Reading Two Lives (Video Essay)

On February 21st, 2020 the English professor Nan Z. Da gave a lecture titled “On King Lear and Contemporary China.” The Shakespearean play of King Lear and the thematics of power, nepotism, inheritance, greed, familial relations & familial hierarchy therein are utilized by Da in order to consider the confusion or structural discrepancy of familial actions done for the ends of love and those done for the ends of pragmatism. This particular consideration by Da emerges from King Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, refusing to perform the formalities and expositions of affection towards the king deemed necessary by him in order to be granted her inheritance. This defiance is borne from Cordelia’s capacity to differentiate her love for her father from her desire of property or land. Throughout the lecture Da correlates contemporary events in China where violations and abuses of power parallel the Shakespearean tragedy and moreover reveal the sovereign or nationalistic-like power and influence in kinship and vice versa.

The first portion of Da’s lecture takes a pseudo-anecdotal approach, she brings up her own family and talks about the cross-generation relations. It is here perhaps why prior to her lecture one of the reading materials Da provided students in the Aesthetics & Politics program was an excerpt from Yiyun Li’s 2017 memoir titled Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. The apparent correlations we can draw between what Da does in her lecture that is not intentionally autobiographical but nonetheless influenced or vitalized by it and Li’s own pondering of the power of autobiographical material suggests that we might reveal ourselves in writing from either a position of denying or asserting the self. It is a game of certain imbalance, one which for Li has provided many questions and interventions in her own writing.

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