The Edge of Knowing: Dreams, History,
and Realism in Modern Chinese Literature

By Roy Bing Chan

Reviewed by Laurence Coderre
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March, 2017)

Roy Bing Chan, The Edge of Knowing: Dreams, History, and Realism in Modern Chinese Literature Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016. xi, 221 pp. ISBN: 9780295998992; $50.00 (hardcover)

The historical stakes, ethical pitfalls, and representational limitations of Chinese realism as a twentieth-century literary practice constitute well-worn terrain for the field of modern Chinese literature. Indeed, one might even suggest that these concerns are foundational to the discipline as a whole. Whether in the erstwhile construction or ongoing deconstruction of Cold War-era Chinese literary historiography, realism—and its discontents—must always be reckoned with. More specifically, the preoccupation with the real remains a—if not the—dominant historiographical thread connecting the literary engagements of the May Fourth generation, the critical realism of the 1930s, and the effort to remake the world through literature and art undertaken during the Mao period. We, collectively, know this narrative by heart, and although there may be some disagreement on the particulars—what about modernism? to what extent are all-out critiques of realism anachronistic?—we generally abide by this account’s basic tenets.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah, therefore, to try to say something new and compelling about Chinese realism. At its best, Roy Bing Chan’s The Edge of Knowing: Dreams, History, and Realism in Modern Chinese Literature attempts, and consistently succeeds in doing, just that. Chan’s fundamental contribution stems from his reconceptualization of realism, defined along “ontological/epistemic, discursive, and pragmatic axes,” as a form of representational “management” that is, at its core, dynamic (26). For Chan, literary realism involves a process of negotiation amongst disparate representational modes, which cumulatively “articulate[s] a utopian desire for the real, a category that is itself constantly shifting in different literary, cultural, and political contexts” (6). Nothing is static, here. Indeed, to the extent that realist literature claims an unparalleled and linguistically “transparent” access to the ever-changing real, Chan argues that realism must eschew aesthetic stagnation, which would necessarily threaten that apparently privileged access. As a result, for realism, as a literary practice animated by a particular desire, to persist over time, it has to remain something of a moving target. In The Edge of Knowing, one of the key sources of this requisite flexibility is the push and pull between phenomenal reality—that which the realist mode is meant to elucidate—and the stuff of dreams—that which seems, at least at first glance, to call the realist mode into question.

Dreaming, however, is itself part of reality, and Chan is further adamant that “[d]ream is not an escape from proper historical consciousness but a supplemental mode to such consciousness” (6). The first of the book’s five full chapters thus convincingly argues that dream and reality should be understood in productively dialogic, rather than diametrically opposed, terms. More precisely, despite dream rhetoric’s avowed investment in fantasy and the nominally un-real, such rhetoric must be recognized as part and parcel of the realist enterprise itself. When dreams, dream rhetoric, and dream imagery appear in otherwise “realist” texts, they do so not as avatars of realism’s failure, but of its underlying utopian promise. “The disruptions that dreams cause for the realist mode are not meant to subvert it through contradiction; rather, this is part of realism’s compact, its ability to radically correct itself at moments of mimetic distress. What dreams imply is that even the seeming meaninglessness within the crisis of representation is itself meaningful, a harbinger of a revelation that might perhaps transcend mimesis altogether” (37). In Chan’s formulation, realism is animated by a desire, spoken in the language of dream, to overcome its own defining limitations. Thus, the realist conceit does not “break down” in flights of fancy; it surpasses itself.

The Edge of Knowing’s remaining four chapters attempt to engage the utopian impetus at work in the realist dreams of a wide array of texts, some more canonical than others. Chapter 2 centers on a reading of Lu Xun’s Wild Grass, not as an experimental, incipient modernist work or even as a realist text manqué, but as an exploration of individual and collective dreaming. In particular, Chan argues that Wild Grass’s prose-poems can be understood as a collection of dreams. By approaching these dreams not only as representational, discursive spaces, but also as products of a somatic practice (i.e. sleep), the dreamer/narrator/writer becomes grounded in a way that upends the troubling ethical implications of realism’s untethered, all-seeing eye. Alternately slumbering and waking bodies usurp the position of would-be omniscient narrators, while the authorial “I” appears evermore contingent. For Chan, this constitutes a corrective to realism’s well-rehearsed hierarchies of knowledge and social address. But again, this corrective is proffered from within the realm of (realist) representational politics, not without. Despite his best efforts, Lu Xun cannot seem to stop dreaming of a different world—for himself and for China—nor can he cease writing those dreams down. It is in this sense, then, that Wild Grass embodies a utopian desire to transcend literary realism in particular and linguistic representation in general.

If Wild Grass fits somewhat uncomfortably within the realist rubric, the works discussed in chapter 3 of The Edge of Knowing are much more conventionally associated with Chinese realism as a literary school and a (national) political project. Indeed, one could hardly speak of realism in China without addressing Mao Dun, arguably its most ardent supporter and practitioner. Chan specifically draws our attention to Mao Dun’s Eclipse trilogy as well as the more substantial Midnight. The latter is commonly understood to be the paradigmatic attempt at a realist portrait of Chinese social and economic relations in the early 1930s. That Chan finds dream rhetoric at the heart of Mao Dun’s oeuvre is therefore all the more significant. The precise nature of these dreams, which Chan casts as “hysterical” in Freudian terms, is rooted in a complex economy of libidinal desire operating in the text as a whole. Among other things, this approach radically reconfigures the novel’s implicit gender politics: instead of “devolving” into a fetishization of female “hysteria,” as is often alleged, the novel is recast as itself engaging in a form of (male) “hysteria.” As a result, the text’s leftist aims are not “undone” so much as manifested by its surreptitious voyeurism and anti-feminist objectification. Midnight becomes something of a monument to realism’s underlying desire to enact the real, to go beyond facile reflection, to be “a more horrifying mirror to reality than mimesis itself” (107). When reality is nightmarish—and what could be more nightmarish than semi-colonial, capitalist exploitation?—dream rhetoric turns realist.

Chapter 4 examines the fate of dreams in post-1949 fiction and ultimately turns on a detailed analysis of Yang Mo’s tremendously popular 1958 novel, Song of Youth. To my mind, Chan’s greatest contribution here involves one of Mao-era literature’s most enduring conundrums: the call to combine “revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism.” On the surface, of course, this aesthetic mantra seems self-defeating, its constituent halves fundamentally contradictory. With the advent of socialism, however, realism and reality aren’t what they used to be; they have both turned speculative. If, in the works of Mao Dun, dream rhetoric finds itself in the service of the real, in the Mao era, dream and reality collapse into one another instead. Utopia is already here; reality is hallucinatory. One might therefore say that all rhetoric is dream rhetoric, though it dare not speak its name. This shift has important implications for understandings of time and temporality. Chan is especially interested in the acute temporal disjuncture effected by the “fast socialism” of the Great Leap Forward (109). “Fast socialism” is Maoism at its most utopian in that it pursues communism at an accelerated pace. That this pace should be fueled by overtime and sleepless nights seems fitting; there was no time, somatically or discursively, for dreams-qua-dreams, only dreams-qua-reality. In the strange liminal space such temporal compression and collective hallucination afford, instead of looking forward—utopia is now—desire is cast backward. Thus the paradoxically nostalgic thread in Yang Mo’s Song of Youth.

The Edge of Knowing’s fifth and final full chapter concerns dreaming in the shadow of Mao’s death in 1976 and the end of the Cultural Revolution. What happens to the hallucinatory merger of dream and reality without the Chairman? The period immediately following Mao’s demise, up until about 1978, is notable for the persistence of much Cultural Revolution-era discourse, now simply redirected at new, formerly untouchable targets. These targets famously include Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and the most reviled member of the Gang of Four, who was often blamed for the “nightmare” of the Cultural Revolution decade. Even as the nightmare is cast aside, however, the utopian dream of socialism—and its collapse into the present—endures in the late 1970s, causing a strange sense of “dream fugue” or awakening not from, but rather within a dream, a dream that must itself be maintained. It is in this context that Chan examines the works of Zong Pu, including and especially her contribution to the genre of scar literature, “A Dream for Strings.” Chan argues that Zong Pu successfully re-appropriates the nightmarish accusations hurled at Jiang Qing to create a new oneiric space. Although arguably always tied to desire in some way, dream rhetoric in Zong Pu’s work is infused with an overabundance of affect; “A Dream for Strings” is positively mired in it. So much so, in fact, that the merger of dream and reality brought about by “fast socialism” is called into question—reality is no place for such strong emotions. One might say that affect forces utopia to reassert its un-real status as “no place”—though that is perhaps further than Chan himself would have us go. Either way, a desirable future—for the Communist Party, for China, for socialism—is far less assured in “A Dream for Strings” than would have been acceptable during the Mao period precisely because it is characterized as a dream that may or may not be realizable.

As the above chapter outline suggests, The Edge of Knowing is, in essence, a critical history of realist dreams. This history is manifestly complex and rife with non-literary implications, but exploring these implications is not this book’s raison d’être, nor ultimately its forte. Chan does make a concerted effort to contextualize literary dreams within a broader discursive reliance on dream rhetoric. The introduction and conclusion, for example, address two of the PRC’s more recent national priorities, often understood in oneiric terms: the 2008 Beijing Olympics as the realization of a century-long dream and Xi Jinping’s “China dream” campaign. As welcome and intriguing as such gestures toward the world outside the literary text are, they also raise a number of questions about the precise relationship between different orders of diegetic and non-diegetic dreaming. These orders clearly do not map onto each other in any simplistic way, but the details are something of a (strategic?) blur. Do all dreams have the same basis in desire? Who or what is the desiring subject? The author? The narrator? The text? Realism itself? Do each of these entities desire and/or dream in analogous—or homologous—ways? Chan excels at nuanced and innovative close reading; the connections among those readings, however, are sometimes left unarticulated.

Even so, the scope and ambition demonstrated in this book are tremendous, and in a field that often struggles to participate in broader humanistic conversations, Chan presents us with a reckoning of Chinese realism that should be of interest to scholars of mimesis, psychoanalysis, socialism, socialist realism, and affect well outside of Asian Studies. The intellectual stakes of Chan’s project are high and far-reaching. Moreover, well written and, for the most part, well edited, The Edge of Knowing is an enjoyable and compelling read. The discussion of “revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism” is particularly sophisticated, as is Chan’s refreshing approach to post-Mao scar literature. Chan is also to be commended for producing a successful work about dream rhetoric that is not rigidly wedded to Freudian interpretation.

In sum, The Edge of Knowing is an important and provocative reassessment of Chinese realism, well worth serious engagement. Indeed, one can only hope that others will be inspired by Chan’s research to further explore such related issues as the speculative realism of Chinese science fiction and the dream of continuous revolution enacted in the Cultural Revolution, to name but two. After all, as Chan shows us: dreams matter.

Laurence Coderre
New York University