Debating the Socialist Legacy
and Capitalist Globalization in China

Edited by Xueping Zhong and Ban Wang

Reviewed by Jie Lu
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2015)

Xueping Zhong and Ban Wang, eds. Debating the Socialist Legacy And Capitalist Globalization in China. Palgrave Macmillan 2014. 287 pp. ISBN: 978-1-137-02076-5 (Hardback: $100)

Xueping Zhong and Ban Wang, eds. Debating the Socialist Legacy And Capitalist Globalization in China. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 287 pp. ISBN: 978-1-137-02076-5 (Hardback: $100)

Debating the Socialist Legacy and Capitalist Globalization in China, an anthology edited by Xueping Zhong and Ban Wang, is an important contribution to the recent debates on socialist idealism and socialist culture and praxis in a postsocialist and post-revolutionary age marked by capitalist globalization. The attention to the socialist legacy, initiated by the Chinese “New Left” intellectuals in debates with Neoliberals, brings to light the profound contradictions and ambiguities embedded in contemporary Chinese socioeconomic conditions. Re-engaging socialist cultural texts, the editors and contributors—all prominent intellectual figures or leading New Left thinkers from China—undertake a critique of contemporary society and the cultural industry. Grouped into four sections, the fourteen chapters and introduction demonstrate with great intellectual depth and rigor the importance of further inquiry into the Chinese predicament.

Asking “Why does socialist culture matter today?” the editors call for a vigorous engagement with the socialist past as “a real force of critique and contestation as well as a source of aspiration” (3). They reject the argument that all that the past contains is reified images and mummified relics. Drawing on Benjamin’s materialist approach to history as a critical epistemology or an alternative way of life, the editors demonstrate, in their critical reading of the film The Piano Made of Iron (钢的琴), how a socialist critique of cultural production can be used as a counter discourse. For them, the film provides a glimpse into an idealized socialist world characterized by respect for human dignity, the nurturing support of collective life, and a fulfilling work environment. The film’s vision of socialist society, it is argued, thus presents viewers with a contrast to and critique of the human alienation, moral degeneration, and industrial wasteland that are the result of the relentless market mechanisms and developmentalism associated with capitalism. The editors’ interpretation of The Piano Made of Iron thus aligns them and the volume with the critical concerns of the New Left and its response to Chinese social problems.

The four main sections of the book are titled, respectively: “Rethinking Socialism, Literature, and Culture,” “Critical Reflection on Literature and Culture since the Reform,” “Debating the Rise of ‘New Left’ Culture and ‘Subaltern Literature’ in the Reform Era,” and “People’s Literature and Culture: From Past to Future.” The contributions range from an analysis of literary and cultural texts produced during the socialist era to an investigation of recent New Left literature and critiques. Thus the volume presents a broad overview of how the socialist legacy continues to inform and inspire our understanding of contemporary China.

The reexamination of socialist cultural texts from different critical perspectives in part one opens with Luo Gang and Li Yun’s co-written essay, “Shanghai as a Socialist City and Spatial Reproduction,” which discusses urban development in Shanghai in the 1950s and 1960s. This part of the socialist history of modernization has been neglected and almost forgotten in the recent surge of nostalgic writings about colonial and cosmopolitan Shanghai. Luo and Li highlight how urban renewal built much of the infrastructure of Shanghai and raised the social status and living standard of the working class. Their study not only documents the achievements of massive urban construction during socialist modernization (as well as the socialist ideas embodied in newly-constructed urban spaces), it also fills an important historical gap. A narrowed focus on Shanghai’s transition from a city of production to one of consumption in recent decades has led nostalgic writers to skip the socialist period, leading to an incomplete history of urban development in Shanghai. Luo’s and Li’s essay restores and defends the socialist contribution to the contemporary history of Shanghai, rather than treating it as an isolated and irrelevant aberration in the city’s march toward global modernity.

The next chapter, “One Village and One Novel: Revisiting Wenquantun Village,” by He Jixian and Lu Taiguang, traces the changes in Wenquantun village since Ding Ling used the village as the setting of her 1948 novel The Sun Shines over Sanggan River (太阳照在桑干河上). They reconstruct Wenquantun’s history from the past to the present, based on Ding’s novel, village records, and the memories of residents, as well as their own personal observations of production, life, and events that have transpired in the village over the past sixty years. He and Lu paint a broad historical picture of rural transformation since the beginning of land reform (circa 1946). Their intertextual references bring out the complexities of Ding’s novel as well as the multilayered temporal and spatial factors comprising the village’s current situation. They thus rewrite the socialist past into the present, narrating a more complex, albeit less coherent, history of the village’s development.

The next chapter, “Gender Politics and the Crisis of Socialist Aesthetics: The ‘Room’ in Woman Basketball No. 5,” by Mao Jian, finds the beginning of a new socialist aesthetics in films of the 1950s. While the root of Ding Ling’s perplexity was the conflict between the realist imperative and the political requirements demanded of her and other writers, Mao Jian finds a similar conflict to be manifested in the aesthetics implicit in this film. What disrupts and distracts viewers from the socialist aesthetics of the film is the cinematic tradition of old Shanghai, a tradition that is inadequate for representing the new socialist reality. Mao finds that the director, Xie Jin, deals with this dilemma by employing a method of being “crude with a little charm,” an aesthetic strategy that negotiates between the two aesthetic traditions. In the process, Mao argues, Xie Jin develops an important methodology for working around realism and visual realism. What is created, then, is perhaps, a new socialist aesthetics.

The last chapter of the section, Cai Xiang’s “The Crisis of Socialism and Efforts to Overcome It,” was originally the conclusion to his book Revolution/Narration. It is a theoretical summary of five major contradictions and the ways to overcome crises in both the socialist era and the 1980s. Avoiding both demonizing and idealizing socialism, Cai carefully examines PRC socialism in conjunction with the circumstances of the 1980s. Cai concludes that socialist contradictions were produced by a structural conflict between revolutionary ideals and socialist modernization/industrialization. During the Mao era, the reliance on such ideals as the orthodox Marxist version of class struggle to address socio-economic contradictions only obscured the real complexities of socialism in China. In the 1980s, class struggle and other Maoist revolutionary ideals were supplanted by westernization, which was too heavily relied upon to address China’s socioeconomic problems. Westernization, Cai argues, proved to be effective in some ways but had many negative consequences. In conclusion, Cai calls for keeping socialism as an “ideal” that aims at “liberating labor and the working class from the condition of alienation” (105).

The second section of the book provides critical reflection on literature since the era of reforms under Deng Xiaoping. “Mythification of the Reform-Era History: A Sociohistorical Analysis of the Avant-Garde Literature” by Liu Fusheng and “Genealogy and Ideology of the Avant-Garde Fiction,” by He Guimei, both reevaluate Avant-Garde literature in the context of the 1980s. Liu sees the intellectual, thematic, and representational contradictions in Avant-Garde literature as expressing both an ambiguous social mood and the sense of an historical rupture in the first decade of the reform era, while uncannily anticipating “China’s modern crisis” (115).

However, for both authors, the Avant-Garde’s excessive formal self-indulgence in negating history and human agency made it incapable of representing existential reality. For He, the Avant-Garde’s formal revolution, its negation of realism, its rebellion against “linguistic order,” and its efforts to merge with twentieth-century world literature, created a “pure literature” that severed “the tie between literature and social reality” (134). Thus, their antirealism resulted in a de-ideologized literature. For this reader, the risk of Liu’s and He’s critiques is a downplaying of the importance of the Avant-Garde, which helped to unleash the imaginative power of language and form and contributed greatly to the pluralism and diversity found in contemporary Chinese literature.

“Eight Key Terms in Literary Criticism” by Cao Zhenglu, a major representative of New Left literature, examines contemporary Chinese literary criticism across eight dimensions. As with the previous essays on Avant-Garde literature, Cao focuses on “depoliticization,” lack of “truth-content,” and an exaggerated stress on formal value in his criticism of pure literature. Cao’s vehement attack, however, is prone to over generalization and stereotyping. For instance, in critiquing “individuality,” he claims that the “pure-literature bandwagon is concerned now only with sex…” In Cao’s defense, his essay presents the New Left position in broad terms, and allows one to better understand his own fictional works.

The next chapter, “Enjoyment: A New Experiment on Surrealist Writing,” is a conversation between Li Tuo and Yan Lianke on Yan’s novel Enjoyment (受活). Li expresses great concern over literary indifference to workers and peasants and the retreat from realism represented by pure literature. He does not, however, deny the value of artistic experimentation as manifested in Yan Lianke’s use of surrealism, and agrees with Yan that surrealism can help “to approach the core of reality” (156).

The first two chapters in Section III discuss the emergence of “subaltern literature” in contemporary China. Li Yunlei, in “The Rise of ‘Subaltern Literature’ in the Twenty-First Century,” discusses several critical issues, including how to establish and define the subjectivity of subalterns (those deprived of political and economic power) and appropriate strategies for opposing such disenfranchisement. For Li, in addition to concrete social and economic conditions, it is the “new ideology” promoting such values as the myth of success, self-interest, and aspiration to elite life that helps to create and maintain China’s subalterns while consolidating the hegemony of the ruling class; the new ideological discourse should therefore be made the target of opposition. Nan Fan’s “A Difficult Breakthrough: On Representing Subaltern Experiences” addresses themes raised by Li, while also posing a particularly complex question similar—but not identical—to that first posed by Gayatri Spivak: who can represent the subaltern? For Nan, subsequent questions must be appended: can subalterns be represented by the Other?; do they want to read literature about themselves?; can they be the subject of history?; and, what is the best literary/cultural form to express subaltern experiences? Positioning himself against essentialist views, Nan provides a nuanced and constructive argument for the constitution of subaltern experiences and subaltern subjectivity via comparison, dialogue, and interaction with other social classes (198).

Huang Jisu’s “Che Guevara: Notes on the Play, Its Production, and Reception,” the last chapter in this section, explains the purpose behind producing Che Guevara (切格瓦拉), presents notes on its staging, and summarizes audience responses. Although the play tends to simplify the tension between social justice and injustice in terms of socialism versus capitalism, it has moved and inspired audiences. The public debates and critical attention documented by Huang show that socialist idealism can still be very constructive in generating discussions about current problems in the Chinese socialist system.

Section IV of the volume features three articles contrasting “people’s literature” (presented as a key attribute of socialist literature) to “humanistic literature.” He Jixian’s article, “The White-Haired Girl: Limitations and Potentials of the New Interpretation,” argues that revolutionary art and literature as well as socialist revolution are integral parts of Chinese modernity. The central concern of both is the construction of a new nation-state. Through an analysis of how this folk play was adapted so that its lyrics and music became a revolutionary classic, He points out that its purpose was to transform the masses into modern historical subjects—subjects of the new nation state. Here the “people” in the historical context of the play refers to the peasants who in Mao’s theory and praxis were the main force of the revolution. While highlighting the modernity embedded in revolutionary art and literature, He also historicizes the concept of “people,” demonstrating how it refers to specific groups of people in a specific historical context.

Zhang Hong’s “Subjective Identity, Revolutionary Consciousness, and People’s Literature: Zhang Chengzhi and His Literature in the New Era,” discusses the changes in Zhang Chengzhi’s work from the construction of the “mega human,” to the “pure spirit” of revolution, to identification with the “people,” and to his eventual return to leftwing literature. The essay argues that “the people’s aesthetics” constitutes the core of leftwing literature, broadly, and revolutionary literature, more specifically. In the context of Zhang’s novels, the “people” refers to the subaltern —”the masses who live at the bottom of the society” (250). Kuang Xinnian, in his “People’s Literature, An Unfinished Historical Project,” continues this line of inquiry by tracing the historical development of “people’s literature” in twentieth-century Chinese literature, and concludes that it remains “an unfinished historical construction” (269).

In sum, the essays in Debating the Socialist Legacy and Capitalist Globalization in China enjoin readers to further ponder the imposing and in many cases urgent challenges of rethinking socialism in the post-revolutionary age, rethinking how we might “expand” socialism and “revise” its key values and praxis. However, we should envision this project not so much as an accommodation of socialism to current experiential and social realities, but rather as an integration of socialism into the contemporary course of China’s historical development that could result in a reorienting of that very course. Although China’s socialist legacy is today often only encountered in official discourse, in the final analysis, socialism is still an integral component of China’s institutionalized political system and social structure. To highlight but one crucial issue addressed in a number of the essays (and underscored in the final section), how might key socialist concepts be redefined and reimagined in the present? For example, in the case of that crucial term, “the people,” should it be broadened or otherwise altered to more accurately reflect contemporary socioeconomic realities, to make it more inclusive and less divisive, or should it be narrowed to specifically indicate subalterns/peasants/workers in contemporary China? This is but one of the daunting but pressing issues raised by the essays in this timely and engaging volume.

Jie Lu
University of the Pacific