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Sophie Volpp (University of California Berkeley)

Sophie Volpp

Sophie Volpp
Image Credit: private

Fellow in Research Area 1: "Competing Communities"

June – July 2024

The 102 Crates of the National Peiping Library

Sophie Volpp will be working on two projects during her Fellowship. The first is the reformulation of an essay that she wrote for the conference on "Libraries in Exile" organised by Temporal Communities' RA1 in December 2023. The essay concerns the shipment of the rarest books of the collection of the National Peiping Library from Shanghai to Washington, D.C. in 1941 to preserve them from destruction during the Sino-Japanese war. The essay gives an account of the difficulties of extricating the rare books, which included the finest volumes of the Ming imperial collections from Japanese-held Shanghai. Using unpublished documents held in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. that detail the views of the U.S. Department of State, Volpp shows how the State Department’s considerations were reflected in the trials experienced in China by the staff of the National Library who smuggled the books through customs.

The second project is an essay on "blankness" as a form of affective response to the written word in Cao Xueqin’s mid-eighteenth-century novel The Story of the Stone, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber. The Story of the Stone is well-known for its sophisticated experiment in the representation of subjective perception and for the attention it lavishes upon reading and interpretation. But it also explores blankness as a form of affective response that is apparently devoid of perception. In this essay, Volpp examines moments in the novel in which characters respond to poetic and other forms of inscription with blankness and stupefaction, modelling a form of reading that seems the inverse of hermeneutic sensitivity.

Sophie Volpp is Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She works in Chinese literature of the 16th through 19th centuries and is the author of Worldly Stage: Theatricality in Seventeenth-Century China (Harvard, 2011) and The Substance of Fiction: Literary Objects in China, 1550-1775 (Columbia, 2022). She has also translated the work of pre-modern women poets and dramatists. She is currently at work on two projects: a book about the efforts of the National Peiping Library (now the National Library of China) to preserve their rare book collection during the Sino-Japanese war, and a book about the figuration of referents in the eighteenth-century novel The Story of the Stone (Honglou meng) entitled The Stone and the World.