A “Spiritual Journey” Through the “Middle” Kingdom: Travel and Translation in François Cheng’s Translingual Novel

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book


The Franco-Chinese migrant writer François Cheng (Grand Prix de la francophonie de l’Académie française 2001) is the first French Academician of Asian origin. His French- language novel Le Dit de Tianyi (Prix Femina 1998, rather differently translated into English as The River Below) recounts the protagonist’s life trajectory across the turbulent twentieth century, from wartime China to France and back to a radically changed Communist China. The protagonist’s cross-cultural and often painful migrant experience largely mirrors that of the author, yet with the final part of the novel being completely fictional. The novel’s generic and stylistic hybridity demonstrates the author’s strenuous effort to investigate the literary possibilities of comparatively incorporating both Western and Eastern cultural heritages in the creative process.

Although Le Dit is not formally categorized as a travelogue, travel motifs permeate the novel. The tripartite structure – ‘epic of departure’, ‘detouring journey’, ‘myth of return’ – is redolent of established models of travel since Odyssey. The characterization of the protagonist as a ‘wandering soul’ (âme errante) going on artistic pilgrimages as well as arduous quests for knowledge both in China and to the West, further complemented by the constant longing and attempt to be reunited with loved ones, is among the key features of travel writing largely shared by both Western and Chinese traditions. These travel motifs interact dynamically with the fundamental conception of the novel as both a Bildungsroman and Künstlerroman that linguistically translates, epistemically transforms, and spiritually transcends the individual’s experience of migrance (migration and errance). Such an interaction, then, inspires informed imagination and provokes lateral thinking about cultural representations, and entails a transcultural aesthetic that simultaneously revisits two great cultural heritages, engendering something ‘new’, or indeed, ‘old’.

Drawing on theories of cultural translation (initiated notably by Homi Bhabha) and transculturality (Graham Huggan; Wolfgang Welsch), this article examines how the wide range of travel motifs function as a consistent structural and thematic frame and bring frictional qualities and effects to Cheng’s translingual novel. And I argue that these travel motifs ultimately create a liminal space where both European and Chinese literary and artistic traditions are set in motion towards a planetarian possibility of cultural ‘transcendence’ (Cheng’s own word).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNarratives Crossing Borders
Subtitle of host publicationThe Dynamics of Cultural Interaction
EditorsHerbert Jonsson, Lovisa Berg, Chatarina Edfeldt, Bo G. Jansson
Place of PublicationStockholm
PublisherStockholm University Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)978-91-7635-140-6, 978-91-7635-141-3
ISBN (Print)978-91-7635-143-7
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jun 2021


  • travel narrative
  • border crossing
  • transculturality
  • transcendence
  • literary translation
  • François Cheng


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