This article investigates the underexamined ethnic motifs of the modern literary master Shen Congwen's 沈從文 fictional creations. In the field of Chinese literary scholarship, Shen is widely recognized as a leading figure of the May Fourth “native soil” literary tradition and is usually labeled as a “regionalist” writer. Yet as an ethnically hybrid author, Shen's ethnographically inspired, mythologizing accounts of indigenous non-Han tribes place him in a long tradition of searching for moral truths in borderland societies in Chinese literary and cultural history. The article argues that ethnicity is an important motif that runs throughout the early Shen Congwen's literary oeuvre, particularly in the Miao-themed stories that he crafted in the 1920s and 1930s. Shen idealizes non-Han peoples, particularly the Miao in southern China's borderland, as the ultimate source of moral courage and aesthetic perfection in his vision of a wholesome China. Through his ethnically themed novellas and short stories, Shen is both heir to and questions the Confucian tradition of locating a civilizational “other” in the non-Sinitic/non-Han border regions. The article further reveals how Shen embodies contradictory motifs with regard to ethnicity in China: on the one hand, he romanticizes the Miao as moral agents living freely in a timeless society, governed only by divine powers and unruly passions. On the other hand, Shen laments the historical discrimination experienced by the Miao and assumes a sober voice as he calls for ethnic equality. Simultaneously lyrical and political, Shen's ethnically themed works are significant for forming new scholarly understandings of both May Fourth literature and the broader discourse of ethnicity, which underpins the very notion of Chineseness in modern China.

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