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Indiana University Bloomington

Kevin TsaiKevin Tsai

Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Cultures, and the Program in Ancient Studies

(812) 855-0381

Ballantine Hall 918

sktsai at

My primary research interests lie in the comparative studies of pre-modern China, Greece, and Rome. One often presumes that the juxtaposition of these great civilizations naturally leads to the study of great thoughts and great poetry. In my case, however, I find myself drawn to the “bad,” the marginal, and the undervalued. Such unflattering terms indeed describe the texts I have written on: the 4th c. epicist Claudian is assigned to the “Iron Age” of Latin literature, and the medieval narrative “Tale of Li Wa” (by the lesser of the Bo brothers) is outshined by the poetry of the same period in literary histories. Most of all, my current book project centers on the play Killing a Dog (Shāgǒu jì), generally regarded as the very worst in the Chinese dramatic corpus.

I champion these texts because they have been unjustly ignored. My approach to rehabilitating these texts tends to revolve most of all around gender, but also around genre and anthropology, with a particular attention to the interplay between literary form and the social. With both Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae [The rape of Persephone] and “The Tale of Li Wa,” I endeavor to show the sophistication in their intertextuality: which, in the former, constructs a receptive strategy that capitalizes on the shifting configurations of gender and genre; and which, in the latter, transforms transgressive discourses on gender and elite identity into an aesthetic affirming social order. But what can one do about, as the Comic Book Guy might say, “the worst play ever”? Killing a Dog should be read in the context of a shift from filiation to affiliation in the cultural discourse of Late Ming China. When juxtaposed with the anthropology of kinship and sacrificial rituals, this reading reveals the centrality of femininity in the construction of social and eschatological order.

Other projects include: a subversive reading of the film Hero in relation to law and the knight-errant genre, ekphrasis and reception in the Second Sophistic, and lastly, a translation of the complete works of Li Qingzhao (12th c. woman poet), which allows me to combine scholarship with my literary aspirations. This, however, will be what one might call a literary translation rather than the polished “translationese” that one often finds in anthologies of Chinese poetry.

A bit of biographical history seems de rigueur in these profiles. After a brief foray in the sciences that culminated in a publication in numerical methods, I turned to the humanities and received an AB in the Classics from Harvard, an MA in classical philology from the University of Texas at Austin, and a PhD in comparative literature from Princeton. Before coming to Indiana University, I taught in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder and at Oberlin College.

For another prospective on me and my work, please see the article “The Place Between Places” by Ben Garceau in Encompass 19(2009): 4, or visit my site for more abstracts and vita information.


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