Narrating China:
Jia Pingwa and His Fictional Word

By Yiyan Wang

Reviewed by Robin Visser
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September 2006)

Yiyan Wang. Narrating China: Jia Pingwa and His Fictional World. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. 318 pp. ISBN 0-415-32675-3 (cloth).

Yiyan Wang. Narrating China: Jia Pingwa and His Fictional World. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. 318 pp. ISBN 0-415-32675-3 (cloth).

The native place has become purely a longing (Jia Pingwa in a 2004 interview)

Jia Pingwa’s lament is all too familiar. The literary imagination of modernity is pervaded by ethereal memories of native place, theorized eloquently in Raymond William’s The City and the Countrysideand Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. From Lu Xun’s “Luzhen” to Shen Congwen’s “native soil” fiction of the 1930s to the “root-seeking” literature of the 1980s, such works dramatize a primordial loss of origin, a displacement between tangible experience and the absent object of desire. Yet for Jia Pingwa native place functions as far more than an imaginary relationship to an idyllic past, according to a new study of his work by Yiyan Wang. In Narrating China: Jia Pingwa and His Fictional World, Wang argues that Jia Pingwa’s three-decade long literary preoccupation with his native region of Shaanxi Province cannot be easily reduced to binary opposites where the agrarian tradition is made to critique urban modernity. Instead, Wang asserts that Jia intentionally writes the rural community’s presence back into contemporary China’s national modernization discourse. As the first comprehensive study of Jia Pingwa’s corpus of works to date in any language, Wang’s book is well worth reading. It provides the reader not only with a better understanding of this major contemporary writer but also with an astute contextualization of Jia’s writings within modern Chinese literature.

Most readers of modern Chinese literature know Jia Pingwa first achieved fame from his award-winning short stories and novellas from the 1970s to the 1980s, the majority of which are set in Jia’s rural homeland in Shangzhou prefecture, Shaanxi. Even casual readers know that this early notoriety was eclipsed in 1993 with the publication of his best-selling and highly controversial novel Feidu(which Wang translates fittingly as Defunct Capital), one of Jia’s three major novels set in “Xijing,” the fictional designation for his long-time residence of Xian. Wang recognizes the primacy of both rural “Shangzhou” and urban “Xijing” as native places in the author’s imagination and with this move rejects the easy bifurcation of modernity into a tension between countryside and city. Wang rightly points out that “the ‘city’ as the ‘native place’ holds equal importance with the ‘village’ in the quest for the location of one’s native culture” (8). Despite the fact that cultural origins are often located in urban locales, she argues, “the city marks a blind spot in critical studies [of native place due to] the close connection between the city and Chinese modernity” (9). Further, Wang’s reading of Jia Pingwa’s work recognizes administrative and economic realities of post-Mao China. In the mid 1980s, structural changes such as shi dai xian, “cities leading counties,” launched the economic dismantling of the urban-rural dichotomy by abandoning prefectures and transferring their subordinate counties to the leadership of cities. By the 1990s migrant flows, township and village enterprises, urbanizing villages, and the presence of transnational cultural forms ruptured boundaries and altered former physical and social distinctions between city and country.

Wang provides a detailed discussion of Jia’s life and career, including summaries of his work in the wide ranging genres of poetry, essay, short story, and novella. She devotes the majority of her study to an analysis of Jia’s novels, particularly the five written between 1993 and 2000–Defunct CapitalWhite NightsEarth GateOld Gao Village, and Remembering Wolves. The book concludes with four informative appendices, including a lengthy interview Wang conducted with Jia Pingwa in December 2004, an annotated chronology of Jia’s publications from 1973-2005, an appendix of Jia’s autobiographical writings and critical biographies in Chinese, and a complete bibliography of his works, including his well reviewed 2005 novel, Qin Qiang (which Wang translates as Local Accent), titled after the clapper opera local to northern Shaanxi. In the Introduction, Wang’s taxonomy locates Jia within the nativist tradition of Lu Xun, Shen Congwen, and Lao She. She echoes David Der-wei Wang in arguing that the dichotomies (between tradition and modernity, the popular and the elite, the centrist and the regional, the rural and the metropolitan) articulated by each of these writers are essential to narrating a modern nationhood.

In Chapter Two (The Life and Career of Jia Pingwa), Chapter Ten (Poetry, Essays, and Textual Personality) and Appendix I (Interview with Jia Pingwa), Wang supplies in-depth biographical background that she clearly views as essential to understanding Jia Pingwa’s work. Wang discards the notion of intentional fallacy in her study, adopting longstanding practices in Chinese literary criticism where knowledge of the author’s biography and beliefs are essential interpretative tools. As Stephen Owen explains in An Anthology of Chinese Literature, a Western teacher of poetry may tell a student that the poet’s state of mind can be interesting, but that it is not essential to what a poem ‘is’; the shi, on the other hand, is not the “object” of its writer, it is the writer–the outside of an inside. The hermeneutic tradition of shi yan zhiremains prominent in modern Chinese literary criticism of xiaoshuo and, to her credit, Wang accounts for this in providing intricate details of the author’s life (and acknowledging the plethora of Chinese scholarship on these details). For example, there are many interpretations of Jia Pingwa’s given name, the second character of which is pronounced “ao” in Mandarin but “wa” in the local Shaanxi dialect. She refers to Lai Daren, who elucidates four connotations of wa, all which of which are ‘productive’ in nature and bode success: a water container waiting to be filled; a subject modest and willing to learn; a lack in shape that in time becomes good fortune; an empty space showing a receptacle (28).

Throughout her study of Jia’s works, Wang demonstrates many of the same fine ethnographic qualities of her author, elaborating in detail on the symbolism and details of naming, dialect, folklore, popular culture, and ties to literary and other local traditions. The downside to paying so much attention to the folklore surrounding Jia’s literary persona is that it can, at times, detract from discussion of the literary merits of his work. This was one of the major problems with the reception of Defunct Capital, as the lack of critical distancing meant the author was often conflated with his protagonist. Also translated as Ruined Capital, City in Ruins, or The Abandoned Capital, the novel is the most important of Jia’s works and a vital contribution to the canon of modern Chinese literature. In devoting three chapters to its analysis, Wang clearly recognizes its importance. Yet she, like the author she analyzes, stands in a complicated relationship to her subject matter. Notably absent in Wang’s discussion of Defunct Capital is any extended attempt to evaluate the aesthetics of this controversial novel, regularly denounced by critics as pornographic and misogynist. Wang instead demonstrates how the novel portrays ties to tradition–local and popular culture in the marketplace, “soft” masculinity in scholar-beauty romances, and female domesticity–in order to depict a “defunct capital” where traditional literati are anachronisms.

It is imperative, Wang argues, that Jia Pingwa cast women in subordinate roles: “female subjectivity in Defunct Capital has to be, regretfully, regressive and removed from the social reality as most people experience in contemporary Chinese cities …. part of the narrative strategy is to reduce women’s subjectivity to their sexuality only and confine them to their traditional place: domesticity” (94, italics added). Wang’s “regret” betrays her own problematical relationship to patriarchal tradition, as she simultaneously defends it as authentic and denounces it as oppressive. This becomes clear in her selective quotations from female critics that undermine her earlier assertion that the novel is “removed from the social reality.” Hence she states that “Tang Wanr and other women’s devotion to men recalls what Kate Millet pointed out nearly three decades ago: ‘what many women wanted was full of contradictions and confusions, still entangled in what patriarchy wanted them to be or wanted for them'” (105). Wang’s ambiguous statement conflates the individual with the group, and the present with the past. Is the “past” condition that Kate Millet speaks of meant to be equated with the contemporary state of Chinese women? Again, Wang quotes Rey Chow as saying “domesticity should therefore be seen as a predominant, if not the only, paradigm under which many Chinese women’s thinking operates,” then immediately distances herself from the essentialist implications of such a statement by asserting that “Rey Chow’s remark pinpoints the relevance and centrality of domesticity to tradition and to patriarchy” (95). Which is it? Women “were” that way but aren’t now? Why should domesticity be relegated to tradition or equated with lack of subjectivity? Wang equivocates far too often on such points, and fails to explore the underlying assumptions of her analysis. These critiques notwithstanding, Wang’s interpretation of Defunct Capital is for the most part incisive, demonstrating careful close reading and extensive cultural knowledge.

In Chapter Six Wang analyzes the novel White Nights, also set in Xijing. It was published less than two years after Defunct Capital, but “in sharp contrast to Defunct Capital’s publicity bombardment, the publication of White Nights was a non-event … many Chinese readers simply stopped reading Jia Pingwa’s fiction and critics also deserted him” (113). The protagonist of the novel is, again, an angst-ridden middle-aged male “idler,” but while Defunct Capital explores the role of “cultural idlers,” White Nights details the behavior patterns of “social idlers.” Wang defines this group by its defiance toward mainstream society and its variety of social contacts–“policemen, high- and low-ranking officials, visual and performing artists, Taoists, bankers, hooligans, greengrocery vendors, butchers” (115). These idlers lack professions, so loyalty to friends becomes paramount, and going to extremes to help a mate leads to complicated social entanglements. Both Defunct Capital and White Nights feature protagonists who search for identity by delving into the minutiae of local culture. Wang does not explicitly tie this identity confusion to her larger theme of narrating the nation, but the rapidly transforming urban fabric of “Xijing” no doubt stimulates introspection as traditional folk practices become marginalized.

The thesis of the study returns in full force in Chapter Seven, an analysis of the 1996 novel Earth Gate. Set on the outskirts of Xijing against the background of China’s rapid urbanization and industrialization, “Xijing is no longer the place of historical and cultural significance that it is in Defunct Capital and White Nights, where culture and tradition are discovered, recollected or even invented on its site. The city in Earth Gate is now an urban monster that expands itself horrendously at a bewildering speed and the expansion ruthlessly wipes out all the nearby villages” (131). Although Jia’s novels ostensibly pit the disappearing rural tradition against the ravaging city, their plots are more subtle and complicated. For example, Earth Gate features a village leader who fights to convince urban planners in neighboring Xijing that preserving the village by “inventing traditions” is vital to the provincial capital’s success as a modern city. Rather than presenting nostalgically wistful or prophetically apocalyptic visions of a doomed nation, Jia attempts to write the prominence of rural China into modern nation building. That these traditions can only be preserved artificially is precisely the point.

Chapters Eight and Nine feature Old Gao Village (1998) and Remembering Wolves (2000), novels where Shangzhou’s abstract symbolism as native place reaches new heights with the disappearance of (“authentic”) native place. Places such as Old Gao Village become curiosities to sophisticated urbanites, who come there to do research only to find that the community is degenerate and its residents stunted, cancerous, and impotent. If there are heroes in these works, such as the hunter in Remembering Wolves (often likened to Wu Song), they are only so in an ironic sense. After urban environmentalists fail to convince Fu Shan (“Attached to Mountains”) to use his knowledge of nature to benefit the local ecology, he transforms into a wolf, signaling his sure demise by turning from hunter to hunted. The dystopian cynicism marking Jia Pingwa’s corpus portends national atrophy rather than catastrophe, as cultural distinctions of native place become fodder for global capitalism. Yiyan Wang recognizes that far from merely chronicling local idiosyncrasies, Jia Pingwa is, in fact, narrating the nation. Jia Pingwa’s ongoing fixation on native place remains, to borrow from C. T. Hsia, that peculiar obsession with China that marks much of modern Chinese literature. But now this obsession belongs to the world.

Robin Visser
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill