Sakuntala in Modern China: Comparative Imagination in the 1950s, with Gal Gvili (at MIT, Dec. 7, 2023)

This talk, based on her recent book Imagining India in Modern China: Literary Decolonization and the Imperial Unconscious, examines the reception history in China of the celebrated classic Sanskrit drama Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection and focuses on the groundbreaking 1956 translation from Sanskrit by the luminary Chinese lndologist Ji Xianlin 季羨林 (1911-2009). Trained in Germany in Sanskrit and Tocharian languages, Ji Xianlin thrived in this period of unprecedented closeness between the two new nations and established the academic study of China-India connections at Peking University. Ji translated Indian classics from original languages into Chinese, including Sakuntala, the complete Ramayana and more. His translation of Sakuntala, which was staged in a high-profile production in 1957, was considered such an aesthetic achievement that it remains part of China’s Central Academy of Drama’s curriculum to this day. Prof. Gvili’s lecture will discuss major issues emerging from the translation in relation to contemporaneous requirements of socialist realism and the flourishing of China-India cultural diplomacy. Mainly, she argues that the 1956 translation of Sakuntala must be understood beyond the recently popular paradigm in Global South Studies of “Third World Solidarity.” The translation demonstrates a theory of literary aesthetic which shines a light on entanglements of the global south and the global north, by comparing Chinese and Indian cultural legacies and examining China-India historical cultural exchange.

About the speaker:

Gal Gvili is Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at McGill University. She studies and teaches modern and

contemporary Chinese literature. Her articles have appeared or are forthcoming in The Journal of Asian Studies, Religions, Comparative Literature Studies, China and Asia: A Journal in Historical S

tudies, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies and the edited volume Beyond Pan-Asianism: Connecting China and India 1840s-1860s. Her book Imagining India in Modern China: Literary Decolonization and the Imperial Unconscious, 1895-1962 (Columbia

University Press, 2022, Winner of the Harry Levin First Book Award in Comparative Literature, ACLA) examines how the image of India, in particular, Chinese writers’ multifaceted visions of Sino-Indian connections, shaped the making of a new literature in the twentieth century.

Her current project, tentatively titled Possessed: Superstition and Gender in Modern Chinese Literature examines how gender and superstition are co-constituted by exploring the literary portrayal of superstitious persons in Chinese literature of the 20th and 21 centuries. The study contributes a literary perspective to a growing body of scholarship—from religion studies, history, anthropology, gender and women studies—on the historical formation and contemporary endurance of the discursive construct “superstition” in governance, culture, and gendering practices of former colonial spaces.