Young China: National Rejuvenation
and the Bildungsroman, 1900-1959

By Mingwei Song

Reviewed by Pu Wang

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2023)

Mingwei Song, Young China: National Rejuvenation and the Bildungsroman, 1900–1959 Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015. xiv+379 pp. ISBN 978-0-674-08839-9 (cloth).

Mingwei Song’s Young China: National Rejuvenation and the Bildungsroman, 1900-1959 opens with a discussion of the beginning of the young protagonist’s journey in Ye Shengtao’s 葉聖陶 novel Ni Huanzhi 倪煥之, which Song identifies as “the first major Chinese novel to showcase the formative experience of a modern youth” (1-2). Song’s Prologue is accordingly titled “The Beginning of the Journey.” Concepts and emotions associated with a young person setting out on a journey are central to Song’s literary historical narrative. As the author notes, the beginning of the journey “is highly allegorical. Journey and dream, passion and promise, hope and future—these elements constitute the foundation of a master plot of China’s modern story about youth” (1); the point is reiterated throughout, as in this later observation: “In the Bildungsroman of the new youth generation, the protagonist’s journey stands as a central motif” (237). Terms associated with the young person’s journey and its affects reappear like touchstones throughout this engaging monograph.

Song’s book-length study of this “master plot,” this “motif” of the journey in the Chinese Bildungsroman of the first half of the twentieth century, can also be read as a critical journey, or more precisely, a genealogy of the various journeys and beginnings of the new youth depicted in modern Chinese discourse and fiction from the late Qing era through the socialist period. The book thus combines a critical study of the “Chinese vision of youth”—in its dynamic and complicated relationship to national rejuvenation as that relationship played out in intellectual discourses—with a brilliant exploration of “fictional representations of young people in modern Chinese novels that integrate the individual’s Bildung into the different visions of national rejuvenation” (8).

Restated in his own terms, Song’s goals in the book are “to evoke the rich meanings” invested in the “dominant trope” of “youth” integral to “the ideas of nationhood and modernity in twentieth-century China,” to synthesize a cultural history of intellectual discursive “construction[s] of youth’s symbolic meanings” with “narrative analysis” of the ways these meanings inform “fictional representations . . . of modern Chinese youth’s personal development . . . against the backdrop of China’s constantly changing political and intellectual culture” (8).

In keeping with the author’s aims, chapter 1, “Green Spring’ and Its Modern Forms: An Introduction to Youth Discourse,” embarks on a journey tracing the evolution of the notion of “youth” in modern Chinese discourse. Song begins with Liang Qichao’s 梁啟超 now canonical text “Ode to a Young China” 少年中國說 (1900). A central focus of this introductory chapter is Song’s analysis of youth (i.e., “green spring” 青春, the key term informing most of the subsequent chapters). “[D]uring the last hundred year or so, youth, as the product of discursive practice, has functioned as a dominant trope and sustained a symbolic centrality in China’s pursuit of modernity” (15). This overview leads to the framing of the whole book, and Song states: “my narrative is framed between the last decade of the Qing dynasty and the early years of the PRC. The trajectory I draw for China’s ‘youthful transformation’ begins with Liang Qichao’s wishful invention of ‘Young China’ (1900) as a rallying cry for Chinese nationalists, and ends on the eventful eve of the PRC’s celebration of its tenth anniversary (1959), when the figure of youth had been turned into a national allegory in popular novels like Yang Mo’s The Song of Youth” (21). This chapter then interprets the various modern forms of “green spring” in Chinese discourses, including Li Dazhao’s 李大釗 “Green Spring” 青春 (1916) and other conceptions of age and rejuvenation, and ends by raising the question of the Chinese Bildungsroman, which I return to later in this review.

The journey in chapter 2 is “The Adventures of Old Youth”—that is, the adventures of late Qing travelers and reformers. Song offers a rich account of the late Qing generation’s experiences and writings caught between an old empire (and its education system) and a new world demanding a change of worldview.

Chapter 3, “The Bildungsroman of New Youth,”  turns to the “New Youth” of the May Fourth era and their journeys of enlightenment as depicted in the early Chinese Bildungsroman. If being young means to begin anew, then this chapter pays as much attention to endings as to beginnings. In Ni Huanzhi, for instance, Song perceptively points out the pattern of “the repetition of beginnings and endings” that “occurs whenever necessary to break [Ni Huanzhi’s] pursuit of the ideal and to enable the start of a new chapter in his life” (137). Every pursuit of May Fourth ideals—enlightenment, love, educational reforms—ends in disillusionment, distress, and despair.

Chapter 4’s journey begins where the previous chapter ends—with the disillusionment of May Fourth protagonists like Ni Huanzhi toward social revolutionary movements, such as the May Thirtieth workers’ strike. Titled “Writing Youth into History,” the chapter focuses on Mao Dun’s 茅盾 early novels and the May Fourth youth’s transformation into political youth. With a newly gained historical consciousness, Mao Dun’s narrative writes youth into History. Like Ni Huanzhi, Miss Mei Xingsu 梅行素, the protagonist of Mao Dun’s Rainbow 虹, travels by water towards “the broad vast world of freedom” (150). Song’s powerful reading of this novel situates Mao Dun’s new depiction of youth in the development of the Chinese Bildungsroman: “Rainbow establishes a belief that youth is not to be wasted, like the ‘old youth,’ or rendered as meaningless, like in the story of the failed idealist Ni Huanzhi. Youth should instead be elevated to the sublime domain of revolution” (186). According to Song, the female protagonist of Rainbow is the “first sign of transforming youth into the sublime figure of history,” but a “fuller, more complete Bildungsroman of a young female revolutionary would have to wait another thirty years to reappear in her most perfected incarnation” in Yang Mo’s 楊沫 1958 The Song of Youth 青春之歌 (ibid).

The journey of Chapter 5, “The Flowering of Life,” is that of the anarchist youth portrayed in Ba Jin’s巴金 serial fiction. Equal in the degree of its cultural-political radicalness to ideologies promoted among leftist groups, the anarchist ideal is a force of resistance to any particular kind of formation. Ba Jin’s young protagonists fight in the workers’ movement, suffer from tuberculosis (a disease that also functioned as a literary metaphor), write sentimental poetry, and sacrifice their lives. In this melodrama of self-sacrifice, we see the “malady of youth” and “melancholic mourning” (214). Only at the end of Ba Jin’s famous novel Family 家 does his male hero Gao Juehui 高覺慧 reach the beginning of a new journey. “Therefore, through portraying a series of anarchist youth figures, from the most despairing to the most devoted, Ba Jin worked out his vision for a great anarchist Bildungsroman that, though never completed, retrospectively reconfigured its origin in a renewed youth image, as we see in Family” (216).

Chapter 6, “The Journey to Interiority,” begins with the actual journeys of wartime Chinese youths, and Song argues that it is due to this new experience of mobility during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945) that a new kind of subjectivism emerged. The most important part of this chapter, in my view, is its analysis of Lu Ling’s路翎 novel Children of the Rich 財主底兒女們. Song’s intervention is to focus on the incomplete, inconclusive nature of this wartime Bildungsroman: “[the protagonist Jiang Chunzu’s] development is rendered as a perpetual process of becoming without a clear, conclusive ending” (251). In contrast to the teleological idealism in similar novels about Chinese youth, Lu Ling’s narrative “lacks the linear plot of gradual transformation. . . . Jiang Chunzu’s personal development is not oriented toward a predicted realization of certain ideals” (252). As a result, “the open-ended, unfinished form of Lu Ling’s Bildungsroman is a symptom of the seemingly inexhaustible interior dynamism of the subjective self that refuses to submit to any constraints” (252-253).

Chapter 7, “The Taming of the Young,” moves to the allegory of a political journey that aims not only to mobilize this subjective interiority but also to tame the dynamic energies of youth to fit the mold of a disciplined party member. Yang Mo’s Song of Youth 青春之歌, about the making of Lin Daojing 林道靜 into a true female revolutionary, is indeed the final fulfillment of the political Bildungsroman—together with the Revolution plus Love novel—in modern China. Meanwhile, Song also draws our attention to Wang Meng’s 王蒙 novel Long Live Youth 青春萬歲, and interestingly reads this youthful celebration of socialism as a “movable feast that transcends political meanings” in that it “paradoxically both endorsed and dismantled the national myth of youth” (291). Song further posits: “At the most unchecked moments in Wang Meng’s narrative, youth is made both the essential energy and the sole body of the ‘festivity,’ when the celebrations are usurped by young people to serve as an outlet for their own excitement and inner restlessness” (323). The original climactic “true happy ending” of this novel, which takes place at Tiananmen Square glowing in the morning sunlight (Mao’s metaphor for youth), was later abandoned by Wang Meng in 1979 after he was rehabilitated from twenty years of exile. Song concludes: “Long live youth! It shines, deified, and then explodes and darkens” (333).

A major contribution of this book—in addition to its spectacular interpretations of a wide range of youth discourses and Chinese fictional representations of youth—is its defining characterization of the Chinese Bildungsroman in a broader context of the genre’s central importance to world literature. In this sense, Song’s study marks an exemplary balance between modern Chinese literature and comparative literature. Engaged in deep conversation with key theoretical debates on the Bildungsroman and its role in literary modernity (I am particularly impressed by Song’s analyses of the theories of György Lukács, Edward Said, and Franco Moretti), Song successfully explores the Chinese case by paying particular attention “to the inconsistency and problems wrought by this genre’s variations in different Chinese cultural contexts” (58). Here lies an ultimate argument of this book: “When the narrative is designed to integrate youth into a larger entity, such as the collective, the nation, the Communist Party, a social revolution, an educational campaign, or a certain culture, there are clashes between the subjectivity and the external constraints. These clashes make the narrative of the Bildungsroman more intensified as well as full of ambiguities that speak to other possibilities beyond the designated ideological meanings” (58). In turn, considering the incomplete nature of the Chinese Bildungsroman, Song’s book is also an intervention into the ongoing theorization of the Bildungsroman in the domain of world literature: “In this sense, the Bildungsroman displays the youthfulness of modernity as an open-ended, inconclusive, and forever developing story” (59).

I originally reviewed Young China in 2017, in the pages of the Chinese magazine Dushu 讀書[1]. The survey and assessments above echo in abbreviated fashion some of the points made in that review. The intervening five or so years have witnessed Mingwei Song evolve into a leading scholar of Chinese science fiction. With the luxury of retrospect, I can briefly tie his 2015 Young China to his more recent scholarship. A clue was already hidden in the Epilogue of Young China. After multiple explorations of Chinese youthful journeys from the first half of the twentieth century, during which there was an enduring faith in a future modern utopia, Song ends the book with a reference to Liu Cixin’s 劉慈欣 1999 story about a “micro-era,” which is 25,000 years in the future. This future “era” is a post-human utopia of lightness, where there is neither historical determinism nor sublime idealism. It is with a work of science fiction that Song turns to a quick observation of the images of the “new human beings” 新人類 in contemporary Chinese culture at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Song concludes, “Liu Cixin’s story does not hide the other side of the utopian vision: paradise is built upon the oblivion of the abysmal darkness of all past traumas and tragedies” (340). This science-fictional ending of a study on twentieth-century Chinese Bildungsroman is highly suggestive. Young China begins by framing Chinese youth within a “journey to a brave new world that registers both hope and uncertainty” (8). Song’s recent scholarship on science fiction explores the journey to a brave new world in a different dimension and from a much changed historical perspective. The Epilogue of his 2015 book might be taken up as a challenge as to whether, and how, we can read these two types of fictional journeys in light of each other.

Pu Wang
Brandeis University


[1] 王璞,《青春旅程與時代的變奏》,《讀書》,2017年第10期,71-78頁。