Tales of Futures Past: Anticipation and
the Ends of Literature in Contemporary China

By Paola Iovene

Reviewed by Nathaniel Kenneth Isaacson
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December 2014)


Paola Iovene. Tales of Futures Past: Anticipation and the Ends of Literature in Contemporary China. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 225 pp. Contents; Acknowledgements; Appendix One: Literary Periodicals for Internal Distribution; Appendix Two: Poems by Li Shangyin; List of Chinese Characters; Notes; Bibliography; Index. ISBN: 9780804789370 (Cloth) $45.00

Paola Iovene.  Tales of Futures Past: Anticipation and the Ends of Literature in Contemporary China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. 225 pp. ISBN: 9780804789370 (Cloth) $45.00

The central argument of Paola Iovene’s Tales of Futures Past is that anticipation and destination are significant aspects of modern Chinese cultural production, spanning a number of genres and media. Iovene contends that “twentieth-century Chinese literature imaginatively reconfigures and is institutionally shaped by two different though related notions of the future: the first is understood as a “destination,” a condition of higher perfection, a time and place that is better than the present; the second as “anticipation,” the expectations that permeate life as it unfolds.” (3). Destination is planned, hegemonic, and the result of dialectical materialism, whereas anticipation is affective, subjective, and humanistic. Noting that (attaining and aspiring to) destination has been undermined by the apparent failure of neoliberal economic relations to guarantee economic security on a global scale, and that the failures of utopianism and modernism have transformed the future into an ever-fading teleological destination, the author devotes the majority of her study to anticipation.

This book is unique in accounting for the future as something more complex than teleological progress or the result of utopian nation building project. Beyond functioning as a mere abstract psychological orientation toward a prospective chronological horizon, Iovene argues that the future is indeed already present in modern Chinese literature, constituting a significant dimension of contemporary cultural production. That contemporary presence of the future manifests itself in three ways: first, it shapes questions and expectations of political and social practice; second, these expectations also shape academic analysis, playing a critical role in the scholarship and in marking what merits academic attention; third, the anticipation of the future operates as an active, affective orientation with a biological component—our anticipation of the future affects our lives at a cellular level. In a certain sense, whereas Marx turned Hegel on his head by demonstrating the ways in which the material world shapes human consciousness, Iovene turns Marx’s dialectical materialism on its head, suggesting that the present is not merely a synthesis of past antitheses, but that the present and the future are in dialectal interaction with one another as well.

Acknowledging that “anticipation is an inherently plural concept” (4), Iovene demonstrates the value of this mode of interrogation across a wide range of texts and practices. The bulk of her analysis illustrates the ways in which expectations for the future have informed contemporary Chinese literary production at the institutional level, at the level of textual meaning, and in terms of reader strategies and affective responses. Iovene demonstrates how anticipation functions in a spectrum of socio-economic and textual aspects of literary production. Drawing upon Sheldon Pollock’s “literary culture” (2003) and Michel Hockx’s study of literary production in early twentieth century China as a historically grounded range of “practices of writing” (1999; 2003), Iovene defines literature in similarly broad terms in order to examine the influence of anticipation in canon formation and literary historiography. This definition rejects literature as a distinct category, understanding it instead as a range of cultural practices, including institutions of production, personal experiences of reading, and modes of textual representation. In the vein of Jonathan Culler’s The Literary in Theory (2007), Iovene argues that literary practices express an openness to the other, suggesting that looking toward the future is one mode of looking toward the other. Finally, Iovene’s incorporation of Rita Felski’s examination of readerly modes of engagement with literary texts suggests an interest in readers’ affective interactions with texts.

Chapters 1-3 focus primarily on editorial and authorial considerations in cultural production, while chapters four and five present close readings of texts featuring self-reflexive depictions of the functions of literary production and the experience of reading. One major strength of this study is its diversity of subject matter and methodological breadth, which, while demonstrating the  utility of anticipation as a mode of scholarly inquiry, also makes this study a pleasure to read. Iovene analyzes texts and institutions, and she describes reader experiences in contemporary China. The texts include science fiction and popular science journals, avant-garde fiction, children’s fiction, cinema, and novels. Her analyses are in many cases the first English-language scholarly treatments of these texts.

Chapter 1 is an examination of representations of technological futurity in literature and cinema and how Chinese authors shared visions of the future with Eastern bloc nations. Through a wide range of literary forms and genres, Iovene summarizes the major developments in vernacular science writing of the twentieth century, paying particular attention to scientific genres, among them socialist-realist cinematic depictions of the immediate future, juvenile fiction’s depictions of the distant future, predictions for coming material and social changes appearing in popular science journals, and a number of science fiction stories. Woven throughout this exploration of speculative-science writing is an examination of the tensions inherent in the socialist valuation of manual and mental labor and the utopian vision of the elimination of manual labor. Iovene argues that one of the functions of re-emergent science fiction of the post-Mao era was to reimagine the contradictions between physical and intellectual labor. In Tong Enzheng’s (童恩正 1935-1997) “Death Ray on a Coral Island” (珊瑚岛上的死光) and in Wei Yahua’s (魏雅华 1949- ) “Dream of Tender Bliss” (温柔之乡的梦), “I Decided to Divorce My Robot Wife” (我决定和机器人妻子离婚), and “The Sleepwalker” (梦游者), Iovene identifies affective (intellectual) labor and reproductive (physical) labor as both gendered and marked by class distinctions. The chapter closes with a brief description of the institutional changes that science/speculative fiction underwent in the aftermath of the campaign against Spiritual Pollution of 1983.

Alongside analysis of debates concerning the ideal role of the translator, Chapter 2 discusses the practices and commentaries of editorial staff at a number of prominent translation journals of the 1950s and 1960s, and examines the process through which works were selected for translation. Iovene presents translation during this period as an “anticipatory practice,” where editors and authors sketched out an alternative vision for global literary valuation, attempting to predict and to shape a socialist atlas of world literature—one that subverted the centrality of Western European and North American authors (79). Translating texts from a number of countries, especially socialist states, contributed to constructing a vision of China’s solidarity with polities that were “advancing rapidly towards the future” (ibid). Particularly fascinating is an account of the process by which works were translated and circulated internally. The system of internal circulation helped editorial teams coordinate their efforts and ensure quality, and to share potentially politically sensitive material. Occasionally, certain works appeared in Chinese translation before they had been translated into other languages, indicating editors’ familiarity with critical and creative trends in literature throughout the world and an ability to presage literary developments in a number of contexts. Iovene cites the decision in 1960 to translate Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (1957) into Chinese as one example of the ways in which even the “closed” cultural landscape of the Mao era was more open than previously thought to be. These editorial commentaries and practices evince both a desire to see the socialist world as a literary vanguard and the local perception on the part of editors and critics that China and its socialist cohort were literary laggards (despite their awareness of contemporary trends in Western literature). Iovene rightly suggests that developments such as this have the potential to contribute to a rethinking of the uneven relationship between literary center and periphery mapped out in Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters (2004).

Chapter 3 describes how expectations regarding the role to be played by re-emerging genres of popular literature shaped the post-Mao publication industry, especially in the emergence and prominence of avant-garde authors like Yu Hua 余华 and Can Xue 残雪. In categories of writing they deemed to be timely, editors and state literary institutions worked to quicken the pace of publication, to develop the talent of young authors through writers’ workshops and sponsorships, to “de-provincialize” authors by incorporating them (and by extension, their writing) into city life, and to valorize their visions of the literary future through literary prizes and special issues. At the same time that some authors were groomed for the literary limelight, the publication of other authors’ works was occasionally postponed in order to continue to focus critical attention on certain genres. Iovene argues that, ultimately, editors more than anyone else shaped the emergence of the avant-garde in the post-Mao era, and that they played an active role in canonizing the avant-garde at “the very moment of its formation” (103), demonstrating the ways in which both institutional settings and personal connections within those institutions plotted a course for the literary trends of the mid-to-late 1980s.

In Chapter 4, fictional depictions of poetry reading and rewriting are used to compare the rhetoric of futurism in the literary landscape of the 1980s with themes of temporal recursion in short stories and novellas. Iovene demonstrates how the work of late Tang poet Li Shangyin (李商隐 813-858), especially his ambiguous “misty” poems in which he imagines a future self looking back on an unpleasant present as a past moment, figures prominently in stories by Wang Meng (王蒙 1934- ) and Ge Fei (格非 1964- ), and in Wang Meng’s essays on Li Shangyin. Iovene identifies in Ge Fei’s work moments of the “anticipation of retrospection,” the notion that the future moment of reminiscence and the state of anticipation in the present set off a paradox of affect through which both acts taint one another (107-126). The “misty” quality of Li Shangyin drawn upon by Wang Meng and Ge Fei is an strange loop (see below) through which anticipation of a future moment mediates the experience of the present, and past anticipation mediates the experience of the future moment as it becomes the present. In Ge Fei’s Brocade Zither (锦瑟) the recursive layers of dreams within dreams function like a set of Russian matryoshka dolls where the smallest doll in the set paradoxically contains the largest doll. Iovene compares this to Gerard Genette’s “metalepsis” —an intentional violation of narrative frames that upsets the distinctions between the subject and object of imagination.

Observing the role of atmospheric symbolism in political and literary discourse in modern China (e.g. “misty” poetry), Iovene presents in chapter 5 a close reading of fog as a metaphor for various forms of toxicity—shame, sacrifice, surplus, and crime (136)—in Ge Fei’s End of Spring in Jiangnan (江南三部曲). Whereas socialist planning attempted to re-shape human life at the biological level by shaping individuals into a healthy body-politic, Iovene argues that Ge Fei’s novel is an examination of the ways in which post-Maoist capitalism both “saturates and erodes everything that keeps humans alive” (142). The author uses the term “pulviscular prose” to describe Ge Fei’s use of fog as an agent of contamination as well as a medium by which contagion becomes visible. Ge Fei’s fog obscures the past at the same time as it acts as a visible manifestation of shame and a medium that breaks down boundaries, both between individuals and between individuals and objects. The novel weaves back and forth between past and present as the characters obsessively fill in details of the past, though their retrospection fails to bring clarity in the present. Iovene argues that the novel’s dystopian tone contrasts the differing temporal scales of environmental deterioration (whose effects are not immediately visible) with characters’ bodily deterioration (which they perceive acutely). This is one instance among many of Ge Fei’s use of provisional, and ultimately incommensurate, metaphors as a means of allegorizing the failure to understand connections between human life and one’s economic and natural environment.

While the title indicates that this is a literary study, it is indeed far richer, adopting literature as a central axis to which a number of fascinating insights into contemporary Chinese culture are moored. This study’s diversity of subject matter is a testament to the quality of Iovene’s scholarship, and to the rich analytical potential that her notion of anticipation offers. In the acknowledgments, the author notes that the book is the product of more than a decade’s research, including extensive interviews with prominent authors and editorial staff members, in a number of fields. The text brings new insights to the study of literature as industry; it also views literature as a reflection of geopolitical alignments. All of this is bolstered by brilliant close readings that unravel, for instance, the temporally looping narratives of Wang Meng and Ge Fei. It is a testament to Iovene’s rhetorical talents that she manages to keep what is clearly the result of a monumental research effort so concise and lucid.

At times, though, the simultaneous breadth and concision of the book vexes one. “Anticipation” comes to variously indicate (a) a trend in imaginings of how contradictions of labor will appear in the future; (b) institutional practices and standards, as well as anxieties regarding literary topographies of the cold-war era, all of which informed the practice of translation during the Mao era; (c) a different set of institutional practices, standards, and intellectual engagements with the work of avant-garde authors influencing literary institutions (namely publishing houses) in the post-Mao era; (d) a recursive motif that confounds the affective untangling of past, present, and future; (e) a sense of despair in the postsocialist era, figured through atmospheric metaphors. In her defense, Iovene’s work has taken up Franco Moretti’s call for “distant reading,” in part by “defin[ing] a unit of analysis . . . and then follow[ing] its metamorphoses in a variety of environments.”[1] However, while this interpretive dynamism is radically refreshing—the book never runs out of material or modes of reading—one can’t help but wonder if the polysemous nature of anticipation violates some Platonic notion of a thesis as a carefully constrained central argument.

Likewise, Iovene is virtuosic in engaging with literature both as cultural medium and as textual communication, but the book would have benefited from demonstrating more of the isomorphisms between the two, and, at times, from closer reading. From chapter to chapter the analysis moves from one aspect of the system of cultural production to another. On the one hand, the analysis of the culture and practice of translation in Chapter 2 engages in Moretti’s “distant reading,” analyzing literature at the level of genre and system, allowing reflection upon “the relationship between markets and forms” (Moretti 57). On the other hand, chapters 4 and 5 opt for close readings, while the survey of depictions of the future in Chapter 1 hovers between close and distant reading. The author uses Douglas Hofstadter’s concept of the strange loop described in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979), to explain the ways that distinctions between past and present, internal and external function in the imbedded narrative structures of Ge Fei’s Brocade Zither. This includes a brief but fascinating summary of the impact that the translation of Hofstadter’s work had on the Chinese cultural scene in the mid-1980s. Iovene notes that philosophy of mathematics scholar Zheng Yuxin (郑毓信 1944- ) saw Gödel’s work as significant in revealing the continuities that exist between cultural, scientific, and natural realms that appear distinct from one another (128). To some extent, Iovene’s work serves a similar function—demonstrating the ways in which a perspective at one given level in the literary system as a whole may speak to other levels, but cannot speak for the system in its entirety. Perhaps, to mangle Ossini-Rosenberg’s critique of Mozart, uttered obsequiously into the ear of the emperor (in Milos Forman’s film anyway), one can offer no better critique than to quip “too few notes,” for there were many moments when I would have liked to hear more of what the author has to say on a particular phenomenon or author, especially in terms of demonstrating how different “levels” of the literary system correspond to one another. For example, in her account of how authors like Yu Hua were the subjects of campaigns to actively develop and promote their work by the publishing industry, Iovene overturns the widely-held notion that the avant-garde was an unanticipated development in the literary world. The question of how one might re-read a story like Yu Hua’s “On the Road at Eighteen” in light of the revelation that literary journals actively cultivated such work is left open. Moretti acknowledges that if “we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something” (57), but being denied the opportunity to be edified and engaged by Iovene’s potential re-readings of these texts is a palpable loss.

Tales of Futures Past is an admirably original contribution to the field of Chinese studies, Cultural/Media Studies, and Comparative literature, offering a refreshing take on the relationship between time and literature. It is my hope that more studies will open themselves up to engaging the field of cultural production with a similar heuristic and thematic breadth.   

Nathaniel Kenneth Isaacson
North Carolina State University


[1] Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1 (Jan. – Feb., 2000): 54-68.