Visions of Dystopia in China’s New Historical Novels

By Jeffrey C. Kinkley

Reviewed by Michael S. Duke
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2015)

Jeffrey C. Kinkley, Visions of Dystopia in China’s New Historical Novels. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. xvi + 285 pages. ISBN 0231167687 (Cloth)

Jeffrey C. Kinkley, Visions of Dystopia in China’s New Historical Novels. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. xvi + 285 pages. ISBN 0231167687 (Cloth)

Considering his previous surveys of contemporary Chinese fiction—Chinese Justice, the Fiction: Law and Literature in Modern China (2000) and Corruption and Realism in Late Socialist China: The Return of the Political Novel (2007), Jeffrey C. Kinkley is perhaps the single non-Chinese scholar to have read and commented on almost all the Chinese fiction produced in the past couple of decades. With the addition of Visions of Dystopia in China’s New Historical Novels, he has now interpreted for the English reader Chinese fiction on law, politics, and history.

“Dystopia is eternal rather than futuristic” (xiv). Well, perhaps not eternal, but certainly endured for a long painful time in the last century in China, and especially since 1949 “when official history has been so dictated by the ideological and institutional imaginary as to verge on the discourse of make-believe.”[1] It used to be a truism that in dictatorships, where the news media are managed by the state and much of the journalism is false, writers of fiction were the only ones to present a true picture of what was happening in their countries. This seems to have still been the case in some Chinese fiction of the past twenty years, but it takes a great deal of explaining to determine just what is being said about China’s past, present, and future in the “new historical novels” so magisterially examined in this book. It is, of course, the literary critic’s duty to make sense out of literature, and though readers may not always agree with Jeffrey Kinkley’s interpretations, they should certainly find them most intriguing.

The political Leviathan that is China’s Party-state makes Kinkley’s authors subject to “censorship” and leads them to practice “self-censorship” (xii, 36), while the economic behemoth that is China “on the rise” makes it very profitable for them to do so. One of them has even won the Nobel Prize for Literature while remaining well within the Party-state’s literary machine.[2] (See “self-censorship” later in this review.)

In his first chapter, “Chinese Visions of History and Dystopia,” Kinkley offers a survey of five traditions of world dystopic fiction and China’s place in these traditions. He goes into considerable detail, here and in other places, speculating how Chinese writers X, Y, and Z were influence by non-Chinese writers A, B, and C. He also reviews official and non-official history writing (putatively non-fiction) in China. Most interesting, but not surprising, is his evidence that the history presented in school textbooks is more or less a big lie (21-23). His definition of “new historical novel” includes “full-length historical novels (a few are novellas) that deny and defy previous national historical narratives, typically with a political edge that bears heavy implications for the present and future, and  . . . [contain stylistic elements such as] magical realism, surrealism, fantasy, allegory, meta-historical questioning, parody, self-parody, pastiche, the absurd,” and various other experimental methods of dealing with time and place (7-8). That certainly covers a lot of ground.

Most of the seventeen novels and novellas, the core works Kinkley discusses—by Mo Yan, Su Tong, Yu Hua, Zhang Wei, Li Rui, Wang Anyi, Han Shaogong, Ge Fei, Yan Lianke, Wang Shuo, Liu Zhenyun, and others, including film versions of some of them—are set in deliberately vague times and places and are full of “inhuman, senseless, casual violence” (43) born of “sadism and uncontrollable urges” (42) as well as “stupefying and mindless vengeance” (56) and many other insalubrious elements. Kinkley details their themes in four chapters under a number of well-chosen epithets.

Chapter 2, “Discomforts of Temporal Anomie,” concerns works that present a “brutish vision of society, culture, or human nature” projected “indefinitely into the future” and seem to be “temporally universalist” (36). I would say, though Kinkley might not agree, that “self-censorship” prevents Chinese authors of historical fiction from offering their themes as a vision of contemporary China under the CCP, so they present them as universally applicable to human life at all times and in all places—exempla of the eternal dystopic nightmare that these writings represent as characterizing all human life. Of course they write from personal experience of life in the PRC, but if it were not for the Party-state, they might not deliberately obscure the time, place, and dramatis personae of their works.

In my personal conversations with a few of these authors, they expressed to me dissatisfaction with the Chinese Party-state, but they never said they believed everything is unpleasant or bad—dystopic—and always has been throughout human life and history. They certainly did not consider Canada, where I live, dystopic.[3] Their more or less bourgeois lifestyles, unlike those of some celebrated Western writers, do not at all match the weirdness of some of their their writing styles. As the late William Lyell once asked one of my graduate students about Mo Yan, “don’t you think he puts all of that sex and violence in to attract readers and to increase sales?” (Remembered quote may not be exact.)

Kinkley discusses Su Tong’s novels The Gardener’s Art, Tattoo, Rice, and My Life as Emperor as examples of “temporal ambiguity.” His Nineteen Thirty-four Escapes is presented, along with Yu Hua’s To Live trilogy, as examples of “specifying dates, but defamiliarizing the era.” I have to say that I find Yu Hua’s work more realistic than dystopic in the sense Kinkley uses that term. Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum is interpreted as an example of “Marquezian mythmaking” or “creating present-day myths in a time out of time.”

Similar analyses of many novels and novellas follow. “Projections of Historical Repetition,” chapter 3, contains studies of Li Rui’s Silver City as an example of “dystopian cyclicalism,” Zhang Wei’s The Ancient Ship of overall “social decline,” “recurrent decline” in Ge Fei’s Southlands Trilogy, nostalgia versus decline in Wang Anyi’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, and so on. The chapter ends with a general consideration of the recurring pattern of utopia and dystopia. The next two chapters—“Alienation from the Group,” and “Anarchy: Social, Moral, and Cosmic”—consider some of the same works and others under their respective rubrics.

Kinkley concludes with “The End of History, Dystopia, and ‘New Historical Novels,’” in which he present a lengthy analysis of Liu Zhenyun’s One Word is Worth a Thousand as “a postmodern ‘anti-historical novel’” (203), and offers some reflections on the possible demise of the category of “new historical novel.”[4] Space limitations prevent me from giving more details, but I assure you that you will be amply rewarded by Kinkley’s discussions.

Another important element of this book is that the bibliography lists all of the English translations of the works covered that were available up to the time of publication. This is certainly the best starting place for students of contemporary Chinese literature who have not yet mastered the language well enough to read the originals. Along with the MCLC Resource Center Bibliographies, this is certainly a good starting place for students.

Kinkley’s final paragraph offers a bleak summing up of these works of fiction “fruitlessly yearn[ing] for [a] transcendental justice and righteousness from above” that is nowhere to be found, while their authors “seek novelty and the ability to impart a sense of wonder” (207). I agree with the second part of this—what the writers are seeking—but I do not see so much evidence of the kind of yearning mentioned. It seems to me that in their works of fiction, though perhaps not in their real lives, Chinese writers of historical fiction express the sentiment of Kinkley’s final two sentences: “Utopia lacks wonder; dystopia lacks justice. God is dead; ‘life’ disappoints” (207).

Michael S. Duke
Emeritus, University of British Columbia


[1] David Der-wei Wang, “Panglossian Dream and Dark Consciousness: Modern Chinese Literature and Utopia” note 6, unpublished paper forthcoming in Utopia and Utopianism in the Contemporary Chinese Context: Texts, Ideas, Spaces, edited by Wang and Zhang Yinde. In one essay in this volume, a noted historian contrasts the commonly known history of ancient China to the contemporary fantasy put forth by many patriotic professors that the ancient Chinese tianxia (all under heaven) was a form of Utopia and that its application to our contemporary world would produce another Sinocentric Utopia. These professors may well be said to be publishing works of “new fictional history” that are the mirror opposite of the “visions of dystopia” in Kinkley’s “new historical novels.”

[2] Readers of MCLC are no doubt familiar with Perry Link’s criticism of “Mo Yan’s solution (and he is not alone here)  . . .  to invoke a kind of daft hilarity when treating “sensitive” events” like the “Great Leap famine (1959-1962) . . . or the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1970) . . . [events that] poisoned the national spirit with a cynicism and distrust so deep that even today it has not fully recovered.” See Perry Link, “Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?,” New York Review of Books (Dec. 6, 2012), for a review of four of the Mo Yan novels discussed in this book.

[3] I do not doubt that the writings discussed in this book represent “visions of dystopia,” but I do think that the term dystopia is better applied to totalitarian societies like Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China from 1950 through 1976. That these writers have been able to publish their works (most of them) in China since 1990, travel abroad to give lectures, and generally live quite well is prima facie evidence that China is not a dystopia in the usual sense. A more realistic picture of China today and for the foreseeable future is, I believe, to be found in Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years: A Novel (Nan A. Talese, 2012), a bestseller with no sex and violence.

[4] Since the “end of history” never really arrives, categories that begin with “new-” or “post-” always run up against the awkwardness of repeating the prefix.