A History of Modern Chinese Popular Literature

By Fan Boqun
Translated by Dong Xiang and Jihui Wang

Reviewed by John A. Crespi
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2021)

Fan Boqun. A History of Modern Chinese Popular Literature Trs. Dong Xiang and Jihui Wang. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. xxv+804 pp. ISBN: 978-1-107-06856-8.

Fan Boqun’s 范伯群 History of Modern Chinese Popular Literature is a comprehensive and sometimes quirky contribution to the study of a vast corpus of writing that has been overshadowed by literature associated with the May Fourth tradition. Originally published in 2006 as Zhongguo xiandai tongsu wenxue shi (中国现代通俗文学史), and now translated into English thanks to the dedicated efforts of Dong Xiang and Jihui Wang, the book stands as Fan’s magnum opus, the product of a lifetime of research on mass-market fiction, most of it originally published by installment in the tabloids, newspapers, and magazines of China’s major cities, especially Shanghai, from the 1890s through the 1940s. Fan’s term for this category of writing, “popular literature” (通俗文学), he devised to distinguish it from the ideological mainstream of “elite literature” (精英文学) that grew out of the New Literature movement in the late 1910s. The primary goal of Fan’s book is to integrate popular literature into the “family” of modern Chinese literature. As Susan Daruvala describes it in her helpful and concise introduction, Fan seeks to “transcend the structural dominance” of a literary history that gives prominence to elite literature by constructing “a new system of literary history based on ‘pluralistic symbiosis’ (多元共生) which would pay attention to the literary tastes and experiences of the entire population” (xxiv). Put another way, Fan aims to expand the canon of Chinese modern literature to recognize a vast and varied readership for works whose main purpose was to entertain rather than educate and enlighten. In so doing, Fan opens the door to a motley assortment of “pulp” genres—brothel novels, novels of exposure, historical romances, martial arts novels, detective fiction, and so on—whose long-term marginalization in mainland China’s orthodox literary historiography belies their huge popularity across more than half a century in China’s mainland.

Fan opens the door only so wide, however. To be sure, the breadth of material he covers is truly impressive. Nowhere else will you find between the covers of one book such a wealth of information on popular authors, popular periodicals, and, most of all, detailed plot summaries of what were essentially best-selling novels of the late-Qing and Republican periods. Reading Fan’s History from cover to cover, all 800 pages of it, will give you an excellent overview of the kinds of imaginative works literate people in China were actually consuming on a daily basis from the 1890s through the 1940s. That said, Fan does not conceal the fact that he selects and interprets his materials based on a May Fourth vision of literature. The texts he includes, and the parts of those texts that he chooses to emphasize, tend to be concerned with questions of nation, modernity, and social issues. Overall, his project is constructive, not deconstructive. Canonization and national literature are not problematic ideas for Fan, nor does he question basic concepts like “history,” “modern,” “Chinese,” or “popular vs. elite.” His narrative reaches 1949 and stops, with but the slightest mention of popular literature’s development in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Gender-based analysis is prominent for its total absence.

Before going on, it is necessary to recognize that because Fan wrote his History in Chinese for a local audience and using all Chinese-language sources, critiquing the book based on Euro-American studies of modern Chinese popular literature is beside the point. History inhabits an academic world with its own set of practices and concerns, many of which would likely raise eyebrows in other circles. We discover as much in the book’s Introduction, which sets up a teleology of literary development that, in the end, harmonizes foreign and local modernities. Fan’s survey, strictly chronological, offers “a rough line of development of popular literature in China” that is “based on its innate rule of development” (3). This “innate rule” rests on a dichotomy between the different origins of elite and popular literature, with the former emerging “as a result of the enormous influence of the new trend of literary thought from foreign countries,” and the latter coming from “the innate impetus of our national literary tradition” (3). In Fan’s view, elite (foreign-influenced) and popular (native Chinese) literature both contain modernizing impulses. Remarkable, according to Fan, is that the “founding work of Chinese popular literature,” Han Bangqing’s 韓邦慶 1890s serialized brothel novel Legends of Shanghai Flowers (海上花列傳), was a local, spontaneous, but “inevitable” response to modern industry, commerce, and urbanization more than twenty years before the foreign-derived New Literature movement had begun.[1] What this shows, Fan says, is that “[w]ithout the driving force of foreign literatures, Chinese popular writers would begin their journey on the road to modernization with their works all the same” (3). Fifty years and over 700 pages later, Fan concludes his chronology by emphasizing how 1940s writers of popular literature, in particular Zhang Ailing 張愛玲, had successfully blended the traditional influences governing popular literature with the foreign influences distinguishing elite literature, demonstrating that there is “no unbridgeable gap” between the two “systems.” Fan then adds—perhaps tongue in cheek; it is hard to tell—that Zhang Ailing and two other popular writers of the 1940s, Xu Xu 徐訏 and Bu Naifu 卜乃夫 (a.k.a. Wumingshi 無名氏), “implement the ‘one country, two systems’ policy in the literary field” (740).

Whatever one chooses to make of Fan’s overall narrative scheme, between Han Bangqing and Zhang Ailing, History traverses a prodigious quantity of fictional and semi-fictional writing. He lays the foundation for the book in the first two chapters. Chapter 1 focuses on several early works representing the “buds” of popular fiction in the 1890s: Legends of Shanghai Flowers, Sun Yusheng’s 孫玉聲 (Sun Jiazhen 孙家振) Dream of a Bustling Shanghai (海上繁華夢), Zhang Chunfan’s 张春帆 Nine-tailed Tortoise (九尾龜), and Tianxu Wosheng’s 天虛我生 Fate of Tears (淚珠緣). Chapter 2 examines the primary medium for early popular literature, tabloids (小報), by addressing the editorial and entrepreneurial work of Li Boyuan 李伯元 and his Leisure Time (遊戲報). Already in these two chapters we find Fan working to graft popular literature and publications onto the tree of mainstream intellectual literature. For instance, with Nine-tailed Tortoise Fan must work around critiques by May Fourth giants Lu Xun 魯迅 and Hu Shi 胡適, who saw the novel as little more than a guide to prostitution. Fan rehabilitates the novel and its author by reconceiving the former as a didactic work exposing the deceptions of brothel girls, and the latter by pointing to Zhang Chunfan’s later writing, in particular his The Sea of Politicians (宦海, 1923-1924), which in Fan’s view proves Zhang to be “a man of chivalry and justice” for its courageous exposure of scheming warlords and unscrupulous politicians. As for Li Boyuan’s Leisure Time, Fan struggles to reconcile what he perceives as a moral inconsistency in the tabloid’s editorial stance. Namely, he wonders how Li could on one hand write an editorial portraying the patronage of brothels and sing-song girls as deadly distraction from the decline of the nation, and then in the same issue announce a column providing daily updates on the names and workplaces of “the Beauties of Shanghai.” Fan’s assessment of this inconsistency demonstrates the kinds of challenges he faces when reconciling the crowd-pleasing nature of popular publications with the orthodox national narrative that he espouses. It also offers a good sense of how Fan’s distinct and often moralizing authorial voice is rendered into English throughout the book:

His [Li Boyuan’s] wishes were self-contradictory, for if those infatuated daydreamers were awakened and realized that when they were immersed in sensual pleasures they were actually among those wailing in grief while tasting sweet poison on the hotbed of future troubles which would eventually lead to their own downfall, would they willfully keep visiting brothels anymore? The continuation of those overwhelming relationships should perhaps be shifted to discontinuation (77).

From here, Fan moves on to cover the first three decades of the century in the next thirteen chapters, which describe three “waves” of periodicals, each characterized by certain dominant genres of popular fiction. The first wave, from 1902 to 1907, begins with Liang Qichao’s attempts at political novels before moving on to “novels of condemnation,” such as Wu Jianren’s 吳趼人Strange Events of the Past Twenty Years (二十年目睹之怪現狀), Liu E’s 劉鶚 Travels of Lao Can (老殘遊記), and Zeng Pu’s 曾樸 Flower in the Sea of Sin (孽海花), but also lesser-known works like Ji Wen’s 姬文 Voices of Businessmen (市聲), a novel unique in its time for its depiction of Chinese engineers and industrialists. A second part of the “first wave” starts in 1906, where Fan detects a trend in “novels of sentiment” and “novels of grievance,” the former represented by Wu Jianren’s Sea of Regret (孽海恨) and the latter by Fu Lin’s 符霖 A Drowned Bird’s Pebbles (禽海石). The second wave, lasting from 1909 to 1917, ranges through serial fiction from a number of important popular publications of the time, including Grand Magazine (小說大觀), edited by Bao Tianxiao 包天笑, Fiction Monthly (小說月報), the magazine later annexed by the “elite” Literary Research Association, and Saturday (禮拜六), where Fan focuses mainly on contributions by Zhou Shoujuan 周瘦娟. Fan discusses several types of popular writing characteristic of the “second wave.” The first is “legendary sketches,” which refers to unofficial and sometimes totally concocted accounts of historical events, such as the Boxer Uprising and Taiping Rebellion, and of notorious personages, most notably the Empress Dowager 慈禧太后, Yuan Shikai 袁世凱, and Yuan’s playboy son Yuan Kewen 袁克文. Another genre is “problem stories,” a narrative genre posing readers with moral dilemmas, inspired by Frank Stockton’s famous 1882 story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” The third is “Shanghai inside stories,” which Fan goes to great lengths to compare with American turn-of-the-century muckraking journalism. The comparison fails, Fan admits, because, aside from some laudable works by better-known writers such as Wu Jianren’s Exposure of the Official World (官場現形記), China’s “inside stories” devolved into sensationalized narratives of crime and sex, which Fan colorfully describes as a “scumbag exhibition” of “vagrants, freeloaders, peddlers and gangsters” carried out by unscrupulous publishers “deep in an abyss of cheesiness” (328).

Fan prefaces his discussion of popular publications’ “third wave,” beginning in 1921, with passing mention of the reorganization of Fiction Monthly by Mao Dun 茅盾 and Zheng Zhenduo 鄭振鐸, followed by a lengthy description of two literary societies for popular writers, the Stars Club (星社) and the Green Club (青社). Here Fan remarks on how popular writers of these two groups more or less ignored the diatribes launched at them by the advocates of New Literature. Although Fan doesn’t say as much, with the periodical market booming in the 1920s and the audience for popular literature expanding, popular writers’ relative silence in the literary fray was probably due to a general lack of concern over competition from New Literature, which occupied but a tiny niche of the market.

Chapters 10 through 15 survey several key genres of popular literature in the 1920s, brothel novels, martial arts novels, social novels, and detective fiction, with detours into the early development of China’s film industry, including the adaptation of popular literature to film, the growth of the pictorial press, with particular focus on Bi Yihong’s 毕倚虹Pictorial Shanghai (上海畫報), and an emergent feature of the period’s writing that Fan calls “urban local color.” Urban local color refers to popular writers’ ability to offer fine-grained representations of urban lifeways in Shanghai or Beijing, which Fan contrasts with elite writers’ attempts to “invent novels out of hometown memories” (524). Chapters 16 and 17 shift away from Shanghai and toward the work of popular fiction of the north, namely Beijing and Tianjin. The main Beijing-based writer is, as one would expect, Zhang Henshui 張恨水, whom Fan regards as a breakthrough writer not only for his ability to straddle the elite and popular, but also for the impact of Zhang’s Fate (啼笑姻緣), which was adapted for spoken drama, film, local operas, and picture books. Aside from Liu Yunruo 劉雲若, the “Zhang Henshui of Tianjin,” the other northern writers Fan discusses wrote martial arts fiction. Here Fan gives special praise to Li Shoumin 李壽民, pen-name Huanzhulouzhu 還珠樓主, as “the leader of the second wave of martial arts novels who brought martial arts writers to a higher level of art” (605). Chapter 17 provides portraits of four martial arts writers—Gong Baiyu 宮白羽, Wang Dulu 王度廬, Zheng Zhengyin 鄭證因, and Zhu Zhenmu 朱貞木—along with plot summaries and some critical commentary of their main works, including Wang’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍) and Zheng’s The Tablet of Seven Killings (七殺碑).

In chapter 18, “Social Fiction Writers of Various Levels from the 1930s to the 1940s in Shanghai,” Fan’s discussion of four authors makes clear the hierarchy he applies to popular fiction. At the top is Qin Shou’ou’s 秦瘦歐 The Fall of Begonia (秋海棠) serialized in 1941, which Fan praises for its exposé of warlords and for how it deploys the metaphor of the begonia leaf, a coded reference to the shape of the map of China, which was at the time being “eaten” by the invading “caterpillar” Japan. The two authors in the middle are Wang Xiaoyi 王小逸 and Zhou Tianlai 周天籟. Wang, a writer reportedly able to produce ten serial novels simultaneously without mixing up the plots, earns praise for his Garnet (石榴紅), which at its end depicts the heroine, a Shanghai social butterfly, entrapping and killing a despotic landlord. Wang, however, loses points for producing other (unmentioned) novels that were simply pornographic. Fan commends Zhou Tianlai for writing “the best brothel novel in the Shanghai style,” the million-character Big Sister from the Shabby Room (亭子間嫂嫂), serialized in 1938 and centered on an unlicensed prostitute named Gu Xiuzhen 顧秀珍, the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold (“a ray of light in the darkness of her occupation,” as Fan puts it) whose clientele represent a broad spectrum of urban society. Finally, Fan lauds the self-taught author Tian Shelang 田舍郎 for his skill at writing in the Shanghai vernacular about lower-class urban society in Shanghai’s alleyway neighborhoods during the 1940s. Regarded as Tian’s masterwork, Tailor Boy (小裁縫), tells the story of a tailor’s apprentice who uses nefarious means, ranging from extramarital affairs to female trafficking and rape, to climb the Shanghai social ladder, at the top of which he eventually acquires a high post in the city’s wartime occupation government. What most exercises Fan, however, is when this morally bankrupt protagonist suddenly “drops his base soul and turns out to be a patriotic figure” by virtue of assassinating an official of the occupation regime, a plot twist that for Fan defies narrative logic.

As already noted, Fan’s History culminates in the synthesis of popular and elite literature in the 1940s. Alongside Zhang Ailing’s work, Fan reviews novels by two lesser-known representatives of a “new generation” of popular writers of the time, Xu Xu and Bu Naifu (a.k.a. Wumingshi). Xu Xu, famous for his Love with a Ghost (鬼戀, 1937), which Fan interprets as a gothic novel, and Soughing Wind (風蕭蕭, 1943-1944), a wartime bestseller Fan describes as Western-influenced romantic spy fiction. All three writers, Zhang Ailing, Xu Xu, and Bu Naifu, Fan admires for their ability to “come and go freely” between popular and elite literature and thus, as mentioned earlier, attain a synthesis of the native and foreign elements of literary discourse.

Chapter 20 sums up the “history lessons” to be learned from the book’s survey of popular literature. Here Fan lists four main items. First, he observes how the urban basis of popular literature in general “enlightened” readers by helping migrants transition to a new life in the metropolis. Second, popular literature inherited and extended categories of traditional literature—“social romance, swordsman fiction, legal case fiction, palace novels, ironic novels and so on”—neglected by elite writers. Third, popular writers, because they were so close to the complexity and diversity of readers’ everyday lives, offered a uniquely detailed representation of social reality. Finally, Fan touches on the “opinion of the masses.” Here Fan’s explanation grows murky as he strains, in one lengthy paragraph, to encapsulate the relationship among popular writing, elite writing, and readers from the 1930s to the present day, including Taiwan and Hong Kong. Perhaps inevitably, his analysis is fraught with confusing political tergiversation, as for example when he writes that “the proletariat selected the mainstream of elite literature that created public opinion for them to seize the regime” (751). Regarding the legacy of popular literature, Fan devises an extended architectural metaphor that captures rather well his aesthetic and moral vision of modern Chinese literature:

If we compare the excellent works of elite literature originating from foreign advanced ideas proposed by Lu Xun to beautiful villas and apartments, then some of the good works we introduced in Chapter 19 are like Chinese gardens, which are our cultural heritage, and the rest, although not qualified to be called “gardens,” are like “old houses” which, although “ancient,” deserve to be photographed and printed for research and nourishment. I do not intend to introduce those fakes in Chapter 19 because they belong to vulgar literature. They are like rubbish and pollutants at the time (752).

Fan tags an interesting epilogue onto his book: an essay on his efforts to collect the over 350 images included in History, from magazine covers and author portraits to old photographs of Shanghai’s publishing houses and dance halls. The author portraits in particular Fan justifiably values as a part of his project to give “equal treatment” to a group of writers systematically marginalized in modern literary history. Also, readers who have spent time searching through Chinese libraries and archives will sympathize with Fan’s painstaking detective work tracking down forgotten and ephemeral materials.

I expect most academic readers will find Fan’s History thought-provoking, though in a backhanded way, by which I mean the book’s many blind spots suggest certain opportunities for further research into popular literature. For instance, Fan’s tendency to look for “constructive” influences of the May Fourth elite tradition on popular literature could be turned around for a study of popular literature’s influence on the canon of “revolutionary” writers. One example that comes to mind are the pot-boiler revolutionary romances of an author like Jiang Guangci 蔣光慈. Similarly, and Fan does in fact touch on this very briefly in the context of martial arts fiction, is how the formulae and devices of urban popular literature were assimilated into socialist-era fiction and film. Another potential area of study is the aesthetics of seriality. Although Fan recognizes that nearly all the works discussed in History were published in installments, he reads them no differently than if they were written and read as finished works. Serial narrative, however, brings with it a raft of issues in both the production and reception, such as deferred closure, multiplication of subplots, interaction with contemporary social and political issues, response to reader feedback, collaborative and ritualized reading practices, and dependence for meaning on material location in a periodical.[2] Reading most any of the works in History with an eye to their seriality would be another potentially fruitful avenue of research. Another conspicuous absence in History are the 1930s Shanghai modernists, a group of writers who were marginalized much like Fan’s popular writers, and who published many of their stories in popular illustrated magazines. Why Fan leaves them out is anybody’s guess, but it might have to do with how modernism itself complicates the kind of historical teleology Fan undertakes, or it could be related to difficulties in categorizing the 1930s modernist writers’ as either “elite” or “popular.” Problems of categorization may also explain Fan’s omission of the very famous popular novel written by an “elite” author, Qian Zhongshu’s 錢鐘書 Besieged City (圍城). One more phenomenon that Fan sidesteps is the relation between the War of Resistance against Japan and the development of popular literature, be it in the form of martial arts fiction, “new” brothel novels, spy stories, or the early work of Zhang Ailing, all of which thrived when communities of “elite” writers dispersed to the interior of China. From Edward Gunn’s Unwelcome Muse to Christopher Rosenmeier’s On the Margins of Modernism, scholars have intermittently explored the literature of this period by writers outside leftist literary circles. Fan’s History suggests that there is much more to look into regarding wartime writing. In all, History’s detailed coverage of so many lesser-known popular works and authors makes the book a useful resource for research into countless topics.

In part because it is a translation, History of Modern Chinese Popular Culture falls short in terms of providing some of the basic scholarly apparatus needed to help get such projects off the ground. An appendix lists the Romanized and Chinese names of most of the periodicals and literary works mentioned in the book, though without dates of publication. Authors’ names are provided only in pinyin, without accompanying Chinese characters. Also, Fan’s footnotes, all referring to Chinese-language sources, are simply translated into English without either Chinese or romanization. The book also lacks a bibliography. This kind of streamlining enhances the book’s readability, but at the expense of its utility, which is unfortunate because, in the end, most readers will come to History for its reference rather than its entertainment value. All the same, the book’s translators and Cambridge University Press deserve credit for making this uniquely sweeping study available to English-language audiences.

John A. Crespi
Colgate University


[1] Please note that the translators of Fan’s History have devised their own English versions of the names of the publications and literary works mentioned in the book without reference to existing English-language translations. In this review I use the names as provided in History.

[2] See Jennifer Hayward, Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997) and Sean O’Sullivan, “Six Elements of Serial Narrative,” Narrative 27, no. 1 (2019): 49–64.