A Cultural History of Modern Chinese Literature

By Wu Fuhui
Translated by Rui (Myra) Ma

Reviewed by Tom Moran
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2024)

Wu Fuhui, A Cultural History of Modern Chinese Literature. Translated by Rui (Myra) Ma and with Introduction by David Der-wei Wang. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. xliv + 813 pp. ISBN: 9781107069497 (hardback).

An Illustrated History of the Development of Modern Chinese Literature (插图本中国现代文学发展史), published in 2010 by Peking University Press, is the culmination of the life’s work of Wu Fuhui 吴福辉, who died January 15, 2021. The Cambridge University Press 2020 English translation by Myra Ma, titled A Cultural History of Modern Chinese Literature (hereafter, History), is the subject of this review. The 813-page translation follows the 480-page original exactly; paragraphs break in the same places in both books, and all the footnotes in the original are in the translation, as are all the illustrations. The English version adds an index, which is unfortunately incomplete, and includes Chinese characters for names and titles on first mention, albeit inconsistently. The translation is an admirable achievement, but to make full use of the English version, one needs to also have read the Chinese original, as I discuss later in a detailed look at the translation itself, which will include attention to citation issues and other matters. I start with a brief biography of the author and then offer my take on his book, which is followed by a chapter-by-chapter su

mmary of the book’s contents. I end by explaining why Wu Fuhui says writing his history was not like playing a record album and not like knitting a sweater, but was like creating a mosaic.

Wu’s conception of “modern Chinese literature” begins in a chapter on 1870s Shanghai, entitled “Wangping Street – Fuzhou Road: The Changing Scene of Chinese Literature” and concludes with the chapter “A Chronicle of Literary Events in the Year 1948 (An Era of Transition).” Even given this approximately seventy-five year parameter, History covers so much and in so much fascinating detail that it is an essential resource for experts and advanced students of modern Chinese literature. It is easily one of the best single-volume English-language references on modern Chinese literature that we have. I anticipate consulting it regularly. The book, it should be cautioned, is for readers who know the history of twentieth-century China and who know at least something about modern Chinese literature.  For example, to fully understand chapter 20, a reader has to already know what the Beiyang government was, who Duan Qirui was, what the Northern Expedition was, what the April 12th and March 18th Incidents were, and what the Shanghai concessions were and why they offered some measure of freedom of expression. The book also assumes readers already have some familiarity with the lives and careers of the more well-known May Fourth writers. This means that the book is not for beginning students or general readers, as does the $211.00 price.

Wu Fuhui was born in 1939 in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. In 1950, Wu’s family moved to Anshan, Liaoning province and, in 1959, Wu graduated from teacher’s college, after which he taught middle school Chinese language arts for almost twenty years. In 1978, at the age of thirty-nine, Wu enrolled at Peking University, where he studied modern Chinese literature with Wang Yao 王瑶 and Yan Jiayan 严家炎, graduating with a Master’s degree in 1981. Among Wu’s classmates in the same 1978 enrolling class—the first after the end of the Cultural Revolution—were Qian Liqun 钱理群and Wen Rumin 温儒敏. In 1987, Qian, Wen, Wu, and Wang Chaobing 王超冰, daughter of Wang Yao, published Thirty Years of Modern Chinese Literature (中国现代文学三十年). The revised edition by Qian, Wen, and Wu was published in 1998. Wu’s other books include a biography of Sha Ting 沙汀 (1990), a collection of critical essays titled Smiling in Shackles (带着枷锁的笑, 1991), Shanghai School Fiction in the Urban Vortex (都市漩流中的海派小说, 1995), and a book of essays on the literatures of Beijing and Shanghai, Travels in Two Cities (游走双城, 2006). In Chen Pingyuan’s 陈平原 view, Wu’s major contribution as a scholar before History was his work on the “Shanghai School” (海派) writers.[1]

Wu was part of the group that worked to create the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature (中国现代文学馆), which opened in 1985 in Beijing’s Wanshou Temple and later relocated to its current Chaoyang location. Wu directed the museum’s research office, edited its journal, Modern Chinese Literary Studies (中国现代文学研究丛刊), and was its deputy director from 1995-1999; reading Wu’s History is indeed like walking in his company through a museum of modern Chinese literature—albeit one that is more copious, accommodating, and eclectic than the brick-and-mortar museum where he worked. Chen Pingyuan wrote that Wu Fuhui “was a born teacher, teaching was his passion” (教书在他是本色当行, 也是兴致所在).[2] Wu’s love of literature and passion for teaching it is on every page of his book. As I read History, I had the sense that while Wu had his favorite authors and texts, he loved it all, all of it, everything from Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai (海上花列传) to Ah Q (阿Q正传), to the work of Ding Ling 丁玲 and Shen Congwen 沈从文, to Zhang Henshui’s 张恨水 novels, to the “comic narrative and description of regional colors” (324) in the fiction of Peng Jiahuang 彭家惶 and other authors of native-soil literature, to Su Qing’s 苏青 fiction and Wu Xinghua’s 吴兴华 poetry, to the martial arts fiction of Xiang Kairan 向恺然 and Huanzhu Louzhu 还珠楼主, and to the work of authors as different as Zhang Ailing 张爱玲 and Zhao Shuli 赵树理.

Thirty Years of Modern Chinese Literature was, David Wang writes in his introduction to the English edition of Wu’s History, “a landmark of the revisionist engagement of modern literary history” (xxxviii). Thirty Years covers the canon from 1917 to 1949 but also—and this is what was new and different—devotes three chapters to the history of “popular literature” (通俗文学), a designation that in the book covers romance, detective fiction, martial arts fiction, and the updated admixture of these genres in the work of Zhang Henshui. Qian, Wen, and Wu created the category “popular and avant-garde” (通俗与先锋) to name the work of Zhang Ailing, Xu Xu 徐訏, Wumingshi 无名氏, and similar writers, and Wu’s willingness to blur boundaries and create in-between categories, while not fetishizing established genres or “schools” or periods is a defining feature of his History.

Wu cites Fan Boqun 范伯群, Yan Jiayan, Chen Sihe 陈思和, and Yang Yi 杨义 as scholars whose views of literary history influenced his own (xxxix). Many of the “popular” (通俗) authors mentioned by name in John Crespi’s MCLC review of Fan’s History of Modern Chinese Popular Literature (中国现代通俗文学史) (2006 in Chinese, 2020 in English) are discussed in Wu Fuhui’s History right alongside Lu Xun 鲁迅 and company. To use Fan’s terms, Wu has written a history of both “elite” (精英) and “popular” (通俗) literature, but these terms do not shape Wu’s thinking about literary history. He uses the term “elite” (精英) rarely, and when he does, he is referring to how May Fourth intellectuals thought of themselves and their writing (745); and he tends to use “popular” (通俗) for only Mandarin Duck and Butterfly Fiction, not necessarily for other types of writing that sold well. The English word “popular” appears frequently in the English translation, but sometimes the Chinese uses not 通俗 but rather大众, which might lead to confusion in any comparison of Fan’s history to Wu’s based on the English translations. The ratio of space in Wu’s book devoted to the most discussed writers, to the less often discussed writers, and to the least discussed writers seems about right to me, with about half of the book going to the first group.

“Illustrated edition” (插图本) in the Chinese title refers to the book’s 685 captioned maps, photographs, and reproductions of book covers and manuscript pages, along with twenty-four tables that provide long lists of, for example: the writers who studied in Japan, Europe, and the United States; where, when, and by whom Cao Yu’s 曹禺 Thunderstorm (雷雨) was staged, directed, and acted from 1934 to 1938; the major literary works published in Guilin during the war with Japan; and individual chronicles of the literary events of 1903, 1921, 1936, and 1948. In an elegiac essay, Li Jin of People’s University wrote that Wu believed that to understand a writer, one had to visit the places the writer lived and worked. Wu acted on his belief, and Li writes, “I think that among scholars of modern literature, there is probably no one who has done as much as Professor Wu has done in following the tracks left by so many writers” (我想,现代文学研究者中大概没有谁像吴老师跑过这么多的作家遗迹了).[3] I imagine Wu would have been able to talk at length about any of the illustrations in his book, including, for example, photographs of: the entrance to the Beijing library where the Crescent Moon writers gathered (265); the Shanghai alley where Lu Xun lived next door to Mao Dun 茅盾, who was hiding out from Nationalist authorities and writing Disillusion (幻灭) (381); the grand entrance to the home in which Ba Jin 巴金 grew up (390); Lin Huiyin 林徽因 and Zhu Guangqian 朱光潜 at their Beijing homes, both gathering places for writers, with Lin’s place known as “Our Lady’s Salon (太太客厅) (410-411); Cao Yu’s Tianjin residence (417); then PhD student Liu Bannong 刘半农 and his family at their apartment in Paris in 1924 (580); Xiao Jun 萧军 in his Yan’an cave home in 1945 (616); and the teacher’s dorm at Southwestern Associated University (671).

Wu’s approach to literary history should be familiar to users of the MCLC Resource Center. Wu places the start of modern literature in the late-nineteenth century, and he sees its development as driven by not only artistic ambition and social and political agendas but by commercial motives and what David Wang has termed “material factors,” which include “[i]mported printing technology, innovative marketing tactics, increased literacy, widening readership, the boom in diverse forms of media and translation, and the advent of professional writers.”[4] For Wu, modern Chinese literature is in part the evolution of a centuries-old tradition, but it is more decidedly a revolution that came in reaction to the shocks of modernity and an engagement with the rest of world literature. Lastly, for Wu, the “canon” of modern Chinese literature is completely open; all writing from the period is deserving of appreciation and study.

Wu’s huge book gives an account of the complex, contradictory, back-and-forth, heterogenous way in which Chinese fiction, poetry, sanwen, and spoken drama happened to have developed in all their diversity. Landmarks of reportage are mentioned, but other than sanwen, prose non-fiction is not discussed as a genre. The modern fate of traditional forms of oral culture, such as storytelling and opera, is not Wu’s concern. Occasionally Wu mentions efforts to capture the diction and syntax of topolects or, in Ma’s translation, “local dialects” (方言), but his focus is on efforts and achievements in the creation of a standard written vernacular based on Mandarin. Wu did his work before the concept and theory of the Sinophone intervened in the field, and Wu does not discuss how modern Chinese literature did or did not speak to or for readers whose first language—or only language—was something other than Mandarin or even something other than any variety of spoken Chinese.

In other words, Wu’s history of modern Chinese literature is, more or less, the history of the literature of the modern nation-state of China. In the introduction to the MLQ special issue “Literary History After the Nation?,” Peter Kalliney asks, “Should we leave behind the nation as our default cultural boundary when writing literary history; if so, do we need to substitute anything in its place; and how might thinking within or without the nation present new challenges and opportunities as we construct our objects of study?”[5] I will not try to answer these questions, but I will explain why I use the “more or less” qualifier in referring to Wu’s book. I do not think that Wu was writing “without the nation,” but his history suggests he believed that what the nation became—its boundaries, its government, its culture—was never inevitable. Wu’s history shows that at any point in their intertwined development, China and Chinese literature might have become something very different from what they did become. In “Shall We Continue to Write Histories of Literature?,” Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht speculates about a new sort of literary history that would not be governed by “the image and the concept of a nation” but would instead give us “(a glimpse of) the sensual feeling of being part of and inscribed into the material world that surrounds us.”[6] Reading History, I had not just a glimpse but a strong sense of being “inscribed into the material world” that surrounded readers and writers of modern Chinese literature.

There are four Parts in Wu’s book, with an average of ten chapters in each part. Each part has a chapter that is a chronology of a year. Part I is “Promise of New Opportunities,” with 1903 the featured year. The title of Part II, which chronicles 1921 in Chapter 13, is “The May Fourth Movement.” Part III, “The Coexistence of Diverse Types of Literature,” includes a chronicle of 1936, and the last chapter of Part IV, “Under the Clouds of War,” chronicles 1948.

One of Wu’s starting points for his history is 1876, when the Tushanwan Printing Shop (土山灣印刷所) began to use lithography; one of his ending points is January 6, 1949, when Hu Feng 胡风 boarded a boat departing for the liberated areas of northeast China. “What awaited him,” Wu writes in Ma’s translation, “was bright sunshine, but indeed there were also unforeseen storms” (787). The book moves through this history chronologically, but it is organized by geography, with many of its forty chapters focusing on the literary scenes in Beijing and Shanghai as they existed at various points in time, and with chapters on Chongqing, Yan’an, Guilin, and Kunming when those cities became centers of literary activity during the war with Japan. Hong Kong and Taiwan are considered in a single chapter.

The core argument—usually implicit, sometimes explicit—of Wu’s History is captured in what he writes about the 1930s. According to Wu, there were four “constituent parts” (板块) in the diversified (多元) literary scene of the decade: left-wing literature (左翼文学), which was “politically utilitarian” (政治功利的文学); the Beijing School (京派), dominated by belles lettres (纯文学); the Shanghai School (海派) of commercial literature (商业性文学); and Mandarin Duck and Butterfly literature (鸳鸯蝴蝶派), which was “an urban popular literary genre” (市民通俗文学派别) (English 486, 494-497, Chinese 297-299). Once these four “parts” were in place, Wu writes, they would continue to have “an enormous and profound influence on” the development of modern Chinese literature (497).

I am not wholly convinced by Wu’s quadripartite division of the literary landscape of the time. In the first place, as Wu himself argues, each of the four “constituent parts” was internally heterogenous, and the boundaries between them were porous, with each influencing the others. Second, the first “part” is defined by what its literature was intended to accomplish, but the next two are defined by where their literatures were written, and the last is defined by its content. The categories are of different kinds. And third, I do not understand why Mandarin Duck and Butterfly literature is separated from the rest of the “Shanghai School” that saw literature as a “means of entertainment and leisure” (496). My guess is Wu means that the former appealed to a popular taste for nostalgia, and the latter appealed to an updated, modern popular taste. But in any event, Wu quickly moves on from his four “constituent parts” to propose a tripartite division of the literature of the time that has considerable explanatory power.

Wu writes that in the 1930s, while innovation continued and each new genre (新兴的文学) became popular for a time in its turn, and while literary devices that had once seemed avant-garde gradually became commonplace, overall the literature of the decade was dominated by political literature, belles lettres, and commercial literature, each of which had its avant-garde mode (先锋状态) and its mass mode (大众状态). The connection among these six modes was one of “mixture and engagement” (各种状态的渗透, 咬合关系; my translation, Chinese 299-300). As this was going on, Chinese literature “entered a period that saw the mixture of modern group-oriented literature and modern individual-oriented literature” (进入了现代集团文学和现代个人文学的混合时期) (English 497, Chinese 299).

Ma struggles to convey Wu’s meaning in the important passage that I have paraphrased above and does not always succeed, but this is understandable because Wu—with his four “constituent parts,” three types of literature, each with two modes, and everything engaging and mixing with everything else—is himself struggling to do two partially contradictory things at once. First, he is doing the sort of classification that is not only justified by historical fact but also necessary if we want to perceive patterns in literary history and not just a confusion of individual texts; second, at the same time, however, he is pushing back against the reductive tendency inherent in any system of classification. The tripartite scheme on which he settles—political literature for improving the world, belles lettres for improving the art, and commercial literature for improving one’s finances—makes sense to me, as does his idea that in all sorts of writing there was experimentation and there was an effort to reach a large number of readers. The argument draws additional persuasive strength from Wu’s insistence that any particular writer was likely to pursue all three goals and any particular text was likely to have characteristics of all three types of writing, with the ratios varying writer to writer and text to text.

The cover of Xu Zhimo’s poetry collection Fierce Tiger (猛虎集) designed by Wen Yiduo.

Wu’s book includes plot summaries, but these tend to be offered only for work that is not very well known, and there is little in the way of close reading and interpretation. The preponderance of literary-historical and contextual information in Wu’s History I found engaging, even absorbing, and there is plenty of detail in it that was new to me. Others will know (I did not) that Wen Yiduo 闻一多 designed the covers of some of Xu Zhimo’s 徐志摩 books, including a nice one with tiger stripes (349); that Ba Jin’s Family (家) was a flop in serialization and became a hit only when published as a book (388); that from 1918 through 1949, 29% of all published “modern Chinese literary books” were translations of foreign literature (517-518); that Zhu Shenghao 朱生豪 spent the war with Japan years at home in the Zhejiang countryside translating thirty-one of Shakespeare’s plays before dying penniless at the age of thirty-two (527-528); that playwright Ding Xilin 丁西林 was the director of the Physics Research Institute of the Nanjing Central Academy (635); that a poet with the penname Ou Wai’ou (鸥外鸥) wrote poems in a language as plain as that used by contemporary minjian (民间) poets about starvation and pollution, the latter topic addressed in a poem in which each of eight of the first twelve lines consists of the single word “mountain,” with the character 山 appearing in several different font sizes, “creating a sense of oppression for” readers (651); that Shen Congwen “was by no means a good teacher” (686); or that for the familiar photograph of Xiao Jun and Xiao Hong 萧红 taken in 1934 on the day they visited Lu Xun, Xiao Hong “spent a whole day making a Western stand-up collar” for Xiao Jun’s shirt, and the pipe she has in her mouth was borrowed from the photography shop’s collection of props (581).

As good as Wu’s book is, the history it tells will not be revelatory to the expert. It does not change what I understand to be the conventional narrative. To be sure, it introduced me to writers, texts, and aspects of the literary scene that I had overlooked or forgotten about, but little in the book is not covered in English-language scholarship, with even more information available in Chinese, of course. Two examples. One, I was not well acquainted with what happened in Guilin during the war years, and chapter 35, “Guilin: The Upsurge of Theater and the Publishing Phenomenon of the Wartime ‘Cultural City,’” taught me a lot, but readers of Pingchao Zhu’s Wartime Culture in Guilin, 1938-1944: A City at War (Lexington Books, 2015) may not find much new. Two, I had never heard of Huang Guliu (黃谷柳) or his The Story of Xiaqiu (蝦球傳), a novel about “the adventure of a Hong Kong guttersnipe” (734), but my ignorance will not be shared by those who read Lorraine Wong’s article in the Fall 2018 issue of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture on Huang, his novel, and “Chinese Latinization and Topolect Literature.”

That said, I can imagine Wu’s History doing for today’s students of modern Chinese literature what Yan Jiayan’s A History of the Schools of Modern Chinese Fiction (中国现代小说流派史) did for me when it came out in 1989. Yan’s book instantly—well, in the time it took me to read it—opened my eyes to authors and texts I had missed and showed me how much more was out there to be explored. Wu’s History reminded me of writers I first learned about from Yan’s book (and Yan’s companion anthology of short fiction) but eventually forgot about, such as Xu Jie 许杰, Wang Luyan 王魯彥, and Peng Jiahuang. Other than A New Literary History of Modern China, edited by David Wang (Harvard, 2017), I can think of no other reference in the field that brings together so much, and I know of no other single-author monograph that is as expansive in its treatment of modern Chinese literature.

In Wu’s History, all those on the left are major players in the development of modern Chinese literature, but they are not the only or even most important players. Wu understandably sometimes avoids detailed critique of the left and the Party. For example, in a remark quoted above, Wu tells us that storms awaited Hu Feng after 1949, but it is up to us to remember or look up what these storms were. My other example was going to be Wu’s take on Mao’s 1942 “Talks.” He writes that the “Talks” promoted literature that might appeal to, motivate, and educate the masses in one of China’s poorest areas during a fight for survival against a foreign invader, but after the end of the war and the founding of the People’s Republic, “it seemed increasingly ineffective to use the Talks as the only text guiding art and literature. This has been proved true by history” (619). But this will not work as an example, I discovered, because Wu’s original is direct where the translation is indirect. Wu does not write that the “Talks” were “increasingly ineffective.” He writes, “their negative side was more and more obvious” (它的负面就越来越彰显) (Chinese 376). I have not read Wu’s original cover to cover, and so I am unsure as to how often his tone or implication is changed in the translation, but I do not think Ma was intending to soften Wu’s criticism of political oppression, because elsewhere it comes through in the English as clearly as it does in the Chinese.

In any event, Wu’s History is candid and does not seem to have been written with much or any concern for what the General Administration of Press and Publication might or might not approve. Here and there, Wu seems to be speaking to the present. For example, chapter 21, “The Popularity, Development, and Disputes of Left-Wing Literature,” ends with a discussion of Lu Xun’s defense of “writers’ freedom of expression” and opposition to the “despotic cultural rule of the KMT government,” on the one hand, and, on the other hand, his great sensitivity to “the excessive subordinate relationships or even slavery between people in his own literary organization” (而在自己文艺组织内部的人与人之间,对过分的隶属甚至是奴役的关系也十分敏感) (English 375, Chinese 217). Wu writes that the “differences” (分歧) among those on the left about how to evaluate the legacy of May Fourth literature did not go away, not after Lu Xun’s death, not in Yan’an, not during the “Hu Feng Incident” (1955), and not during the series of campaigns launched by leftists to criticize specific writers or types of writing. This history, Wu writes, leaves to us “profound revelations, both positive and negative” (给后人留下深长的正反面的启示) (Chinese 217, my translation).

A flaw in Wu’s history is that it is too male-centric, even for an account of a time when cultural production was controlled by men. Ding Ling, Zheng Min 郑敏, Xiao Hong, and Zhang Ailing are discussed at some length. Bai Wei 白薇, Bing Xin 冰心, Lin Huiyin, Ling Shuhua 凌叔华, and Su Qing are mentioned, but only Su Qing’s work gets much consideration. The rest could and should have been given more attention, and the same is true of Chen Hengzhe 陈衡哲, Lu Yin 庐隐, Chen Xuezhao 陈学昭, and Xie Bingying 谢冰莹. Given Wu’s approach and breadth of knowledge about the socio-historical context, it would have been appropriate and possible for him to write in detail about the particular social, economic, and material circumstances that brought women into Chinese literary culture for the first time in numbers but also kept them marginalized; and Wu might have added gender as an organizing principle in a chapter or more devoted to the lives and careers of women writers at particular points in time in particular places.

The translator of A Cultural History of Modern Chinese Literature is credited as Rui Ma on the title page and as Myra Ma on the copyright page. No brief biography of Ma is in the book, and there is no translator’s foreword or afterword. Ma should be more prominently acknowledged in the pages of History, and she should have been given some space to write about her process and product. The translation is a monumental accomplishment that obviously required long and, I imagine, because of the many lists of titles, often tedious work. Ma’s stamina alone in just getting through such a long, fact-filled text is admirable, as is her meticulousness. Given the amount of detail in this big book, it is impressive that only four typos caught my eye (181, 619, 635, 727).

Ma’s translation is informed. She knows the history of modern Chinese literature. In footnotes, she twice corrects Wu Fuhui on minor details and once provides arcane information on the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. Ma knows and has used the conventional English translations of many or even most of dozens of titles, terms, and names of literary societies and movements; for anything not already known in English, she has come up with her own perfectly serviceable translations. Ma’s translation is good; it is accurate and readable, and she deserves high praise and thanks for her significant accomplishment. There are, however, sentences that are awkward, if understandable, and others that are difficult or impossible to understand without checking the original. There is enough of this to make it another reason the book needs to be used with the Chinese original at hand. The examples below concern different sorts of translation issues that caught this reader’s eye.

Neither sanwen (散文), to name a genre, or biji (笔记), to name a style, translates easily into English; the terms have to be explained. Ma does not explain, and therefore a reader who does not know Chinese may not realize at first that “vernacular prose” (303) refers specifically to a genre of belletristic essay, rather than all writing that is not verse, and that same reader will be baffled by reference to “brush note novellas” (687). Elsewhere, Ma’s translation is perfectly understandable, but it changes Wu’s meaning. Wu writes that before the war with Japan started, the cultural life of Kunming was, to translate literally, “quite weak” (相当薄弱的), but Ma writes “quite unworthy” (English 667, Chinese 403). Finally, when Wu distinguishes between literal translation (直译) and free translation (translating the meaning or paraphrase) (意译), Ma renders the first term as “verbal translation,” making Wu’s discussion of different approaches to translation incomprehensible in the English edition of his book (English 183, 529, Chinese 95, 322).

But, to repeat, Ma’s work is very readable, and she deserves praise and thanks for her accomplishment, which could not have been easy. Because Ma knows what she is doing and put a lot of time and effort into her translation, I regret to point out that Ma uses the following without any acknowledgement or citation: a paragraph from Duncan M. Campbell’s translation of Qian Zhongshu’s 钱钟书 essay “Lin Shu’s Translations”[7]; Kirk Denton’s translation of the list of “eight matters” in Hu Shi’s 胡适 “Some Modest Proposals for the Reform of Literature” [8]; some of Chow Tse-tsung’s translation of Chen Duxiu’s 陈独秀 “On Literary Revolution”[9]; and two paragraphs from Shi Xiaoqing’s translation of Lao She’s Camel Xiangzi, one from the start of the novel, one from the end. [10] I was not trying to catch Ma out; I found one instance of her use of another’s work without citation by accident, and only then did I look more closely.

I assume Ma’s failure to cite the above-mentioned four sources can be chalked up to carelessness and perhaps haste and forgetfulness. She uses and cites the 2001 Beijing Foreign Languages Press translation of Cao Yu’s Thunderstorm by Wang Zuoliang and A.C. Barnes (Wu 475), and there is nothing in the four passages that Ma has taken from other sources that is more difficult to translate than the hundreds of pages she did translate, with the exception of the passage from Qian Zhongshu. Campbell’s translation is a tour de force, and when I still thought it was Ma’s, I noted it as the first truly excellent translation in History. Ma provides original translations of all the other quotations from primary sources with extant translations that I checked. There are not too many, and I checked most, with examples being quotations from Mu Shiying’s 穆时英 “Shanghai Foxtrot,” Zhang Ailing’s “Jasmine Tea,” and Han Bangqing’s 韩邦庆 Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai, all of which appear in Ma’s own translation. A lack of rigor in citing English-language sources is, however, also evident in Ma’s use of Zhang Ailing’s own translation (as Eileen Chang) of “The Golden Cangue” without citation of the English source[11] and in her borrowing of a few sentences from Lee Ou-fan Lee’s Shanghai Modern. The Chinese translation that Wu Fuhui used is cited, but Lee’s original is not.[12] I do not know if the blame lies entirely with Ma, or if her Cambridge UP editor/s let her down by not making sure that all material from published sources was cited and used with permission, just as I think they let her down by not helping improve the English where needed.

If you are still reading, now that we are five thousand words into this review, wow, thank you. Next, I will summarize the contents of History’s four parts and forty chapters.

Qian Shan Shili. Photo caption says, “As simple as her appearance was, she was one of the earliest Chinese women to travel abroad.” Page 69, ch. 3.

Part I, “Promise of New Opportunities ,” is comprised of eight chapters covering: the development of the modern publishing industry, which was spurred by new printing technologies; the exponential growth of the number of newspapers in written vernacular Chinese and the evolution of written literary Chinese (书面语); brief biographies of eight “progressive intellectuals” of the late Qing who traveled abroad and became proficient in foreign languages and whose writing encouraged readers to think about “modern civil management, legal systems, humanity, education, science and technology, and political systems” (71) elsewhere in the world as they considered how to address China’s situation (one of those travelers was Qian Shan Shili 钱单士厘, whose A Record of My Journeys in 1903 [癸卯旅行记] is about her “journey from Vladivostok through Manchuria and Siberia”  to Moscow and Saint Petersburg;); the contributions of Liang Qichao 梁启超 and Huang Zunxian 黄遵宪 to preparing the foundation for modern literature; the literary events of 1903, which included Lu Xun cutting off his queue, Su Manshu 苏曼殊 taking Buddhist vows, the serialization of novels by Li Boyuan 李伯元, Liu E 刘鹗, and Wu Jianren 吴趼人, and the publication of translations of work by Jules Verne and Pushkin; the rise of urban popular fiction, with Han Bangqing’s The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai as the featured example; the organization, activities, and publications of the Southern Society (南社); and the flourishing of Mandarin Duck and Butterfly fiction in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

The first two chapters of Part II, “The May Fourth Movement,” cover spoken drama and translation, and each ends with a table. The first lists about three dozen theaters where “China’s earliest spoken dramas were performed” from 1899 to 1918 (169), and the second lists more than seventy translations by Lin Shu, with Lin’s title in characters and pinyin, the original title in English and its conventional Chinese rendition in characters, the author’s name and country of origin, the name of Lin’s collaborator, and the date and publisher of Lin’s translation, which is an example of Wu’s exhaustive literary-historical knowledge and attention to detail. Chapters 11, “The Incubation of a Literary Revolution at Home and Abroad,” and 12, “The Rise of Radicals from New Youth and Peking University, and Conservatives’ Counterclaims,” cover many of the familiar names, literary societies, publications, and events that begin most older histories of modern Chinese literature that date its inception to 1917.

Chapter 14 goes into detail about specific presses and publications in Beijing and Shanghai and their links to various literary societies, which contributes to Wu’s argument that the development of modern Chinese literature was always driven in part by commercial motives. Wu writes that Wu Mi 吴宓 (1894-1978) “sighed” into his diary that “China’s new-style scholars not only enjoy high reputations but earn a lot of money. For example, Zhou Shuren [Lu Xun] earned more than 10,000 silver dollars with his Call to Arms alone” (267). That would have been the equivalent of about US $5,000 in 1923, which would be almost $88,000 today. I have no idea if Wu Mi was right, but in any event, according to Wu Fuhui, Wu Mi was mostly just complaining because he and his Critical Review colleagues “had fallen into oblivion” (267), and everybody was reading Lu Xun, et al. Chapter 15 is about “breakthroughs” in vernacular poetry and in the modern vernacular short story. Chapter 16 is devoted to “The True Story of Ah Q” and its reception. Chapter 17 is about the emergence of modern sanwen out of the Chinese tradition, under the influence of foreign models, and guided by the varying aesthetic and ideological impulses of the writers we know as the exemplars of the form, including the Zhou brothers and Zhu Ziqing 朱自清.

Part II concludes with chapters on early native-soil literature and urban popular fiction. Chapter 18 discusses the writing of the Zhejiang countryside by Lu Xun, Wang Luyan, and Xu Jie, of Guizhou and Anhui by Jian Xian’ai 蹇先艾 and Tai Jingnong 台靜農, and of Hunan and Hubei by Fei Ming 废名 and Peng Jiahuang, with a focus on the efforts of these writers to reflect local speech and capture “regional colors” (324), which is Ma’s useful single rendering for several different terms used in the original, including 风土, 地域, and 地方性. Wu claims that the “humanism expressed in the May Fourth native-soil literature was indeed unprecedented in China’s literary history” (317), and his example is the relationship between the I-narrator and Runtu 闰土 in Lu Xun’s “Hometown.”

Chapter 19 is about the popular fiction written about Beijing and Shanghai from 1919 to 1930. The modern city both fascinated and repelled modern readers; fiction brought the urban audience “solace” (慰藉), as Wu puts it in the chapter title (“Literary Solace for Urban Citizens,” English 328, Chinese 183), and older-style popular fiction gave way to something new and different that emerged in the urban novels of Zhang Henshui and Lao She 老舍. None of this is new to the specialist, but as is the case throughout the book, the interest is in the details. For example, Wu relates that Wu Jianren taught Bao Tianxiao 包天笑 how to find raw material for writing novels by keeping a notebook full of newspaper clippings and notes on stories related to him by friends. Bao followed Wu’s advice and wrote a novel by linking together stories he took from the local news section of a newspaper (336-337).

The eleven chapters of Part III consider a variety of genres, produced for a variety of audiences, for a variety of purposes, and in a variety of places, as is fitting given that Wu’s title for this part of the book is “The Coexistence of Diverse Types of Literature.” Chapter 20 provides a brief but detailed account of the political pressures that pushed May Fourth cultural activists out of Beijing and pulled them to Guangzhou, Xiamen, and eventually Shanghai, a city uniquely suited to fostering the growth of the new literature, which was there “defined and redefined, deepened and transformed” (355). The transformation was driven in part, of course, by the League of Left-Wing Writers, founded in March 1930, and the next chapter looks at left-wing literature with its oft-discussed disputes but also its sometimes overlooked variety. Mu Shiying, who for a time wrote “in two styles alternatively,” sometimes critical realist, sometimes modernist, is offered as an example of what Wu identifies as the “inherent ambiguity of left-wing literature,” which inherited the Romantic celebration of the individual and couldn’t ever really let it go, even when it started the process of the “destruction of individualism” (361-363).

Shanghai street bookstall. Page 394, ch. 23.

Chapter 22 considers the flourishing of the novel in the 1930s. The next chapter is about some of the poetry, spoken drama, and critical essays that responded quickly and directly to “national calamities” (393), expressed the emotions of the moment, and often had a “propaganda function” (402). As is his habit throughout the book, however, Wu Fuhui reminds us not to over-simplify things. He makes the case that producing “era-specific writing” (时代性写作) did not prevent poets, playwrights, and essayists from expressing their “individual originality” (个人独创性), with Ai Qing 艾青 as an example (English 398-399, Chinese 229, 232), and he reminds us that while authors such as Jiang Guangci 蒋光慈 were writing lines such as “October Revolution, is like a soaring torch,” there were many readers browsing the Shanghai bookstalls looking for something to read who “certainly did not spend their money on reading political lectures” (394-395).

The next two chapters, 24 and 25, are about “The Graceful Beauty of Belles Lettres by Beijing School Authors” and the “New Perceptions of the Shanghai School in the Modern Metropolis.” Chapter 26 continues to draw a contrast between Shanghai and Beijing as two different types “of modern Chinese cities, within which there were two types of civil society,” one “characterized by a sudden and massive implantation of Western culture, which experienced some mutations during this process and was somehow localized; and the other evolved from the civil society of ancient times, so that it accepted modern culture at a steady pace and tried to maintain the self-esteem of an ancient nation” (453). Shen Congwen, Mu Shiying, and Lao She are among the writers discussed in some detail in these three chapters. Cao Yu and his Thunderstorm are offered as exemplifying the “mature stage of professional spoken drama” in the 1930s (468), which is the subject of Chapter 27.

Chapter 28, “A Chronicle of Literary Events in the Year 1936 (An Era of Diversification),” chronicles this landmark year’s “diversified literary scene” (486) that included: first, left-wing literature, which by Wu’s definition is a category broad enough to include Lu Xun’s Old Tales Retold and the ideas of both Hu Feng and Zhou Yang 周扬, who were opponents in the “two slogans debate” (494); second, Beijing School literature, with its “conscious detachment from politics and political sects” (495); third, the commercial literature of Shanghai writers who “viewed literature as a means of entertainment and leisure” (496); and fourth and finally, Mandarin Duck and Butterfly literature, in discussion of which Wu makes the point that all writers and all “schools” tried to attract readers—they all were interested in reaching their variously-conceived idea of “the “masses” (大众, Chinese, 299) via their various strategies serving a diversity of goals. In Ma’s translation, this becomes an effort to be “popular” in different ways toward different ends (497).

Part III concludes with the chapters “Interactions Between Cinematographic Art and Literature” and “A Timely Embrace of World Literature.” In the former, Wu adds his own evidence in support of Leo Ou-fan Lee’s argument, cited by Wu, that the growth of the film industry produced “new cinematic modes of fiction writing” in the work of authors who were “avid film spectators,” including, as is well known, Liu Na’ou 刘呐鸥 and Mu Shiying, and, as might not be as well known, Zhang Tianyi 张天翼 (511-512); but Wu argues that “during the period of silent films, it was literature that influenced film and not vice versa” (504). The latter chapter is about the “systematic translation of world literary classics with the intention of promoting New Literature in China” by “specialized translation organizations, teams, and journals” that began in 1915 in the pages of Youth Magazine (青年杂志), soon to be renamed New Youth (新青年) (518). The chapter concludes with a sixteen-page list of “world literary classics” translated into Chinese from 1918, the year New Youth devoted an issue to Ibsen, through 1949, when translations of Molière’s Don Juan and Boris Polevoy’s Tale of a True Man, about a World War II Soviet fighter pilot, were both published, a pairing that is yet more support for Wu’s central argument that modern Chinese literature is defined by its diversity.

Part IV, “Under the Clouds of War,” has chapters on the literary goings on in Chongqing, Yan’an, Guilin, Kunming, Shanghai, and Hong Kong and Taiwan. Wu reminds us that after the Japanese invasion, “all writers, no matter what their political views . . . . shared a sense of solidarity” (551). In chapter 31, Wu traces with text, maps, and a table the flight of writers away from Japanese-held territory toward places where they hoped to be safer and could work and/or contribute to the war effort. Chapter 32 begins with remarks about the poverty faced by writers during the war and then moves to “a brief review of the living and economic conditions of three generations of intellectuals” from the late Qing through the 1940s (575), which conditions do not sound all that different from any other time, with a few best-selling writers living comfortably off their royalties, other writers earning their livings by teaching or holding government jobs, and many freelancers just scraping by. The war hit the freelancers hardest, of course, and Wu argues that those in the Nationalist-controlled areas were hit hardest of all because, in Communist-controlled areas, everyone shared a similar privation and the basic needs of many were provided by the Party and its military for free (582). According to Wu, the war and its enforced poverty “offered a rare opportunity for writers” to live among farmers and the urban poor and so get to better know and understand these people (585-586).

In chapter 33, with the mention of the titles of dozens of poems, plays, works of reportage, stories, and novels, along with a brief comment on each of many and a more extended discussion of a few, Wu demonstrates “the richness and extensiveness of literature in the Nationalist-controlled area in Chongqing” (601). There was “massification and popularization” (592) but also significant literary achievement. Toward the end of the chapter, Wu tells the story of Hu Feng, his journal July and the writers associated with it, including Lu Ling 路翎, and the attacks on Hu Feng and his allies “by those insisting on mainstream left-wing literature” who read Mao’s 1942 “Talks” when it circulated in Chongqing in 1944 and faithfully “rectified themselves accordingly” (605).

Hu Feng’s story is well known, but I did not know the last story Wu tells in the chapter, which is that of the academic Chen Quan (陈铨), who published a journal and a newspaper supplement and wrote plays that celebrated “force,” “heroism,” and “collectivism” in opposition to May Fourth “individualism” (607). A play of Chen Quan’s about wartime espionage was popular with theatergoers, but the left-wing attacked its “‘worship of power’ and ‘fascism.’” According to Wu, Chen started out with “no political leanings,” but the Nationalist Party welcomed the ideas in his work and appointed him to positions in its cultural bureaucracy (607). The story of Chen Quan is also the story of the end of the United Front, which was replaced by “a battlefield between the left-wing camp and KMT authorities” (607), and the story of Hu Feng foreshadows the “debates and conflicts” that would shape “the development of Chinese literature” for the next forty years (606).

Wu’s chapter 34 covers quickly but with essential detail the “diversity” and “richness” and “agreements and disagreements” among the different sorts of writers who gathered from 1936 to 1947 in Yan’an, about which place they were variously ambivalent but self-preservingly malleable (Ding Ling), fatally defiant (Wang Shiwei 王实味), naively eulogistic (He Qifang 何其芳), and stubbornly independent (Xiao Jun) (608-616). The chapter tells the story of the false promise of Mao’s call for “blending the mountain tops in northern Shaanxi with the garrets in Shanghai” (609), drawing young writers to Yan’an, whereupon Mao told them to get out of their “garden with a limited view” and into the mountains and closer to the masses (611). Wu praises the literary achievements of lesser known writers Kong Jue 孔厥, Kang Zhuo 康濯, and Sun Li 孙犁, all of whom studied at the Lu Xun College, alongside his discussion of major works by bigtime writers such as Zhao Shuli.

In chapter 35 on Guilin, the wartime “cultural city” of China, Wu writes that “some intellectuals remained in Chongqing and some went to Yan’an; Kunming became the headquarters of Beijing school literature because a number of famous universities moved there, and Guilin became the gathering place of intellectuals from other cliques” (634). The population of Guilin grew from 70,000 in 1936 to over half a million by 1944 (635), and because this growth was in part driven by the relocation of cultural, educational, and financial institutions to the city, the population was relatively educated (636). Publishing houses opened branches in Guilin, and bookstores and newspaper stands appeared “everywhere in the streets” (636).

Ouyang Yuqian 欧阳予倩, Tian Han 田汉, and Xia Yan 夏衍 were all in Guilin, which became a wartime center of theater. Wu writes that scholars have overlooked that theater flourished in Guilin not only because writers moved to the city but also because after the 1938 Changsha fire and the Japanese occupation of Guangzhou, and after the 1941 fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese, there was a “large-scale immigration of ordinary citizens” to Guilin, and a lot of them “had the habit of cultural consumption and could afford it,” and so theatrical productions had a ready-made audience (642). The rest of the chapter looks at all the fiction, essays, and poems written and published in Guilin. Wu cites a source to note that by 1943, eighty percent of “all the books in the country” were published in Guilin, and “many nationally known literary journals” were edited elsewhere but published in and distributed from Guilin (655).

In the chapter on Guilin, Wu quotes a view of China’s wartime literary geography from the left: “Chongqing was a Fascist den of monsters; the atmosphere in Kunming was not very good, either. Yan’an had been blocked, and thus comparatively, Guilin seemed more safe and secure” (635). The subject of the next chapter is Kunming, where the atmosphere was actually okay for literature because it was relatively free, at least until 1945. Ma’s English rendition of the chapter title, “Kunming: Reflections on Personal Experiences of the Era,” is a good solution to a translation challenge, but it does not capture the sense of Wu’s Chinese, which is “个体生命在时代体验沉潜” (English 667, Chinese 403); Wu’s main concern in the chapter is the efforts made by Kunming-based writers to find “the right balance between the patriotic concern [for] facing the reality of war and their intellectual sense of mission to transcend realities” (671).

A few paragraphs of the Guilin chapter are devoted to each of the poets Feng Zhi 冯至, Bian Zhilin 卞之琳, Zheng Min, Mu Dan 穆旦, and fiction writers Shen Congwen and his student Wang Zengqi 汪曾祺; several other writers are mentioned briefly. Kunming became “a new experimental field of modernist literature” (683), and among Wu’s examples of what was going on in that field are Zheng Min’s philosophical meditations in her poetry and Feng Zhi’s historical novel Wu Zixu (伍子胥) (681, 683). The chapter ends with the assassination of Wen Yiduo, which, Wu writes, “was a demarcation line that marked the beginning of postwar Chinese literature” (689), by which I infer Wu means that after 1945 there was to be no room for free literary expression between violent oppression coming from the right and prescriptive and proscriptive coercion coming from the left.

The cover of If Only We’d Met Earlier (恨不相逢未婚時). Page 703, ch. 37.

Chapter 37 looks at literature written and read in Japanese-occupied China. It starts with mention of the burning of 6.5 million Chinese books in Manchuria in 1932, but Wu does not write more about what the Japanese did or did not do to interfere with the publication and dissemination of the works mentioned in the chapter. Wu discusses native-soil writing by Shan Ding 山丁, Wang Qiuying 王秋萤, and Bi Jichu 毕基初. Jue Qing 爵青 and Yuan Xi 袁犀 took native-soil writing in the direction of modernism, with some of Jue’s work reminding Wu of Shi Zhecun 施蛰存 (695-696). Wu Xinghua “represented the trend of the 1940s to integrate ancient Chinese and European elements” in literature (698). Martial arts fiction was a favored genre, and it was changed by writers who used it to write about contemporary psychology and social conflict. This transformed martial arts literature was to have an influence on the martial arts fiction of Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1950s (700). Representative writers of “northern-school romantic fiction” (北派言情小说) and related popular fiction were Liu Yunruo 刘云若 and Mei Niang 梅娘. Judging by its cover, the former’s If Only We’d Met Earlier (恨不相逢未婚時) looks like a great guilty pleasure to distract one from war (703). The analysis of the situation in Shanghai focuses on Zhang Ailing, with mention of Xu Xu and Wumingshi, but Wu also discusses the “backward turn of new literature, so as to meet the increasing demand of urban citizen readers,” exemplified in the novels and stories of Yu Qie 予且, which were “easy and readable” but also “applied avant-garde literary elements such as psychoanalysis and descriptions of sexual morbidity” (707), and he devotes a paragraph to Qin Shouou’s 秦瘦鸥 massively popular 1941 Begonia (秋海棠) (713).

The table at the end of chapter 37 provides information on more than seventy literary supplements and journals established and published in Japanese-occupied China and Taiwan, and chapter 38 is about Taiwan and Hong Kong and the linguistic and political environments that shaped the development of modern Chinese literature in each of these colonially occupied areas. In Hong Kong, the new literature of China “had barely gained a foothold” (730) before the war with Japan began, and during the war, the literary scene in Hong Kong was dominated by writers who had fled the mainland. Two writers discussed in a long paragraph each—which is about as much space as Wu ever has room to devote to a single author in his crowded book—are Huang Guliu 黄谷柳, who was not from Hong Kong but relocated there after the war and was “extremely familiar with people of all walks of life,” writing about the local customs and habits vividly reflected in their language (734), and Lü Lun 侶倫, a Hong Kong native who “represented the landmark when belles lettres finally gained a foothold in Hong Kong” (736).

In the last eight pages of the chapter, Wu covers the beginnings of progressive new literature in the vernacular in Taiwan in the 1920s and, after the war began, the achievement of Taiwan authors who wrote in Japanese but expressed “indignation and fierce national consciousness” (741). Loa Ho (Lai He 賴和), Yang Kui 楊逵, Wu Zhuoliu 吳濁流, Zhang Wenhuan 張文環, Long Yingzong 龍瑛宗, and Zhong Lihe 鍾理和, who was “an intellectual exile on both sides of the Taiwan Strait” (745), are all discussed, and the chapter ends with a look forward into the 1950s, when “the literature of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China were all shrouded in the dark clouds of the Cold War,” and the 1960s, when “modernist literature and new popular literature in Hong Kong and Taiwan prospered” (744).

Chapter 39 begins by noting the binary division that existed in the heads of May Fourth writers and critics between the “New Literature, which was an elite literature,” and urban popular literature, which had been “the absolute mainstream of Chinese literature as modern Chinese cities began to emerge” but was now dismissed as a “nonintellectual literature” (745). Wu’s book to this point has dismantled this binary distinction, and the rest of the chapter continues to do so by discussing the similarity between two writers one might think could not be more different, Zhao Shuli and Zhang Ailing. Wu gets to these two writers after a discussion of the arguments among left-writers about which readers they most needed to reach, urban workers or rural farmers, and what sort of language and format they needed to use to reach those readers. The workers were reading the “nonintellectual” urban popular fiction, and farmers were not reading anything new because none of it was written for them. “‘Farmer literature’ simply did not exist,” Wu writes (749). (Ma uses “peasant” here for 农民, as she does throughout the book; “farmer” is the better choice in most cases.) Wu nowhere directly discusses illiteracy, not even in this chapter about the efforts of leftists to reach readers, but he implies it, writing that farmers, most of whom could not read, got their culture from opera and storytellers (749). Zhao Shuli and Zhang Ailing are Wu’s examples of how in the 1940s, the “popularization of literature changed from empty [talk] among scholars” into reality (745). Wu traces how Zhao and Zhang each used conventions familiar and appealing to his or her target audience but modified and updated those conventions, and how each produced something truly excellent in its way. I am not sure what Wu is saying at the end of the chapter, but I think he is saying that Zhao and Zhang showed two very promising ways forward for Chinese literature that might have developed in mutually reinforcing ways, but in the 1950s, Wu concludes, Zhao’s way “suddenly disappeared” and Zhang’s “was discontinued for historical reasons” (761).

The last chapter, “A Chronicle of Literary Events in the Year 1948 (An Era of Transition),” includes an eight-page list of the publications, symposia, campaigns, and other happenings during the year. The diversity that Wu has identified as characteristic of modern Chinese literature is still in evidence; Lu Ling’s Rich Men’s Children (财主底儿女们), Huang Guliu’s The Story of Xiaqiu (虾球传), Dai Wangshu’s 戴望舒 collection of poems, Years of Disaster (灾难的岁月), Zhou Libo’s 周立波 The Hurricane (暴风骤雨), and Wang Dulu’s 王度庐 Iron Knight, Silver Vase (铁骑银瓶) (vols. 1-6) all were published in this year, and the “new opera The White-Haired Girl” (白毛女, written in 1945 by He Jingzhi 贺敬之 and Ding Yi 丁毅) was performed (766-769). The chapter ends up being about the coming collapse of any room for free expression as the CCP closed in from the left and the KMT from the right. The “dramatic process of publishing” Ding Ling’s The Sun Shines on Sanggan River (太阳照在桑干河上), which comes down to Ding Ling bending her “extremely strong individuality in literary creation” to the will of the Party’s cultural bureaucrats, is the example of how “the CPC had finally established its position as the direct leader in the field of literature and art” (775-776). The fate of the journal New Chinese Poetry (中国新诗), with its “major contributors” being the Nine Leaves School (九叶派) poets, who refused “to make poetry a political tool” is the example of the disappearance of any space for independent literary creation. The “shameless” KMT government, which could “not tolerate any literature related with ‘reality’” shut down both New Chinese Poetry and the left-wing poetry journal from which the Nine Leaves poetry had broken away (784). Wu’s narrative ends with a photograph on the last page of the book, taken in 1949. Hu Feng, Ding Ling, Ai Qing, Zhao Shuli, and Tian Han are standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the new national flag. The caption says, “They all looked quite high-spirited, but different destinies awaited them” (788). Wu expects us to know that it was a single destiny of denunciation, internal exile, arrest, and suffering that lasted three decades for the first three and resulted in the deaths of the last two. Wu’s last sentence is “each step forward that modern Chinese literature was to take was destined to be accompanied by pain” (788).

Photo from p. 788. From second on left going right: Hu Feng, Ding Ling, Ai Qing, Zhao Shuli, and Tian Han. The person on the far right is not identified.

In his “Preface,” dated November 12, 2009, Wu writes that Wang Yao often said there were two ways of approaching literary criticism and history. The first “focuses on a central viewpoint, like [a] vinyl disc circling around [the] single stylus on [a] phonograph, hence a main tune” (xl). I think Wang  meant spindle not stylus, but no matter, the meaning is clear. Wu writes that since 1949, literary history in the People’s Republic has revolved “around either ‘revolution’ or ‘modernity,’” and he makes it clear, with a rhetorical question, that we do not need any more literary histories that reduce everything to some single notion. I take him to mean that we have enough Marxist histories of modern Chinese literature, and we have enough histories that take the development of modern Chinese literature as driven by—or in reaction to—the expansion of global capitalist modernity, and we do not need any more theory-centric histories. Wu describes Wang Yao’s second approach to scholarship this way: “If [the history] relates a variety of points of view, if it is ‘divergent,’ then it is like knitting the front and back sides of a sweater or knitting a muffler, and the work proceeds piece by piece” (Chinese 3, my translation; 如果是叙述多种观点, 发散型的, 就如同是织毛衣的前襟后襟, 或织毛巾, 便是一片一片). Ma translates, “The second method features disorganized parts, something like the front and back parts when you try to knit a woolen sweater or a scarf” (xl) and leaves out the last phrase, but I think the sentence makes a specific reference to the difference between “divergent style” (发散型) thinking, which “seeks multiple perspectives and multiple possible answers to questions and problems,” and “convergent style” (聚合型) thinking, which “assumes that a question has one right answer and that a problem has a single solution.”[13]

The knitting analogy is still a bit mystifying to me, other than the fact that it is in opposition to the “main tune” method that assumes there is one right answer to any question of history. The sweater is, apparently, the “summing up” or the “imagined complete structure” that Wu writes of when he suggests that historians of modern Chinese literature have either been busy “summing up” (presenting a finished sweater or a complete structure) or engaged in “deconstruction” (unravelling someone’s sweater or breaking up someone’s structure). In contrast to LP history and sweater history, Wu thinks “a mosaic literary history may better suit today’s academic climate” (我 . . . 觉得一本驳杂的文学史可能正是今天的格局所需要的) (English xl, Chinese 4). “Mosaic” is Ma’s clever translation that allows us to visualize what Wu has done; he has laid down each of hundreds of individual tiles (writers, texts, journals, associations, campaigns, maps, charts, etc.) that we may get close to and examine in isolation before we step back and try to make sense of the whole. In the original, of course, Wu is referring to the “heterogeneous” (驳杂) nature of modern Chinese literature and its “complex and varied literary history” (xl), which is his central idea. No single type of writing ever absolutely dominated the literary field; different sorts of readers read different things; and everything influenced everything else. Above I have observed that for the specialist there is nothing revelatory in Wu’s History, and I stand by this, but Wu’s insistence on the diversity, heterogeneity, and interconnectedness of everything we might label “modern Chinese literature” has shifted my thinking in the direction of his own. I think it is unfortunate that a book of this import is not easily accessible to non-experts, but if they can work through the challenges, they are likely to find themselves excited by the prospect of studying literature in Chinese from the first half of the last century.

Thomas Moran
Middlebury College


[1] Chen Pingyuan 陈平原, “Suimo huai guren” (岁末怀故人), Xinhua meiri dianxun (新华每日电讯) (Jan. 28, 2022).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Li Jin 李今, “Yongxin de xueshu xingzou: zhijing ‘shizhai’ Wu Fuhui xiansheng” (用心的学术行走—致敬 ‘石斋’ 吴福辉先生). Xiandai zhongwen xuekan (现代中文学刊) 2 (2021).

[4] David Der-wei Wang, “Chapter Nineteen: Modern Chinese Literature.” In Michael Szonyi, ed., A Companion to Chinese History.  John Wiley & Sons, 2017, pp. 235-251, here 237, 235.

[5] Peter Kalliney, “Introduction,” Modern Language Quarterly 80, no. 4 (Dec.2019): 359–377, here 359.

[6] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, “Shall We Continue to Write Histories of Literature?” New Literary History 39, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 519-532, here 530.

[7] Qian Zhongshu, Patchwork: Seven Essays on Art and Literature, translated by Duncan M. Campbell. Leiden: Brill, 2014, pp. 171-172. Compare Wu 184-185.

[8] Hu Shi, “Some Modest Proposals for the Reform of Literature.” Tr. Kirk A. Denton. In Denton, ed., Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 123-139, here 123-124. Compare Wu 218.

[9] Chow Tse-tsung, The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960, pp. 275-276. Compare Wu 218-219.

[10] Lao She, Camel Xiangzi: Chinese-English Bilingual Edition. Tr. Shi Xiaoqing. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2005, pp. 12, 586. Compare Wu 460.

[11] Zhang Ailing, “The Golden Cangue.” Tr. by the author as Eileen Chang. In C. T. Hsia and Leo Ou-fan Lee, eds., Modern Chinese Stories and Novellas 1919-1949. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981, pp. 528-559, here 530. Compare Wu 760.

[12] Leo Ou-fan Lee, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, p.119. Compare Wu 542.

[13] Kim, K.H., Pierce, R.A., “Convergent Versus Divergent Thinking.” In E. G. Carayannis, ed., Encyclopedia of Creativity, Invention, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. New York: Springer, 2013.