Telling Details:
Chinese Fiction, World Literature

By Jiwei Xiao

Reviewed by Paola Iovene

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2023)

Jiwei Xiao. Telling Details: Chinese Fiction, World Literature New York: Routledge, 2022, xiv + 212 pp. ISBN: 9781032197852 (cloth).

Telling Details reassesses the contours of Chinese literary modernity by excavating the “novel of details” 細節小說: not a genre, but a “literary phenomenon” (2) in which details “become the drivers of the novel, decentering the plot and forming the core interest of the text” (1). The novel of details, the book argues, emerged in late sixteenth-century China and constitutes one of the earliest manifestations of the modern novel worldwide. By mingling “high and low forms” (1), consistently engaging sensuous experience, and adopting an episodic form in which “waves of interlinked mini scenes advance the storytelling” (2), the novel of details offers, in Xiao’s view, China’s most remarkable contribution to world literature, continuing to shape Chinese fiction to this day. Telling Details reinvigorates the practice of literary criticism by offering imaginative “slow readings” informed by the author’s passion for cinema and guided by her literary sensibility. The book unsettles dichotomies of realism and modernism, lyrical and narrative, and sheds new light on a remarkable range of issues, authors, and texts.

Xiao is not the first to advance a “China-centered” origin of literary modernity coinciding with the rise of commercialism in the late Ming—Telling Details draws on ideas proposed by Zhou Zuoren 周作人, Li Zehou 李澤厚, and Andrew Plaks, among others whom Xiao cites. But her book may well be the first to tease out continuities within the novel, a genre that has been considered as the one most profoundly transformed by western imports. China, Xiao implies, did not have to wait for certain literary forms to arrive from elsewhere and subsequently be transformed and localized through processes of translation. Building on the premise that the late Ming (ca. sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries AD) was fully integrated in the early modern global economic sphere, the book explores how the Chinese novel has responded to successive waves of commercialization and modernization and to ever-expanding forms of capitalism, from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. The detail, in the author’s view, contains the key to unlocking the interaction between the local and the global, the textual and the social, and between the novel and other genres such as the essay. Tackling socioeconomic changes that are specific to China as much as they are global, the novel of details offers a critique of the hegemony of the sense of vision that resulted from such changes. It is their critical engagement with the problematic of seeing, Xiao argues, that most contributes to the modernity of late Ming works, such as the novel Jin Ping Mei (金瓶梅, The plum in the golden vase) and the essays of Zhang Dai 張岱. These writings form the fountainhead of a literary stream that, after having intermittently dried up or gone underground, springs up in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to irrigate the terrain of contemporary Chinese fiction.

As suggested by the subtitle, “world literature” constitutes a key concept of the book. While the book’s focus is on how the Chinese novel of details responds to its local socioeconomic context, translation is mostly invoked as a vehicle that can help bring the works under discussion to the attention of broader audiences. Telling Details combines David Damrosch’s proposition of world literature as a mode of reading based on translation with Martin Kern’s emphasis on “a mode of creative composition” characterized by a radical alterity from the tradition from which a work emerges: “works that speak beyond their ‘culture of origin’ (Damrosch) because they were never confined to that culture in the first place” (Kern 11-12). While occasionally falling back on a model of world literature as a canon in need of expansion, the book advances its own concept of a worldly Chinese literature, if not of world literature at large, as a practice of comparative reading that hinges on the literary detail so as to “resituate Chinese literature in larger literary and cultural contexts” (5). Although crediting Frederic Jameson’s much-debated concept of “national allegory” (1986) with offering “a new way of introducing third-world texts into the canon of world literature” that shifted “the criterion from (modern) aesthetic innovativeness to ‘political resonance,’” Xiao challenges Jameson’s claim about the third-world novel’s radical difference from “the (Western modernist) canon” (27). It is this alleged incommensurability and supposed lack of aesthetic appeal that Telling Details aims to disprove by showing how a certain use of the literary detail makes Chinese fiction both aesthetically innovative and worldly. Neither uniquely Chinese nor flatly universal, the poetics of detail allows Chinese literature to contribute to global literary modernity in its own specific ways.

What, then, is a detail? What makes a detail “telling,” and how can it offer a method for thinking and seeing, as the book contends? Engaging a wide range of scholars from François Jullien to Naomi Schor and Roland Barthes, the Introduction and Part One of the book (comprising pages 1-9 and 11-41, respectively, neither designated as a chapter) offer an array of propositions addressing aspects of the detail, which are then tested and expanded through the textual analyses performed in chapters 1-6, constituting Part Two. A flickering presence only perceived upon rereading, the detail “becomes telling when its presence or absence shines a light on what is hidden in the text” (2). A telling detail emerges when the narrative subtly shows something, without explicitly telling us what to make of it. A telling detail may even reveal “the deceptiveness of [the] senses,” and thus “provide[s] not just content, but also a method of critical thinking and a way of seeing” (5). A telling detail is a tear in the text’s surface that lets its historical unconscious shine through (27-28). It opens the text up for transcultural comparison, but may also set the limits for translatability across time and space. “Neither objects nor signs,” details “function as intermediaries to integrate the perceiving subject and the perceived object” (12), allowing writers to “create an indirect, sometimes quite subtle communication with readers” (13). Details can evoke the passage of time, but only if readers take heed of their subtle mutation across chapters. Details thus serve as connecting devices in narratives that may otherwise fray. The material traces of what is left unsaid, they embody an aesthetics of allusiveness and restraint within “a seemingly exhaustive and denotative vernacular fiction” (13), merging the lyrical with the mundane. What differentiates a novel of details from a typical plot-driven novel or an allegorical tale, then, is “its large number of uncommitted details [which] not only decentralize the plot, they also tend to suspend—if not entirely cancel—the moral or ideological message” (16).

The concept of the detail, the book argues, did not occupy a prominent place in traditional Chinese writings on art and literature. Most of Xiao’s book theorizes details inductively, starting from their appearance in literary texts. Xiao reads an intensified use of details as a symptom of decline of old beliefs and systems of knowledge, or as indexes of the crises brought about by commercialization. Details point to what is contingent, uncontrollable, uncertain, and even deceptive. Hence, Xiao tends to herald them as signs of the modern.

The six chapters in the second part substantiate these arguments with insightful readings that resist schematic rehash. Xiao’s writing is evocative and cinematic: she often reads fiction scenes as if they were scenes in a movie, at times even gesturing toward shot-by-shot analysis and speculating on what remains outside of the frame. The first chapter in Part Two, “In the Realm of the Senses: Looking into Jin Ping Mei,” unveils a web of “uncommitted” details in the novel. “Uncommitted” are those details that, exceeding authorial intention and allegorical meaning, make Jin Ping Mei “one of the first, if not the first, modern novels in the world” (46). Building on the work of Sophie Volpp, Andrew Plaks, Tian Xiaofei, and on a study by the writer Ge Fei 格非, the chapter explores how material details shed light on the characters’ psychology, mutable attachments, and relations. Details serve to interweave the physical and the psychological, the erotic and the quotidian. An abundance of sartorial details may signal a shift in focalization, revealing the narrator’s alignment with one character’s point of view. Detail, however, does not solely refer to the myriad objects that populate the narrative, but also to humble characters that remain marginal to the action but whose acts of peeping or eavesdropping serve as a filter for erotic scenes. Departing from scholars who have interpreted such peeping as self-reflective moments mirroring the reading of the novel, Xiao argues that “creating scenes of intruded privacy is not just to enhance voyeuristic effects, but also satisfy a certain inner logic of a realist novel. Accentuating the act of peeping animates characters as desiring beings and as anxious individuals” (63). Peeping reveals the deep “economic-sexual inequities” that undergird the narrative, urging the reader “to look beyond the frame of the scenes, beyond what is presented” (69).

Chapter 2, “Seeing is Remembering: Zhang Dai’s Rhapsodic Texts and Modern Chinese Lyrical Fiction,” continues to wrestle with the problem of seeing by exploring the relation between observation, memory, and imagination in the essays by late Ming writer Zhang Dai, which “presage modern Chinese lyrical fiction that vacillates between essay and novel” (74). In the 1920s and 1930s, writers such as Zhou Zuoren saw the late Ming xiaopin wen 小品文 as a native model for Chinese literary modernity, and singled out Zhang Dai’s Dream Recollections of Tao’an (陶庵夢億, 1664) as the best example of the genre (76). By emphasizing the “perceptual quality” and “formal fluidity” of Zhang’s essays, Xiao complicates assertions of uniqueness but also cautions against easy comparisons to, for instance, Meng Yuanlao’s 孟元老 Dreams of Splendor of the Eastern Capital (東京夢華錄) and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which scholars have proposed in the past. Xiao argues that the details in Zhang’s essays offer “experience, not facts” (80). The author’s direct, “observational mode,” meanwhile, blurs the boundary between the seen and the imagined and conveys a notion of individuality as constituted by the social (89). Weaving together a broad canvas of artistic connections, including those linking the author to the landscape painters of his age, the chapter elucidates how Zhang Dai’s fragmentary writing inspired early twentieth-century Chinese authors of lyrical fiction, including Shen Congwen 沈從文, who is discussed in chapter 5.

Where the preceding two chapters focus on the dynamics of visual perception in seventeenth-century fiction and essays, chapter 3, “Silent Strangers and Strange Silence: The Edge and Center of The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai,” turns to the soundscape of Han Bangqing’s 韓邦慶 late nineteenth-century novel. Xiao argues that the novel’s “poetic realism” resides in its elliptic narrative, its attention to subdued detail, and its focus on humble characters, whose stories “are by no means digressions, comic relief, or side glances, but rather, crucial components of this tremendous novel that has achieved a rare complexity and structural ingenuity as a modern text” (101). The modern, here as in other chapters, coincides with the shunning of didacticism and with a narrative form that is neither merely episodic nor held together by a tight plot, and that requires the reader’s active imagination to work out omissions and gaps. The aural ellipses that punctuate the sonic texture of the novel—the silences and half-spoken words that interrupt conversational scenes in local Wu dialect—reveal, in Xiao’s view, the dilemmas faced by women working in Shanghai’s courtesan houses and the tensions arising from the confrontations with the foreign. The chapter goes on to examine how the novel inspired Eileen Chang’s 張愛玲 portrait of the maidservant Ah Xiao in her story “Steamed Osmanthus Flower: Ah Xiao Laments Autumn” (桂花蒸阿小悲秋). The probing of the characters’ inner lives through material details and the construction of seemingly unrelated quotidian “non-dramatic mini-scenes” (119), Xiao argues, are the main techniques Eileen Chang adapts from Han Bangqing’s novel, which she translated into Mandarin and into English. A short coda discussing Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 侯孝賢 film adaptation, Flowers of Shanghai (海上花), hints at some of the ways in which the film transforms the novel while similarly conveying “a sense of time duration” through the use of the long take (119).

Chapter 4, “Fragments of Time, Fiction of Details,” keeps the focus on Eileen Chang, whose “sensuous, concrete, and polysemic” use of details (125) provided initial inspiration for the book. Also in this chapter, the notion of detail refers to a plurality of features, ranging from everyday items (such as the name of a snack) to atmospheric elements and intertextual allusions. The chapter aims to show that Chang’s autobiographical novel, Little Reunions (小團員), completed in 1976 but published only in 2009, “solidly belongs to world literature for both its astonishing representation of complex social and gender relationships and for its intensely personal explorations of time and memory” (128). Xiao largely agrees with critics who have proposed that Chang’s novel be read through the lens of Edward Said’s notion of “late style,” but clarifies that Chang’s “‘late style’ has less to do with her biological aging than with the fracture that happened at both personal and historical levels” (133). Emerging from the isolation and reclusion of her US exile, Little Reunions unfolds in a non-linear and elliptical fashion as it unravels the protagonist’s recollections of two important figures: her mother and her lover. In contrast to the “soft” language of Chang’s early works (137), Xiao argues, this “late” novel is characterized by a much harsher prose, made of short and subject-less sentences, as “Chang no longer believes in the comforting and affirming power of the aesthetic” (138). But the chapter also calls attention to continuities within Chang’s oeuvre, suggesting that her whole work may be “belated,” in the sense of being “unsettling” (138). It is well known that many of Eileen Chang’s scripts have been turned into films. But instead of focusing on adaptations, the chapter identifies cinematic qualities within Chang’s prose itself: the enigmatic objects that appear at key moments in Little Reunions, such as a bird-like body, have “the shock effect of a cinematic jump cut” (138), while the citations of Hollywood movie scenes convey both irony and the conflict between fantasy and reality. Overall, cinematic details intensify a sense of alienation and displacement.

By focusing on details that bridge the social and the psychological, chapter 5, “From Border Town to the Frontier of the Mind: Shen Congwen’s Passage to the World,” identifies an “aesthetic humanism and universalism” in Shen Congwen’s works. Shen’s writing, Xiao contends, “goes beyond his frontier hometown in West Hunan to the frontier land of the human psyche, yet without really leaving them as separate categories. By . . . combining . . . amoral, depersonalizing long-shot views with close-ups of intimate experience, Shen is able to express his historical insight: whereas the rural China still looks cohesive, even pastoral, from afar, it is already breaking into pieces underneath” (157). One of the techniques Shen Congwen uses to portray his humble characters, Xiao argues, recalls the traditional poetic device of xing 興, in which details from external reality (especially the natural world) are juxtaposed with those referring to human activities in order to generate emotional resonance in the reader. Without resorting to free indirect discourse, such treatment foregrounds the character’s partial inaccessibility. The chapter probes the connections between Shen’s life and his writing, noting how his experience as a soldier in a local warlord army traveling in China’s multiethnic southwest frontier resurfaces in such stories as “Night March” (夜, 1930), whose images of fire Xiao compares with those found in Walter Benjamin’s 1933 review of Arnold Bennet’s The Old Wives’ Tale. The chapter then moves on to the trope of fire in the story “Guisheng” (貴生, 1937), which Xiao puts in dialogue with the crime thriller Burning (2018) by South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, for both share a thematic focus on jealously and socio-economic inequalities, and both feature a failed effort to manage emotions. Shen Congwen’s lyrical writing, in sum, employs details to illuminate “the tension between the lucid and calm textual surface and the riotous stirring inside his characters” (167), a tension that resonates beyond his time and place.

Why certain details fail to translate is the question addressed in the sixth and last chapter, “The ‘Untranslatable’ Novel as World Literature: Jia Pingwa’s Mountains and Seas.” Combining techniques from the vernacular novel of details with those borrowed from Western modernism, Jia “uses details to thicken textuality, to render perceptual objectivity, and to create spatialized interconnectedness and simultaneity” (172). The local detail that transpires from Jia’s writing, however, turns out to be not a vehicle for but rather a barrier to translatability, in a contemporary context where the latter all too often depends on a work’s “political relevance and/or a formal novelty that sync well with a western genre” (173). Jia Pingwa’s 賈平凹 works have in fact been abundantly translated into English, but according to Xiao they have yet to find the broad Anglophone readership they deserve. Interweaving close reading with biographical information drawn from interviews with the author, the chapter discusses several of Jia’s works, including Ruined City (废都, 1993), which was banned for seventeen years, and Shaanxi Opera (秦腔, 2012), whose continuous shift of focalization may partly be inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses, which Jia admires for its effect of spatial simultaneity and cinematic effects (181). Finally, in the epic novel Qin Mountains (山本, 2018), an utterly dark tale set in the early years of the Communist revolution, “precise, multitudinous details can create ambiguity” (186) within a narrative of extreme violence that recalls the Iliad, though without its emphasis on heroism. Jia’s method of “giving equal attention to individuals in a collectivity, to particularities in the larger picture” is compared “with the cinematic technique of using a wide-angle lens to achieve a deep-focus effect” (189). Adapting the conventions of xijie xiaoshuo, Jia Pingwa’s fiction places its characters within a large web of social relations and lacks a well-defined climax or resolution, which can make it “incomprehensible” to some readers. Jia’s “untranslatability,” Xiao claims, “is determined by his unbelonging, by the lack of space and criteria in world literature to accommodate individual writers from non-Western countries such as China, whose literary difference is neither exotic nor polemic, whose aesthetic density and difficulty resist cultural consumption and political-allegorical appropriation” (191).

In reading for the details, we are reminded in the “Afterword,” literary critics can reciprocate the labor that literary authors put into the writing of their works. This mode of “slow reading,” Telling Details contends, allows us to fully appreciate a Chinese non-plot-centered mode of writing that resonates with other modern novels and with “so-called slow cinema” (197). Having “evolved in conjunction with the development of commercialism and materialism in China” (198), the novel of details evokes what is repressed or superseded during times of deep sociohistorical transformation and crisis, and bespeaks the difficulty of trusting one’s perceptions when everything is in flux.

In his controversial Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (2017), Joseph North has criticized Anglo-American literary studies for renouncing the task of cultivating new sensibilities through literary criticism in favor of “the historicist/contextualist paradigm” (North 3), which would selectively use information gained from literary texts to advance historical or contextual knowledge. Without succumbing to North’s dichotomous view, it seems nonetheless fair to say that most Chinese literary scholarship of the past decades falls into the historicist/contextualist camp, not in the sense that it renounces textual analysis (as North would have it) but rather that it undertakes textual analysis in order to assess literature’s role within processes of nation building and its contributions to political movements, most recently in relation to struggles for environmental justice and the rights of minorities. By contrast, in reading for the details rather than for the plot, Xiao primarily aspires to bring to light the aesthetic value of a text; at the same time, reading for the details helps uncover the repressed histories on which the latter is built. As she puts it, “the novel might not give us history per se, . . . but it allows us to see what lurks in the shadow of it” (197). Reading for the details could overall be characterized as a form of literary criticism that dwells on the surface of the text but also seeks to uncover the “unseen.”

Xiao’s work entails a plea for the special insights that literature affords, albeit in conversation with other media, most notably cinema. Her move to read literature through film illuminates how certain authors—Eileen Chang above all—were deeply affected by the rise of the cinematic medium. In some instances, however, the cinematic comparisons seem primarily aimed at making a case for the modern and transcultural appeal of a certain text. Although Xiao’s fascinating exploration of literary details has the potential to inspire larger discussions on the use of details in literature and cinema, her insistence on proving their modernity stands in the way of drawing a more systematic taxonomy of the kinds of details that surface in her chosen texts. While outlining a method of reading that other readers could adopt was most likely never the intended goal of the book, one wonders what kinds of reading it could help produce in a world in which attesting to the modernity of a text ceased to be a critic’s major goal. One difficulty that might arise in taking the book as a model for similar readings, however, is that the definition of the detail becomes increasingly blurred as the book goes on. Details coincide with textual gaps as often as they refer to actual characters and objects. The literary detail ranges from the utterly elusive to the overdetermined, from a slippery and possibly insignificant gesture to the symptom of a “political unconscious,” such as the semicolonial condition of Shanghai in the chapter on Han Bangqing. Following the details often splits the discussion into too many threads. But perhaps this is only to be expected in a book that privileges “uncommitted” details that resist assimilation. Just as the novel of details itself, so does Telling Details meander through a myriad of “interlinked mini scenes” (2).

In its aspiration to reclaim the worldliness and modernity of the works under discussion, Telling Details stops short of subjecting the notions of world literature and the modern on which it rests to further scrutiny, leaving it to the reader to conclude whether these notions themselves are being transformed by the expanded field of transnational and transmedial commonalities that the book itself so perceptively uncovers. Although subjecting these categories to scrutiny may not fall within the book’s explicit agenda, one question could be pressed further: what does reading for the details contribute to current theorizations of World Literature, in addition to potentially enlarging its purview? At its best, reading for the details enacts a concept of World Literature that is neither a canon of works nor a vaguely defined “problem,” but rather an act of comparison that keeps unfolding and to which any reader willing and able to read slowly may contribute. This could afford a more open-ended and capacious notion of World Literature, were it not for the fact that reading for the details as practiced in these pages is not exactly open-ended. The rejection of didacticism, the privileging of form over message, the foregrounding of individual perception, the emphasis on aesthetic ambiguity at the expense of moral clarity and on the use of ellipsis as a suggestive device urging the reader to attend to the unsaid—all the characteristics shared by the texts discussed in these pages—are after all at the core of modernism. For sure, Telling Details understands modernism as a global, plural, and locally inflected phenomenon: the self that emerges from the Chinese texts under discussion, for instance, is restrained but not aloof, oriented toward interiority yet intimately imbricated within a conflictual and unequal social world, and filtered through individual perspectives that are less isolated and less alienated than their western counterparts. Elements of social realism are, meanwhile, also valorized: the book proposes a vision of Chinese literary modernity that blurs conventional notions of modernism and realism. My point, therefore, is not to find faults with Xiao’s project of reclaiming the worldliness of the Chinese novel of details, but rather to ask why modernist criteria (however locally tweaked and socially inflected) should still shape our concepts of World Literature, our investigations of the modern, and our attributions of literary value. Along the lines of Benedetto Croce’s “Why we cannot help calling ourselves Christians,” we should perhaps ask ourselves why “we cannot help calling ourselves modernists,” for, it seems that, whenever we foreground the aesthetic value of a text, we invariably default to well-established modernist benchmarks.

Finally, thinking with, rather than against the grain, of Xiao’s aesthetic criteria to further the implications of her book, I wonder if it really makes sense to lament that Jia Pingwa has not achieved global renown, or if we should rather ask ourselves why we are bothered that he has not? Martin Kern’s discussion of World Literature, on which the book partly relies, identifies an “antagonism between World and Global Literature.” The first “thrives on alterity, non-commensurability, and non-identity” (Kern 8) and “resists assimilation, naturalization, and integration into any cultural horizon, including that of [its] own culture and literary world of origin” (13), whereas “Global Literature does the opposite: it enforces identity and conformity under a single, market-driven hegemony, erases difference, and appropriates the Other for the Self not in an experience of otherness but in, and for, one of sameness” (8). The “aesthetic density and difficulty” characterizing Jia’s rich use of detail (Xiao 191) seems precisely to resist assimilation, naturalization, and integration—not just in translation but also in the author’s place of origin. As such, his work can be said to partake in the sphere of World Literature, independently of whether it has a large foreign readership or not. One of the many remarkable contributions of Telling Details, in sum, is that it offers the critical tools to productively respond to the complaint that certain Chinese authors have yet to reach “global” status by showing that they have been part of World Literature all along.

Uniquely bridging the fields of Late Imperial and Modern and Contemporary Chinese Literary Studies, Telling Details should become required reading in graduate classes on Chinese literary modernity, and select chapters could be assigned in undergraduate classes along with selections from primary texts.

Paola Iovene
University of Chicago

Works Cited:

Kern, Martin. “Ends and Beginnings of World Literature.” Poetica 49 (2017/18): 1-31.

North, Joseph. Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.