Contemporary Chinese Literature:
From the Cultural Revolution to the Future

By Yibing Huang

Reviewed by Darryl Sterk
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2011)

Book cover for Contemporary Chinese Literature

Huang, Yibing.
Contemporary Chinese Literature:
From the Cultural Revolution to the Future.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 240 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-4039-7982-7;
ISBN10: 1-4039-7982-0 (hard)

The cover of Huang Yibing’s Contemporary Chinese Literature: From the Cultural Revolution to the Future is a cropped copy of Series 2, No. 2 by the “cynical realist” artist Fang Lijun. It shows a cartoonish man who looks vaguely like Chairman Mao, like a hooligan, like an imbecile, or like the artist himself. The man is silently screaming, though he may be yelling, as he expresses dissatisfaction rather than the anguished abjection of Munch’s howling man. Or is he yawning? In any event, the picture puts the subject’s face in the reader’s face, instead of placing him alone on a bridge with hostile individuals looking on, as in Munch’s famous painting. The centrality of the man’s face is an effect of cropping, but one can still see that the man is flanked by other figures, suggesting the march of the malcontented, an image which nicely captures the generational concern of the book.

In this book, Huang Yibing, the academic alter ego of the noted poet Mai Mang, discusses the literary legacy of the Cultural Revolution in the writings of four members of “the Cultural Revolution generation” (115): the misty modernist poet Duo Duo, the postmodern hooligan writer Wang Shuo, the red romantic Zhang Chengzhi, and the liberal literary outsider Wang Xiaobo. Although in his Epilogue, Huang argues against labels like misty, postmodern, romantic, and liberal (184-187), he introduces labels of his own, most notably “cultural bastard,” someone of impure and illegitimate cultural origins. Huang describes all four writers as cultural bastards. Despite the implications of the term, Huang himself does not see their cultural bastardy as in any way illegitimate. Like Homi Bhabha’s hybridity, to which I return in the latter, critical half of this review, Huang’s bastardy is a positive term. Cultural bastardy is part of Huang’s vision of China’s national modernity. He describes the combination of the communism of the Maoist era and the capitalism of today as bastardized, without condemning the former and valorizing the latter: the Cultural Revolution was a “landmark of the Chinese modernity project” (5) not a “detour on the road to capitalism” (7).

Huang’s monograph, however, is first and foremost a work of literary criticism that argues the “legacy” of the Cultural Revolution has been inadequately explored in literature or in “the literature,” which is to say in literary works or literary criticism. Rather than being “fixed and definite,” its legacy “is wide open to polarized reinterpretations and reappropriations in the hybrid and fluid present of Chinese and global reality” (107). Part of its legacy is traumatic, though Huang does not think that scar writers understood the seriousness of the trauma. Part of its legacy is positive, and Huang also recuperates the Cultural Revolution as a symbol of creative experimentation whose method is mixing things up. As Huang puts it, contemporary Chinese literature is marked “with not just a scar, but with a brand of bastardy” (5). Most important, whether negative or positive, those marks still matter. There was no radical break between the Cultural Revolution and the New Era, as the major scar writer Liu Xinwu claimed (4). Just as scholars (such as David Der-Wei Wang) have seen anticipations of May Fourth modernity in the late Qing, Huang wishes to “relink” contemporary Chinese literary modernity to the Cultural Revolution (5). In Huang’s account, contemporary Chinese literature is not post-Cultural Revolution or postmodern (or post-Mao/Deng) in any simple sense (182-184). Contemporary Chinese writers have not “transcended” the Cultural Revolution; they are inscribed with its history, and they have to make meaning of it. If Huang is right that the past is like a mirror (my metaphor), then it is not hard to understand why Chinese writers who prophesize the indeterminate future from the perspective of the present always keep one eye on the Maoist past.

This Janus-faced “double vision” (10) is evoked by Huang’s opening anecdote and by a discussion in the second half of the Introduction. The anecdote is about Huang seeing a “Ciao, Mao!” advertisement in the Amsterdam train station (1-2). “Ciao” means both hello and goodbye, suggesting that in the afterlife Mao is so very much alive that the present cannot stop incessantly bidding him goodbye. Mao’s legacy is so protean that every time he appears he takes on a different guise, this time to promote a strange bastardly brew of old and new, of communism and capitalism. The discussion in the second half of the introduction is of China’s first rock star, Cui Jian (11-16). Born in 1962, Cui Jian was too young to be a red guard or a rusticated youth, but Huang compellingly portrays him as “a direct link to the mixed legacy of the Cultural Revolution while confronting a hybrid Chinese reality in the 1980s and 1990s” (12), because he drapes himself in the red flag. In the song “Ball(s) Under the Red Flag” 紅旗下的蛋, Cui Jian sings of “the sun at eight or nine in the morning” (16) as being like a ball under the red flag. The sun represents Chairman Mao himself (25). Looking back on the Maoist era at the dawning of a new day recalls Huang’s subtitle: From the Cultural Revolution to the Future. But given the single/plural ambiguity in Chinese, the title could also mean that there are many balls under the red flag, representing the Chinese people facing the future in the presence of an ambiguous historical sign, the red flag. Their historical consciousness might paralyze them, but it could also inspire them with a procreative sense of the possible. In this regard, the original Chinese word for ball in Cui Jian’s song also means egg. To Cui Jian, rock and egg are figures for reality and spirit:

Reality is like a rock
Spirit is like an egg
Rock might be hard
But only the egg has life
Mom is still alive
Dad is the flagpole (16)

Reality itself can either be seen as dead, as a function of necrotic historical forces, or as living, replete with zygotic possibilities. Huang’s aim, here and throughout, is to reveal legacies of the Cultural Revolution that are not merely crippling, to share with the reader a vision of vital possibilities that are visible only in the light of history.

The rest of Chapter 1, the Introduction, is a poetic yet theoretically challenging exploration of the “dialectical” development of a “bastard” protagonist in a “Bildungsroman.” As we know, a Bildungsroman is a story of individual development in which a young man goes on a quest that hopefully ends with him finding his place in society. Bildungsroman is also a key concept in Huang’s book. In the Epilogue, Huang borrows Franco Moretti’s distinction between classificatory and transformational Bildungsroman (181-182); the former supplies a tidy conclusion, whereas the latter implies an ongoing, creative process. Huang’s application of the idea of the transformational Bildungsroman is certainly creative. He applies it to his own book, which ends with an “Epilogue” on a note of “suspense” (188). He applies it to China’s project of modernity. He applies it to the life stories of the Cultural Revolution generation (9). And he applies it to the oeuvres of Duo Duo, Wang Shuo, Zhang Chengzhi, and Wang Xiaobo. Huang reads into each Bildungsroman a tripartite narrative structure, in which (1) a new man (2) becomes an orphan (3) and then a bastard. The new man has supposedly transcended Tradition through Reason. Lu Xun hoped to be the first new man in China, but Huang argues that the father of modern Chinese literature realized, consciously or not, that he was a “cultural bastard” (3), the illegitimate offspring of modernity and tradition. Chairman Mao was more confident that the transcendence of tradition could be accomplished, but Mao’s approach involved “the subordination and elimination of heterogeneity of individual subjectivities for the sake of modern nation-building” (4), resulting in a generation of orphans in exile from Chinese tradition, from the world, and even from the Chairman Himself. Enter the bastard. The way out of exile and orphanage is a state of being that Huang terms “bastardy.” Through bastardization, each of the writers Huang discusses generates diversity out of Mao’s dream of “a grand individual subjectivity” (3). Each conceives a different cultural combination in order “to find an alternative national subject(ivity)” (135). There appear to be as many alternatives as there are writers. Yet there is unity in diversity, and though each writer is like a window that opens like an eye, to adapt slightly a phrase of Duo Duo’s (25), he stays in one of the myriad rooms of the Chinese mansion. As a bastard, one does not have to “rid oneself of one’s national identity and become a universal subject” (49).

Cultural bastardy may seem like the culmination of modern Chinese History, but what Huang values is not an end but a method: the bastardizing experimental spirit that continues to animate Chinese modernity. Huang’s term for this dynamic is “dialectic.” The dialectic drives a non-transcendent, ongoing process of development. It is the abstract version of Huang’s metaphor of bastardy, because the union of thesis and antithesis produces a bastard child, known in Hegelian terms as a synthesis. In Huang’s book, the newly-synthesized bastard is incarnated from the thesis of the new man “sublated” (103) with the antithesis of the orphan. “Sublated” is Hegelspeak for the key moment in the non-transcendent developmental process: to sublate is to simultaneously cancel out, preserve, and raise to a higher level. Instead of overcoming or transcending the new man and the orphan, the bastard transfigures them. In some sense the new man and the orphan are still present in the bastard, as the bastard was implicit in them. These theoretical maneuvers align Huang with a Hegelian dialectic, but not with Hegelian history, especially where China is concerned. In the Philosophy of History, Hegel infamously described China as a land of Being, a place where “every change is excluded, and the fixedness of a character which recurs perpetually, takes the place of what we should call the truly historical.”[ 1 ] Contra Hegel’s formulation, Huang finds that contemporary Chinese writers dwell in the radically historical realm of possibility. He sees these writers as thoroughly dialectical and dynamic. They are neither victims nor agents in a history that is progressing towards a certain telos. History is not a narrative of “teleological or linear progress” (18). There is no end of history for Huang, as there was for Hegel and more recently for Francis Fukuyama (21). There is only the dialectic of experimental spirit, which animates each of the Chinese cultural bastards Huang discusses in the main chapters of his book.

Chapter 2 is on Duo Duo. Duo Duo is known as a “misty” poet who, under the influence of Baudelaire and other non-Chinese literary models, penned a highly subjective resistance to the versified ideology of the Cultural Revolution. But rather than reflexively discounting or dismissing Cultural Revolution poetry, Huang instead senses “a kind of futurism or avant-garde mechanism” at work in it, as in this example:

In the heart of the world revolution
On the great land shone over by the red sun
Our motherland is forever young
Our red flag unfurls in the wind (21)

Huang senses the legacy of such verses in Duo Duo’s poetry:

We argue: who are the worst bastards in the world
Number one: Poets
Number two: Women
The result is satisfying
We are bastard sons and daughters
Facing the east where no sun rises,
We start to do morning exercises— (33)

Huang goes on to identify Maoist voluntarism, a sense of the legitimacy of rebellion, with Duo Duo’s Poundian impulse to “Make It New” (58), to remake the language and form of poetry. Yet in revolutionizing literary language Duo Duo was not rebelling against Mao; Huang reminds us that Duo Duo has denied mistiness and affirmed Mao’s poetic inspiration (185-186).

Chapter 3 likewise reappraises Wang Shuo. Born in 1958, Wang Shuo is the youngest by seven years of the four writers Huang discusses. Too young to be a red guard, Wang Shuo was left alone in the city when his parents were “sent down.” He was a punk before he became a poet. He has been taken as a frivolous postmodern herald of the “hooligan,” a kind of conman lacking in historical or emotional depth who represents the capitalist energies of the 1980s and beyond. But Huang insists that in his fiction Wang Shuo conducts a “Genealogy of the Present” (63) in which he discovers the legacy of the Cultural Revolution in the Capitalist Revolution of the 1980s and a Maoist heritage in the figure of the hooligan. And beneath the slick fictional surface is the sympathetic soul who co-scripted the melodramatic television drama Yearnings in 1990 (97).

Chapter 4 is on Zhang Chengzhi, originally known as a writer of romantic Bildungsroman about the alienated intellectual who identifies with the folk of Inner Mongolia (113). Zhang was also the first “Red Guard.” He has claimed this coinage as his “first creative work” (105), leading some to see him as an “outmoded” (17) revolutionary who has failed to realize that China is postsocialist. Reluctant to describe China as post-anything, Huang suggests there is a revolutionary impulse in Zhang’s quest for “Alternative National Forms” (105) (alluding to Mao’s discussion of “national forms” in the “Yan’an Talks” in 1942) in works like Heart History 心灵史, a personalized subaltern history of Jahriyya Islam in China.

Finally, Chapter 5 is on Wang Xiaobo. Wang is known as a Chinese champion of liberalism, but Huang explores Wang’s doubts about the liberal ideals of individual freedom and social progress. Initially, in Huang’s account, the mountain village in Yunnan to which Wang Xiaobo’s narrator is rusticated is a place where Rousseau would feel at home (145). But then Wang’s irony is revealed, and the “Golden Age” turns out to be made of iron pyrite. In Wang’s “Silver Age” writings, Huang hears the author issuing an “Orwellian warning against any blind belief in a teleological or linear history” (140). The Cultural Revolution was such a burden that Wang had to write “against the Gravity of History” (137). Counterintuitively, things get better in the “iron age,” in which Wang Xiaobo’s narrator rewrites stories about the Cultural Revolution in an “iron apartment” (174). This image recalls Lu Xun’s iron house, Jameson’s prison house, and Weber’s iron cage, but the apartment becomes a metafictional space “which is neither a world of utopia or dystopia, but an uncanny virtual world” (176). It is an abode for an individual who realizes he is “virtual” (179), meaning that the narrator can lighten the unbearable weight of history by rewriting it. As could countless others: Wang Xiaobo died of a heart attack as he was preparing to publish a collection of essays called The Silent Majority, referring to people who have not yet spoken out (139).[ 2 ]

As Huang explains in the Epilogue, the scholar and underground novella writer Liu Qingfeng has used the phrase “silent majority” to refer to people who have not yet spoken out about the Cultural Revolution (187). Huang follows Wang Xiaobo’s liberal lead when he emphasizes the “silent individuals” (188, emphasis added) in the silent majority. Huang strongly implies that the way to avert dystopia and safeguard China’s future is to speak out about its past. His book is proof that this can happen. And so the story seems to have a hopeful, though suspenseful, sense of an ending.

As with any engaging story, Huang’s critical narrative has stayed with me since I first finished reading it. There seems to be something particularly Chinese about seeing the present or even the future in the past, though in the European tradition there is the “mirror for princes” analogue to the history-as-mirror idea in China. However, the idea of the past as a radically indeterminate magical mirror is not so traditional. Huang’s idea of history as unprecedented is modern, and the lack of an end of history even postmodern. Though he shies away from the term, Huang is postmodern in that he evinces incredulity towards the metanarrative of Progress, articulates a “virtual” notion of subjectivity, and celebrates multiple and alternative perspectives instead of privileging a single point of view. And from each of the alternative perspectives of the writers discussed in Huang’s book, the Cultural Revolution is both positive and negative, both harrowing and inspirational, and ultimately beyond all pairs of opposites.

Huang has laid a feast for the mind, but one must wonder what was going on in the kitchen. In other words, what has he brought to the table of contemporary Chinese literary criticism? Though Huang has little to say about roots writing, he makes some explicit comments about scar literature and educated-youth literature, two categories into which literary critics have divided the post-Mao literature about the Cultural Revolution. Scar literature is understood as the literary vehicle of revolutionary trauma, but in his commentary on Wang Shuo’s Playing for Thrills Huang writes that “scar literature itself, being over-simplistic, may have covered up many more complex and perhaps darker human truths and unnamed historical traumas” (90). In addition to being superficial, the scar writers were naive to assume their stories would heal the trauma. Huang belies this assumption with the metaphor of “the virus of history” (90) with which one of the characters in Playing for Thrills is infected. He also accuses scar literature of being “overtly ideological” in comparison to the more “phenomenological” (97) treatment the Cultural Revolution has received in Wang Shuo’s “Vicious Animals.” Scar and even educated-youth writers, according to Huang, simply condemned the Cultural Revolution instead of making meaning of it, as Zhang Chengzhi has done: “[w]hile his fellow writers from the same generation were writing scar literature and educated-youth literature, denouncing and lamenting the catastrophe brought to the individual by the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Chengzhi apparently thought differently” (109).

In making these claims, Huang could do more to engage with the critical literature on the literature of the Cultural Revolution. Kam Louie’s Between Fact and Fiction remains a useful touchstone. In his Preface, Louie acknowledges that early scar literature was crude, but senses that by the end of the 1980s even Liu Xinwu had grown significantly more sophisticated. Louie also anticipates Huang’s argument that the sent down experience was an opportunity for spiritual growth, for what Huang could call Bildung. Louie’s “Educated Youth Literature: Self-Discovery in the Chinese Villages” (91-102) even mentions Zhang Chengzhi (99). Louie’s work has recently been revisited by Cao Zuoya in Out of the Crucible: Literary Works about the Rusticated Youth (2003). Huang does not mention either work, and it seems to me that in claiming that “contemporary literature produced so far on the Cultural Revolution and its legacy is far from definitive, or even adequate, both in terms of depth and quality” (187), it would behoove Huang to delve more deeply into the scholarly literature. Huang cites Xu Zidong’s Chinese language monograph The Collective Memory to Disremember: An Interpretation of Fifty Works of Contemporary Chinese Fiction Related to the Cultural Revolution (2000) in an endnote in the Epilogue (211, note 18) but does not explain how this work adds to our understanding of the Cultural Revolution in contemporary Chinese fiction. Given the continuing critical interest, it seems misguided for Huang to claim that writers and critics have prematurely decided that the meaning of the Cultural Revolution is “fixed and definite.” Huang could have acknowledged that his scholarship is part of an ongoing trend and articulated his place in it.[ 3 ]

Huang’s place in this ongoing trend would seem to be defined by his notion of the cultural bastardy of contemporary Chinese literature. This notion allows him to expand his discussion beyond the representation of the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, he discusses a number of works that are not ostensibly about the Cultural Revolution. But when Huang writes that Duo Duo is “a bastard child of Baudelairean modernism and Maoist voluntarism” (17) or that Wang Shuo is “a bastard child of the Cultural Revolution and postmodernism” (64), it is striking that the formal, literary item in the formula is foreign. Though he quotes Eagleton on the “unity of form and content” (105), Huang inadvertently fortifies the tired notion of foreign form and Chinese content. These writers may strongly misread their western models. They may invent totally new forms like Zhang Chengzhi’s Heart History. But Huang never discusses the issue of literary parentage in enough detail for us to know how formally creative with their inheritances any of these bastard offspring writers were. He also fails to demonstrate the aesthetic and formal influence of the Cultural Revolution on post-Mao literature. Without communicating a sense of continuity, Huang unintentionally reinforces the received wisdom of a break between the socialist and postsocialist eras in literary production. We might sense futurism and an avant-garde mechanism and even literary bastardy in the snippet of Cultural Revolution era verse Huang quotes (from a 2500 character poem!), but it does not obviously have anything in common with Duo Duo’s poetry besides the sun as a metaphor for Mao.[ 4 ]

Cultural bastardy actually seems more interesting as an intervention or provocation in contemporary Chinese cultural debates. Huang uses the phrase “cultural bastard” (and analogues) sixteen times in the Introduction but only once in the main chapters, not surprisingly in the chapter on Zhang Chengzhi, the Chinese cultural nationalist who identifies with a Sufi Islamic minority (107). Indeed, in his problematiquein the Introduction (5-11), Huang spends far more space engaging with the historian Joseph R. Levenson and the philosopher Jiwei Ci than with literary critics. The Chinese term Huang seems to have in mind for “bastard” is zazhong 杂种. Huang translates zazhong as “bastard” when it appears in a Wang Shuo story. Zazhong literally means mixed seed or crossbreed, but it is often used to refer to a son whose paternity is considered shameful. But although the metaphor is of parentage, the character in the Wang Shuo story seems to be talking about culture. He says he was once proud of “being Chinese instead of any other kind of bastard” but later he “became a capitalist bastard” (72). This is nurture, not nature. Homi Bhabha’s hybridity is a similar cultural usage, of a term that comes originally out of biology.[ 5 ] One wonders why Huang does not at some point compare bastardy to Homi Bhabha’s “hybridity” (103). On the other hand, by not offering a comparison, Huang allows the reader the pleasure of speculation. Huang is not the first to use the term in Chinese literary criticism. Kam Louie described the sent-down youth as “the bastards of a disowned love affair” (Between Fact and Fiction, 94). The word seems more common in cultural discourse in the Romance languages than in English, and in addition to comparing bastardy with hybridity, Huang might have explored homologies between, for instance, Spanish and Chinese conceptions of bastardized national modernity.[ 6 ] But the cultural relevance of the term may be Huang’s own insight, and certainly in his book the idea makes sense: “bastard” pairs with “orphan” better than “hybrid.” Both bastardy and hybridity suggest fecundity, hybridity through the collocation “hybrid vigor.” But you would never call someone a hybrid the way you might call him a bastard. There is a note of disapproval in Huang’s term, and indeed cultural purists or essentialists disapprove of cultural bastardy. Hybridity is an antiessentialist theory, and so it would seem that Bhabha and Huang fight together against cultural purists and essentialists, Huang more stridently than Bhabha.

But Bhabha and Huang clearly do not appear to be fighting the same battle. Bhabha as a postcolonial theorist is working in the tradition of Franz Fanon, who, as Huang reminds us, believed in “the necessity for non-Western subjects to create a national culture in order to achieve national liberation” (9). Yet Bhabha’s ideal, especially in the past decade, has been some kind of diasporic cosmopolitanism. Huang is now closer to Chinese nationalism than Bhabha is to postcolonial Indian nationalism. Exile is a much more important word for Huang than diaspora. Though he references Marxist literary scholars like Lukács, Benjamin, Jameson, and Eagleton, Huang has less to say about class than about national belonging. He seems to have a personal investment in “the century old project of Chinese modernity in the form of a belatedly developing nation-state” (135, emphasis added). He seems to share the obsession with China that C. T. Hsia derided four decades ago in “Obsession with China: The Moral Burden of Modern Chinese Literature,” the appendix to the second edition of A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. These comments are not meant to be critical. Today we are not so quick to assume, with Hsia, that collectivist sensibilities, either socialist or nationalist, yield bad literature or bad literary criticism. We are now all well aware of the limitations or the very impossibility of what Huang might call “universal subject[ivity]” (49). Liberals might not mind Huang’s obsession with China. Many readers of this review likely share this healthy obsession. They may indeed endorse Huang’s non-racial, culturally bastardized breed of Chinese nationalism, which as mentioned above, is sympathetic to liberal values.

Readers might not even mind Huang’s obsession with the Cultural Revolution and his sense of its continuing relevance to Chinese national modernity. Huang has more than anyone else I know of stressed that the Cultural Revolution is not just a memory but rather a matrix for the creation of contemporary literary meaning. What seems to need more emphasis, though, is that the Cultural Revolution has become a political signifier. In this regard, I suggest “culture war” as an alternative perspective on the legacy of the Cultural Revolution. From this perspective, there is a culture war in China about the meaning of Maoism. The war is being fought not just in cultural circles by people like Huang Yibing but also in political circles by people like Bo Xilai, the current mayor of Chongqing.[ 7 ] The war is about whether the production model for Chinese culture should be top down or bottom up. Bo Xilai’s interpretation of the Maoist legacy is authoritarian, but there is no authoritarian monopoly on the meaning of the Cultural Revolution. I sense that Huang Yibing 黃亦兵, whose given name can mean “also a soldier” or “also a (red) guard,” would fight on the liberal side. As Huang reminds us (9), the red guards liked to say: “rebellion is justified” 造反有理. Likely they shouted this slogan when Mao addressed them at Tiananmen in August of the first year of the Cultural Revolution. The protesters in May 1989 knew the history of popular gatherings at Tiananmen in 1919 and 1966 and they shared the national revolutionary ideal. Huang himself links the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen when he argues that it was unsurprising that Wang Shuo should co-script the Cultural Revolution melodrama Yearnings right after Tiananmen (97). Reference to Tiananmen in China has been dangerous ever since June 6, but “Cultural Revolution” remains relatively unrestricted and has become a way of obliquely commenting on the issues raised by Tiananmen. Given that the signifier of the Cultural Revolution can be mobilized in the contemporary Chinese culture war to support both authoritarian (or “new left”) and liberal visions, Huang is quite right to describe the legacy of Chairman Mao, the Red Guards, and the Cultural Revolution itself as bastardized.

In Huang’s translation of the Duo Duo poem quoted above, poets are described as “bastards” (33). The original Chinese is not zazhong but hunzhang 混帐, literally meaning “mixed account” and implying not doing one’s duty or following the rules, especially in official business. Poets do not have to follow the same rules as academics. In reading Contemporary Chinese Literature, I sometimes wished that Huang Yibing had written a more conventional work of literary criticism. Then again, why should he have to split his personality into the academic Huang Yibing and the poet Mai Mang? Only if we wish to enforce what Huang pejoratively refers to as the “normative purity” (5) of scholarly work. We must welcome powerful, alternative, bastardized forms like Huang Yibing’s unfinished Bildungsroman of an academic monograph, especially ones that provoke profound reflection about the continuing relevance of the Cultural Revolution to contemporary Chinese literature and beyond.

Darryl Sterk
National Chung Cheng University


[ 1 ] See Hegel’s “The Oriental World,” section 1, in Philosophy of History.

[ 2 ] Following Wang Xiaobo’s comment in the Introduction to The Silent Majority (138), Huang suggests a fascinating literary comparison between Wang Xiaobo and Günter Grass: both lighten the burden of history by rewriting it (140). There would seem to be more to say, however, given that it seems hard to view Nazism as “recuperated” (94, et cetera) or the Holocaust as one of many “authentic experiments of modernity in national forms” (132), as Wang Shuo and Zhang Chengzhi do of the Cultural Revolution. Yet, condemnation is all too easy, and perhaps Huang would say that it takes a great and courageous writer to refuse knee-jerk or self-congratulatory condemnation of either Maoism or Nazism.

[ 3 ] Huang could also bring greater breadth and depth to his reviews of the critical literature on the individual writers.Huang claims to read Zhang “against the grain” (107), for instance, but his reading, which emphasizes Zhang Chengzhi’s multiculturalism and anti-imperialism, seems somewhat conventional, even if “alternative national forms” is a concept of powerful novelty. Also for i nstance, Huang is not the first critic to discuss Wang Xiaobo’s metafiction. Huang acknowledges that Dai Jinhua has discussed the “metahistory” (209, footnote 90) in Wang’s writing, but he might also have mentioned “History, Fiction, and Metafiction,” the chapter on Wang Xiaobo in Lin Qingxin’s Brushing History Against the Grain (2005). In this chapter, Lin Qingxin discusses aberrant sexuality in Wang Xiaobo’s writing. Huang Yibing writes of “Eros Perverted” in the same texts and presents his exploration of a literary sexuality “which we can scarcely penetrate with our normative reason” (140) as a contribution to scholarship on the “love and revolution” theme (154). Finally, Huang Yibing’s monograph could be read alongside Wu Jin’s Ph. D. dissertation The Voices of Revolt: Zhang Chengzhi, Wang Shuo and Wang Xiaobo (Oregon, 2005) on the three novelists Huang discusses in his book. Huang’s dissertation (UCLA, 2001) covered Duo Duo, Wang Shuo and Zhang Chengzhi. Wu Jin has Zhang and the two Wangs reacting to the “Mao style” 毛文体 and criticizing mainstream intellectuals who congratulated themselves for having helped liberate China from Maoist “modern superstitions” when all they really did was conform to the official ideology.

[ 4 ] “[T]o challenge the often-sanitized and too neat period of the post-Revolution literature” (5), his stated goal, Huang would have to look in more detail at the fuzzy boundary between revolutionary and post-revolutionary literature, as Chris Berry has done for film in Postsocialist Cinema in Post-Mao China: The Cultural Revolution after the Cultural Revolution. Berry accepts the notion of postsocialism but realizes the transition from socialist to postsocialist cinema did not happen all at once. Berry’s book on “eighty-nine relatively neglected feature films made in the People’s Republic of China between 1976 and 1981” (1) is a focused contrast to Huang’s assertion of the overwhelming importance of the Cultural Revolution to the whole of contemporary Chinese literature. It is certainly important, but as Huang puts it, “Contemporary Chinese literature, at least according to the four authors discussed here, has to be continually engaged and evaluated against the ongoing developments of the individuals from this generation of the Cultural Revolution” (188, emphasis added).Though the alternative approach in Contemporary Chinese Literature is a corrective to the “monolithic” vision one finds in a work like Hong Zicheng’s A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature (see Edward Gunn’s MCLC review), Huang’s results are to some extent a function of selection.

[ 5 ] Huang writes of Duo Duo’s “genetic impurity” (22). Though he may mean “genetic” in the sense of “productive,” the scientific sense of the term would not necessarily go against Huang’s concept of modernity. In the eighteenth century, Linnaeus categorized the world’s creatures into discrete categories, each defined by a distinct essence. Genetics is the study of the mechanism Darwin first described in On the Origin of Species. Rather than fixed essences, Darwin describes the mechanism of “evolution,” an extremely mixed up and impure process with no other end or purpose than survival. This understanding of evolution accords with Huang’s non-teleological concept of the project of Chinese modernity, in which the present is inscribed with a history of making things work out of heterogeneous materials.

[ 6 ] See, for instance, Augustin Miranda Carrillo’s La Modernidad Bastarda.

[ 7 ] See, for instance, Wu Zhong, “Cake-fight for CCP’s Soul.” Asia Times (July 22, 2011).