Romantic Love, Self-Exaltation, and Social Rebellion: The Influence of Goethe’s Werther on Chinese Epistolary Novels in the 1920s and 1930s

Kenny Ng*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in book/report/conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Unlike the Western literary tradition, the epistolary novel as a literary genre has never become a predominant mode of narrative in modern Chinese literature. The widespread adoption of letter-form writing as a fictional device by Chinese writers in the 1920s and 1930s was prompted by the instantaneous success of translating Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des Jungen Werther into Chinese. Since the German novel was introduced to China in the early 1920s, the sentimental love story had arrested the minds of many intellectuals and young readers, becoming one of the most frequently reprinted Western works. The enthusiastic response reflected the aspirations and frustrations among young writers and readers in the 1920s—a decade of social upheavals accompanied by intellectual skepticism. People were at pains searching for an effective form of presentation to provide outlets for their emotions and queries about the uncertain future of the country. It was not only the theme of unrequited love and sentimentalism in Werther that captured the readers’ attention, the confessional nature of the epistolary form also struck writers as a powerful tool to express their innermost feelings and thoughts. This chapter examines the immense impact of Goethe’s novel on writers and intellectuals in Republican China. It focuses on Chinese literati’s concerns about individual freedom, romantic love, and self-expression as the socio-cultural backdrops against which Werther was favorably accepted by Chinese readers, whereas writers took it as an inspiring form for novelistic writing. It offers a missing chapter of the encounter between modern Chinese literature and German romanticism.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCross-Cultural Encounters in Modern and Premodern China
Subtitle of host publicationGlobal Networks, Mediation, and Intertextuality
EditorsKelly Kar Yue Chan, Chi Sum Garfield Lau
PublisherSpringer Singapore
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9789811683756
ISBN (Print)9789811683749, 9789811683770
Publication statusPublished - 14 Mar 2022

Publication series

NameChinese Culture
ISSN (Print)2662-9755
ISSN (Electronic)2662-9763

User-Defined Keywords

  • Epistolary novels
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • Werther
  • May Fourth
  • New literature
  • Romanticism


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