On the Margins of Modernism: Xu Xu,
Wumingshi and Popular Chinese Literature in the 1940s

By Christopher Rosenmeier

Reviewed by Angie Chau
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November, 2018)

Christopher Rosenmeier, On the Margins of Modernism: Xu Xu, Wumingshi and Popular Chinese Literature in the 1940s Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press, 2017. vi, 139 pp. ISBN: 9780748696369 (Hardback) // ISBN: 9781474444477 (Paperback: March 2019).

Up to now, Xu Xu 徐訏 (1908–1980) and Wumingshi 無名氏 (1917–2002), two of the most widely-read writers in the 1940s, have been neglected in English-language literary studies of modernism during the Republican period. Christopher Rosenmeier’s On the Margins of Modernism: Xu Xu, Wumingshi and Popular Chinese Literature in the 1940s aims to correct that oversight by providing readers with ample translations and clear textual analyses of the writers’ (lesser known) works.

Focusing on popular literature published during the Sino-Japanese war (1937–1945), Rosenmeier’s study shows how Xu Xu and Wumingshi’s stories and novels appealed to a broad readership and drew upon the earlier literary experimentation of New Sensationists Shi Zhecun and Mu Shiying. Rosenmeier argues that because both authors “stayed outside politics” (2) and because their fiction, which navigates the border between romanticism and modernism defies easy categorization, Xu Xu and Wumingshi have been marginalized in the Chinese literary canon.

Across the five chapters of his study, Rosenmeier traces three recurrent themes: “the role of tradition and the supernatural, the reaction against realism, and the use of psychology” (2). While these are generally accepted as characteristics of 1930s modernist writing, Rosenmeier argues that “much of the Chinese popular literature of the 1940s was indebted to the modernist Shanghai authors of the 1930s in various ways” (3), and that Shanghai modernism provided the foundation for both the content and narrative style of Xu Xu and Wumingshi’s work. Rosenmeier’s primary aim is to demonstrate how the writers’ works are “often hybrid, crossing boundaries between the popular and the elite, as well as between modernism and romanticism, so there is no need to place them categorically in one group or the other” (10). This fluidity of positioning in the literary field, he asserts, is only made possible by the conditions of war.

The book is organized into an introduction (“chapter 1”) and 5 chapters (2-6). The introduction attempts to define popular literature in 1940s China through an evaluation of various literary categories and labels that have been used to classify writers and their works in the Chinese literary context. Part of Rosenemeier’s project is to dismantle these categories; for instance, discussing the limitations of treating popular literature only in terms of commercial appeal, he claims that “what is considered popular or elite seems to depend more on political and social concerns than literary depth or quality” (8). Rosenmeier also points out the shortcomings of the conventionally held view of Wumingshi’s literary development as a progression from romanticism to modernism (17), arguing instead that Wumingshi’s fiction is characterized by hybridity and straddling or switching between modes.

In chapter 2, Rosenmeier uses the short stories of Shi Zhecun and Mu Shiying to illustrate how the boundary between elite and popular literature was being tested in the face of the New Culture movement. Arguing that both authors’ works “demonstrate a deliberate rejection of realism and the politicisation of literature” (26), Rosenmeier provides close readings of stories such as Shi Zhecun’s “How Master Hongzhi Became a Monk” (宏智法師的出家) and “The Haunted House” (凶宅), revealing them as hybrids of psychological realism and traditional ghost stories. Rather than viewing the hybridity of narrative modes employed in stories like Mu Shiying’s “Black Peony” (黑牡丹) as merely a fleeting moment of experimentation in the longer trajectory of modern Chinese literary development, Rosenmeier points to the lasting legacy of the New Sensationists.

Chapter 3 contextualizes the impact of the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) in facilitating the practice of crossing the elite vs. popular literature divide, which had been so hotly debated during the preceding New Culture movement. Rosenmeier identifies the use of modernist narrative style, psychological depth, historical themes, and the resurgence of traditional art forms as key trends of wartime literature.

Chapter 4 traces the instrumental role of Xu Xu’s escapist fiction in popularizing narrative tropes that were previously considered avant-garde. Focusing on Xu Xu’s short stories and novels that take place in foreign settings, Rosenmeier argues that the trope of a cosmopolitan Chinese male first-person narrator and his exoticized female object of desire reveals how “travelling and looking” initiate encounters with the uncanny: “It is between destinations that modernity meets its opposite. Where the narrator is a symbol of modernity and enlightenment, the exotic women encountered during these travels are his opposite: otherworldly, timeless and elusive” (81). While the spatial dynamics in these fictional narratives highlighted by Rosenmeier are fascinating, it is not entirely clear how or why the quality of being elusive—frequently seen as a defining trait of modernity—constitutes the “opposite” of modernity.

Rosenmeier further explores how, in quasi-detective stories such as The Lament of the Mental Patient (精神病患者的悲歌) and The Absurd English Channel (荒謬的英法海峽), despite his professed worldliness, the male intellectual narrator fails to fully understand a sensual and strange woman. Rosenmeier explains that “[t]his barrier is not directly related to nationality, but in every case the narrator’s encounter with the exotic women is determined by his being an outsider” (81). This may lead readers, such as myself, to wish that Rosenmeier had further considered how gender fits into the construction of otherness when stranger status is not determined necessarily by ethnicity or nationality.

Chapter 5 challenges the conventional understanding of Wumingshi’s literary production as progressing from an early romantic phase to a later modernist mode. Providing close readings of his two bestselling novels, North Pole Landscape (北極風情畫, 1943) and The Woman in the Tower (塔裡的女人, 1944), Rosenmeier shows how the two-level narrative structure and elaborate literary technique in both works complicate the seemingly straightforward, melodramatic love story at each novel’s center. Considering this admixture of familiar content with complex style, Rosenmeier concludes that the novels occupy a “middle position, crossing between high and low literature in what might be considered a self-consciously playful fashion” (105). The latter part of the chapter discusses Wumingshi’s ambitious, six-volume opus The Nameless Book (無名書) and its protagonist, Yindi, who searches for enlightenment by experimenting with western and eastern philosophies. After rejecting communist ideology, Buddhism, Christianity, and a series of other belief systems, Yindi decides to go his own way. Rosenmeier credits the work, which was mostly written in secret, as the author’s “most rebellious and subversive work, clearly going directly against the cultural diktats of the age” (107).

Throughout the chapter, Rosenmeier insists on reading Wumingshi’s oeuvre as apolitical; for example in his analysis of a passage taken from a battle scene depicting two Korean soldiers fighting against Japanese soldiers in the 1943 short story “Red Demons” (紅魔), Rosenmeier acknowledges that the war setting distinguishes Wumingshi’s short stories from “the works of the other authors in this study who deliberately avoided ideology and politics,” but concludes that the former should nonetheless be categorized as “abstract stories of human nature” in which the “specifics of the political situation fade into insignificance” (94). While Rosenmeier states that China does not play a significant role in these works where the “importance of the nation disappears in these war narratives” (95), it would have helped here to clarify the distinction between nationalism and patriotism because, although Wumingshi’s fictional characters are clearly nationalistic, how their patriotism fits into Rosenmeier’s conception of political consciousness is not apparent. In his analysis of The Woman in the Tower, Rosenmeier does trace the “passionate nationalism” that underlies the romantic relationship between the two patriot characters Lin and Aurelia, revealing how notions of patriotism in the novel catered to the intended readership (102).

In his conclusion, Rosenmeier highlights key differences among Shi Zhecun, Mu Shiying, Xu Xu, and Wumingshi, illustrating why the label of “Shanghai School” (海派) is too broad to be meaningful. The book’s title implicitly raises a number of related questions: What does it mean to be “on the margins” of modernism? And what is the relationship between marginalization and fluidity? If marginalization can be used to describe a group outside of the periphery that receives slight attention or has little influence, is it then the case that both authors have been neglected because they failed in their attempts to achieve the level of literariness attributed to the New Sensationists? Or, rather, is it the case that, despite their success in adapting 1930s modernist elements to popular 1940s fiction, their work failed to make a lasting impact on subsequent writing? Can we see in the case of Xu Xu and Wumingshi a parallel to Mingwei Song’s argument about science fiction, that as a marginalized literary genre, its unique strength lies in its “unconventional and subversive nature” and its potential “to oppose or contend with the ‘center’”[1]? Rosenmeier’s answer to the last question would appear to be in the negative, arguing as he does that a “sense of protest is absent from most of the writings of Xu Xu and Wumingshi” (119) in that both authors staunchly refused to take sides in any ideological debates. Nevertheless, readers familiar with these works may have perceived hints of resistance in stories like Xu Xu’s 1939 “The Flower Spirit of the Gambling Den” (賭窟裡的花魂), which features characters who confront their gambling and opium addictions.

In terms of expanding the scope of Republican-era literature, Rosenmeier’s book is certainly successful. Where else can you find an English translation of the “memorable orgy” scene that appears in Golden Snake Nights (金色的蛇夜), the third volume of Wumingshi’s The Nameless Book? Encounters between repressed, self-righteous depressive male intellectuals and their exotic or demonic femme fatale counterparts run rampant in fiction and poetry from the 1930s and 1940s, so it’s a refreshing change of pace to read Rosenmeier’s description of ecstatic sexual frenzy: “Go mad! This is a night of crazy devastation!” (107). The translated passage that Rosenmeier cites here describes in vivid visual and sensual imagery an unbridled corporeal excitement that is unimaginable in the sinister, melancholy, or vague sex scenes we customarily encounter in the writing of Eileen Chang, Shi Zhecun, and Mu Shiying. At the same time, the consequence of being subjected to so many summaries of outlandish and bizarre events, plot twists, and melodramatic love stories is that one has difficulty imagining how to situate these works in the broader literary historiography, which perhaps is the entire point of being “on the margins.” In teasing out the complexities surrounding the book’s keywords—hybridity, modernity, tradition—one possibility for further comparison is to reflect on how other forms of popular culture, such as film and music, also worked to reconcile political considerations with popular tastes during the 1940s.

Angie Chau
University of Victoria


[1] Mingwei Song, 2016. “Representations of the Invisible: Chinese Science Fiction in the Twenty-First Century.” In Carlos Rojas and Andrea Bachner, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 547.