In the 1921 short story Shangren fu, Xu Dishan challenges nineteenth century developmental thought, which saw the condition of women in certain societies as touchstone to these societies' level of civilization. The link between civilization and the “the woman question” circulated across Asia, disseminated by new disciplines such as folklore studies, and through missionary education, which enshrined female literacy as the first rung in the ladder of civilizational progress. Many Chinese writers portrayed female characters simultaneously as emblems of national backwardness and of hopes to rise from “savagery” to “civilization.” My reading of Xu Dishan's work reveals a radical alternative to this view. Xu Dishan drew upon ancient Indian folktales to imagine a nonlinear literary horizon in which women do not stand for the nation but embody transregional possibilities. Taking Xu Dishan's work as a key intervention in Chinese literary culture, this study seeks to move beyond the notion that modern knowledge “arrived” in China from Europe by way of Japan exclusively, by revealing India in particular to be a critical site through which Chinese fiction grappled with the woman question as part of a larger discussion about the meaning of civilization in the modern world.

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