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Anne Wedell-Weddellsborg

Literature and Modernity in Post-Mao China

The purpose of the project is to investigate the concept of aesthetic modernity as conceived by Chinese intellectuals (writers and critics) in the 1980s. The method of investigation will be analysis of the interaction between literary works, theoretical debate/criticism, and the reception of Western literature. To deepen the perspective a comparison shall be made between the modernity-perception of the recent period with that of the well-researched early 20th century. I shall argue that Chinese perceptions of modernity, though sharing general aspects with the use of the word in a Western intellectual context and heavily influenced by it, in certain respects differ quite strongly from the latter. And that an understanding of these differences is not only highly relevant for our understanding of the specific characteristics of the process of development in 20th century China, but also adds a significant dimension to our comprehension of the general changes in the function and theory of aesthetics that have emerged in the last decades.

The project starts out from the following assumptions:
0. The Western word "modernity" refers to the specific spiritual and mental outlook that accompanies social and economic modernization and which has found its most conspicuous expression in art, literature and philosophy, belonging to what is often termed modernist or post modernist schools. Though artists, works and theories related to Western modernity cover an extremely wide and often contradictory range ofideas and forms, the Western concept of modernity has nevertheless acquired the status of a paradigm. This paradigm, by common consensus, can be described as containing certain key elements pointing to the experience of the individual human being living in themodern period: subjectivity, the solitude of the individual, fragmentation, mental split, loss of common unified world-view, crisis of values, identity search, etc. In China the conscious notion of modernity (xian-daixing, dangdaixing, shidaixing) first appeared in late Qing, spurred on by Western influences, it became prominent in the May 4th period (1915-25), then disappeared and came back in focus in the 1980s.

1. In China, much more than in the West, literature has acted as the central code of reference for the concept of modernity. It is in literary texts we find the idea of modernity concretely expressed, both in terms of thematic and textual structure. Though some discussions about what constitutes modernity have taken place for instance in the realm of philosophy and history, it is around literature, and in specific relation to literary works that the central debate about modernity has revolved. Like in the West, the constitution or non-constitution of Self and identity, as well as questions of representation, have been central issues in the definitions of modernity. At the same time, the recent textual highlighting of the idea of modernity in Chinese literature coincides with literature's gradual loss of its previously privileged social position.

2. Chinese literary criticism from the 1980s on no longer played the role of intermediary between Party and writer. As part of the para-digmatic changes within the literary institution, an independent type of criticism gradually emerged, culminating between 1985 and 1989 and continuing from the early 90s on. As a whole, this theoretical trend reflects the dilemma of, on the one hand, keeping literature out of bounds for politics (i.e. party interference) and, on the other hand, trying to maintain literature as an activity of crucial and central importance in the process of modernization, amidst heavy competition from other media. Here modernity became a key concept, as certain literary works were seen to embody the spirit of modernity, stylistically and thematically expressing the specific predicament of the Chinese individual caught up in the process of modernization.

3. The introduction of contemporary Western literature into China in the 1980s was a decisive factor in the conscious development of a specific Chinese kind of modernity, acting as a catalyst for bringing out a local version of modernty. It was to a great extent in the response to Western classics of modemity that Chinese writers and critics started creating their own. Thus Western literature did not just function as a model or object of plagiarism, but also had the function of "reawakening" or "reactivating" certain elements of the literary heritage with which it bore some resemblance (esp. parts of the subjectivist trend as defined by Prusek. Cf. also what happened in Japanese literature at the turn of the century when Western naturalism was introduced, resulting in the uniquely Japanese literary genre of watakushi shosetsu). Thus Western modernity/modernism and Chinese tradition were the two major categories in interaction with which the Chinese modemity was defined.

So what I want to do is this: to examine the use and content of the concept of modemity in the discourse on literature (theory and criticism), to analyse selected literary works which are referred to in this discourse, and to investigate the reception of representative literary products of Western modemity in critical discourse as well as their impact on selected examples of creative work. Questions like the following should be held in mind: What is the conceptual framework in which modemity is placed? What particular parts of social reality are seen as related to mental modemity ? What are the main differences/ similarities of opinion between those participating in the discourse on modemity ? What authorities are called upon in arguments ? What is the role of the concept of individuality ? of subjectivity ? What are the main binary poles of opposition implicitly or explicitly present ?

It is of course not the purpose to search for one, simple, unambiguous answer to the complex questions regarding what elements are perceived as constituting the syndrome of modemity. But, just as it is possible to refer to a certain concept of modemity as a product of Western civilisation, it should also be possible to distinguish some traits that are culturally and historically specific for the Chinese version of literary modernity in the late 20th century.

Research Outline
l. Textual analysis of works by Zhang Xinxin(1983), A Cheng(1984),
Han Shaogong(1984), Liu Suola(1985), Can Xue(1986), Yu Hua (1988), Su Tong (1988), Wang Shuo and others. These works are selected on the basis of the following criteria: Wide intellectual or popular reader-ship. High literary quality or originality which set them apart from other writers. Generally recognized as breaking new ground stylistic-ally and/or thematically. Specifically singled out by important critics as embodying Chinese modernity, and thus sparking off debates with regard to the concept. They are also representative of what can be seen as the three main, largely overlapping, creative trends of the 80s, the "root-searching" (xungen), the so-called "experimental modernism" (shiyanxing) and meta-fiction.
In reading these works one of the strategies will be to examine the textual representation of the relationship between the notions of self and nation/society, initially identified as a key theme underlying almost all Chinese 'modernity' texts. How is the conflict manifested in the most important fiction of the 80s? In what particular way is self and society represented ? Is the conflict external/internal ? Is the narrative dynamics towards integration/ harmonization/ sublimation/ disruption/ clean break/ disintegration ? How is the conflict reflected on the textual/subtextual level? etc.

Although different approaches will be employed, a number of these texts seem to challenge an allegorical reading. However, in contrast to Fredric Jameson's much debated (also in China) reading of third world literature, ind. Lu Xun, as national allegories (1986), I propose to read these recent Chinese fiction-texts instead as "allegories of self, thus acknowledging the change of priority actually evinced there, towards a concern with the predicament of the individual in the (post)modern world.

2. The development of Chinese literary criticism from 1980 on can be described as one from primarily pragmatic and mimetic approaches to expressive and objective (in the classic definitions of M.H.Abrams). This process must be seen as a response to the changes inside Chinese literature itself, strongly enhanced by the heavy import of Western literary theories from structuralism to post-structuralism. (Of course the precondition for this was social and political phenomena such as the introduction of market forces in publishing, the open door-policy, loss of central ideology, diversification of readership, the partial dismantling of the orthodox literary establishment and the new relationship between "pure" literature and mass culture). All along most Chinese critics tried to find legitimacy for literature, not by placing it in the Chinese tradition, but by seeing it in terms of Western isms, thus adding authority to literature by incorporating it into an international terminology of modernity. The word 'modernity' (xiandaixing), and trends and isms associated with it such as modernism (xiandaipai or xiandaizhuyi) and post-modernism (hou xiandaipai or houxiandaizhuyi), became focal points.

The theoretical discourse on the concept of modernity took the form of: a) Criticism/debate on specific works. b) Pure theoretical debates on aspects belonging to modernity as opposed to tradition. As to a) the approach will be to examine different readings of the selected works (see l), to see what elements are stressed as marking a particular work as modem - psychology of character, thematic issues, linguistic inno-vation, structural composition, narrative dynamics etc. and what these signal. As to b) I shall be analysing how modernity is explicitly or implicitly defined in the writings of a few key figures such as Liu Zaifu, Li Tuo and others. In analysing the discursive praxis of the Chinese critics attention should of course be paid to the ways in which Western terminology is transmuted and appropriated for local use.

As mentioned above, the search for modernity is strongly related to a simultaneous inquiry into tradition, as the semantic and ideological opposite (or Other) against which modernity is pitted, but also as something which may contain elements of potential use in the creation of a particular local Chinese modernity. In order to understand what is meant by modernity it is therefore necessary to analyse the conception of tradition at work in the 1980s. Tradition, of course, is not just an unchanging or accumulative body of past, but is always being re-shaped, recreated according to the particular needs o fa particular age. What particular aspects of available past then, are chosen to make up the concepts of tradition for the 80s ? How is tradition reinterpreted ? What constitutes the "good" tradition (ex. the construction of an utopian 'Chu tradition' with little relation to the historical Chu culture of 400-300 B.C.) and what the "bad"?

3. The third angle through which the concept of modernity is viewed is the Chinese response to representative Western works belonging to the canon of modem literature. Within the short span of 10 years almost all major Western works of the last 60 years were translated or at least introduced. I have chosen the case of Franz Kafka as the most appropriate example, because his influence, according to my own research, is the most profound and interesting of all the great modern masters. Not only has his work been the subject of a vast number of critical articles, but it has also left a clear imprint on some of the most important Chinese 'modernity' writers, such as Yu Hua and Can Xue. The reception of Kafka's work underwent a significant process of change from the first open publication of the translation of "Die Verwandlung" (Bianxingji) in 1979 till the end of the 80s, when almost everything, ind. parts of diaries and letters, had been translated, moving from political "misreading" to existential/aesthetic "misreading" (or creative correction), thus in itseif signifying the rapid development in the theory and praxis of criticism. Studying the specific way in which Chinese writers and critics responded, i.e. interpreted or transformed key elements in Kafka's work (the allegorical dimension, alienation, individual/society, authority, internalisation of guilt, the dual char-acter of the solitary predicament of human beings, distortion of accepted moral values etc.) brings out both contrasts and identification. Some Chinese critics, quite wrongly, on the basis of superficial elements of similarity (human beings tumed into animals etc.) tried to link Kafka's style with e.g. stories by Pu Songling (around 1700) In my opinion, the elements of classical literature which Kafka reactivated in China were rather the subjectivized abstraction of for instance 17th-century novels and the non-representational linguistic artistry of pianwen, which found a weird expression in Can Xue's surrealist writing. Strong influences, recognized by the authors themselves, (similarities of plot, structural and thematic resemblance, blatant intertextual references) can be found in f. ex Zong Pu, Can Xue and Yu Hua. The analysis of the reception of Kafka's work in China, and its role in defining modernity will be based on theories of reception (Jauss and others) and viewed in the context of how the Chinese horizon of expectation participated in shaping the Chinese images of Kafka.

4. What happened to the concept of modernity/the constitutive elements of the modernity syndrome since early 20th century ? Preliminary hypothesis as to parallels/contrasts /developments A: 1915 -1925 and B:1979 - 1989: A: Loss of traditional canon/ loss of established aesthetic hierarchy/ emergence of individuality/ emergence of conflict between self and so-ciety, often romantically expressed/ frequent affinity between fictional protagonist and actual author/ evolutionary view of historical progress/ a sense of convergence between historical modemization and aesthet-ical modernity/confidence in representation/ form masquerading as content.

B: Loss of Marxist canon/ tentative establishment of new internationally oriented aesthetic canon/ assertion-disintegration of self/individuality consciously problematized/ conflict between self and society internalized/ contradictory ideas as to the progress of history/ contradictory views as to the relationship between historical and aesthetic modernity/ crisis of representation/ content masquerading as form.

The proposed project is a continuation of my previous research on modern Chinese literature and criticism, and should be seen as a contribution to the inquiry that has been going on in Western research in recent years as to Chinese literature in this century. Apart from the still growing availability and mastery of sources, one of the most valuable aspects of this research, compared to pre-1970 research, is the application of refined Western theories of literature on the Chinese material, which has indeed yielded new insight into the structural layers and textual dynamics of Chinese literature. (F.ex. Marston Anderson 1989, Theodore Huters 1990, many articles in Modern Chinese Literature 1986 on). However, in my opinion the necessity of studying context and of always bearing historicity in mind has not been suffi-ciently stressed. This is why this project, rather than taking the concepts for granted, aims at starting out from the Chinese usage of the concept of modernity - in theory and literary praxis, and viewing it as a dynamic, historical, and culturally specific entity.


Updated 23 November 2000 by csc. Please mail comments to the web editor at Centre for Cultural Research.