Literary Societies of Republican China

Edited by Kirk A. Denton and Michel Hockx

Reviewed by John Christopher Hamm
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2010)

Kirk A. Denton and Michel Hockx, eds. Literary Societies of Republican China. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008. 602 pp. 0-7391-1934-6 / 978-0-7391-1934-1 (paper); 0-7391-1933-8 / 978-0-7391-1933-4 (cloth) 0-7425-5554-2 / 978-0-7425-5554-9 (cloth).

Kirk A. Denton and Michel Hockx, eds. Literary Societies of Republican China. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008. 602 pp. 0-7391-1934-6 / 978-0-7391-1934-1 (paper); 0-7391-1933-8 / 978-0-7391-1933-4 (cloth) 0-7425-5554-2 / 978-0-7425-5554-9 (cloth).

I begin this review of Kirk Denton and Michel Hockx’s Literary Societies of Republican China by reproducing the book’s table of contents. My aim is twofold: first, to make in advance some small amends for the fact that my essay will not be able to devote the merited attention to each of these consistently substantive chapters; and second, simply to demonstrate the scope of the volume’s coverage:

· Introduction (Kirk A. Denton and Michel Hockx)
· Chapter 1: Contested Fengya: Classical-Style Poetry Clubs in Early Republican China (Shengqing Wu)
· Chapter 2: The Mandarin Duck and Butterfly School (Xueqing Xu)
· Chapter 3: The Chinese Literary Association (Wenxue yanjiu hui (Michel Hockx)
· Chapter 4: The Creation Society (1921-1930) (Xiaobing Tang, with Michel Hockx)
· Chapter 5: Reconsidering Xueheng: Neo-Conservatism in Early Republican China (Yi-tsi Mei Feuerwerker)
· Chapter 6: The Yusi Society (Mark Miller)
· Chapter 7: The Analects Group and the Genre of Xiaopin (Charles A. Laughlin)
· Chapter 8: Tian Han and the Southern Society Phenomenon: Networking the Personal, Communal, and Cultural (Xiaomei Chen)
· Chapter 9: Lions and Tigers in Groups: The Crescent Moon School in Modern Chinese Literary History (Lawrence Wang-chi Wong)
· Chapter 10: A Literary Organization with a Clear Political Agenda: The Chinese League of Left-Wing Writers, 1930-1936 (Lawrence Wang-chi Wong)
· Chapter 11: Yuefeng: A Literati Journal of the 1930s (Susan Daruvala)
· Chapter 12: The All-China Resistance Association of Writers and Artists (Charles A. Laughlin)
· Chapter 13: The Hu Feng Group: Genealogy of a Literary School (Kirk A. Denton)

Some edited volumes with big-tent titles offer a catch-as-catch-can assortment of scholarship variously related to the topic proclaimed. The present volume, in contrast, offers a something approaching a comprehensive survey. The aggregated chapters cover in chronological sequence all of the major literary organizations of the Republican period, and include a number of less-studied groups as well. The studies of clearly defined and temporally limited schools are prefaced by a pair of essays on more diffuse phenomena–classical-style poetry and “Mandarin Duck and Butterfly literature.” In an era when few scholars (in the Western academy at least) would dare attempt to produce a master narrative on any topic, the volume in effect offers a broad historical overview of Republican-era literary activity.

It is an overview from a particular perspective, of course; and in the Introduction Denton and Hockx anticipate–perhaps even invite–the objection that the scholarship they have marshaled here represents something quite different from literary research as it has been conventionally understood. The study of literary societies is in and of itself nothing new; since the Republican era itself, critics and historians have employed literary schools as a basic taxonomic framework for their approach to the literature of modern China. The work presented here, however, for the most part forgoes the use of literary groupings as a point of entry into the analysis and evaluation of authors and their texts, and focuses instead on the phenomenon of literary socializing in and of itself–on literature as social practice. That is to say, the editors and authors are interested in contexts more than texts; in the particular context of the sociology of literature; in the sociology primarily of literary production (granted that production cannot be cleanly separated from distribution and consumption); and in the central role played by literary societies in the literary production of Republican-era China. “A sociology of literary production is not the be all and end all of literary studies,” the editors make clear, “but as a specific approach it is not less important or valuable than any of the text-centered approaches” (10). The specific model for the volume’s approach is sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the modern literary field as both embedded in and consciously differentiated from a larger web of socio-economic relationships, and internally structured by the tension between its autonomous and heteronomous principles. In exploring the applicability of Bourdieu’s ideas to the literature of modern China, this collection continues an enterprise that Michel Hockx’s scholarship and publications have pioneered. [1]

The chapters vary in the depth and explicitness of their commitment to a Bourdieuian model, and in the demonstrable fruitfulness of their application of this model to the material at hand. Not surprisingly, among the chapters that make the strongest use of the model are the co-editors’ contributions. Michel Hockx’s “The Chinese Literary Association (Wenxue yanjiu hui)” (Chapter 3) revisits his earlier studies of this organization; here he focuses on the group’s official publications, the “critical styles and habits” by which it undertook to “lay the foundations for a new literary practice,” and on “the significance of the collective identity in all of this” (79-80). He argues that the Association played a key role in shaping the modern literary field through its institutionalization of a particular kind of independent literary journal, through its aggressive positioning of itself against other literary practices, and through the deployment of an antagonistic, subjective mode of literary criticism. The interlinked practices it pioneered were taken up by the Creation Society (the object of further study by Hockx and Xiaobing Tang in Chapter 4), which defined itself and further validated the functioning of an independent literary field precisely through a strategy of differentiation from the Association. The Association, after functioning as an actual collective for a certain period of time, enjoyed an even longer afterlife as a brand or label identifying a recognized position in the field.

Hockx’s chapter on the Association effectively begins the volume’s chronological survey of Republican-era literary groups (the first and second chapters deal with more diffuse literary phenomena, and will be discussed below); Kirk Denton’s “The Hu Feng Group: Genealogy of a Literary School” (Chapter 13) brings it to a close. And where Hockx traces the emergence of a modern literary field that may usefully be approached via Bourdieu’s model, Denton in effect chronicles its suppression by the CCP’s institutional control and ideological hegemony. This chapter blends literary sociology with revisionist historiography and what we might call a “reception history” of Hu Feng and his circle. It argues that anti-Hu Feng campaign of 1954-55 misrepresented the group’s positions and exaggerated its organizational unity in a bid to build the Party’s ideological legitimacy; and, further, that the official rehabilitation of Hu Feng in the post-Mao era and the resurgence of scholarly interest in his work were no less driven by the political agendas of the time. Denton seeks to peel away these various layers of motivated representation in order to better understand the nature of the group’s identity and functioning. The picture he arrives at is a complex one, in which the “Hu Feng group” emerges not as a formal organization but as a “habitual society” constituted by means of a group of journals, a fluctuating pool of contributors, and a shared identity grounded in both literary ideology and literary practice. Though far short of the cabal portrayed by its attackers, the group clearly enjoyed a communal identity. At the same time, its existence and character were deeply indebted to the ideas, industry, mentorship, and symbolic capital of Hu Feng as an individual. And while the group deliberately sought to shape a position for itself distinct from others on the left and the right, it also shared with a broad swath of its contemporaries certain assumptions about literature’s social responsibilities and historical role. Denton’s study of the Hu Feng group thus serves not only to “set the record straight,” but also to open a window on the wider literary field and to demonstrate the applicability of Bourdieu’s sociology of cultural practice to the study of this field.

Most of the intervening chapters make equally fruitful use of the Bourdieuian model. Mark Miller, for instance, intervenes in the debate over whether or not the “Yusi Society” (Chapter 6) actually existed as a society by convincingly describing the group neither in terms of organizational structure nor in terms of ideology per se but rather as “a collective position-taking by a group sharing a similar habitus” (173). Charles Laughlin, in a similar vein, effectively characterizes the confluence of shared backgrounds, social networks, organs of publication, chosen literary genre, discursive positioning, and tropes (such as the mystique of smoking) that constituted the Analects group (Chapter 7). Susan Daruvala’s “Yuefeng: A Literati Journal of the 1930s” (Chapter 11) is notable both for bringing the volume’s chosen tools to bear upon a less commonly studied aspect of Republican literary culture, and for pursuing the Introduction’s suggestion that the study of Republican Chinese cases might suggest revisions to the model. Her careful and fascinating exploration of the publishing history, social and political context, and (to a certain extent) contents of a “conservative” literary journal published in Hangzhou from 1936 to 1937 leads her to a perception of a literary field less stable and objectively structured than that envisioned by Bourdieu. The literary field is “shaped by its agents, who are in turn shaped by their experiences and the many complex sets of relationships in which they are involved”; therefore, “rather than a field, we could perhaps envisage a landscape containing a variety of ecological niches, underlying some of which was a highly politicized view of culture formed over a long historical period” (341-342).

Several of the chapters take an approach not noticeably different from that of conventional literary history. One or two of them rather attenuate the concept and methodologies of literary sociology: thus, for instance, Xiaomei Chen’s study of “Tian Han and the Southern Society Phenomenon” (Chapter 8), on the one hand, foregrounds Tian Han’s personal role and individual agency and, on the other hand, extends the consideration of the “social” aspects of the playwright’s work to include his family and romantic relationships, his representation of women and artists on stage, and his legacy within academic and artistic networks. But in noting the looseness of certain chapters’ affiliation with Bourdieuian orthodoxy as I understand it, I by no means intend to devalue their quality or their relevance to the volume as a whole. To put it another way, the collection’s worth and cohesiveness extend well beyond the already considerable value of its exploration of a particular mode of analysis. The individual contributions are without exception substantive–let me say again that they deserve more individual attention than I can give them here–and in some cases ground-breaking. They are thematically connected by a common interest in the collective aspects of the literary enterprise, and dialogically interact with one another in their shared concern with differentiating institutionalized “societies” (she), affinitive “schools” (pai), and the many gradations of sociality between and beyond these two. A recurrent endeavor is that of rectifying or at least clarifying literary history by disencumbering a particular group of the misrepresentations projected upon it by rivals, detractors, successors, and chroniclers. The relevant case studies–Denton is joined in this approach most notably by Xueqing Xu, Tang, Yi-tsi Mei Feuerwerker, Miller, and Lawrence Wang-chi Wong–demonstrate not only that Bourdieu’s model of identity fashioning and collective positioning through strategies of differentiation is an apt tool for analyzing the conscious, even Machiavellian tactics of many agents in the modern Chinese literary field, but also that writers, critics, political ideologues, and academic literary historians overlap almost to the point of indistinguishability in their recourse to this mode of agency.

Does the volume offer a narrative of its own? That is, questions of thematic focus and methodological accord aside, does this collection of diverse contributors’ studies of various literary groups–clearly designed to be comprehensive, although not claiming exhaustiveness–add up to a “history,” in some sense deeper than that of a chronologically organized patchwork? To a surprising degree, yes. Charles Laughlin’s chapter on “The All-China Resistance Association of Writers and Artists” (Chapter 12) is one of the more explicit in its consideration of broader historical trends and suggests one framework for understanding the implications of certain ideas and practices analyzed in earlier chapters. Laughlin shows how the attempt to organize writers across the literary and political spectrum in aid of the war effort was a precursor to the literary politics of the Mao era, and so a precondition for that dismantling of the independent literary field illustrated in Denton’s chapter on Hu Feng. A familiar story, perhaps, even if given new cogency by the focus on the interdependence of institutional and ideological factors; more revelatory, though, is the implicit demonstration that the roots of the Resistance Association’s practice can be discerned in attitudes and positions that had structured the modern literary field since its inception–assumptions about the role of literature and antagonistic critical habits already evident in Hockx’s portrait of the Literary Association (Chapter 3).

Shengqing Wu’s study of classical-style poetry (Chapter 1) and Xueqing Xu’s of “Mandarin Duck and Butterfly” literature (Chapter 2) address categories more diffuse than those on which the other chapters focus. Their inclusion seems to reflect at least in part the editors’ desire to present a comprehensive panorama of Republican-era literary activity. Wu’s “Contested Fengya” makes a particularly valuable contribution in this regard, in that it deals with a body of literature that, despite having claimed a substantial share of Republican writers’ and readers’ attention, has been marginalized or neglected entirely in most narratives of modern literary history.[2] Wu considers several different phenomena: a tradition, initiated in 1913, of Orchid Pavilion-inspired poetry gatherings on the Shangsi festival–gatherings convened by discrete if to some extent like-minded groups in various locales over a period of several decades; ongoing early-Republican Shanghai-based poetry clubs, in particular the Chao club and the Community of the House of the Morning Wind; and the practice of “poetry bell,” a late-Qing poetic game revived in the post-imperial years and popular into the middle of the twentieth century. Wu weaves these diverse topics into a broad discussion of the inseparability of poetic form, social activity, and socio-cultural positioning, arguing that these practices enabled literati to “reaffirm their collective identity and reconsolidate their cultural memory in the face of disintegrating political, social, and cultural institutions” (43).

Xu’s essay on the so-called “Mandarin Duck and Butterfly School” addresses material that, while lumped together with classical-style literature by May Fourth progressives and their heirs and similarly devalued by the same parties, has in recent decades received a fair amount of attention from scholars and editors, and is likely to be more familiar to readers than the old-style verse treated in Shengqing Wu’s essay. Xu does an excellent job of recapitulating and refining our understanding of some of this material. It seems to me, though, that the essay fits but awkwardly into the volume; perhaps because this is a case in which the editors’ desire for inclusiveness does not fully jibe with the proposed methodological and analytical toolkit. Xu reminds us that the very term “Mandarin Duck and Butterfly School” is a derisive characterization, first applied by New Culture intellectuals to a certain limited group of writings in the early years of the Republic, then used in later decades as an increasingly capacious catch-all term for writings dismissed, on the basis of unstable ideological criteria, as frivolous and/or reactionary. “There never was a school of twentieth-century Chinese writers who called themselves the Mandarin Duck and Butterfly School, and no single writer has asserted its existence or acknowledged being a member” (47). She echoes other scholars in pointing out how the construct in question aided other literary groups in defining their identities; but she does not convincingly make the case–and I suspect the case is not there to be made–that the category can validly said to have existed as a homogeneous sociological entity. There is thus some slippage between broad characterizations of the “school” and more focused considerations of specific networks and organizations, and likewise greater reliance than in most other essays here on certain textual and ideological features as markers of “group” identity. Xu’s careful history of the use of the term, and her analysis of certain so-called “Butterfly” authors’ deployment of innovative narrative techniques, are but two of her valuable contributions to the study of the material she takes in hand. A truly “sociological” approach to this material, however, might require an even more radical acceptance of the fictitiousness of the Mandarin Duck and Butterfly School’s existence as anything but an ideological whipping-boy, and a fresh re-mapping of those networks and institutions of Republican-era literary practice commonly subsumed under that name. Xu’s essay thus mirrors the challenge, and one of the central contributions, offered by Literary Societies of Republican China as a whole. Even as the volume provides a valuable survey–solid and often innovative–of the sociology of literary practice in China in the first half of the twentieth century, it also reveals the limits of certain long-standing assumptions, including some which of necessity structure its own approach, and opens challenging new pathways for research.

John Christopher Hamm
University of Washington


[1]. Among his major publications on this topic are “The Literary Association (Wenxue yanjiu hui, 1920-1947) and the Literary Field of Early Republican China,”The China Quarterly 153 (March 1998): 49-81; “Theory as Practice: Modern Chinese Literature and Bourdieu,” in Reading East Asian Writing: The Limits of Literary Theory, ed. Michel Hockx and Ivo Smits (London and New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003), 220-239; Questions of Style: Literary Societies and Literary Journals in Modern China, 1911-1937 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2003); and the edited volume The Literary Field of Twentieth Century China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999).

[2]. Daruvala, in her essay on Yuefeng (Chapter 11; see pp. 370-371), likewise notes the importance of “old-style poetry,” while declining to make it the central focus of her own study.