China’s Literary Cosmopolitans:
Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters

Edited by Christopher Rea

Reviewed by Inhye Han
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September, 2016)

Christopher Rea, ed. China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters. Leiden: Brill, 2015. v-x, 264 pp. ISBN13: 9789004299962 (Hardback: $142.00)

Christopher Rea, ed. China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters Leiden: Brill, 2015. v-x, 264 pp. ISBN13: 9789004299962 (Hardback: $142.00)

In May 2016, writers, critics, and lay readers in China and the world mourned the passing of the literary master Yang Jiang (1911-2016), a playwright, novelist, and translator who had gained significant fame and popularity in China and other countries. Her husband, Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998), whose depth and breadth of knowledge of literature, philosophy, and history were matched by few scholars, achieved a critical reputation earlier than Yang for his fiction, essays, and monumental works of literary criticism. China’s Literary Cosmopolitans is a timely volume illuminating previously under-examined critical dimensions of Yang’s and Qian’s works. Editor Christopher Rea skillfully reveals the modern and Eurocentric roots of the provincial/cosmopolitan divide, demonstrating the ways in which the Chinese and the cosmopolitan intersect. Rea argues that, while there were multiple forms of cosmopolitan practices in post WWII China—for example, 1950s’ internationalist cosmopolitanism and the Mao period’s prescriptive cosmopolitanism—Yang and Qian introduced yet another type, lifestyle cosmopolitanism. Where literati are concerned, lifestyle cosmopolitanism is characterized by the unity of a person’s texts and character (morals, ethics, etc.). Postcolonial studies scholars have sought to theorize a cosmopolitanism that is not based on the concept of a “citizen of the world,” arguing that cosmopolitanism should be conceptualized not as an idea but as infinite ways of being (Bhabha et al. 2002, 12). This volume is a testament to Yang’s and Qian’s lifestyle cosmopolitanism as the best possible lived embodiment of such infinite ways of being.

Theodore Huters’ chapter on Qian’s Fortress Besieged discerns a cosmopolitan quality of his work with extraordinary acumen. He first surveys the landscape of contemporary debates on cosmopolitanism, which center on the rift between cosmopolitanism as a new ethic following the failure of Enlightenment humanism and cosmopolitanism as rhetoric masking “the depravities of global capitalism and universalism, and the elitism of aesthetic distance” (212). A critical question Huters raises is whether any cosmopolitan pursuit in literary practice could transcend the opposing ends of elitist aloofness and capitalist-colonial drives. Fortress Besieged, Huters argues, offers an answer to that question. The novel’s foremost concern is the issue of taste and aesthetic judgment; yet unlike the British novel of manners, it refuses to provide its readers with solid moral or intellectual grounds for appraising taste. In a somewhat Kantian approach that brackets cognitive concerns (true versus false) and ethical ones (good versus bad) to tackle matters of taste (pleasant versus unpleasant),[1] Huters argues that Qian likewise separates the pleasant from the good, satirizing any attempt to associate better taste with superior morality. Fortress Besieged’s aesthetic stance nevertheless overcomes elitist aloofness, because its story later unbrackets the ethical domain in a radical manner. The text grapples with ethical concerns only to blur the boundary between good and bad and dispel the idea of an unchanging, stable world. Qian thus consciously brackets and unbrackets the aesthetic and ethical domains, creating a literary model that overcomes pitfalls of contemporary cosmopolitan practices.

Carlos Rojas’ “How to Do Things with Words” brilliantly and powerfully probes Yang Jiang’s translations to reveal an extraordinary quality that realizes the best sense of cosmopolitanism. Rojas’ mastery of Spanish and Chinese enables him to identify a critical dimension of Yang Jiang’s rendition of Don Quixote. Yang approaches translation as a practice of transformation that produces meanings not inherent in an original text. Rather than obscuring the inevitable “errors” of translation, Rojas points out, Yang makes use of the error or gap between source and target text as “a space of creative articulation and critical intervention” (91). From this standpoint, a translation practice parallels a perlocutionary act that not only conveys information but also affects listeners. Whereas classic perlocutionary theory proposes a felicity of speech and an actual situation as a condition of words’ real effect on listeners, in Don Quixote “it is precisely infelicity of the speech act that grants it its (imaginary) perlocutionary force” (100). Both “errors” emerging from Yang’s translation and Don Quixote’s own misreading engender unintended yet creative consequences for Yang’s audience and the people whom Don Quixote encounters, respectively. Since this kind of translation and creative misreading focus on difference between how a text is written and read, I would add that Yang’s practice also resonates with Ackbar Abbas’s concept of cosmopolitanism as cultural arbitrage with difference (Abbas 2002: 226). Abbas argues that cosmopolitanism should be reckoned a cultural arbitrageur, as opposed to a universalist arbiter of value. Yang’s translations illustrate this arbitrating role, using meta-textual pun, allusion, and strategic transliteration to produce creative differences between original text and translation. In this chapter, Rojas also highlights a political dimension of translating under an authoritarian party-state regime, pointing to Yang’s choice of genre (picaresque), theme (counter-hegemonic ethos), and philosophy of translation.

Amy Dooling’s “Yang Jiang’s Wartime Comedies” investigates plays Yang wrote in the 1940s, when Shanghai was occupied by Japan and circumstances were grim and abject. Despite the political urgency of her time, Yang’s works are conspicuously removed from political references, engaging exclusively with the psychology of characters, who are the “new women” of China. Unlike the May Fourth–era literature, Yang’s plays attend to predicaments of new women who fail to attain self-fulfillment despite their defiant assertion of autonomy. All of Yang’s plays whose scripts are extant—Heart’s Desire (1942), Forging the Truth (1943), and Sporting with the World (1944)—fall into the comedy genre centering on the mischievous actions or selfish delusion of new women characters. The plays comically portray the demise of new women in China due to their self-absorbed idealism. Dooling stresses that Yang’s wartime plays are highly critical of individual ambition built on romantic idealism. By examining the intersections of the new woman issue, wartime literature, comic stage plays, and politics, Dooling masterfully illuminates the ingenious literary achievements of Yang’s dramas, although it is unclear how her chapter fits into the overarching cosmopolitan theme of this book.

Jesse Field’s chapter concerns Yang Jiang’s memoir We Three (2003) and her translation of Phaedo (2000), casting light on a distinctive quality of Yang’s cosmopolitanism by drawing on Berlant’s celebrated concept of an intimate public that emerges through shared political experiences. Literature based on those experiences expresses a specific history and simultaneously shapes its audience’s sense of belonging to that history. Despite the centrality of national political events in the emergence of an intimate public, Field boldly argues that an intimate public identity in China’s post-1999 period hinges on a contra-national, cosmopolitan sensibility. Yang’s writings not only recount but also recalibrate thoughts and feelings about the semicolonial Republican period, the Mao era, and the subsequent authoritarian regimes, dispelling [false] dichotomies between the political and the apolitical, the national and the cosmopolitan. Field skillfully demonstrates that Yang’s literary practice has the quality of engaging with the nation and the world simultaneously, thus enabling the constitution of a new intimate public.

Christopher Rea’s chapter, “The Institutional Mindset,” demonstrates that Qian and Yang set an example by using the institutions of marriage and the academy to practice the values of authenticity, independence, and devotion throughout politically tumultuous periods. Qian and Yang frequently tackled problematic issues in the concepts and praxis of marriage and the academy in their writings as well, examining the institutions’ ambivalent nature as both refuge and bondage. Their work and their lifestyle, Rea argues, exemplify how the two writers distanced themselves from social institutions, including the nation, and circumvented the “obsession with China.” However, owing to their belonging to those same institutions, both writers were unable to entirely free themselves from the related state-imposed ideology and cultural practices, and their ambivalence toward this conundrum conditioned their vision of cosmopolitanism and its limits. Despite a few instances in which they acquiesced to nationalist practices, Qian and Yang demonstrated the ways in which powerless individuals can deflect institutional power without leaving institutions and how one can escape the nation without leaving it. That is to say, within their institutional belonging and mindset, they managed to manipulate nationalist state apparatuses to their own ends, rather than being subjected to them, opening up a new dimension of cosmopolitanism. Rea’s chapter constitutes a convincing argument for his coining of the term “lifestyle cosmopolitanism” to categorize the through-line of Qian’s and Yang’s marriage, scholarship, and writings.

Ronald Egan’s “Guanzhui bian, Western Citations, and the Cultural Revolution,” highlights the striking depth and breadth of Qian’s 1979 Guanzhui bian.[2] Guanzhui bian, a five-volume compendium for which Qian consulted and quoted sources in six different languages, glosses nearly the entire corpus of “classic” Chinese literature and philosophy and their counterparts in the Western tradition. Although the compendium’s exegetical practice may appear to be apolitical, Egan’s analysis uncovers Qian’s hidden criticism of literary modes prescribed by the CCP; Qian’s groundbreaking engagements with the classics went against the Mao era’s condemnation of virtually everything traditional. Qian’s Guanzhui bian, Egan argues, epitomizes a cosmopolitan practice of “striking a connection” (datong) between Chinese and Western writing, a feat that only a few scholars thoroughly versed in both cultures could do. This kind of China-West trans-critique is radical in that it refutes the hegemonic idea of Qian’s time that China was feudal, backward, and incommensurable with the West.

In “Self-Deception and Self-Knowledge in Yang Jiang’s Fiction,” Judith Armory argues that Yang Jiang’s Taking a Bath (1987) is thematically intertwined with eighteenth-century British novels, especially the works of Jane Austen and Henry Fielding. She bases her comparison on three pieces of evidence. First, Yang Jiang herself wrote criticism on Fielding and Austen in 1957 and 1982, respectively. Second, Fielding viewed the novel genre as a comic epic, which, in Amory’s view, is an apt classification for Taking a Bath as well. Third, Fielding and Austen wrote novels not only to provide cathartic experiences for their readers but also to urge them to seek more virtuous lives, as seen in their shared recurring theme of the self-refinement of an honorable individual. In the same vein, Taking a Bath grapples with the intricate dynamics between falsehood and honesty, self-deception and self-knowledge, and state-coerced reformation versus self-reformation. One question that arises from Amory’s analysis is whether Yang’s meditation on the subject of self-reformation in Taking a Bath is solely due to her appreciation of eighteenth-century British novels. In his later chapter, Huters casts doubt on criticism that asserts a strong affinity between the British novel of manners and Qian’s Fortress Besieged. I would likewise contend that perceived thematic and generic similarities between Austen/Fielding and Yang provide a weak basis on which to claim that the former decisively influences the latter. After all, the eighteenth-century British novel of manners is only one of many genres that satirizes the absurdities of a given society and motivates readers to live a more ethical life. I believe that Taking a Bath is cosmopolitan not because of British writers’ impact on Yang, but, in part, because the theme of self-refinement toward a more virtuous life is prevalent around the world long before the eighteenth century (most notably in Yang’s case, self refinement/self cultivation is a key concept from the Confucian tradition).

Wendy Larson’s chapter “Pleasures of Lying Low” examines Yang Jiang’s novels Taking a Bath and Six Chapters of Life in a Cadre School (1981), which depict life under the authoritarian CCP regime. Larson contends that Chinese intellectuals, including Yang, neither resisted nor collaborated with the Mao regime, but mostly accommodated to its regulations. Comparable to Amory’s argument, Larson points to similarities between the Western comedy of manners and Yang’s two novels and argues that “[Yang’s] insistence on using the comedy of manners betrays her unquestioned embrace of the detached and objective literary cosmopolitan ideal” (156). In her other literary and critical works, however, Yang hardly seems to assume that any literary cosmopolitan ideal could be objective. More important, even similarities in terms of tone, style, and theme fail to prove what Larson avers to be Yang’s “insistence on using the comedy of manners.” In the absence of significant examples of intertextual references or allusions, such affinities are likely to be coincidental. Furthermore, the kind of cosmopolitanism that Yang (and Qian) created does not stem simply from their firsthand experiences abroad and command of foreign languages and Western forms and styles of literature. Larson further claims, “They [Chinese critics favorable to Yang Jiang] admire her move away from a narrow ethnic focus on Chinese qualities and toward a universal emphasis on humanity in general, and away from politics toward art” (154). Whereas Larson conflates the cosmopolitan and the universal, I believe that the two should be distinguished, because the cosmopolitan represents a middle ground for holding a critical tension between the universal and the particular. Furthermore, I would argue that Yang’s work is a powerful counterexample to the Eurocentric and false notion that ethnic concerns are parochial. Yang instead reconfigures the dichotomy between the provincial and the cosmopolitan, demonstrating that literature and politics are not two contending poles a writer and intellectual must choose between. Larson’s chapter provides much food for thought, although her somewhat narrow view of the “the detached and objective literary cosmopolitan ideal” sits uneasily with the volume’s stance toward the Eurocentric roots of the provincial/cosmopolitan divide and stress on the multiple forms of cosmopolitan practices in post WWII China.

Yugen Wang’s chapter differs from the others in its focus on Qian’s relationship to the classical Chinese literary tradition, rather than his intertextual engagement with foreign texts and traditions. Although the author superbly explicates the ingenious qualities of Qian’s exegeses, he does not consider, except briefly in his conclusion, how a Chinese writer-scholar’s glossing of Chinese classics could be a cosmopolitan practice. Wang misses (or perhaps only gestures towards) an opportunity here, for one could indeed claim that the exegesis of classical Chinese texts during the Mao era was a way of being abroad at home, i.e., a cosmopolitan practice. As most of the contributors to this volume show, cosmopolitanism is more a way of being, a lifestyle, or a socio-cultural intervention than a fixed idea, more of a practice than a proposition or static position. Under Mao’s authoritarian regime, in which virtually everything associated with “traditional” values was deprecated, to embrace premodern poetry and delve into its unarticulated meanings was a gesture countering a prescriptive way of being an intellectual-scholar and a pioneering way “of being different beings simultaneously” (Bhabha et al. 2002: 11).

To conclude, this edited volume makes a crucial contribution to the fields of Chinese studies and literary studies by offering a new model for theorizing cosmopolitanism outside a Eurocentric paradigm, built on meticulous analyses of Qian’s and Yang’s works. As Ackbar Abbas has argued, cosmopolitan practice should no longer be “simply a matter of behaving well or even of an openness to otherness. … not … a universalist arbiter of value, but … an arbitrageur/ arbitrageuse. This is arbitrage with a difference” (2002: 226). Rather than striving to emulate putative universals, Qian and Yang made use of them to engender productive differences and incorporate them into their society under authoritarian restrictions. As readers or critics this should inspire us to articulate the kinds of differences Qian’s and Yang’s cultural arbitrage brings about, rather than assessing their degree of openness toward foreign ideas and discourses. Most chapters from this volume indeed identify what those differences are, demonstrating how Yang’s and Qian’s literary and critical practices produced a new cultural dimension of cosmopolitan. China’s Literary Cosmopolitanism will be an indispensable text for scholars seeking to investigate the relationship between the provincial and the cosmopolitan, the particular and the universal, literature and politics, and the nation and the world.

Inhye Han
Humanities Korea Research Professor
Ewha Womans University


Abbas, Ackbar. 2002. “Cosmopolitan de-scriptions: Shanghai and Hong Kong.” In Carol Breckenridge, ed., Cosmopolitanism. Durham: Duke University Press, 209-228.

Karatani Kojin. 1998. “Uses of Aesthetics: After Orientalism.” Boundary 2 25 (2): 145-160.

Bhabha, Homi, Carol Breckenridge, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Sheldon Pollock. 2002. “Cosmopolitanisms.” In Cosmopolitanism, edited by Carol Breckenridge, 1-14. Durham: Duke University Press.

Breckenridge, Carol, ed. 2002. Cosmopolitanism. Durham: Duke University Press.


[1] Karatani 1998, 148—149

[2] Translated as Limited Views (管錐編, literally, “tube and awl collection”).