spaces that international scholars in Woolf studies interpret.

Roger Fry also entered this international space in 1916, urging the British to be open to “a new mass of aesthetic experience” in the East. He warned:

We can no longer hide behind the Elgin marbles and refuse to look at the art of China, India, Java and Ceylon. We have no longer any system of aesthetics that can rule out, a priori, even the most fantastic and unreal artistic form. They must be judged in themselves and by their own standards. (“Oriental Art” 794)

Such a stance resists viewing the language and structure of British or European mod- ernism as enabling other modern or postmodern cultures to articulate and imagine new literary or artistic forms, a position recently argued in relation to Caribbean literature by Simon Gikandi in Modernism/Modernity.

In my hours in a Chinese library, I read about the literary friendship between Virginia Woolf and Ling Shuhua—a Chinese writer of short stories; essays; and an autobiography, Ancient Melodies, written in English, as well as an artist and collector. I read about the cul- tural crossings between Bloomsbury and the Crescent Moon group, a literary community in China that thrived around 1925-1927. I followed, as Woolf does in her essay “Hours in a Library,” the “uncharted ways in search of new forms for our new sensations” (GR 30), moving away in spirit from her father’s more ponderous literary impressions in his Hours in a Library volumes.

My exploration began after my discovery of some letters between Ling Shuhua and various members of Bloomsbury that led to research in mainland China, mainly Shang- hai and Wuhan, where I traced the conversation between Bloomsbury and the Crescent Moon Group. Anti-imperialist discourse was strong in Republican China: a period his- torically bracketed by two movements, the establishment of the Republic of China by Sun Yat Sen in 1911, and the establishment of the PRC under Mao Zedong in 1949. Anti- Marxism was rife in England and America also. Yet writers in these groups met, wrote or imagined one another as in Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities.” Chinese and British individuals and groups took shape in daily thinking and reading, travel, markets, institutions and the arts, each culture doing the dreamwork that scholars now articulate and develop. In my research, I join a group of other Woolf scholars who have made similar international journeys out of Bloomsbury: Jessica Berman to India; Mary Ann Caws, Sar- ah Bird Wright and Helen Southworth to France; Melba Cuddy Keene to China; Monica Ayuso and Andrea Reyes into Latin cultures along with Susan Stanford Friedman, Emily Dalgarno, Bonnie Kime Scott, Sonita Sarker, and Urmila Seshagiri, among others.

I will begin, then, with my hours in a Chinese library. After days of walking around Shanghai, one of the most exciting cities in China with the fast rhythms of New York City, I applied to read in a particular library whose name was translated for me as the no-name library: a repository for Republican period magazines and newspapers, or pre-liberation (meaning pre-Mao) writings, as they were still labeled in 1995. Working through the prism of British modernism and post-modernism, I lived through and discovered in this research not only the ideology hidden in Western practices, but China’s ideological walls as well: walls that were constructed to hide aspects of the Republican period, a time of East-West openness and connection. In order to enter the no name library as a foreign ex- pert, I needed two letters of introduction, one provided by Professor Qu Shi-jing, known to many as Frank Chu, one of our Woolf specialists in Shanghai. When I finally entered the dimly lit archives two days later, I propped up my computer, thinking wildly—only one week more for research in Shanghai. Glancing around, I observed that neighboring cholars at long wooden tables—male, older and venerable-looking—were in more con- templative mood and had only small notebooks in which they would occasionally jot a note in neat characters. From time to time, they would stop reading, gaze, sip tea from a thermos, perhaps nap for a few minutes or go out on a small balcony for chi-gong. In the meantime, my mind clouded with suggestions, I filled out request slips for journals and waited. After half an hour, a small woman returned with a pile of periodicals, each bundle tied neatly with a string. She dusted what seemed a pagoda-shaped tower of periodicals, creating billows of dust. She had awakened the sleeping books for an American scholar.

It was in no-name library, and, later, the modern Shanghai Public Library and the Wuhan University Library with energetic scholars and a different ambiance, that I traveled along uncharted ways re-reading Woolf, Bloomsbury and modernism. I discovered a liter- ary space between England and China where personal and literary relations flourished in spite of sometimes conflicting political and economic ideologies. It was then that I decid- ed that a theoretically or ideologically driven post-colonial argument would not capture the complexity of the historical and literary relationships that I wanted to represent in my work. It was then that I decided that I would write an affective history, the biography of a group, to chart the inner spaces of community and nation to create a new space in literary criticism. Increasingly, the discourse of globalism shaped by economic and political inter- ests and vocabulary neglects to study how the transnational knowledge is transmitted and what the results of these transnational contacts are. For example, I. A. Richards traveled to China in 1927, 1929-1930, and 1936-1938, introducing “practical criticism,” influenc- ing a whole generation of Chinese critics, as well as developing a simplified method of teaching English, Basic English, in China. He is shown below with his wife, Dorothy, and a group of educators on a trip to China (Figure 1). In addition, Chinese writer and translator Xiao Qian, influenced by his study with E.M. Forster and Dadie Rylands at King’s College in the 1940s, returned to China to translate James Joyce’s Ul- ysses into Chinese with his wife, Wen Jieruo, in the 1990s. He is pictured be- low in British knickers aspiring at one point in his youth to be an “English gentleman” [Figure 2].

Figure 1. I. A. Richards with his wife, Dorothy, and a delegation of Chinese educators.


 Figure 2. Xiao Qian.

In my talk today, I hope to bring attention to how the writers, artists and their arts migrated and changed litera- tures and cultures along the way in the 1920s-1930s. What happens when we travel with Virginia Woolf and Brit- ish modernism? What stays the same and what changes? The perspective we adopt should not be focused only on Woolf in a new context and the kind of knowledge we acquire, but also on how we change as well, one of the themes of the Sixteenth Annual Virginia Woolf Conference. How are we different as teachers, creators of curriculum, schol- ars, writers, literary critics, anthologists, speakers and cultural mediators?

Behind my talk today, then, is the specter of my own changes in my jour- ney out of American and British libraries into Chinese libraries to explore the fascinating literary, cultural and political world of Republican China. It led me to travel to difficult and beautiful places to explore the possibilities of research in a different cultural and political space in order to register in my own experience—on my own pulses—the post- modern and postcolonial debates on identity, culture, nation and globalism. It has made me less glib.

As Eudora Welty says of place in fiction, I say of literary criticism: “Place...is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that’s been felt... . Place in history partakes of feeling, as feeling about History partakes of Place” (Place in Fiction 6).

To illustrate, let me sketch another place, a bridge upon which Virginia Woolf and the Chinese writer, Ling Shuhua, stand (Figures 3 and 4). In their sixteen-month cor- respondence, March 1938-July 1939, they connect the developing aesthetic and feminist beliefs and practices of women in different countries.The conversation began on a friend- ship scroll that Ling Shuhua had given to her good friend, Xu Zhimo, a flamboyant poet of repute who visited Cambridge, 1920-1922. She urged him to enlist British writers and intellectuals to write or draw on the scroll, and it remains a concrete marker of the rela- tions between Bloombury and China, initiated sixteen years before Ling corresponded with Woolf. And it inaugurates Ling Shuhua as a “Chi- nese Bloomsburian” (as Arthur Waley said), a new inter- national star in the Bloomsbury constellation. 

Figure 3. Virginia Woolf by Man Ray

The letters between Ling Shuhua and Virginia Woolf illuminate the “inner domain[s]” of community that Partha Chatterjee discusses (912). Ling and Woolf connect as women and writers writing from a site of change and war: the British under the threat of World War II and engagement in the Spanish Civil War, and the Chinese in the midst of the Sino-Japanese War and the civil war between the Nationalists and the Com- munists. Two discourses, then, marginal to mainstream discourse in China and England that emerge in these letters are inscribed in the evolving narration of nation: women struggling to claim their feelings and subjec-tivity eclipsed during a time of war under a narrative of nation; women writing against the pro-war trend in their own countries, deconstructing the official stories of nations at war. They counter ste- reotypes of feudal, colonial, imperialist, Marxist or capitalist thinking, creating new kinds of narration threaded from the individual voices of women writers.

When I came upon their letters in British and Chinese libraries, Ling’s words overlaying red traces of grasshoppers and bees on delicate rice paper, I discovered that Woolf had sent Ling copies of A Room of One’s Own, The Years and The Waves, as Julian Bell, then teaching in China and involved with Ling, had requested. “One day,” Ling wrote, “I happened to come across and read Virginia Woolf ’s A Room of One’s Own, and I was quite carried away by her writing, so suddenly I decided to write and see if she were in my situation, what she would do.” There is a lyric quality in these words written in 1938, shortly after the death of Julian Bell in the Spanish Civil War. Ling, having been the lover of Julian when he was teaching at Wuhan University, was distraught. Woolf urged her to work: “think how you could fix your mind upon something worth doing in itself. I have not read any of your writing but Julian often wrote to me about it. He said too that you have lived a most interesting life” (15 April 1938). Shuhua’s autobiography, as can be observed in the illustration below (Figure 5), embodied the sisters’ arts: both the writing of Virginia and the painting of Vanessa.

Figure 4. Ling Shuhua


Figure 5. Cover Illustration

Shuhua was encouraged by Woolf in letters to write an autobiography in English, and she sent Woolf one chap- ter at a time for commentary. Ancient Melodies was later published through guanxi (the social network) of Bloomsbury: Virginia Woolf and Julian Bell had encour- aged it; Vita Sackville West wrote an intro- duction, and Leonard Woolf published it at the Hogarth Press in 1954. Her autobiogra- phy centered on her early years, leaving out her turbulent affair with Julian Bell: she was the wife of the dean of the School of Arts and Letters at National Wuhan University, and he had hired Julian for his teaching position in 1935.

Nevertheless, few women in China had ever ventured to write in the unfamil- iar genre. In her autobiography, she revealed the culture of concubines—their friendships and their jealousies—her mother being the fourth concubine of the mayor of Peking. Ling’s transition from a large, complex feudal family to becoming a new woman in China was surprising and rapid. Disappointed with the treatment of women in her father’s court, Ling was one of the first modern Chinese women writers to attempt to represent the in- ner life of women.

Ling also expressed “the miserable mind feeling” about war that Woolf represented in Three Guineas. Though living through geo- graphical displacements and political turbu- lence, writing about the personal dislocations of war was considered a luxury in the context of China’s national needs. Every aspect of per- sonal life was under attack. Woolf and Ling sensed the monstrous, depersonalizing effects of the war machine that threatened to silence the writer’s personal voice in a world domi- nated, as Woolf would say, by the loudspeaker voice of the government, the radio and the newspapers.

Their conversation both observes and dissolves national boundaries and enables British modernism and feminism to expand into an international space. The loss of the ersonal writing voice was one of Woolf’s greatest fears, yet her letters dramatize the value of personal, cross-cultural conversation in which one artist may answer the needs of another who is oppressed by conditions in her own country. Woolf was the daughter of an educated man; Ling, the daughter of a mandarin and his fourth concubine. Woolf provided Ling with another cultural and sexual standard to place beside her own as she traveled through war zones from Wuhan to Sichuan with her daughter in 1938, often in a state of nervous tension. Ling wrote of her refugee’s fate in the midst of a brutal war—cities and people ravaged by the advancing Japanese, the bombings, the death, the sickness, famine, and dislocation—that was still remote to Woolf. Ling wrote of ruined houses in China, reminding us of Woolf ’s descriptions of the photos of the “dead bodies and ruined houses that the Spanish government sent almost weekly” (TG 68). Woolf ’s letters to Ling were encouraging—don’t despair—and her focus upon her writing enabled Ling to sustain her efforts psychologically during the displacements and terrors of the war.

But observe another place, a bridge that joins critics of different cultures. Ling had been encouraged to write her autobiography in English and had earlier prepared her short stories for an English audience with Julian Bell’s support. One critic asserts, however, that Woolf ’s “subtle Eurocentric attitude” led Ling to write in English (Shumei 216). Woolf had written that Ling should “keep the charm of the unlikeness” and “the Chinese flavour” and not to worry about grammar (28 Feb. 1939). This was viewed by the critic as Ling “exoticizing herself in the gaze of the West.” Woolf is placed in a Procrustean bed of postcolonial hegemony:

The unspoken presumption behind Woolf ’s suggestions seems to be a hierarchi- cal conception of language and audience, that English, the language in which she herself wrote, is the authentic, if not superior language for creative endeav- ors, and that the Western audience is the one worth writing for. (Shumei 216)

The facts are, however, that Ling was drawn to the English language and culture as was her husband, Chen Yuan, a historian and literary editor, who had studied at the London School of Economics for ten years and worked with H.G. Wells. Ling learned English and Japanese in school, was in an Anglophone community in Beijing and then Wuhan. Though some critics would have it otherwise, English language, literature and culture was a part of her complicated identity as a cosmopolitan Chinese artist who deeply identified with the nation of China, but whose imagination freely connected with different people in different parts of the world—long before she met Julian Bell or corresponded with Virginia Woolf.

Woolf does not adopt the tone, stance or vocabulary of domination or subordination in her letters, terms of relationship that Gayatri Spivak, a post-colonial critic, has defined as the norm in East-West relations. Ling and Woolf ’s relationship and others like it challenge Spivak’s posi- tion that “the subaltern cannot speak” (Spivak 308). Their relationship—in letters only, as they never met—was constituted differently. Their correspondence generated not imperial gestures but relationship as they both realized their structural place as privileged and educated women and writers in their society during a time of war. They transformed paradigms as Isak Dinesen and Olive Schreiner do in Sue Horton’s account of remarkable women writers who re-inscribe modernism and colonialism with different meanings than the men who have largely created such systems. Granted, Woolf was the established writer, eighteen years Ling’s senior: the noted asymmetry is more a function of their relationship as mentor and novice. Woolf was drawn to mentoring young women writers when she was an established writer. Their letters reveal the way in which we imagine and create ourselves and one another.

The Crescent Moon group in Beijing with which Ling was associated was often la- beled decadent because it was branded as Western-identified, apolitical, liberal, capitalist, imperialist, anti-utilitarian, Nationalist-identified (not Communist) and favoring art for art’s sake. Literature and politics are inextricably intertwined in China, and the personal iden- tity of critics and the nations into which they are born or to which they travel are always in formation—including my own as I traveled to China. Nevertheless, as Jane de Gay has said, “the female figure often survives the nation that has excluded her to sing through the years,” as do Woolf and Ling.

As teachers, critics and travelers, we are cultural protagonists in a position of personal and critical flux, and vulnerability, at times, as we understand and sometimes misunder- stand other cultures. Yet these cross-cultural imaginative, intellectual and actual journeys must be bravely taken if the term globalism is not to ring hollow. As Woolf reminds us:

Literature is no one’s private ground; literature is common ground. It is not cut up into nations, there are no wars there. Let us trespass freely and fearless find our own way for ourselves. (M 154)


Figures 1, 2, 3, and 6 are reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College, Cam- bridge University, England. Figure 4 is reproduced with permission from Mr. Xu Zhenbang, Archivist, Wuhan University Library.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Post-Colonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton Uni- versity Press, 1993.

de Gay, Jane. “Virginia Woolf, Metamorphoses and Flights from Nation.” Virginia Woolf: Art Education, and Internationalism: Selected Paper from the Seventeenth Anual Conference on Virgiia Woolf. Clemson: Clemson University Digital Press, 2008, 139-146.

Fry, Roger. “Oriental Art.” Living Age (26 March 1910): 793-802.
Gikandi, Simon. “Preface, Modernism in the World.” Modernism/Modernity 13:3 (2006): 419-24.
Laurence, Patricia. Lily Briscoes’ Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism and China. Columbia: University of SouthCarolina Press, 2003.

Ling Shuhua. Ancient Melodies. NY: Universe Books, 1988.
Shumei, Shi. The Lure of the Moderns: Writing Modernism in Semi-Colonial China, 1917-1937.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed.  Nelson and Greenberg. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 271-313.

Woolf, Virginia. Common Reader, First Series. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1925. ––. Granite and Rainbow. 1928. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968. ––. Letters to Ling Shuhua. Monk’s House Papers, Sussex University, Brighton, England. ––. The Moment and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanoich, 1974. ––. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957. ––. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1927.


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