FROM FANTAISIE TO HISTOIRE: APPLYING AN “ALSATIAN LESSON” TO CHINA
La Dernière classe
Taking as point of departure the disproportionate popularity of Daudet’s short story “La Dernière classe” in China, this dissertation seeks to address the recent controversy around its supposed inaccurate portrayal of Alsace amidst the Franco-Prussian War, by exploring the fundamental questions of why the text could adapt so well to the Chinese soil, and how this piece of fiction participated in the shaping of China’s concept of patriotic education. From the naming of characters and places seen through the evolving original text, we can perceive the artificiality of Daudet’s Alsatian-ness, originating in fact from an underlying Provençal template, de-regionalized and universal, which reconciles attachment to the region and to the nation in literature. It is with this theory that the dissertation projects its focus beyond France, tracing the effects of applying to China an “Alsatian lesson,” encapsulated in the story, from the perspectives of national humiliation, national language, and national spirit. Opportunely mirroring common historical adversities faced by both countries, early Chinese translations tended to emphasize the story’s moral in national humiliation, promoting patriotism at the expense of diluting Daudet’s original focus on language and identity. With the advent of the historical trend of unifying the national language, the educational value of this French story was further discovered, as its vernacular text played a far-reaching role in the national project of producing not only exemplary citizens who loved the nation and its official language, but also an exemplary new literature. Relying on the template’s compatibility, diverse imitations appeared in response to the changing contexts as war progressed, as authors with different visions of national salvation were brought together by this same story to boost the national spirit in their own way. Being much enriched in this process, the foreign lesson not only integrated into the national reading experience, but also influenced and even guided the reality, making the fictional Alsace China’s own Alsace, closely linked with the cause of Chinese (re)unification, which is of increasing relevance in the present political context.