By Theodore Huters
Reviewed by Bonnie S. McDougall
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November 2006)
The vendor of sweets, in R. K. Narayan’s 1967 novel of the same name, is bemused when his son returns from the US with a machine for writing novels. “In course of time,” the failed novelist cum businessman explains to his father, “every home in the country will possess one and we will produce more stories than any other nation in the world. Now we are a little backward. Except for Ramayana and Mahabharata, those old stories, there is no modern writing, whereas in America alone every publishing season ten thousand books are published. . . . Today, we have to compete with advanced countries not only in economics and industry, but also in culture.” It is odd that so little literary scholarship on modern Chinese literature is truly comparative: although engagement with Western literary theory is widespread, there is little sense that its adherents in Chinese literary studies have read the fiction and poetry on which the theorizing is based. This seems particularly true of postcolonial theory. Although Narayan’s philosophizing vendor has no obvious Chinese counterpart that I can think of, the funny but saddening episode of his son’s bamboozlement by US capitalism has its equivalents in Chinese fiction from the late Qing to the present.
Theodore Huters is one of the few scholars in the field of Chinese literary studies who combines enthusiasm for abstract ideas with a predisposition to read fiction and poetry for enjoyment. From the first pages of the Introduction, we know that we are in for a treat as Huters expresses his fascination for the “indeterminate age” of late Qing and early Republican fiction. In this period, where modernity arose as an issue before the tradition came under sustained attack, Huters finds not only much that is attractive in the non-canonical literature but also ideas that are still relevant in twenty-first century Chinese scholarship and grounds for reassessing recent criticism of mid-twentieth century Western sinology. For example, Huters singles out a key feature in twentieth-century Sino-Western relations, that the West has been “at all times” (his italics) and at the very same time (my italics) both hated and admired in modern China. This ambivalence is hard for scholars and other observers to deal with because there are many reasons for writers from whatever background to feel obliged to choose sides or to reach clear-cut conclusions.
For Huters, fuzzy history (or logic) strengthens his resistance to the pull of historical teleology. Thus, the period is “marked by intellectual and political instability and suffused with blind spots, contradictory formulations, strange silences, frequent deferrals and outright misjudgements,” receptive to variety but at the same time characterized by “an agonism at the center of the whole process.” This agonism is not restricted to a small number of aggressively articulate elites but can be found in fiction and other literary writing with a wide popular readership; it was not only among activists that literature was a means of shaping people’s understanding of themselves and their world.
The first chapter of Part I: Late Qing Ideas explores the many manifestations of the Late Qing concept that the features associated with Western modernity had their ultimate origins in China. This insistence became the more highly fraught as its implausibility increased, but Huters points out that it would be mistaken to view it as an issue to be settled by an appeal to fact. Instead, he casts for it “an indispensable rhetorical role” in enabling reformers to further their reforms “in the teeth of entrenched conservative opposition” (the mixed metaphor does not undermine the validity of this insight). Although it disappeared from intellectual debate in the early twentieth century, the argument from origins, however spurious, performed a valuable service, and it is therefore hardly surprising that it has resurfaced repeatedly, in more covert forms, ever since. Then as now, many Westerners were only too happy to endorse or even exaggerate these claims.
Yan Fu’s painstaking attempts to analyse and explain the differences between China and the West are the subject of Chapter 2. Huters takes us on a lengthy tour through Yan Fu’s argumentative nuances, changes in outlook, digressions and internal inconsistencies, always open to the possibilities of multiple interpretations. The choice of a quotation from Naipaul’s A Bend in the River to introduce this chapter alerts the reader to its universal theme: all countries, and most individuals, have been forced at different stages in their history into confronting their present with their past, and any tendency to regard China’s case as unique, whether by native historians or foreign sinologists, is easy to refute.
Chapter 3 examines the appearance of literary factions or schools advocating new prose writing styles around the turn of the century, highlighting contributions to the debates by new writers such as Lin Shu, Liang Qichao, Zhang Binglin, and Liu Shipei. Theories of the novel, the subject of Chapter 4, were a subset of the literary thinking of these literary schools and in a wider sense were also related to the preceding struggles to reconcile imported and local cultures. The novel had already gained a foothold in the literary establishment, although its position was rarely acknowledged (and statements that vernacular fiction was introduced to China in the May Fourth period remain common even today). Fiction in the vernacular was popular among readers, and its writers, in the main, were men who had attained the education expected of officials. Despite the moral baggage that came with their education, these writers also seemed to enjoy writing fiction and to expect that their readers felt likewise.
The imposition of cultural and social duties on fiction in the late Qing, which Huters characterizes as “more like a revelation of the depths of the cultural crisis of the times than a realistic expectation for its solution,” reminds readers irresistibly of similar impositions throughout the history of modern China. The appeal of Western fiction to reformers was in sharp contradiction to its home appeal (as literature) as well as the local appeal of traditional fiction (entertainment and literature). Even more, the advocacy of fiction after 1895 placed wholly new pressures on writers, as fiction thenceforth became the focus of attention by literary critics and social and political reformers, who largely ignored simple reading pleasures. Huters concludes Part I by noting that these manifold contradictions could never be reconciled: “Given that the only thing that these demands had in common was a predisposition to accord to the novel enormous influence in the abstract, the tensions surrounding the composition of actual texts became that much more acute.” Again, the resonance with the middle- and late-twentieth-century literary world is unmistakeable.
Huters’s analysis of these new theories leads naturally to the detailed examination of the novels in Part II. It should not be supposed, as Huters points out, that a concern for political and social reform automatically reduces a novel’s readerly qualities, nor does an individual writer necessarily suffer from the common shortcomings of fellow-writers of the time. From this point, the discourse of ideas, which has up until now been the dominant mode of Bringing the World Home, is repositioned as author-centered literary criticism. Wu Jianren, the subject of chapters 5 and 6, is described as standing out because of “his narrative innovations, along with the rich complexity of his characters and situations, in which the various constituents of the general crisis facing China are set out in agonizing and compelling detail. One may even regard his rich oeuvre as the most intricate and profound depiction of the age.” This claim is substantiated in the analysis of Wu Jianren’s New Story of the Stone.
The consonance of literary technique and content are made explicit in Huters’s discussion of Wu Jianren’s use of first-person narrative, “a rich and uneasy meeting of Western discourses on reform, collisions between new and old ways of thinking, and new modes of narrative representations.” Set off by comparisons with the narrative modes (and writing about writing) in Fu sheng liu ji, Hong lou meng, and Ru lin wai shi, Huters investigates at length the capacity of texts to sustain effective critiques of cultural practices and to explore the potentialities of particular voices. These passages are among the most subtle and engaging in this book: in part thinking aloud, where the author sometimes appears faintly surprised as to where his thoughts are leading, and in part inviting the reader to share the author’s pleasure in the complexities of his materials.
Huters’s second main novelist is Zeng Pu, whose Flower in a Sea of Retribution is the focus of a discussion in Chapter 7 on colonialism and its (possible) impact on Chinese literature. Huters makes the obvious but necessary statement that foreign state powers “never gained more than a token foothold within China’s borders,” and that consequently the theories of subalternity and of the “colonial subject” that were developed to describe British India “never seemed to quite fit China.” Nevertheless, the violence implied and often enough expressed in colonial regimes is also present in China’s modernization, however maladroitly expressed in Mao Zedong’s “semi-feudal, semi-colonial” formula. Instead of focussing on the agents of this process (i.e., whether a colonial administration or a national elite), Huters examines its agenda (“an educational curriculum built around extended literacy and technical training, industrial structure, and rationalized administration”) and concludes that holding on to indigenous agency in some ways made the problems of accommodation with foreign powers even more acute. All of this leads up to a central theme in Flower in a Sea of Retribution, the new regime of learning in China, and its dramatization in the relationship between the former courtesan Fu Caiyun and her diplomat husband, Jin Wenqing.
In Chapter 8, the first of three chapters in Part III: The New Republic, Huters resumes his intellectual history, covering the initial enthusiasm surrounding the fall of the Qing, the rapid disillusionment, and the revival of reformist ideals around 1915. The main issue is the development of the older East-West debates into a contest over universal values. This development was crucial to the identity formations of the young writers who became the activists in the new literary movements of the 1920s. Whether universalism itself as an idea owed more to Eastern or Western traditions was of course also under discussion. Huters believes that the more radical party in these debates “virtually eradicated the memory of the moderate position with which it had contended”; one’s view of this may differ according to the historical perspective. Viewed from the 1950s, for instance, the victory of the radicals could hardly be challenged; from the 1930s or the 1990s, it looks more insecure. Nevertheless, there remains an implicit warning in Huters’s comment, “In the end, perhaps it was the characteristic signature of perilous times that the most extreme solutions proved to be, if not the most persuasive, then at least the most appealing to those stymied by China’s myriad difficulties.”
The third novelist to whom a chapter is devoted is Zhu Shouju, whose novel of Shanghai, Xiepu chao (Tides along the Huangpu) depicts in “painful, scandalous detail” the unrestrained opportunism of the new republic. Huters contends that this work is as serious as any literary product of the late 1910s and the 1920s. While this novel may never again attract the same kind of leisure readers that first encountered it inXin Shenbao in 1916 (as Huters acknowledges), it should not in future be overlooked by literary historians–not least because of its endorsement by writers like Eileen Chang and Wang Anyi.
Is there a fundamental difference between the “grimly claustrophobic atmosphere” of Tides along the Huangpu and Lu Xun’s fiction in 1918-25? In the final chapter, Huters shows that the link between the two bodies of work is substantial and that its neglect in twentieth century scholarship is part of a continued attempt to deny the pre-history of the new literature movement. Tracing the decline of Lu Xun’s early optimism about the prospects for reform (to be delivered by voices such as his own), Huters carries forward the story of late Qing fiction well into the May Fourth period. Although it could be argued that Lu Xun’s unwillingness in his essays written in Japan to speak in his own voice could be due to factors such as youth, inexperience, and wish to display foreign learning, Huters regards it as a determination to keep foreign ideas at a distance lest the reformers become “locked up in a totalism of subjectivity as potentially dangerous as the one he is speaking against.” In his investigation of Lu Xun’s hesitancy as a fiction writer, Huters finds continuity not only between the stories and late Qing ambivalence about China’s Western ventures but also between the leading characters and Lu Xun’s own personal life, employing a nice blend of subtlety and conviction that brings this remarkable book to a triumphant end.
In this chapter by chapter account of Bringing the World Home, I have highlighted certain issues of particular interest to me, where other readers might well choose others. The Afterword, for instance, contains an extensive and thoughtful commentary on current literary criticism and scholarship on modern China. Another feature not mentioned above is Huters’s familiarity with Chinese language, literature, and history that keeps him alert to changes in meanings of Chinese terms and their English translations (or sources). Two examples stand out: an early passage on the terms jindai and xiandai, denoting different periods to Chinese historians but both rendered “modern” in English (in the Introduction), and another on wenxue in its late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century meaning (“the humanities” or “the arts and humanities,” e.g., as a university faculty or subject of study, and almost certainly what Lu Xun understood by the term in 1907 and 1923; see Chapters 3 and 4).
In one instance, however, Huters’s sensitivity to language history deserts him. The discussion of gong (public) and si (private) in Chapter 2 suffers from the widespread belief that the values and meanings of these terms remained virtually identical in Chinese culture from the time of the Book of Rites up to the end of the nineteenth century. This can’t be sustained: the interpretations of the Chinese terms and their English equivalents, by late Qing thinkers like Yan Fu and Liang Qichao, were derived from a mixture of neo-Confucianism and nineteenth century Social Darwinism, and they are far from being identical with current interpretations in either China or the US. The history of both Chinese and English privacy terminology is uncommonly complicated and slippery.
A few flaws should also be mentioned: there are some obvious typographical errors in the main text and notes, and the Glossary and Works Cited contain an undue number of errors, incomplete entries, missing characters and inconsistencies in romanization (especially in word aggregation). I will conclude by referring to the many things that are good: the author’s extensive and judicious debts to contemporary Chinese scholarship; his ability to resist, in all but a few instances, the use of the word “irony” and its cognates; his willingness to comment on the quality of a critic’s or novelist’s writing; and his willingness to reveal his personal responses to novels without making them obtrusive. Overall, his tone is agreeable, modulated and reflective, the voice of a scholar who has taken the time to think and to consider his verdicts.
Bonnie S. McDougall
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
 R. K. Narayan, The Vendor of Sweets (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), pp. 58-59.