The Lost Geopoetic Horizon of Li Jieren:
The Crisis of Writing Chengdu in Revolutionary China

By Kenny Kwok-kwan Ng

Reviewed by Yuehtsen Juliette Chung
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June, 2016)

Kenny Kwok-kwan Ng, The Lost Geopoetic Horizon of Li Jieren: The Crisis of Writing Chengdu in Revolutionary China. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2015. xiii + 305 pp. ISBN: 97890042926429; €143 (Hardback)

Kenny Kwok-kwan Ng, The Lost Geopoetic Horizon of Li Jieren: The Crisis of Writing Chengdu in Revolutionary China Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2015. xiii + 305 pp. ISBN: 97890042926429; €143 (Hardback)

In The Lost Geopoetic Horizon of Li Jieren: The Crisis of Writing Chengdu in Revolutionary China, Kenny K. Ng offers much-needed insights into the regional culture of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, and the less well-known but very creative literary writer, Li Jieren (1891-1962). Focusing on three novels—Ripples on Dead Water (死水微澜 1935), Before the Tempest (暴风雨前 1936), and The Great Wave (大波 1937), a historical trilogy of revolutionary forces impacting and threatening ordinary life in the countryside—Ng skillfully elaborates the various memories and vivid cultural geography of the 1911 Revolution in Chengdu found in Li’s deeply-informed fictional accounts. In his exploration and elucidation of Li Jieren’s poetics of locality and the politics of fiction writing in Chengdu during the transition from the Qing Empire to the Republican nation-state, Ng successfully articulates the connections between native place and modernity, which span the local, regional, and national levels.

Li Jieren studied in France from 1919 to 1924 and was deeply influenced by the French naturalists and realists, including Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, Honoré de Balzac, and Émile Zola. Ng finds the imprints of his French forebears in Li’s historical trilogy, which contains realistic character portraits and a sympathetic understanding of female desires under the patriarchal order of the Confucian polity. Unlike the Marxist ideologues such as Guo Moruo and Mao Dun, Li Jieren was a non-partisan intellectual throughout his life, although he was asked by the Chinese Communist Party to serve as vice-mayor of Chengdu—a figurehead position—from 1954 to1958. During this period, Li decided to rewrite his trilogy upon his publisher’s request. Ripples on Dead Water and Before the Tempest subsequently underwent a minor revision, while the revision of The Great Wave saw the addition of some 900,000 words and remained unfinished up to Li’s passing in 1962.

Ng’s introduction (Chapter 1) surveys problematic issues in Li Jieren’s life and literary works and outlines the framework for his textual analyses. The rest of the book is divided into five chapters (Chapters 2 through 6) and a conclusion. Chapter 2 maps the sociocultural space between Chengdu and Tianhui, a rural town on its outskirts where, in the roman-fleuve narrative of Ripples on Dead Water, the small town heroine longs to move to the provincial capital and socially upward. The heroine, Deng Yaogu (鄧幺姑), whose dream is to live in the city, is married to Cai Xinshun (蔡興順), a small shop owner in Tianhui. Deng becomes involved with her cousin-in-law Skewmouth Luo (羅歪嘴), a member of a secret society, but later gets divorced from Cai and marries another man, Gu Tiancheng (顧天成), who hails from a Christian landlord-gentry family from Chengdu. The latter two men represent not only the two major rival forces in the city—secret societies and the Protestant mission—they also stand for the country-tradition/city-modern dichotomy. Ng contrasts Li Jieren with other native-place writers such as Sha Ting, Shen Congwen, Shi Tuo, Xiao Hong, Wu Zuxiang, and Zhou Zuoren “to demonstrate the uniqueness of Li’s representations of Chengdu as comprising local character, historical dynamism, and cosmopolitan appeal” (89).

Li’s perspective also underscores the precarious relationship between local and national ideology that led to conflicting accounts of the 1911 Revolution when it erupted in Chengdu. Chapter 3 skips to The Great Wave, the third installment of Li’s trilogy, and is centered on various memories—eyewitness accounts of local officials, missionary reports, and personal memoirs—of “Chengdu massacre” that triggered a mass rebellion by the people of Sichuan against the Qing government’s decision to nationalize the provincial railroad and subsequently sparked off the nationwide revolution that ended Manchu rule. The crucial role of the gentry/constitutional leaders is a key factor leading to the various historical accounts of this event. Ng argues that, in The Great Wave, Li provided “a platform to convey the mnemonic dynamics of a place, in which readers are instructed to see how the events mark a canonical moment because it is imbued with the hopes, passions, and anxieties of its characters” (112). Distinguishing his interpretation both from Marston Anderson’s observation that Chinese writers erased the distinction between “I/self” and “they/society” and from conventional wisdom concerning the cultural identity of Chinese elites vis-à-vis the collective at the time, Ng brings to light Li Jieren’s distinctive portrayal of the ruling class—including some merchants and vendors—as hostile toward the masses and unsupportive of the demonstration. The novel’s representation of local sentiments at the time contradicted the Communist interpretation of the uprising “as an inevitable event integral to the grand historical scheme of the revolution” (140).

Chapter 4 returns to Li Jieren’s second installment in the trilogy, Before the Tempest, which centers on the eruption of anti-foreignism from 1895 to 1902. Ng shows how Li’s novel represented local historical events as gruesome spectacles that could not be integrated into national history. In scenarios such as local vagrants looting a foreign missionary’s residence and church and a cheering crowd watching a female Boxer being stripped, paraded around the streets, mutilated alive, and finally decapitated, Li’s impersonal narrative style manifests the apathy and moral depravity of the masses and the ignorance of a gentry class void of historical insight; it also paints a sharply contrasting picture of gentry and commoners (173-4).

Chapter 5 turns to the representation of private memory and forbidden love between Mrs. Huang (黃太太) and her nephew Chu Zicai (楚子材) during the revolution in The Great Wave. Chu Zicai is a timid young student attending a new-style school and staying in the house of his uncle Huang Lansheng (黃瀾生). Chu’s decision to withdraw from his political involvement in the student movement for the sake of a domestic adulterous romance symbolizes the selfishness and weaknesses of the typical gentry-official, unwilling to become “a defiant hero of his class and the people” (185). In contrast, Mrs. Huang, who is trying to get even with her husband who had had an affair with her sister, is sexually promiscuous and pursues liberation within the same domestic bounds. In the end, owing to her entrepreneurial communicative skills and financial support for a militia chief, she is able to save her husband (and her other gentry lovers). Ng argues that she “symbolizes both the invigorating and destructive forces within the traditional order” (198). In the original version of The Great Wave, Li Jieren’s narrative distanced itself from the ideology of May Fourth iconoclasm and revolutionary frenzy, but in the 1950s rewrite Li reduced his extreme depictions of female desire and eroticism and turned his protagonist from a passive observer into an active participant, so as to avoid challenging CCP ideology. In the rewrite, Li also followed the official line and incorporated a more explicit and affirmative representation of revolution, thereby re-inscribing the local past into national collective memory (200-2).

Chapter 6 takes up Li Jieren’s rewrite, which reflects a struggle between art and politics. Owing to the CCP cultural directives and political movements circa 1956-62, Li’s previous writings were scrutinized and criticized for failing to articulate clearly the “struggle between the Sichuanese people and imperialist forces” (212). In the summer of 1957, during the Anti-Rightist campaign, Li was forced to make a public self-criticism, admitting that he had almost fallen into the rightist camp. His subsequent rewrite of the novel under the watchful eye of the new collective ideology, Ng argues, involved a difficult negotiation between truth and imagination, causality and uncertainty, temporality and local spatiality. In order to cater to the reader’s taste, Li flattened out the characterization of his heroine by making her more virtuous and turning her into a symbol of the revolution. He also transformed the young male protagonist into a progressive writer. While the two still engage in a forbidden affair, the heroine replaces her desire for males with love for the Party. Ng raises an important question: was Li’s rewrite a compromise that actually conformed to Marxist-Leninist teleology and revolutionary rhetoric? He believes it was not, because of Li’s concentration on the character Duan Fang (1861-1911), a Manchu official who was ordered to suppress the Chengdu uprising and died in Zizhou after the Wuchang Uprising. Four chapters in Li Jieren’s rewrite delve into Duan’s psyche, which ostensibly conformed to the official version of Duan as a class enemy of the people. However, as Ng sees it, there is considerable ambiguity and subtlety in the characterization of Duan, and “Li shows no propagandist purpose of demonizing the figure or affirming the historical inevitability of his failure” (237).

The conclusion confirms Ng’s argument that the rewrite of The Great Wave was driven by the politics of memory and poetics of place-writing, and not solely to appease his political overseers. In other words, although the rewrite may be viewed through the lens of ideology, it was informed ultimately by the writer’s epistemological and aesthetic conceptions of historical storytelling. Here and throughout, Ng convincingly brings to light Li Jieren’s ceaseless improvement of his writing on the 1911 Revolution in all its complexity, and foregrounds the writer’s craft in depicting the structure of daily life, geographic specificity, and social customs that are inseparable from the overall meaning and import of the revolutionary events.

In sum, The Lost Geopoetic Horizon of Li Jieren makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the politics of localized memory and alternative forms of microhistorical configurations of place against hegemonic macrohistorical narratives and cultural paradigms in the PRC.

Yuehtsen Juliette Chung
National Tsing-Hua University, Taiwan