On the Technology of the Sublime in Modern Chinese Narratives

Maciej Patryk KURZYNSKI*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review


The growing scholarship on the sublime in non-Western contexts makes it necessary to reconsider the possibility of this peculiar experience from a broader cross-cultural perspective. The point of convergence among the many existing interpretations is a diachronic pattern that can be disassembled into three distinct components: rising motion, boundary, and sequentiality. Given that digital humanities provide tools to detect patterns and repetitions in texts, this paper employs methods of computational criticism to explore the aesthetic of the sublime in modern Chinese narratives. Combining word embedding, topic modeling, and network analysis, I aim to shed light on what I call the “technology of the sublime,” a narrative mechanism that synchronizes plot development with vocabulary distribution in the novel. The first part of this article introduces the computational theory of the sublime to encapsulate the process whereby a steady accumulation of words and expressions describing large and powerful natural phenomena culminates in a boundary-crossing experience narrated in a novel’s plot. In the second part, I read two modern Chinese novels—Second Sun by Liu Baiyu (1987) and Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian (1990)—and reveal how both authors avail themselves of the narrative mechanism thus defined. The discovered similarity is noteworthy given the ostensibly divergent aesthetics and antagonistic ideals conveyed by the two texts. Finally, I show the ways in which writers negotiate with the sublime meta-narratively to contain and redirect its powerful emotive thrust.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)87-115
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Digital Humanities
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2022
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

I would like to thank Mark Algee-Hewitt, Robert Clewis, Cynthia Vialle-Giancotti, Melissa Hosek, Lingjia Xu, and Aaron Gilkison for their advice and support. This article has also benefited from questions and suggestions I received from friends and colleagues at the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) and the Center for the Study of the Novel (CSN) at Stanford University. I am also very grateful to the anonymous reviewers and the editors of this volume for their insightful and inspiring comments.


  • Sublime
  • Chinese Modern Literature
  • Network Analysis
  • Topic Modeling
  • Sensorimotor Schemas


Dive into the research topics of 'On the Technology of the Sublime in Modern Chinese Narratives'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this