Imperfect Understanding review

MCLC Resource Center is pleased to announce publication of Li Guo’s review of Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities (Cambria 2018), by Wen Yuan-ning, edited by Christopher Rea. The review appears below and at its online home: http://u.osu.edu/mclc/book-reviews/li-guo2/. My thanks to Nicholas Kaldis, MCLC literary studies book review editor, for ushering the review to publication.

Kirk Denton, editor

Imperfect Understanding:
Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities

By Wen Yuan-ning and others
Edited by Christopher Rea


Reviewed by Li Guo
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July, 2019)


Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities by Wen Yuan-ning and others Edited by Christopher Rea. Amherst: Cambria Press, 2018. 315 pp. ISBN: 978-1-60497-943-5.

Part of the Cambria Sinophone World Series, edited by Victor H. Mair, Christopher Rea’s edited collection Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities by Wen Yuan-ning and others presents in their entirety the essays in the column “Unedited Biographies,” which ran from 1934 to 1935 in the prominent Republican English-language journal The China Critic 中國評論週報. As Rea points out, “The China Critic, for which Wen [Yuan-ning] served as a contributing editor, is emblematic of the robustness of foreign-language publishing in 1930s China” (4). Having appeared weekly for a dozen years before the war, the journal was one of the many general or specialist foreign-language periodicals that published in English, French, Japanese, German, Russian, and other languages in Republican China. From January through December of 1934, the journal published a series of fifty-one succinct “Unedited Biographies” of contemporary celebrities in China. Midway through the year, the column was retitled “Intimate Portraits.” In 1935, seventeen of these popular essays, all authored by Wen Yuan-ning 溫源寧 (1900-1984), were republished as the book Imperfect Understanding. As Rea insightfully states, the essays “testify to the vitality of Anglophone literary cosmopolitan culture in 1930s China, with flashes of wit, erudition, and panache” (2). For today’s readers, these biographical essays on key cultural figures draw scholarly attention to the scene of Republican multilingual print media and their representation of socio-political topics and discussions of culture and entertainment.

These Critic essays include biographical sketches of leading writers, philosophers, and artists, and of important social, political and cultural figures of the day. Rea’s edited volume brings this collection to a global audience, and provides a much-needed contextualization through a well-researched introduction and with its appendixes. Part I of the volume “Imperfect Understanding” contains seventeen biographies; Part II, “Unedited Biographies,” includes fifteen; and Part III, “Intimate Portraits,” eighteen. Parts II and III are in chronological order of their publication in The China Critic’s “Unedited Biographies/Intimate Portraits” series. Part I is comprised of essays that first appeared from January through December 1934 as part of the same series and were subsequently excerpted by Wen Yuan-ning for his 1935 book, Imperfect Understanding. The volume also provides an expansive array of informative appendixes. These include brief biographies of the subjects and authors of the Critic series, reviews of Imperfect Understanding, detailed publication information of the biographies, special articles, book reviews by Wen, a biography of Wen, a list of Chinese translations of writings by Wen, as well as bibliographical information about writings in Chinese and English on Wen. The volume also contains ample photographs of individuals featured in Wen’s biographies.

In the introduction, “Intimate Portraits of Chinese Celebrities,” Rea provides a detailed discussion of Wen Yuan-ning (a.k.a. Oon Guan Neng), editor of the Critic series, contextualizing Wen and 1930s China’s Anglophone writers. Rea points out that “the allusive style of the Critic celebrity profiles indicates that Wen and his peers shared a strong affinity for European high culture” (6). The sensibility of the Critic series is “purely the product of individual personality,” while “the style is partially institutional, a Critic house style that projected cosmopolitanism and satirized the flattering biographies of Who’s Who in China in pieces fitted to the length of a short column” (7).

These celebrity sketches come from a period in which biographical writing “was undergoing complex transformations” (10). Resonating with Hu Shih 胡適’s call for biography “to bring out the subject’s true status” and make readers feel “they are truly able to know them,” they depart from the Confucian “exemplary biographies” and experiment with the genre to make it more “accessible, human, realistic, dynamic” (10). Print periodicals were influential in the production of celebrity in the 1930s China, and biographies published in journals were edited into books, sometimes with multiple volumes and editions. The Critic series, as distinguished from previous instantiations of the genre, presents a less conventional style that is more intimate and often contains chatter and gossip.

Rea points out that Wen’s biographies “aspired to the literary singularity of epigram” in order to depict the unique personalities of the celebrities (12). For Wen, this distinctive style extends beyond his biographical writings and can even be found in some of his essays on politics. Wen’s distinctive style “captures the aesthetic value of a life” and “displays it through aphorism” (14), depicting social celebrities of his time, including some who are deceased and some who were less well-known. Despite the apparent mischievousness and biting humor in his essays, Wen claimed to have eschewed both “flattery and malice” (15). Rea quotes from an interview in which Wen observes that he agrees with Aristotle that “[t]he perfection of style is to be clear without being mean” (15). Rea concludes that Wen’s style could be characterized by an “uncanny immediacy” (15) that juxtaposes the subject’s strength and weakness to the utmost effectiveness, while maintaining “a writerly ethic of evenhanded entertainment” (15).

Throughout the collection, there are memorable sketches blazing with piercing honesty and scintillating humor, as found in, for example, Wen’s descriptions of the distinguished scholar Wu Mi 吳宓 . Wu Mi is depicted as a genteel scholar of quaint appearance, with “a tortured smile” and overly pleasing personality; he is “never mean, always eager to do a good turn to everybody, invariably misunderstood by both friends and foes, a little too trustful of other people’s goodness and ability, and over-sensitive as regards to the outside world’s opinions of himself” (37). We goes on to write that “he suggests to us exactly what a Confucian scholar ought to be. Grave, taking life at its own face value and a little too seriously, with a deportment as unbending as it is ‘correct,’ he is yet the least formidable of them” (37). “A tragic and lonely figure!,” Wu Mi, despite being a self-claimed “humanist and classicist,” is at his heart a romanticist who is too sincere to have self-awareness of his romanticism, and yet too honest to disguise his disposition to others (37).

The following biography, “Dr. Hu Shih 胡適, A Philosophe,” presents a figure in arresting contrast to Wu Mi. It opens with a vivid portrayal of Hu Shih’s personality: “Either a good enemy or a very good friend,” Hu “knows all the graces of gallantry without himself being gallant” (41). His gallantry, or more precisely, his adeptness in commanding “airy nothings,” contributes to his mysterious social popularity and endears him to “the company of ladies” (41). Praising Hu for his brisk, clear presentation of knowledge in writings and conversations, Wen frankly points out the confinement of Hu’s knowledge to the surface, just like “neat, clean, ordered pictures of the Cosmos. In such pictures, nuance, soul, religion have no place” (42). Despite these seemingly unforgiving observations, Wen favorably depicts Hu as an equivalent of the eighteenth century “philosophe” who has “something of the worldling, something of the scholar, something of the man of affairs, and something of the philosopher” (43).

If the biographies for Wu Mi and Hu Shih display a deliberate balance between irony and endorsement, Wen’s third entry, “The Late Mr. Hsu Tse-mo 徐志摩, A Child,” explores the power of relentless and unreserved humor. As quoted in Rea’s introduction, the romantic poet allegedly had never loved anyone or anything except “his own inner vision of Ideal Beauty.” “His burning incense at many shrines is no disloyalty, but rather it is the essence of his loyalty to his Ideal” (45). If this comment on the amorous poet’s “brief and tragic” commitment to love is mere mischief and forgivable, the rest of the biography does not forego the force of satire but rather builds on it and sharpens its edge: “Tse-mo, the man, is much greater than Tse-mo, the poet” (46). And because his personality is his genius, “his prose is so much better than his poetry.” Since Tse-mo’s popularity was dependent on his personality, Wen surmises that the popularity of his “extraneous” poetry is already waning now that the poet has been dead for two years (46). Evoking both sympathy for the hapless poet and an uneasy urge to chuckle, Wen presents an objective analogy: the poet was himself a child. To Tse-mo, life is nothing but an endless wonder of adventures, a joyous variety of visits, people, and experiences, “[h]e plays about with things, as a child his toys” (47).

Perhaps sensing an impulsive style the best way to honor an impulsive poet, Wen goes so far as to illustrate Hsu’s untimely death a “poetic” one: “What a fairytale death it was! Died in an aeroplane crash, and against a mountain too!” (47). This textual moment certainly recalls Wen’s own affirmation that “[t]he perfection of style is to be clear without being mean” (15). After all, these modern sketches expanded traditions of biographical writings by embracing and accentuating both the imperfections of the subject under depiction and of the one wielding the brush. However, while humor or well-intended irony may appear excessive in some of his biographies, Wen displays sagaciousness and objectivity in outlining the subjects’ personalities against popular impressions of them. For example, the Shandong-based warlord Han Fu-chu 韓復渠 is described as a “true soldier” who is “gifted with the extraordinary ability of seeing persons and things as they really are” (103), and the scholar Ku Hung-ming 辜鴻銘 is not actually a Confucianist, but is rather “more native to Chuang-tze and Taoism” (73).

Traces of imperfections make these historical celebrities come alive as fellow humans, possessed of noteworthy flaws, along with their impressive achievements. For example, Dr. Wellington Koo 顧維鈞, a successful diplomat, often displays a kind of “slipperiness” in his undertakings (65). Mr. Ku Hung-ming “is cross-grained” and “lives by opposition” against what the commonality accepts or rejects (72). The eminent general Feng Yu-hsiang 馮玉祥 is “largely a child of circumstances” (132) because his political opinion and policy were often influenced by the people around him. Emperor Malgré Lui 溥儀 “holds the world’s record for the number of times that any mortal may ascend and abdicate the throne” (117), repetitively utilized as a puppet by diverse political forces. These amusing and often disconcertingly intimate depictions grant readers an opportunity to observe their subjects beyond conventional interpretations or popular impressions. In a way, the figures’ imperfections mark Wen’s essays as a form of realist writing that presents the very contradictions between surface and underlying actualities as mutual constituents of the person’s true character. The essayist’s fidelity to the truth rests in his exposition of his subjects’ hidden contradictions, incongruities, and opposing traits.

Most of the biographies are about male elites. However, there are three biographies of women. The biography of Miss Kao Kyuin-san, a professor of education at Yenching University, illustrates women intellectuals’ efforts to balance a vocation and a role as a mother. The reputed writer Miss Huang Lu-ying 黃盧隱 is not merely endorsed as an extraordinary writer, but as “a woman who lived and died for love” (166). In a biography written by Chien-Chao Fei 費鑑照, “Lin Shu-Hwa 凌叔華, Woman Novelist,” Lin is said to “divine the life of womankind more than any other woman writer” (167). These biographical narratives, though reflecting male intellectual points of view, are affirmative of the social impact of women writers and their rising visibility in China’s literary arenas after the New Culture movement in 1919.

This volume is an important contribution to the fields of modern Chinese history, biographical studies, literary aesthetics, philosophy and cosmopolitan non-fiction writing in early twentieth century China. Its attractive layout and richly informative content make the volume ideal course material for graduate seminars or advanced undergraduate courses on modern Chinese literature or history studies. Historical figures familiar to specialists become animated and approachable in the individual sketches, and the appended thumbnail biographies provide details for non-specialist readers. Also, reviews of Imperfect Understanding by Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書, T. K. Chuan 全增嘏 and E. H. provide observations of Wen’s literary achievements in the eyes of his contemporaries, particularly other writers. On top of these, Wen’s former student Zhong Shi 鍾栻’s 1937 essay “Personages: Mr. Wen Yuan-ning” completes the volume by providing a portrait of the author himself. Echoing Wen’s own style, Zhong writes with good humor: “Fond as I am of the winning aspects of his personality, I’m even fonder of his flaws” (251). Applauding Wen’s erudition, Zhong honors more the genuine shortcomings that made Wen a humane and unmatched nobleman.

The rich content of this volume suggests several productive directions for further research. Imperfect Understandingprovides readers an important glimpse of the cosmopolitan writer Wen Yuan-ning and his approaches to cross-cultural aesthetics in the interwar period. As Shuang Shen argues, “Periodicals such as The China Critic embody a particular kind of mobility—the migration of cultural professionals from the world of the university to public culture” (Shen 2009: 35). Writing in English allowed writers a degree of “performative quality that mediates the distance between the stylistic and the political, the urban and the national” (Shen 2009: 35). The volume’s impressive scope of collected materials about Wen the author and editor situate him within the context of interwar Anglophone literary cosmopolitanism. Also, the volume recalls Rea’s rich scholarship on the history of humor in Chinese literature in The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China. Wen’s essays in this volume illustrate how humor in nonfiction writings in multilingual periodicals might have facilitated cosmopolitanism and cross-cultural aesthetics; as Rudolf Wagner (2012) observes, “the Chinese media of the Republican period operated in a public sphere that was multilingual and transcultural.” Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities by Wen Yuan-ning and others is a rich contribution to our growing understanding of how the multilingual media sources and a culturally and linguistically diverse readers’ community influenced the public space of Republican China.

Li Guo
Utah State University

Works Cited

Rea, Christopher. 2015. The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China. Oakland: University of California Press.

Rudolf G. Wagner. 2012. “Don’t Mind the Gap! The Foreign-language Press in Late-Qing and Republican China.” China Heritage Quarterly, nos. 30/31.

Shen, Shuang. 2009. Cosmopolitan Publics: Anglophone Print Culture in Semi-Colonial Shanghai. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

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