The Columbian Companion to
Modern Chinese Literature

Edited by Kirk A. Denton

Reviewed by Edward Mansfield Gunn
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July, 2016)


Kirk A. Denton, ed., The Columbia Companion to Modern Chinese Literature New York: Columbia University, 2016. 488 pages. ISBN: 9780231170093 (Paperback) $45.00 / £33.00; ISBN: 9780231541145 (Hardcover) $125.00 / £93.00; ISBN: 9780231541145 (E-book) $44.99 / £33.00

As editor of The Columbia Companion to Modern Chinese Literature, Kirk Denton provides a key statement in his Preface, that his “motivation was primarily pedagogical: to put together a resource that could be used fruitfully in university classrooms” (ix). With that in mind, considering the general structure of courses and the texts of modern Chinese literature that have been made available in English translation, many of the choices made in organizing such a resource become more than understandable. Moreover, The Columbia Companion is highly accessible for undergraduate readers.

The Columbia Companion is focused on printed and Internet literature (namely, fiction and poetry), while also offering significant attention to theatre. Given that the familiar essay is little taught, Denton has excluded this form, while recognizing its significance. One chapter focuses on the significance of literature for film through adaptations, while television adaptation is mentioned sporadically. The scope of the “modern” embraces the concluding years of the Qing and the early years of the Republic, although only marginally in three chapters out of fifty-seven. Hence, as with its choices of media, The Columbia Companion is somewhat conservative in defining the range of the modern. Yet, by acknowledging but placing certain media and historical periods in the background, Companion is able to concentrate an enormous amount of systematic scholarship on its indisputably modern periods and literary texts in under 500 pages.

Eight well-written “thematic essays” provide information relevant to contextualizing the other chapters: a historical overview by Kirk Denton, a historiography of modern literary history by Yingjin Zhang, Charles Laughlin on some important considerations of language and form, Michel Hockx on literary communities, Shengqing Wu on the persistence of classical poetry, Shuyu Kong on the diaspora, Brian Bernards on the Sinophone, and Hsiu-Chuang Deppman on film adaptation. These authoritative essays represent some of the most significant new research of the past decade. The remaining forty-nine contributions cover authors, works, and schools or trends in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—and the coverage of all three societies is generous. Highly informed scholars, mostly US-based, write on these specialized topics and provide bibliographies of English- and Chinese-language sources at the end of each essay. The book contains a largely comprehensive index and throughout provides Chinese characters for names, titles, and terms.

Inevitably, there are limits or gaps, as Denton acknowledges. This is evident in the volume’s selective coverage from the historical periods it covers. At a time when the end of the Qing and the early Republic have been attracting greatly increased research interest, the essays on the poetry revolution, Liang Qichao and his contemporaries, and fiction of the early 1900s that follow the broader discussions in the historical and thematic introductions, strong as they are, cannot do justice to these periods, but they do cover most of what undergraduate students need to know and is likely to attract them. When we recall the Maoist era, it seems hardly adequate to give more than passing attention only to The White-Haired Girl, Song of Youth, and a few stories from the Hundred Flowers period. Yet perhaps these do represent today the most engaging works for students—as well as most teachers. Historically shielded from the vast piles of manuscripts that covered the desks of editorial offices of printed literature, scholars now face the explosion of fantasy literature—erotic and otherwise—on the Internet, confronting what only editors once had to winnow through. While the coverage of popular literary forms may be a bit spare, a chapter on previous martial arts novels, one on older romance fiction, a chapter on homoeroticism in literature, and two chapters on Internet literature itself provide fundamental and necessary introductions and references. In light of all that has been done to accommodate literary diversity, it would seem that only the topic of Ecoliterature has been left out in the cold, perhaps for lack of a substantial body of available, engaging texts.

Where The Columbia Companion might have been improved on its own terms is in avoiding confusion about a handful of its impressive number of references. Whereas realism is repeatedly dealt with in clear terms, socialist realism is one key phrase that is not. Denton mentions it as a prescription for writing in the introductory “Historical Overview” (14), but without explanation. Jingyuan Zhang mentions it in connection with Ding Ling’s novel The Sun Shines over Sanggan River (156). It receives none in Charles Laughlin’s well-wrought essay on literary debates, which stops short of the 1930s when socialist realism was introduced through Soviet documents, or in Denton’s thoughtful essay on Yan’an, when, true enough, neither Zhou Yang nor Mao Zedong explicitly endorsed the term, although they were already supplying equivalents from “resistance to Japan realism and revolutionary romanticism” (Mao celebrating the first anniversary of the Lu Xun Academy of Art in May 1939), “New People’s Democracy realism” (Zhou Yang, following Mao’s “On New People’s Democracy” of May 1941), Mao’s “proletarian realism” in his “Talks” of 1942, and Zhou Yang’s “revolutionary realism” thereafter. However, socialist realism did explicitly become the official prescription for literature after the founding of the People’s Republic, between 1953 until 1958, when Mao introduced “revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism” as the prescription. Socialist realism and in particular revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism are the topics of an essay by Ban Wang.

Ban Wang seeks to show continuity between May Fourth New Culture and Maoist-era fiction “from the period between the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)” by arguing that the paradoxical currents of realism and romanticism of the May Fourth were continued in Mao’s official prescription (of 1958) to combine “revolutionary romanticism with revolutionary realism” (237). Wang notes “the rise of socialist realism after Mao Zedong’s (1893-1976) ‘Yan’an Talks’ in 1942” was a sub-current that was also an “outgrowth” of the May Fourth (238). Disagreements over “the significance of socialist realism” (239) occurred between a group of writers represented by Hu Feng, who saw socialist realism as an “earthy” form of realism, and “Communist Party bureaucrats and ideologues” who “asserted that only party policy and socialist ideology should inform and shape images of reality” (239).

These fragments of helpful information about socialist realism and “revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism” are arranged to support Wang’s main argument, but sow some seeds of confusion. First, if revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism only applied until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, what concept informs writing after the beginning of the Cultural Revolution until 1976-77? Second, the “rise” of socialist realism is a rather ambiguous term in this context. It certainly does not refer to its reception in 1933, to Hu Feng’s own unofficial definition of it in 1936, nor to its official promotion between 1951 and 1953. Does it mean that Mao’s “Talks” in 1942 prescribed socialist realism or set out the intellectual groundwork for it before adopting the term? (The 1954 edition of Mao’s Selected Works did change his “proletarian realism” in the text of his “Yan’an Talks” to “socialist realism.”) Would that mean that the fiction of Zhao Shuli, the musical The White-haired Girl, and the novels of land reform followed socialist realist formulas for illustrating current party policies of rent reduction, anti-superstition, free marriage, and land reform, each in their turn? If so, were these writers among the “Communist Party bureaucrats and ideologues” who “asserted that only party policy and socialist ideology should inform and shape images of reality”? Is there any connection between that other socialist realism, Hu Feng’s concept of socialist realism, and the rise of socialist realism following Mao’s “Yan’an Talks” in 1942? Was there any substantive distinction between Zhou Yang’s socialist realism and Mao’s revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism?

Richard King, in an essay on the Hundred Flowers that follows Ban Wang’s, is much more concise if less far-reaching conceptually. He writes that Qin Zhaoyang “argued that the doctrine of socialist realism inherited from Stalin’s Russia mandated slavish adherence to ephemeral party policies and stifled artistic creativity” (246). Yet this is the first time that the role of the Soviet Union is mentioned, even though Chinese writers from 1933 on explicitly stated this and valorized, avoided, or condemned socialist realism because it came from the Soviet Union as the model for socialism. Apparently King and Wang disagree on the importance of the source of socialist realism and what that might imply. This is also the first time that adherence to current policies, not simply loyalty to socialism, is stated as part of the prescription for socialist realism. King and Wang also seem to disagree over the significance of that feature, even though they share a desire to show negative evaluations of socialist realism as a product of ideologues. It remains for Sabina Knight nearly fifty pages later in her essay on “scar literature” of the post-Mao period to state explicitly that Zhou Yang, as “Mao’s cultural czar,” solidified the place of Soviet socialist realism in 1953, and that literary doctrines thereafter “lay an ever more hazardous minefield of taboos” (294).

As the work of over fifty scholars, Companion presents shifting styles, methods, and points of view with each contribution, and they can hardly be expected always to be compatible. For example, attention to gender is necessarily found in essays on modern women writers, Ding Ling, Xiao Hong, et alia, but also in the essays on Ba Jin, Mao Dun, and others. Sublimation appears in studies of such varied writers as Mao Dun, Shen Congwen, and Yang Mo. Some essays lean toward conceptualizing, others remain largely empirical. There is emphasis variously on biography, description, or analysis, or even occasional close reading.

The essays of Wang and King are not the only ones in which disagreements may be inferred. Mark Leenhouts’s essay on “roots-seeking literature” of the mid-1980s discusses how proponents of this attention to cultural heritage outside the mainstream set it in opposition to “pseudomodernists” as well as to politically focused literature (299-300). Yet Andrew Jones’ essay on avant-garde fiction mentions that Han Shaogong, the first to designate his and his colleagues’ literature as “roots-seeking,” “drew on the idiom of international modernism” (316). Chen Sihe has elsewhere argued that the Misty [pseudomodernist] poet Yang Lian in the early 1980s was the progenitor of “roots-seeking literature.” Moreover, fiction writers of the early 1980s experimenting with modernism turned their attention to the cultural heritage: Zhang Xinxin’s 1982 novella “The Dreams of Our Generation” (我们这个年纪的梦) presents the stream-of-consciousness interior monologue of a young urban mother, recalling the idealism of being a “sent-down” student and now drowning in the ennui and frustration of life in the New Era that climax in a chilling Joycean epiphany. Yet, she finds a sentimental moment of spiritual peace reading to her child a modern elaboration of the myth of Archer Yi’s (Hou Yi) journey. In sum, whether or not a Yang Lian or a Zhang Xinxin discovered roots-seeking, one might wonder whether the critical rhetoric of roots-seeking as being in opposition to modernism was designed to avoid being subsumed under the label of an outgrowth or derivation of [pseudo]modernism.

On the other hand, scholars may be united in one thing: they appreciate writers and works that need their expertise and attention. A writer such as Wang Shuo, who has presented himself as neither needing nor wanting the attention of scholars, receives withering disdain in essays on the commercialization of literature by Zhen Zhang and on urban fiction by Robin Visser and Jie Lu, and even to a lesser extent in Jonathan Noble’s more balanced essay on Wang. Obliged to recognize his place in literature, scholars still want to show they disapprove of what they view as his cynicism, dismissal of utopian ideals, and approval of disreputable practices. All told, this “beat down Wang Shuo” movement has resulted in more mention and discussion of his writing than any other individual’s apart from Lu Xun and Mao Zedong. It might be helpful to note the constants in Wang’s fiction: the self-loathing of those who feel unequal to the discourse of heroism, prowess, or success; the self-deception among those who buy into such discourses; the manipulation of those who stage such visions of grandiosity; and the rebelliousness or counter-manipulations of those resisting self-loathing or self-deceiving conformity. And whether judged as the stuff of adolescent rebellion or of hardened cultural criticism, these are delivered with rare talent. It would be hard to guess from the descriptions of Wang’s work how concerned he is with self-loathing and self-deception, as when the wise-cracking Fang Yan in Playing for Thrills observes: “Nearly every phase of my life was marked by photos…. I appeared in more and more photos alone, older and older, my smile more and more forced, until, in the last few my head was bowed” (Playing for Thrills, translated by Howard Goldblatt 90-91). If all that the critics say about Wang Shuo’s cynicism and irreverence is true, so is the pain that he portrays.

Only very rarely is the scholarship unreliable. The discussion of The White-Haired Girl in the essay on “The Cultural Revolution Model Theater” by Di Bai mistakes the 1950 film version for the original opera of 1945 by stating that the girl Xi’er, raped by the landlord Huang Shiren, gives birth to a child who dies (270-71). Rather, in the stage opera the baby survives birth, and toward the end of the drama its crying helps searchers identify Xi’er’s hiding place in the mountains. In the 1972 film version of the ballet of 1964-65 Huang Shiren does assault Xi’er, but she fends him off and therefore neither becomes pregnant nor lives for a time in false expectation that Huang Shiren will take her as a wife, as she does in the 1945 stage opera and the 1950 film. Granted, only in recent years would a pregnant ballerina be taken as a revolutionary model on the stage, still, the progressive draining of the storyline in film and ballet of Xi’er’s rape and gradual psychological transformation, her motherhood, and the ultimate acceptance of her child by her admirer and the community are major elements of a fascinating history of the story itself. This would seem all the more important now when reference online to the existence of the 1972 film version of the ballet has all but been expunged.

More broadly, on its own terms of serving pedagogy, The Columbia Companion gives us an opportunity to reflect on the adequacy of some commonly accepted terms, such as the “Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies School,” or even more generally “commercialization.” After the admirable research on the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies School, from Perry Link’s book down to Jianhua Chen’s essay in The Columbia Companion, it does seem time to go beyond this term, appealing as it is. The phrase is, after all, the product of a May Fourth New Culture polemic aimed at fiction writers of the Nan she (Southern Society), such as Xu Zhenya, Wang Dungen, Chen Diexian, Zhou Shoujuan, Bao Tianxiao, and others inspired by them. One of these Southern Society writers, Su Manshu, whether because he was a friend of Zhang Taiyan and Chen Duxiu, who ultimately published Su in New Youth magazine, or because the specific features of his novel of love versus nationalism satisfied intellectuals more than Xu Zhenya’s treatment of the topic, was not publicly included among the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies writers. This is perhaps an inconsistency that has haunted later scholarship. Politically radical in their time but committed to maintaining a sense of community in China through a culturally conservative literature, the Southern Society network was already coming apart by the time of the May Fourth movement, yet their novels were popular and their magazines well-subscribed. The foreign-educated cultural elite that led May Fourth New Culture needed to claim greater capital, a need that never really ended and kept alive the demeaning epithet of Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies throughout the twentieth century to label any and all fiction not inspired by May Fourth ideals and divert attention from its even having a vision of patriotism. Perhaps the Southern Society and its influence on fiction of the Republican era would be a way to recast the topic.

There is an admirably informed essay by Zhen Zhang on the commercialization of contemporary literature that captures well its variety and contradictions. Yet the essay is confusing. Commercialization produces works like Guo Jingming’s Tiny Times, that “accurately define a new China” (391), so are these also among “the myriad fantasies and illusions generated in literary production in the era of commercialization” (393)? Yu Hua in Brothers ”fully considers readers’ tastes and expectations” (387), although there is “market fragmentation” (392), presumably representing various, different expectations. If Yu Hua’s villain in Brothers destroys “longstanding community values and ethics,” resulting in national “exaltation” (388) that Yu Hua satirizes, how deep are such values? Although capital is “amoral” (390), the capital-driven beauty writers did, after all, ultimately enclose their escapades with drugs and sex in a moral framework. Noting “women’s social value is reduced to their bodies” (389), the essay refers only to sexual performance, leaving out consideration of manual labor or maternity. How is it that youth literature revealing a “career-oriented, prison-like school system … spells out the loss of certainty in everyday life” (392)? Commercialization, however, has also produced “new Red Classics” (393). In the end, the statements on commercialization are so confusing that another approach may be needed, as with Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies. One approach might begin with noting that the era of commercialization in literature is not new at all. Literature was already made available to a competitive market in the socialism of the Maoist era and the New Era, only censorship guidelines and forms of remuneration for writers changed. Perhaps, in fact, the competitiveness of the market in the Maoist era required Maoists progressively to reduce and then eliminate their competition through administrative measures and theoretical arguments. When the supply of works by their theorists like Yao Wenyuan exceeded the masses’ demand for them, I have been told, they served as toilet paper for the workers.

Obviously, The Columbia Companion is a very stimulating guide to modern Chinese literature. More than that, it is a landmark work. It presents fresh and updated commentary on familiar topics, and opens up to students the more recent and promising new directions of so much scholarship, from literary communities, historiography of the field, and classical verse of the modern era to the diaspora, the Sinophone, sexual minorities, romance, martial arts, and the science fiction and fantasy of the Internet. No other single volume has presented this range of literature and this level of critical introduction. Whether as teachers or as research scholars, we should not overlook this contribution to our field.

Edward Mansfiled Gunn
Cornell University