Modernism in East Asia By Bush, Christopher

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REMO17-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 22 June 2024, from


The term ‘modernism’ is commonly used to describe some of the literary and cultural production of the early twentieth century in China, Japan, and Korea, but the range of its application and its relevance to East Asia remain subjects of debate. There was widespread interaction with Western authors, artists, and avant-garde movements, ranging from direct emulation (‘Japanese futurism’) to movements found only in the region (new sensationism). East Asian modernisms were shaped by profound geopolitical asymmetries with the West. Nonetheless, many of the interpretive models offered by postcolonial criticism do not apply to East Asia, which was never colonialized by a Western power and indeed produced its own imperialist power in Japan.


The major authors, movements, and motifs of European modernism are readily found in Japan: Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche; jazz, cinema and the city novels; automobiles, airplanes, and avant-gardes, from futurism to surrealism. Modernism straddles what are several distinct periods in Japan, extending from the late Meiji (1868–1912) through the Taishō era (1912–26) and into the Shōwa (1926–89). The Meiji era is conventionally described as a radical break from the isolationism of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868), leading to a sometimes uncritical absorption of ‘Western learning’ and breakneck modernization.

On the cultural front, the first decades of the Meiji era were characterized by the active pursuit of ‘civilization and enlightenment’, with figures such as Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer being widely read and cited. Liberal reformer Fukuzawa Yukichi, educated in both Western and Chinese traditions, is widely held to be the exemplary figure of the period.

Mori Ōgai’s short story ‘The Dancing Girl’ (1890) is perhaps the most famous work of fiction from this period. A polymath from a samurai family who received a traditional Confucian education and had a successful career as a physician, Ōgai was also a major translator of German literature, as well as a lauded author in numerous literary genres, especially historical fiction. Futabatei Shimei’s Drifting Clouds (1887–9) was the first modern Japanese novel, ‘modern’ partly for its emulation of Turgenev, but also because of its innovative approximation of the contemporary spoken language, while Futabatei’s teacher Tsubouchi Shōyō’s The Essence of the Novel (1885–6) represents the first work of modern criticism. There was an influx of translated novels, especially French and Russian, starting in the 1890s, and by the start of the twentieth century Japanese fiction was dominated by the reception and development of a kind of confessional naturalism, of which Shimizaki Tōson’s The Broken Commandment (1906) and Tayama Katai’s Quilt (1907) are the foundational works.

Many of the authors from the teens and twenties who remain widely read today do not fit easily into literary-historical categories: Natsume Soseki, probably best known for Kokoro (1914); Shiga Naoya, ‘the most canonical of all modern Japanese writers’ (Orbaugh, qtd. in Mostow 2003: 120), was associated with the group around the journal White Birch (Shirakaba, 1910–23); Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, known internationally for the stories on which Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon was based; and Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, a cinephilic modernist who championed artifice over ‘pure literature’ in a famous debate with Akutagawa (see Mostow, ed. pp.132–135). The novel Naomi (Chijin no ai, 1925) and the essay In Praise of Shadows (1933) are his most widely discussed works in English. The title character of Tanizaki’s Naomi stages one man’s ambivalent obsession with ‘the new woman’, explicitly promoted by the journal Seitō (Bluestocking, 1911–16) through content ranging from the erotic tanka of Yosano Akiko to translations of Emma Goldman.

The 1920s were in many respects dominated by the proletarian literature movement and responses to it, but this work is little read abroad today. The first issue of the journal The Sower (1921) marks the conventional starting date for the movement; the 1933 death of Kobayashi Takiji, following his imprisonment and torture, its end. Kobayashi’s most widely read work is The Crab Cannery Ship (1929). During the 1930s, many former leftists performed tenkō (conversion or apostasy), some seemingly as a matter of survival, others genuinely converting to ultranationalism.

Many of the major European avant-garde movements were echoed in Japan, with surrealism being the most long-lasting and pervasive. Perhaps the most consequential Japanese modernist movement in literature was the shinkankakuha, usually translated as ‘new sensationism’ or ‘neo-perceptionism’. Initially inspired by the style of the French writer Paul Morand but incorporating elements of numerous European avant-gardes, its journal was Bungei jidai (1924–7). Its representative figure is Yokomitsu Riichi, whose early stories pioneered the style and whose city novel Shanghai (1928–9; 1931) is arguably the movement’s major work. However, the most famous writer to emerge from this group was Kawabata Yasunari, who not only wrote some of the movement’s major critical statements, but also the screenplay for the most important Japanese avant-garde film – Kinugasa Teinosuke’s 1926 A Page of Madness (Kurutta ichipeiji) – and the other great Japanese city novel, The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (1930), set in Tokyo’s entertainment district. Ironically, by the time he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, Kawabata was considered a champion of traditional Japanese aesthetics.

A defining element of Japanese modernism was its proximity to popular culture. Rather than signalling a sphere of high, elite art distinguishing itself from the popular, modanizumu always had strong ties to popular culture, including cinema, cabaret, and detective fiction.

The single most important modern philosophical school was the Kyoto School, later infamous for its complicity with the authoritarian state during the 1930s and 1940s. By no means constituting a unified school of thought, all of the thinkers nonetheless agreed on the importance of Nishida Kitaro, whose 1911 An Inquiry into the Good is often discussed as the first work of Japanese philosophy (depending, of course, on how one defines ‘philosophy’; see Dilworth et al. 1998: 574). Maraldo identifies as common factors: a background in both Western and Asian philosophy; a critical attitude toward Western conceptions of modernity; and a philosophical engagement with Buddhist concepts, especially ‘absolute nothingness’ (Dilworth et al. 1998: 639–45). Tanabe Hajime, one younger member of the group, seems to have had an influence on Nishida himself. Miki Kiyoshi, Nishitani Keiji, and Abe Masao are among the more famous from the group, which also has connections with Kuki Shūzo, Watsuji Tetsuro, Tosaka Jun, and D. T. Suzuki.


Korea’s colonial era is conventionally divided into three periods: military rule from 1910 to 1919; ‘cultural rule’, from 1920 to 1931; and the period of mobilization/imperialization [hwangminhwa], from 1931 to 1945. Korea’s was thus a ‘colonial modernity’; urbanization, industrialization, modernism – indeed, mass literacy and modern vernacular literature in general – emerged in the context of colonial occupation, including often intense censorship.

Korea’s ‘civilization and enlightenment’ moment came around the turn of the century. Beginning in 1906 the ‘new fiction’ (shin sosŏl) emerged, including Yi Injik’s Tears of Blood, whose direct treatment of social problems in contemporary life garnered mass appeal. In 1908 Ch’oe Namsŏn founded Korea’s first literary journal, Youth (Sonyŏn), with a nationalist, reformist agenda. Based on that journal’s publication of Ch’oe’s ‘From the Sea to Youth’, 1908 is one of the two conventional dates given for the beginning of modern (kundae) Korean literature. The other, more common date is 1917, the year of Yi Kwangsu’s novel The Heartless: modern in its content, vernacular language, and linguistically innovative impersonal address. Both authors shared a reformist agenda and both would later be among the 33 signatories of the 8 February 1919 Declaration of Independence. Yi was an anti-traditional activist who critiqued Confucian hierarchy, promoted women’s rights, helped establish a vernacular literary language, and is generally thought of as the founder of Korean literary criticism (Mostow 648–9). He also became a collaborator during the Japanese occupation.

During the period of ‘cultural rule’, Japan sought to promote the study of Korean culture (within certain limits): 1927 saw the start of the first scholarly journal on the Korean language, Hangul, which fed into efforts to create the first comprehensive dictionary of the language in the 1930s. Founded in 1919 by Kim Tongin, the journal Creation (Changjo) argued against the previous generation’s utilitarian, didactic use of literature, promoting in its place the idea of literature as art.

Following the political failures of 1919, Korean Communist groups began to form in earnest, mostly abroad. By the mid 1920s, the proletarian arts movement was a dominant voice in Korean arts and letters, embodied by the Korean Artist Proletariat Federation (KAPF) (1925–35), an organization that often worked in collaboration with the Japan Proletarian Literary Front, founded the same year.

However, starting in 1931 Japanese military dominance intensified even in civilian life and, after the proletarian literature movement was shut down in 1935, direct political commentary became all but impossible. In 1937 Japan began an active campaign to destroy Korean culture: national treasures were pillaged on a massive scale and taken to Japan, where many remain; Shinto worship became compulsory; the Korean language was banned in schools, then in publications, and eventually even in public. A campaign to pressure Koreans to adopt Japanese names began in 1940, the same year the last two Korean-language newspapers were closed (Ch’oe et al. 2000: 315). In this difficult environment, Korean modernism somehow flourished, including a Korean New Sensationist (sin gamguk) movement directly influenced by recent Japanese literature. The modernist tendency was associated with a collective of writers known as the Group of Nine (kuinhoe), which defined itself in opposition to the KAPF by focusing on form and pure literature (sunsu munhak). In practice, however, artists moved between the tendencies and their aesthetic practices were not always distinct. The best-known writers from the group include Pak T’aewŏn, Kim Yujŏng, Yi T’aejun, and Yi Sang, but others joined and left the group over the years. Pak’s major literary works are A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist (1934), and Scenes by a Stream (1936/1938), but he is also known for critical essays (Hanscom 2013). The major critic of the group was Kim Kirim, an important interpreter of the major European avant-garde movements and of psychoanalysis. His work also shows the influence of the era’s major Anglophone critics, including Pound, Eliot, and Richards.

The contemporary study of ‘modernism’ in Korea has been shaped by historical debates even more so than in China and Japan because many of the major modernist writers were censored in South Korea until the late 1980s, in part because many ‘went north’.


Modernism in China largely coincides with the history of the Republic of China, established following the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and officially coming to an end (on the mainland) with the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Modern cultural history is conventionally divided into the late Qing (roughly 1895–1911, characterized by various ultimately unsuccessful reform movements); the period of the May Fourth Movement, which, starting in 1919, initiated a promodernization break with tradition; and a radicalization of intellectuals in the late 1920s, leading to the deep Nationalist/Communist divide that would largely define the 1930s and 1940s. ‘Modernism’ has until recently been a relatively understudied category in Chinese literary history, viewed as an essentially derivative, imported phenomenon limited mostly to Shanghai and out of step with the main current of modern Chinese literature, namely the development of realist fiction in an accessible vernacular.

The humiliating defeat of the first Sino-Japanese War intensified the Chinese literati’s desire for reform. In part because of savage critiques by May Fourth writers, this generation of reformers has often been dismissed as atavistic, but recent scholarship has emphasized the modernity of the late Qing as well as the innovativeness of ‘traditional’ literature well into the twentieth century. Yan Fu translated authors such as Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Henry Huxley, while Lin Shu and his assistants produced ‘free translations of over 200 Western novels’ into Classical Chinese in an effort to revitalize the latter (Denton 1996: 8). Zhang Zhidong’s formulation, ‘Chinese learning as the goal, Western learning as the means’, remains widely cited, but an array of reformers formulated other neotraditionalisms, mixing liberal political science, Confucian cosmology, and Darwinian biology. The anti-Manchu ‘national essence’ school sought to reform the educational system while still preserving Chinese traditions against excessive Western influence, while Kang Youwei’s Reform Party promoted the idea of Confucianism as a state religion. Perhaps the most important figure of this period was Liang Qichao. A political activist who spent time in exile in Japan, Liang worked in a wide range of genres, from poetry to journalism to philosophy. Drawing heavily on Fukuzawa Yukichi’s writings, he called for China to develop independently, thinking intellectuals rather than educated bureaucrats, declaring ‘I love Confucius, but I love the truth more’.

The May Fourth Movement is named after the 1919 student protests triggered by outrage over the Treaty of Versailles having given Chinese territory to Japan, but the term more broadly refers to a generation and a set of values: iconoclasm, anti-Confucianism, and language modernization. This ‘Chinese Enlightenment’ was not narrowly about political reform but the broader propagation of a New Culture movement. The journal New Youth, founded in Shanghai by Chen Duxiu (1915), represents the breadth of the movement’s ambitions, including the cultivation of individualism and the valorization of personal relationships (one issue included Henrik Ibsen’s A Dolls House). Lu Xun’s short stories, gathered in 1922’s Call to Arms, are the movement’s signature literary works, especially ‘Diary of a Madman’ (1918) and ‘The True Story of Ah Q’ (1921).

Throughout the 1920s, two major literary groups were at odds with each other. The Literary Research Society (1920–32) characterized itself as social, realist, even scientific. Major figures included Zhou Zuoren, Ye Shengtao, and Mao Dun, this last the figure most strongly identified with the emergence of literary criticism (wenxue piping) as a distinct profession in China. The other group, the Creation Society (1921–5), included Guo Moruo, Yu Dafu, and Cheng Fangwu. Guo Moruo’s 1921 translation of The Sorrows of Young Werther was seminal for the May Fourth generation and the whole group was broadly identified as a ‘romantic’ school emphasizing subjectivity and personal freedom. In reality, it was internally quite diverse and starting in 1925 the majority ‘converted’ to Marxism, the title of one of Cheng’s essays becoming a slogan for radicalization of the goals of May Fourth: ‘From Literary Revolution to Revolutionary Literature’.

Another important group, one with strong connections to Anglophone modernism, was the Crescent Moon Society (1923–31). Its affiliates included Hu Shi (who studied with John Dewey at Columbia), Xu Zhimo (Columbia and Cambridge), Liang Shiqiu (who studied with Irving Babbit at Harvard), Lin Huiyin (China’s first woman architect), Wen Yiduo, Shen Congwen, and Ling Shuhua (‘the Chinese Katherine Mansfield’). The group was widely associated with poetry (particularly that of Xu and Wen) and was very well connected internationally: John Dewey visited Hu Shi in China shortly before the May Fourth protests and in 1924 the group was visited by Rabindranath Tagore (one of whose poems was the source of the group’s name).

A general radicalization of literary critics and writers began in 1926, in part following from the anti-imperialist May Thirtieth Movement, named after the 1925 incident in which Shanghai police under British control opened fire on a crowd of students supporting striking workers. These years also saw the birth of two major anarchist journals by Chinese exiles: New Century in Paris and Natural Morality in Tokyo; the latter published the first Chinese translation of The Communist Manifesto. A telling example of both the rapidity of China’s political change during this period, and also the permeability of the boundaries between these various trends sketched here, is the life of Chen Duxiu. Born more than three decades before the fall of the Qing dynasty, Chen was given a Confucian education and went through the imperial examination system, but became a patriotic reformer, then a leading figure in the May Fourth Movement (famously espousing the twin goods of science and democracy), then co-founded the Chinese Communist Party (in 1921, with Li Dazhao) before being expelled from the party because of a disagreement with Mao.

Over the past 20 years or so, there has been renewed interest in modernist Shanghai, the fifth largest city in the world by 1930 and an international crossroads with more than 300 bookstores, a thriving film culture, and, in the foreign concessions in particular, the latest technological innovations. Shanghai modernism had both parallels to and direct connections with those of Europe and Japan: the prominence of cinema and a new mass culture, the new woman, the disorienting tempo of metropolitan life and its reordering of experience. The editor of the journal Les Contemporains, Shi Zhecun, pioneered stories about the inner lives of Shanghai urbanites, as in the stories collected in One Evening in the Rainy Season. Shanghai also had a New Sensationist movement, the major figures of which were Liu Na’ou and Mu Shiying. Liu’s only book was City Scenery (1930), but he contributed greatly to the literary scene as the owner of a bookstore and as the editor of the journals La Nouvelle Littérature and Trackless Track, the latter of which introduced Morand to Chinese readers in 1928. Mu, generally considered the major talent of Chinese New Sensationism, wrote formally experimental short stories such as ‘Shanghai Foxtrot’ that emulated the thrills and confusion of urban popular culture.


1 This brief outline draws heavily on the authors listed in the Works Cited, especially Mostow (ed.) and the three Sources anthologies. Thanks to Christopher Hanscom and Carlos Rojas for their expertise and corrections.

2 In addition to Fukuzawa himself, see Wakabayashi (ed.) for an introduction to the period.

3 See the selections in Rimer and Gessel (eds).

4 In addition to Mostow (ed.), see C. Hill.

5 Sas, Solt, and Weisenfeld.

6 See Harootunian, LaMarre, Lippit, Silverberg, Starrs (ed.), and especially Tyler.

7 For introductions and overviews of the Kyoto School, see Dilworth, Viglielmo, and Zavala (eds); Heisig, Kasulis, and Maraldo (eds); Heisig and Maraldo (eds); and Marra. For other philosophical responses to modernity, see Doak on the Romantic School and Takeuchi.

8 See Hanscom, Lew, and Ryu (eds).

9 See Hanscom, Lew, and Ryu (eds); Fulton and Kwon (eds); and McCann.

10 See Hanscom and Hughes.

11 Denton (ed.) and Goldman and Lee (eds).

12 See M. Hill, Wang, and Wu.

13 Schwarcz, Tang, and X. Zhang (p.33). On language change, see Gunn and Liu.

14 On Shanghai modernism, see Field, Lee, Shih, and Z. Zhang.

Further Reading

  • Bays, D. (1978) China Enters the Twentieth Century: Chang Chih-tung and the Issues of a New Age, 1895-1909. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

  • Cheng, F. (1925) ‘From Literary Revolution to Revolutionary Literature’ in K. Denton (ed.) (1996). 269–75.

  • Ch’oe Y. Lee P.H. De Bary W.T. (eds) (2000) Sources of Korean Tradition, vol. 2, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Denton K. (ed.) (1996) Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893–1945, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Dilworth D.A. Viglielmo V.H. Zavala A.J. (eds) (1998) Sourcebook for Modern Japanese Philosophy, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

  • Doak, K. (1994) Dreams of Difference: The Japan Romantic School and the Crisis of Modernity, Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Field, A.D. (2014) Mu Shiying: China’s Lost Modernist, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

  • Fukuzawa, Y. (2009) An Outline of a Theory of Civilization, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Fukuzawa, Y. (2007) The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa, trans. E. Kiyooka, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Fulton B. Kwon Y. (eds) (2005) Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Goldman M. Lee L.O. (eds) (2002) An Intellectual History of Modern China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Gunn, E. (1991) Rewriting Chinese: Style and Innovation in Twentieth-Century Chinese Prose, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Hanscom, C.P. (2013) The Real Modern: Literary Modernism and the Crisis of Representation in Colonial Korea, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University East Asia Press.

  • Hanscom C.P. Lew W.K. Ryu Y. (eds) (2013) Imperatives of Culture: Selected Essays on Korean History, Literature, and Society from the Japanese Colonial Era, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

  • Harootunian, H. (2000) Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Heisig J.W. Kasulis T.P. Maraldo J.C. (eds) (2011) Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

  • Heisig J.W. Maraldo J.C. (eds) (1995) Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

  • Hill, C. (2009) ‘The travels of naturalism and the challenges of a world literary history’, Literature Compass, 6.6 (November): 1198–1210.

  • Hill, M. G. (2012) Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture, New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Hughes, T. (2012) Literature and Film in Cold War South Korea: Freedom’s Frontier, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • LaMarre, T. (2005) Shadows on the Screen: Tanizaki Jun’ichiro on Cinema and ‘Oriental’ Aesthetics, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies.

  • Lee, L.O. (1999) Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930–1945, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Lippit, S.M. (2002) Topographies of Japanese Modernism, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Liu, L. (1995) Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity – China, 1900–1937, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Marra, M. (2001) Modern Japanese Aesthetics: A Reader, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

  • McCann D.R. (ed.) (2004) The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Mostow J. (ed.) (2003) The Columbia Companion to Modern East Asian Literature, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Rimer J.T. Gessel V.C. (eds) (2007) Modern Japanese Literature: From Restoration to Occupation, 1868–1945, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Sas, M. (2002) Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Schwarcz, V. (1990) The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Shih, S. (2001) The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917–1937, Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Silverberg, M. (2006) Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Solt, J. (1999) Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning: The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (1902–1978), Cambridge: Harvard University East Asia Press.

  • Starrs R. (ed.) (2012) Rethinking Japanese Modernism, Leiden and Boston: Global Oriental.

  • Takeuchi, Y. (2005) What Is Modernity?: Writings of Takeuchi Yoshimi, ed. R. Callichman, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Tang, X. (2002) Chinese Modern: The Heroic and the Quotidian, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Tyler W. (ed.) (2008) Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913–1938, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

  • Wakabayashi B.T. (ed.) (1998) Modern Japanese Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Wang, D.D. (1997) Fin-de-Siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1848–1911, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Weisenfeld, G. (2001) Mavo: Japanese Artists and the Avant-garde, 1905–1931, Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Wu, S. (2014) Modern Archaics: Continuity and Innovation in the Chinese Lyric Tradition, 1900–1937, Cambridge: Harvard University East Asia Press.

  • Zhang, X. (2012) ‘The will to allegory and the origin of Chinese modernism: Lu Xun’s Ah QThe Real Story’, in M. Wollaeger M. Eatough (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernism, New York: Oxford University Press. 173–204.

  • Zhang, Z. (2005) An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896–1937, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Bush, Christopher. Modernism in East Asia. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/overview/contexts-for-modernism.

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