BACS Best Doctoral Thesis Award Winners 2023

We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2023 Best Doctoral Thesis Award!


Jury: Harriet Evans, Jane Duckett and Xuelei Huang


BACS thanks the jury for their hard work. The jury felt that this year’s entries were of an exceptionally high standard. Therefore, they have decided to share the award between two winners and also make an honourable mention.


Joint Winners: Annabella Mei Massey and Aoife Cantrill


Annabella Mei Massey


Commendation: In her ‘The Edges of the City: the Generative Frontier in Contemporary Chinese Fiction and Art’, Annabella Mei Massey argues that contemporary literary and artistic practice explores the ‘generative frontier’ as a liminal and fluid zone that spans the familiar oppositional contrasts of rural/urban, utopia/dystopia. Supported by wide-reaching research in film, fine and performance art, contemporary literature and popular culture and by a sophisticated command of relevant theoretical arguments, Massey’s conceptualisation of the ‘generative frontier’ makes a highly innovative, imaginative and beautifully written challenge to the conceptual cul-de-sacs framing much mainstream analysis of contemporary Chinese society. Once published, this work will become a key text in ongoing analyses of the complex and fluid contrasts observable in Chinese society.


Abstract: This thesis explores the relationship between frontier space and urban imaginaries in twenty-first century Chinese literature and visual culture. It identifies an aesthetic depiction of Chinese urban space that it terms the “generative frontier”, a liminal zone between human civilisation and the wilderness which represents the extreme edges of the city and is typically traversed by an explorer-protagonist figure. In these works, the generative frontier is portrayed both as a psychological landscape – reflecting how the characters who pass through typically undergo transformative developmental journeys – and as a hybrid topography in which urban and natural elements interact to create a defamiliarising and wild environment. Throughout, this study seeks to advance a cultural turn in contemporary frontier studies, a burgeoning sub-field which is now reframing frontiers as sites of transformation (and expanding our understanding of the term beyond issues of geographical boundaries and political conflict).

The thesis begins by positioning the generative frontier as a curative turn in urban aesthetics that responds to mainland China’s post-90s urbanisation programme and the “psyboom” (xinli re) psychotherapeutic turn from the early 2000s. Drawing on a diverse range of primary materials including novels, poetry, film, art and photography, online blogs and journalistic reportage, and architectural manifestos, each section of the thesis documents how Chinese creative producers are engaging with the generative frontier to move past the dominant binary narrative of portraying cities as violent urban dystopias counterbalanced by rural utopias. From author Can Xue’s 2008 novel Frontier (Bianjiang) and director Bi Gan’s 2015 film Kaili Blues (Lu bian ye can), to shanshui-inspired digital urban landscapes and amateur ruin photography produced by China’s “Urban Exploration” (chengshi tanxian) subculture, thecases analysed here instead reveal new ways of conceptualising the individual psyche’s relation to environments in the throes of rapid change. The authors of such works experiment with the generative frontier to facilitate highly psychological depictions of space-making and becoming. At the same time, longstanding narratives of the frontier as an exoticising encounter also shape these artistic visions. The thesis goes on to demonstrate that the explorer-protagonist’s search for meaning is typically given priority within the space of the generative frontier. Through close reading of selected works across its four chapters, this thesis reveals how the generative frontier offers a curative and highly individualistic approach to the issues of Chinese urban modernity and associated psychological distress.


Biography: Annabella Mei Massey is the Salvesen Junior Research Fellow at New College, Oxford. She was also a Clarendon Scholar at Oxford, which is where she did her PhD. She works on urban aesthetics in contemporary Chinese literature and visual culture. She is about to take up a post at UCL, where she will be teaching courses on modern Chinese history and culture.


Aoife Cantrill


Commendation: Aoife Cantrill’s ‘Translating Kōminka: Shaping Narratives of Japanese Rule in Taiwan through Translation post-1975’ is a courageous, incisive and beautifully written study of short texts produced by hitherto little known women writers during the Japanese occupation 1934-1945. Her analysis offers a sensitive and nuanced approach to a topic that continues to generate strident nationalist and patriotic passions. It draws on impressive language skills in Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese Hokkien, wide ranging theoretical insights from postcolonial studies, gender studies, discourse analysis and translation studies to persuasively demonstrate how translation must be considered a multifaceted creative practice inseparable from its historical, ideological and political framing. While the focus of this work is very precise, its conceptual reach will make it an exciting intervention in debates about the place of text and translation in mediating the political relationships between Taiwan, Japan and the PRC.


Abstract: This thesis explores the role of translators in shaping historical, political and cultural narratives of Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan (1895-1945). It focuses on the translation into Mandarin Chinese of Japanese-language texts written by Taiwanese women between 1934 and 1943, drawing on a corpus of short stories and literary essays with themes ranging from infertility and free love to the choice between a life of work and life as a housewife. The circumstances of their publication gives these texts great political significance. Written under intensified assimilation policies that saw Japanese enforced as the language of Taiwan’s textual culture from the mid-1930s, their language of composition was a direct consequence of Japan’s imperial presence in Taiwan. Then, after 1945, laws enforced by Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government subjected these stories and essays to censorship and cultural erasure on account of their symbolic relationship with the former regime. This thesis shows how translation has played a central part in the recovery and repositioning of these texts, providing a medium of mediation on the significance of Taiwan’s colonial history to more contemporary times. Through close analysis of translation, retranslation and adaptation carried out by Taiwanese literary scholars, as well as by relatives of the women authors concerned, this study shows how translated text is used to comment on linguistic politics in colonial society, as well as on Taiwanese femininity and its history. It finds that rather than engaging in sweeping interventions that wholly alter the content of texts at the level of plot, translators instead employ subtle reframing devices to reshape the political significance of a text in their care. This analysis showcases literature’s significant contribution to Taiwan-centric histories of the twentieth century, whilst characterising translation as a history-making force in the context of Taiwan’s Japanese-language literature. By taking as its foci both source text and translation, this thesis considers the linguistic designs of the Japanese colonial project both during and after the imperial moment, showing how works written in its throes possess a cultural influence that stretches beyond 1945, expressed through the medium of translation.


Biography: Dr Aoife Cantrill is a Lecturer in Chinese Studies and Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Manchester. Her research primarily looks at the interaction between Sinophone and Japanophone cultures in Taiwan from 1930 onwards, with a focus on women’s writing and its history. Her other research interests include the use of paratext in contemporary Chinese fiction, and the cultural politics of textile production in the Japanese Empire. Her work has appeared in Concentric, The International Journal of Taiwan Studies and she has an article forthcoming this autumn in Comparative Critical Studies.


Honorable Mention: Mark Czellér


Commendation: Mark Czellér’s ‘Non-People in the People’s Republic: “Landlords” and “Rich Peasants” under Maoist State Socialism’ opens up new questions in the historiography of China’s land reform programme. Based on rigorous and wide-reaching examination of primary sources, it explores the contradictions in the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) policy regarding the categorisation of landlords and rich peasants, with particular attention to how and why these ‘bad class labels’ became hereditary. It also investigates the emotional cost to individuals and families of the cross-generational impact of the ‘us-enemy’ divide. This work makes a significant contribution to our understanding of this aspect of the CCP’s social revolution.


Abstract: For some thirty years, a substantial minority of the Chinese population was excluded from the political and moral community of the People. The largest number of such ‘non-People’ were the only literal ‘class’ enemies in the People’s Republic: those labelled ‘landlords’ and ‘rich peasants’ by reference to their socioeconomic position in rural society before the revolution.

This thesis is a political, cultural, and social history of this group. It approaches the ‘landlord-rich peasant question’ as a single subject, one which originated in the 1920s, was central to politics, culture, and social life in the Mao era, and which, in a number of sometimes unexpected ways, continued well into the Reform era.

Existing scholarship is unanimous that class labels were a hugely important feature of political and social life in the Mao era. This thesis argues that the categories of landlord and rich peasant were more central among ‘bad’ labels than most scholarship has appreciated, and that those identified as landlords and rich peasants by the CCP bore much of the human cost of the three-decade long centrality of the divide between the People and their enemies in Chinese political and social life. It also shows, however, that the permanence and heredity of these labels observed under late Maoism was not part of a consciously designed system: during the early People’s Republic, a significant minority of class enemy labels were removed, and many young people from such families were able to find a place in the new society.

The eventual permanence and heredity of class enemy labels was instead the outcome of a contingent historical process, with major turning points in 1957 and especially 1962. These features always remained in tension with ideological and policy commitments to reform and non-heritability, which the Party maintained even as it carried out a systematic campaign to restigmatize class enemies after 1962. In post-1962 China, where the narrative of ‘class struggle’ permeated political and social life, ‘reform’ tended to become little more than a justification for a series of coercive and demeaning practices, and non-heritability the grounds for forcing those from class enemy families to demonstrate that they had come to hate their own parents. But when Chinese political life was redirected away from class struggle after 1978, the Party could proclaim that it had completed its mission of reforming class enemies, and that the mistreatment of their children and grandchildren had been a violation of policies that the Party had been committed to all along.


Biography: Mark Czellér is Past & Present Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. He recently completed his doctoral thesis at the University of Oxford. Titled ‘Non-People in the People’s Republic: “Landlords” and “Rich Peasants” under Maoist State Socialism’, it is a political and social history of the largest group of people considered ‘class enemies’ by the Maoist state. He is currently revising his thesis for publication as a monograph, and preparing a second project on the intellectual history of Chinese Communist land reform.