Guo Moruo’s translation of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) in 1922 triggered a large-scale “Werther fever” in China. As “the bible of modern Chinese youth,” Werther soon became an icon of the New Culture Movement, an intellectual movement of the 1910s and 1920s that turned against the traditional feudal ways of Chinese society.
In this chapter, recently published in the volume Gendered Encounters between Germany and Asia: Transnational Perspectives since 1800, I trace the rise and demise of Werther in modern China through the lens of gender. Quite surprisingly, gender, and in particular masculinities, is a perspective that has been almost entirely neglected in studies on this crucial moment of German-Chinese literary relations so far.
Re-reading Chinese literary works of the period, I argue that Werther’s uncontrolled emotionality dangerously trespassed both traditional Chinese concepts of masculinity, wen (cultural attainment) and wu (martial valor), and thus represented a liberating counter-image that needed to be contained. First replaced by female Werther figures, Chinese writers of the 1930s harshly parodied the sentimental man.
Mao Dun’s Midnight (Ziye) and Ba Jin’s Family (Jia), two of the most influential modern Chinese novels, are among the key texts of the analysis. The repression of Werther’s masculinity in these works, I conclude, sheds light on a more complex and even paradox process of negotiating gender roles at a historical crossroads.
Gendered Encounters is the second volume published in the newly launched Palgrave Series in Asian German Studies. Dedicated to this new interdisciplinary field, it focuses on the multi-faceted dimensions of ties between the German-speaking world and Asian countries over the past two centuries.
Arnhilt Johanna Hoefle, “The Liberating Masculinity of Goethe’s Werther and Its Repression in Modern China,” in Gendered Encounters between Germany and Asia: Transnational Perspectives since 1800, edited by Joanne Miyang Cho and Douglas T. McGetchin, 151-169. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.