Taking China to the World review

MCLC Resource Center is pleased to announce publication of Nathaniel Isaacson’s review of Taking China to the World: The Cultural Production of Modernity, by Theodore Huters. The review appears below and at its online home: https://u.osu.edu/mclc/book-reviews/isaacson-2/. My thanks to Nicholas Kaldis, our literary studies book review editor, for ushering the review to publication.

Kirk Denton, MCLC

Taking China to the World:
The Cultural Production of Modernity

By Theodore Huters

Reviewed by Nathaniel Isaacson

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March, 2023)

Theodore Huters, Taking China to the World: The Cultural Production of Modernity. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2022. ix + 288 pp. ISBN: 9781621966166 (cloth); ISBN: 9781638571346 (paper).

Rigorous attention to language is what makes literary and intellectual history a discipline, but it can also feel kind of tedious. What is Confucianism; what is China; what is a Sinograph? There are two popular approaches to this problem, the first being a diligent delineation of one’s methodology in which all such terms and concepts are carefully set forth, and even omissions are explained. The other approach is to cast most of that aside, and if your readers claim they don’t know what Confucianism is, then to hell with them anyway. Theodore Huters’ latest book, Taking China to the World: The Cultural Production of Modernity, takes a third tack, which is to dwell rather comfortably in the ambiguity of a number of such key words. The book “looks at the challenges posed by ‘modernity’” in China circa 1895-1920 (3), explaining both how knotty and how significant to the country’s history “modernity”—whatever it may be—and its pursuit have become.

One of Sinology’s grand challenges lies in understanding the vital importance and polyvalence of concepts like modernity, and how this ephemerality manifested in other intellectual spheres and organizational structures. Huters identifies a number of attendant keywords associated with the pursuit of modernity that share similar misprisions, among them a certainty about their significance that belies their polysemous nature, demonstrating how concepts like “literature,” “vernacular,” “translation,” “popular literature,” have remained persistently as elusive as they are vital to China’s project of national development. Coming to terms with this vocabulary has been and continues to be a major task confronting the fields of modern Chinese intellectual and literary history.

After an introduction outlining the above, chapter 1, “The Obscure Face of Modernity in Early 20th-Century Chinese Literature: The Discourse of the Modern,” presents an examination of the meanings of “modernity,” both in the West and in China. Huters argues that, in China modernity “quickly became a fixed entity whose validity could not be questioned” (5). Building on Jürgen Habermas’ characterization of modernity as an “incomplete project” (11), Huters describes how the complications of modernity became exponentially greater in China, owing to the general understanding that it originated in the West and to its conflation with modernism, as well as to various gaps in the understanding of modernity pertaining to its usage within and outside of China as a term to understand the Chinese experience. Modernity was taken to be the provenance of a generic, universalized, and unproblematized West. Perpetually beyond China’s temporal and geographical horizons, modernity was assumed to have a fixed meaning, apparent as it often was that no such fixity existed “in practice.” Attaining modernity was often seen as a social Darwinist triumph, tying the roles of literature and art to mass socio-biological struggle (6).

Surveying treatments of the concept in the work of Shu-mei Shih, Wang Hui, David Wang, and Xiaobing Tang, Huters identifies a pernicious tendency to conflate modernity—an existential category (for lack of a better word)—with modernism—an aesthetic category. In so doing, Huters argues that the significance of modernity has been inadequately addressed by some of the most influential figures in our field. Huters suggests that Sebastian Veg and Marston Anderson’s treatment of the term is more adequate, but that all “share in the general failure of being able to specify a durable definition of modernity usable across varying contexts” (16-17). While all the above thinkers are rightfully recognized for their significant contributions to our understanding of the history of Chinese literature, their work answers a different prompt: they have plenty to say about modern literature, and various subsets of modernity (e.g. colonial modernity), but haven’t necessarily explained the significance of modernity in and of itself. Noting that these works are nevertheless important and of high quality, Huters goes on to suggest that this conflation may be forgiven given that scholarship on Western modernity has similarly muddled “modernity” and “modernism.”

Modernity itself has at least two forms—Weberian, which features the stability of a rational, technocratic state apparatus; and Marxist, which posits history as a process of constant overcoming of unequal conditions of social organization and economic production. Instrumentalized as a tool for rational reform, China’s pursuit of modernity superseded modernist aesthetics’ imperative of literary experimentation. There nevertheless existed an orientation towards an indeterminate future and a sense of newness yet to come, of modernity as a work in progress. Modernity was ethereal, foreign, and imperative, and therefore it deeply impacted a host of other perceived attributes of a successful cultural apparatus.

Chapter 2, “Wenxue and New Practices of Writing in Post-1840 China,” traces how wenxue (文學) came to be equivalent to “literature,” and the shifting significance of literature in the first decades of the twentieth century. Wenxue shares with its English-language counterpart a number of contradictions similar to those at the heart of modernity: tensions between the aesthetic and the didactic; between popular and elite; between subtlety and explicitness, etc. Huters traces wenxue to the early Confucian tradition through its neo-Confucian reconfigurations and examines how these valences at times persisted and were at others effaced in the early decades of the twentieth century. During this time, the scope of wenxue narrowed from a field roughly equivalent to what we now call “the humanities,” to something much closer to the equivalent of our contemporary English usage of the term “literature.” As the scope of wenxue narrowed, its moral-cultural purpose and tenor became subject to even greater contention. Whatever wenxue was, it was the possession of nation-states, defining Chinese literature in opposition to French, Italian, German, and English literature (65). Even into the May Fourth movement, literature remained the purview of the educated elite, though it now served the bifurcated purposes of writerly embellishment for elite consumption and straightforward prose for the masses. Huters concludes that “this new version of writing was still in effect, however, a palimpsest, and under the new surface older versions of literature subsisted and often exerted their influence, however indistinctly and uncertainly” (85).

Chapter 3, “Rethinking the Transformation of Modern Chinese Prose,” problematizes the notion of a “transparent” vernacular language. The New Culture Movement of the 1920s did not produce a new vernacular so much as produce an enduring culture myth regarding the prior non-existence of vernacular prose. Huters demonstrates both how advocates of baihua denied the accessibility of pre-modern literary Chinese and flattened the referential landscape of their newly-minted prose style by proscribing allusive writing. The accessibility of what replaced literary Chinese as the written lingua­-franca had less to do with any innate characteristics of what came before or after 1919, and more to do with mandating the new language in elementary education. The “transparent” language of baihua sacrificed nuance, and only after it was established as the language of contemporary education did it become adequate to the task of contemporary translation. May Fourth writers were so anxious to lay claim to an iconoclastic “modernity” as their own that they often ignored the innovations and calls for reform of their late Qing predecessors; the notion that vernacular writing sprung forth as their pristine invention was one aspect of this.

Chapter 4, “‘A Whole Month of Hesitation’: Further Thoughts on Yan Fu and His Translations,” is an examination of Yan Fu’s 嚴復 efforts to articulate the complexities of the Western humanities and social sciences texts he translated by “rendering them into equally full, rich, and nuanced classical Chinese” (7). Yan Fu’s work in translation and subsequent identification by younger intellectuals as archaic and opaque present a case study in the kind of generational shifts examined in chapter 3. Huters argues that, rather than a case of cultural chauvinism, or Sinification of Western ideas through recourse to the classical lexicon, Yan Fu was engaged in a sincere attempt to convey the scientific and moral complexity of the authors he translated. This meant at turns using archaic terminology, borrowing Japanese-language usages of Sinographs, and even inventing his own seemingly archaic terms. The chapter features extensive re-translations of Ma Junwu 馬君武 and Yan Fu’s Chinese renditions of Mill’s On Liberty. Huters demonstrates how both authors engage in translational interpretation, but that while Yan is deliberately pluralistic in his rendering, Ma’s interpretation seeks to freeze the meaning of Mill’s text. These translations present two competing visions of clarity: a clear vision of the philosophical complexity of the original, versus a clear vision of the fixed significance of the original. Huters argues that Ma Junwu’s rendering is so loose that it is hard to track correspondences between the source and host-language texts (136), whereas Yan Fu’s work borders on meta-analysis of the act of translation itself and the “weight of tradition on language” (139). Huters’ re-translations of Yan Fu highlight the richness of the various pre-baihua registers of Chinese as a mode of translation. Ultimately, nuance was sacrificed in the name of transparency.

Chapter 5, “Cultivating the ‘Great Divide’: Popular Literature in Early 20th-Century China,” examines the meanings and purposes of “popular” literature, in order to demonstrate how “the distinction between popular and elite was made by contemporary critics, often on grounds that do not hold up to scrutiny” (166). The division of literature into ‘pure’ and ‘popular’ came in the wake of the May Fourth movement, and disingenuously categorized the bulk of the writing produced in the three decades prior as politically and socially regressive, superficial, and commercial. If what came prior to May Fourth was not tainted by its provincial backwardness, it was tainted by urban elitism. After May Fourth, popular literature seems to have been more politically than aesthetically determined. But for all its political populism, Huters notes, composing and publishing literature remained the realm of an urban, educated elite. Whereas late Qing new fiction sought to reform the people from the top-down, with work produced by an elite largely centered around Shanghai, post May Fourth popular literature sought top-down reform through writing about “the masses” produced by—and for—an educated elite centered around Peking University (176; 189-190).

Chapter 6, “The Advent of the Modern as Business Venture: The Case of the Commercial Press,” centers on the abrupt sacking of Du Yaquan 杜亜泉 by the Commercial Press in late 1919. Huters argues that rather than a response to verifiable demand on the part of the readership, or market needs, the decision to remove Du was preemptive, one that was supported by Du’s peers at the press. As Huters notes, the editors at the Commercial Press were more than fully prepared to meet the moment, and they were by no means stodgy conservatives. He suggests that “it seemed as if those with traditional educations and degrees suddenly came to hold almost no regard for their own educational attainments” (225). The shift at the Commercial Press enacts on an organizational level the intellectual and literary shifts seen in chapters 2 through 5: a forward thinking and transformative staff who had overseen the transformation of the Commercial Press, and especially the journal The Eastern Miscellany (東方雜誌), into its modern form were suddenly deemed insufficient. The lesson here seems to be not that things were suddenly qualitatively different, but where it was previously acceptable for the old guard to advocate for new things, it was now necessary for a new guard to be seen as the sole advocate. Interestingly, this institutional realignment came from within the senior ranks of the Commercial Press itself.

Like Mike’s descent into bankruptcy in The Sun Also Rises, late Qing and Republican era cultural change seems to have happened in two ways: “Gradually and then suddenly,”[1] with Late Qing new fiction being the comparatively gradual variety, and New Culture iconoclasm the sudden. To make matters worse, the latter’s claims to radical change obscured the reformism of the former. This pithy summary does little to capture the sophistication of Taking China to the World. Huters is able to engage with vast swathes of theoretical and historical material with an ease that belies, but does not shy away from, their complexity.

Graduate students and scholars of modern Chinese literature and intellectual history will find this to be a rich and revealing continuation of Huters’ work examining China’s path to modernity. Scholars of Western intellectual history really ought to read this book as well, as it offers such a rich account of the global significance of modernity as a guiding principle in twentieth century nationhood. Huters’ critique of modern Chinese literary scholars’ conflation of modernity and modernism is by no means mean-spirited, but it is one example of his command of vast swathes of the field; a command that may not be shared by his readers. For example, in chapter 4 Huters engages with Lydia Liu’s Translingual Practice, but it is mostly up to the alert reader to connect the theoretical and textual dots. Given that it covers so much intellectual ground, I would be wary of assigning this book, or even portions of it, to undergraduate students outside of perhaps a senior seminar focused on the sort of issues mentioned above.

 And, while I appreciate a good parallelism as much as the next Sinologist, the significance of the title has somewhat eluded this humble reader. Huters’ previous book, Bringing the World Home, examines China’s coming to terms with the West during the same time period, whereas Taking China to the World is an examination of the more abstracted notion of modernity, “the master discourse of Chinese society” (3). Huters suggests that the centrality of modernity to Chinese political life lies at the heart of the collisions between China and the West, as well as China’s own authoritarian tendencies (4), but the book has more to do with China’s synthesis of a number of Western ideas than it does with how this generates new antitheses in contemporary culture and politics. There are also a number of typographical errors, some of them quite baffling. Chen Duxiu’s groundbreaking journal, Xin qingnian (New Youth), for example, is Romanized as xin qiannian throughout the text and in the index. None of this diminishes the overall value of the book, which I find to be so rich and dense as to warrant multiple readings.

Nathaniel Isaacson
North Carolina State University


[1] Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises (New York: Grosset and Dunlap: 1926), 141.

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