Chinese Literature and Culture in the Age of
Global Capitalism: Renaissance or Rehabilitation?

By Wang Xiaoping

Reviewed by Aoife Cantrill

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2022)

Wang Xiaoping, Chinese Literature and Culture in the Age of Global Capitalism: Renaissance or Rehabilitation? Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2021. xii + 376 pp. ISBN 978-90-04-46119-2 (E-Book: PDF); ISBN 978-90-04-46118-5 (Hardback).

Rarely when assessing a book do reviewers encourage readers to begin with the final chapters. In the case of Wang Xiaoping’s Chinese Literature and Culture in the Age of Global Capitalism: Renaissance or Rehabilitation?, however, this reviewer would recommend doing so.[1] Chapters eight to ten and the volume’s conclusion provide a convincing distillation of the book’s critical thrust, by way of a concise rundown of the cultural-political debates that have occupied Chinese literary intellectuals from the turn of the twenty-first century. In these closing chapters, Wang contextualizes his contribution alongside the discussions of the New Left and New Right during the 1990s, as well as more recent commentary exemplified by Zhang Xudong’s 2015 treatise on China’s cultural direction, Cultural Identity in the Era of Globalization (全球化时代的文化认同).[2] These debates are animated by now-familiar questions that accompany any study placing China in the “global” perspective: the significance of “modernity”; China’s superiority, inferiority, or proximity to the West; and what is meant by “postsocialism.” Wang’s work considers these questions anew, answering them with reference to “the renaissance of China’s socialist culture” (348), identified in the title of his conclusion.

The argument for socialist renaissance is built on the previous seven chapters’ wide-ranging close textual analyses of literary and cinematic texts, encompassing the poetry of Chen Fanken 陈藩耕 and Fu Tianhong 傅天虹; the ‘avant-garde’ fiction of Yu Hua 余华, Ge Fei 格非, Ma Yuan 马原 and Su Tong 苏童; as well as five films: Guan Hu’s 管虎 Dirt (头发乱了, 1992), Lu Xuechang’s 路学长 Making of Steel (长大成人, 1997), Zhang Yu’s 张瑜 Romance on Lushan Mountain 2010 (庐山恋 2010), Zhao Wei’s 赵薇 So Young (致我们终将逝去的青春, 2013) and Ang Lee’s 李安 2007 adaptation of Lust, Caution (色戒). With a close eye kept on the question posed by the volume’s title, “Renaissance or Rehabilitation?,” Wang outlines the challenges to China’s cultural integrity posed by the emergence of a middle-class and integration into the global economy. In his view, China’s cultural sphere can respond either through a “renaissance” of “(traditional) Chinese culture” or allow “ancient and modern heritages” to be eroded in a “painful rehabilitation or overhaul” (20). Wang argues in favor of the former, concluding that China’s cultural production and its critique are at their most authentic when they orientate themselves around a revival of China’s socialist heritage.

Although Wang is most obviously in dialogue with the scholarship he surveys in the closing chapters, it is Raymond Williams who provides a theoretical compass in the volume’s introduction (9-21). Wang’s focus on the emergence of the middle class finds a natural affinity with Williams’ notion of “three cultures.” This structuralist approach identifies “residual,” “dominant,” and “emergent” cultures in tandem with shifts in class relations. Wang localizes Williams’ theory through the addition of “five features” unique to China’s cultural sphere. “Socialist memory” is understood as “residual culture”; “liberal humanism” and “market logic” as “dominant culture”; and “middle-class tastes and debate around Chinese identity” as “emergent culture” (14).  However, as the book progresses, Wang’s emphasis falls continually on the “residual.” This predilection for the socialist residue is present in Wang’s introduction, where he discusses “faux” culture—“Shanghai nostalgia”—in contrast to its truthful variant, “migrant culture” (12). Throughout the book, the rationale for designating what is “faux” and what is “true” seems to be the presence of a discernible connection with the socialist past; in other words, a modicum of the “residual” that nonetheless marks a “renaissance”—to use the term in the title.

Williams’ cultural theory provides the book’s structure on a macro level, though a direct engagement with his ideas is for the most part siloed away in the second and third subsection of the introduction. A representative glimpse of Wang’s analytical approach, meanwhile, comes in his discussion of the “middle-aged generation” (中生代) poets Chen Fanken and Fu Tianhong. Here, Wang evokes a series of idioms. First, “the writing mirrors its writer” (文如其人) (56), and, second, an inversion of an approach applied in classical Chinese literary tradition: “comment on the world (and the works) premised on an understanding of the man” (知人论世) becomes “appraise the artist (and his works) based on an understanding of the historical experience” (知识论人) (60).  In other words, Wang takes a biographical reading as the departure point for his critique.

This focus on a filmmaker’s or author’s life experience in turn justifies Wang’s deference to socialism as a guiding analytical principle. China’s socialist history here is so consequential that it is seen to inflect not only the lives—and consequently the works—of those who lived through it, but also the generations that have followed. This an argument against what Wang describes as the tide of “depoliticization . . . imported and adapted from the West” (7) in Chinese cultural studies. He rejects the call to let art exist for art’s sake, bolstering his argument with a cross-reference to Zhang Xudong’s (2015) statement that “culture cannot be separated from politics and can, in some instance, become politics” (310). This pairing of culture and politics as indivisible entities dominates Wang’s analysis in practice—so much so that the volume could also be titled Chinese Literature and Film as Politics in the Age of Global Capitalism.

Consequently, an analytical partition is drawn throughout the book between works with a perceived cultural political value (those containing socialist residue) and those without. In the case of the former, Wang uses his politically relativist approach to illuminate new readings. In Chen Fanken’s poetry, for example, Wang emphasizes stylistic and thematic resonances with the writing of “red culture” intellectuals, in particular the prose of Yang Shuo 杨朔 (37) and the poetry of Wen Jie 闻捷 and He Jingzhi 贺敬之 (47). Dismissing the compartmentalization of the socialist age, Wang makes a persuasive argument for aesthetic and ideological continuity, comparing Chen and his contemporary Fu to Baudelaire as lyric-poets of “the era of post-socialism” (26; 76). The approach is similarly effective in relation to Guan Hu’s Dirt. Wang views the “absence of the socialist ideal” and the existential consequences this absence holds for the protagonists as the film’s motivating force (178). An historically relative reading of Dirt feels natural, given the film’s proactive evocation of the socialist age during its opening sequence, with Mao’s address to the youth “The World Belongs to You” (世界是你们的) filling the screen.

Where texts not grounded in the socialist past are concerned, however, Wang’s analytical approach leads either to broad-brush statements about the relationship between the social condition and culture, or a thinly veiled dismissal of a work as vacuous. In relation to the first, Ma Yuan’s unconventional narrative structures are read as the reflection of a moment when 1980s Chinese society had lapsed into “secularization and leisure . . ., when the lack of wonder in life became normal” (97). Zhao Wei’s 2013 film So Young is similarly positioned as a barometer of society’s general “emptiness . . . a symptom of the times’ (220), under which atmosphere “egotism and resignation [are] nothing but a symptom of the era” (227). Although Wang’s earlier relativist readings feel appropriate, his demand for the same socially relative criteria in each textual analysis in many cases comes across as an unjustified overextension of the socialist residue benchmark. Meanwhile, when discussing Zhang Yu’s Romance on Lushan Mountain 2010, a remake of a 1980 movie about star-crossed lovers from the KMT and CCP, Wang seems to view the absence of the “political messages of the old version” in the remake as a symptom of its cultural deficiency (200), describing the film as delivering “the self-image of China’s entrepreneurial class” (199). Here, the narrow definition of politics valued by Wang’s analytical framework precludes acknowledgement of the messages about class and gender that the 2010 remake contains.

The book is at its best when Wang acknowledges the dialogue between reader and writer, audience and director that produces interpretation. He provides a meaningful reading of cross-generational communication in his analysis of the 1993 new historicist novel White Deer Plain (白鹿原), for example, arguing that details the author Chen Zhongshi 陈忠实 “would have taken for granted” are used to point to the character Heiwa’s 黑娃 “revolutionary education” (160). In Wang’s view, these details have a shibboleth-like quality that makes them exclusively legible to those whose lives were lived out in historical proximity to Chen’s (161). The possibility of interpretation is also discussed in relation to Lust, Caution, as Wang notes how the “multiple-layered narrative also unwittingly contains contending and antithetical discourses that trigger differing responses” (253). This admission of the possibility of alternate interpretations, and the acknowledgement of the diversity of the cultural consumer, feels a closer representation of the messy relationship between living, creating, and consuming than Wang allows for in most of his close readings. These moments also provoke questions about the accessibility of “red culture,” and the necessity of experiencing it firsthand to create works in its vein.

Perhaps it is only to be expected that Wang’s approach leads to arbitrary assignment of cultural products to the far poles of a “true/faux” continuum. Once we take culture to be political, then cultural commentary swiftly becomes political commentary too, and, like religion, allows for few subtleties within or overlap between perceived orthodoxies and heresies. In this sense, the book operates within its own logic: as politics and culture intertwine, commentary follows suit. This seems especially pronounced given where Wang situates his study. The introduction speaks from the vantage point of 2017, when this book was published in Chinese, referring to The China Dream and the global expansion of China’s soft power (2-3). The majority of the works in the book, though, are the product of a time prior to 2012—with the exception of So Young. Wang provides a retrospective of what happened between 1980 and 2012, along with an outline of lessons for the future learned from those three decades. He examines the literary and cinematic works of these thirty-odd years from a crossroads, one sign pointing to “renaissance,” the other to “rehabilitation,” and argues in favor of creators and works that guide consumers toward the former. For the cultural critic, however, such a political litmus test can at times prove a blunt tool. Wang successfully situates Chinese Literature and Culture in the Age of Global Capitalism at a juncture, but falls short of convincing this reader that what lies ahead is as clearcut as the divide between “renaissance” and “rehabilitation” implies.

Aoife Cantrill
University of Oxford


[1] This is an English translation of Wang’s 《走向文化复兴: 全球化时代的中国文学与文化》 (Toward cultural Renaissance: Chinese culture in the age of globalization) (Beijing: Shehui kexue yuan, 2017).

[2] Earlier chapters engage extensively with Zhang’s 1997 Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms: Cultural Fever, Avant-garde Fiction, and New Chinese Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), as well as Yang Xiaobing’s 2002 The Chinese Postmodern: Trauma and Irony in Chinese Avant-Garde Fiction (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002).